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HOW TO TEACH A BEGINNING PIANO STUDENT

Dear Mr. Chappell:

I am taking piano students who are beginners. What is a good way to get them started playing the piano?

— Initiator


Dear Initiator:

The first thing someone does in order to play the piano is to sit down. I start by telling beginners how to sit at the piano. They must locate in three dimensions in relation to the keyboard: right/left, high/low, and near/far. Therefore, I ask them to be centered at E and F (not "middle C" which, as I keep trying to tell everyone, is not the middle of the piano keyboard); high enough so that elbows are level with keys; and close enough so that upper arms are neither outstretched nor vertical. This is done with good back posture. Also, the elbows are slightly away from the body (which raises them) so that the knuckles are level.

Then I tell them how the fingers are numbered. Afterwards, I give them various series of numbers to play in each hand alone, then both hands at once, then right hand on one series and left hand on another. Example:

Number 1: 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1

Number 2: 5 4 3 2 1 2 3 4 5

Play Number 1 with the right hand, and then play Number 2 with the right hand. Play Number 1 with the left hand, and then play Number 2 with the left hand. Play Number 1 with the right hand and left hand simultaneously, and then play Number 2 with the right hand and left hand simultaneously (this means using the same fingers at the same time). Play Number 1 with the right hand while playing Number 2 with the left hand (this means playing the same notes at the same time if, for example, the five notes in both hands are C D E F G).

Then I give them more series of numbers using various pairs of fingers in sequence (1 3 2 4 3 5, 5 3 4 2 3 1 or 1 4 2 5, 5 2 4 1) or 3-finger combinations (1 2 3 2 1, 2 3 4 3 2, 3 4 5 4 3, 2 3 4 3 2, 1) and finally the "trill exercise" (1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2, 3 2 3 2 3 2 3 2, 3 4 3 4 3 4 3 4, 5 4 5 4 5 4 5 4, 3 4 3 4 3 4 3 4, 3 2 3 2 3 2 3 2, 1).

Then we identify major pentascales (or pentachords; I let them choose which word they like best) and play exercises numbers 1 and 2 above plus the trill exercise on the 12 major pentascales. The routine is (version for the right hand):

1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1, then play the major triad, then the trill exercise.

After they have done some of this, somewhere along the line I introduce reading music and have them write out the exercises that they are playing.

That’ll hold ’em for a couple of weeks while you figure out what to do next.

— J.C.


Listen to Jeffrey Chappell's interview about a life in music in this half-hour "Muse Mentors" podcast from October 2020.

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