Sunday, August 3, 2014

fingernails and forcing your kid to play the piano

This is not exactly what i had in mind -- I want something more systematic -- but you can get the overall idea. I'm not sure if I want white on black or black on white.


I'm still house-bound until Tuesday.  The sheer boredom has caused me to call a friend more talented than I at such things and to have her paint my fingernails the  colors of the rainbow, ascending and descending. After a day, that didn't do much for me, so I called her back and asked her to paint a piano keyboard, which is easy, but it's not just alternating black and white. If you start on C, that of course is white. C-sharp, then must be black. D is white, D-sharp is black. The next two notes -- F and G -- are white, Then  /F-sharp is black G is white. G-sharp is black. A is white. Then you have to switch to toes, starting with black for A-sharp. B is white. C is also white. I think you get it.

I am, however, getting tired of that look. I think tomorrow i'll have her paint music staves on each of my nails. Then she can put the clef signs, sharps, and  notes to compose an ascending A-major scales starting with my toes. This is going to require some serious fine motor skill on her part. That's one reason I'm doing this: to help her improve her fine motor skills. It's not all about me.

If I were a serious trust fund baby, as in one who never had to worry in the least about where my next meal or car or home was coming from, I would study in great depth musicology,  kinesiology and motor learning. I would study whether or not the standard piano/organ/harpsichord et al keyboards are really optimal for ease of use. If not, I would work to design one that was more utilitarian. It seems unlikely that there's a better way of doing it, but I don't know if it's really been investigated. I've researched, and I can't find evidence of any such study.

The original typewriter had keys arranged in order from A to Z. which would seem to make sense. The problem with the arrangement and with the original manual typewriter was that those who mastered it soon learned to type at a speed greater than the manual typewriter could accommodate, which jammed up the keys.The letters were scrambled a bit to slow the fastest typists.  I've wondered about whether computer keyboards, once technology really took over and the products were of high calibre, should have been reconfigured with an A to Z format.  Today's computers, it would seem, could accommodate the accelerated speed of typists who mastered the skill with the alphabetically aligned keyboards.  And it's not as though it would interfere in most cases with a person's ability to use a standard typewriter, since relatively few of us will ever need to use a standard. typewriter. The problem is all i in the changeover.and conversion. It's like metrics. Most of us probably agree that the metric system is a superior method of measurement, but change can be tough for most of us.

On the other hand, even if I  came up with a new and improved keyboard that I could prove would be easier to master and I possessed sufficient power and influence that anyone of importance would listen to anything I had to say, I'm not sure I'd push it and try to convince a piano manufacturer to make the new, more utilitarian piano.  Then we'd have two types of pianos. Even if my new method took off,, which is highly dubious, a pianist would walk into a facility not knowing if the piano was the type he or she had been trained to play. A person could learn both, but it would not be beneficial to the pianist at least in terms of piano skills (though it might perhaps be a tremendous exercise for the brain) to learn both, and would cause needless confusion.  To use a motor learning term, it would create what is known as  negative transfer. The acquisition of certain skills can actually impede the acquisition of  different skills. For example, the heavy wrist action in badminton  makes the proper grip and handling of a tennis racquet more difficult to master, for example.

In terms of note names, if I could reconfigure the present piano, I would start on the note C and not on A, but I would call it A. The key signature with no flats and sharps would be A. E would be the key with one sharp. B would be the key with two sharps, etc, etc, ad nauseum. I think it makes more sense than the present way it's done, although it's already been done and it's much too late to undo it. We're stuck with the present system. Anyone who's really smart enough or enough of a savant to learn to play the piano can do so under the present system.

It exasperates  me when I see pianos that have been defaced by people who have put colored stickers or markings from permanent markers on piano keys in order to create for a student a shortcut to learning notes, both on staves and on the keyboard. This is nothing more than teaching by the rote method. Students who learn anything by the rote method learn nothing more than that one thing that was taught. They've learned nothing that can transfer to further musical learning. If that's the goal, just teach the child or person a song note by note; then at least a  piano isn't being vandalized in the process.  .

I am not, unfortunately, a serious trust fund baby, or at least not one who won't have to worry about supporting herself financially for the duration of her adult life.  My grandmother may leave me ten or twenty thousand dollars, which would be very nice of her if it actually happens, but I won;'t inherit anything that is lifestyle-altering..So, unless in some alternate universe someone has the same thoughts I have, the configuration of both the piano itself and of the musical notation system is likely to remain the same as is presently constituted.   It's probably the very least of anyone's problems anyway.

Playing piano is a dying art. When my oldest aunts and uncles on my mom's side, who are in their early sixties, were children, probably half of everyone who could afford to do so took piano lessons. Most homes had clunker pianos, and when children reached the second grade in most cases [ for some reason that seemed to be the standard age at which people started their children in piano instruction] children would head off to a neighborhood piano teacher. It often didn't take. My mom says studies indicate that of those who studied piano as children in the fifties through the early seventies, maybe one in five stuck with it long enough to still play anything all as an adult, and roughly one in ten actually developed and maintained reasonable skill at it.

In many cases, the parents had made a financial sacrifice to obtain the piano even if  was an old clunker,and then there was the price of the lessons,  and they expected their children to stick with the activity for long enough that they felt their initial investment  was not a total waste.

Playing the piano is, maybe more that most instruments, fun at first, as you can get a non-cacophonous sound from the keys just by touching them. Such isn't necessarily the case with many other instrument, with the French horn or violin. being good examples. So piano instruction usually starts out to be a very positive thing. Then the piano student reaches a point where no further progress can be made until the notes on the page are learned. Learning the notes on the keyboard isn't usually too cumbersome a skill, but learning the notation can be a chore when there are other things a child might rather be doing. If the student will stick with the task and learn those notes on the page -- the bass clef notes usually present the greatest challenge, as in early piano music, the melody is usually in the treble clef, and the student spends more time playing those notes -- piano will very soon become fun again,  much more fun than it was in the first place.  Finger coordination will still be an issue, and learning to read rhythms correctly can hold students back as well, but if he or she masters the treble and particularly the bass clef notation, chances are the student will be a pianist for life.'

Playing piano comes more easily to some people that to others. Having an ear for music, while it won't help you to learn to read the notes, will help you to know when the notes you're playing are correct or incorrect.  it may also help you to learn to play by ear. Even if you can play by ear, it's a good idea to learn to read music as well, because if you play exclusively by ear, you're always dependent upon someone else's interpretation of a melody and can never get your inspiration from the primary source. Still, it''s a lovely skill to have. I play by ear probably more than I play using printed music now.  Being smarter than average helps when it comes to playing the piano. There's a system, and smart people typically master it more easily than slower people do.  

Left-handers have an advantage in learning the piano. It's not a huge advantage, but it's measurable. Most people who have received several years of  piano instruction can, using music, pluck out the right hand of any given piece if it's not terribly difficult. If you ask them either to put the left hand with it or to play the left  hand part by itself, often they can't. If a person has a naturally more coordinated left hand, it will help. He or she will learn the right hand. It's the left hand and lack of familiarity with bass clef that holds most students back.

Similarly, if a student waits until he or she has received music instruction on another instrument other than piano before attempting piano, the student will have more success if the instrument he or she payed was a bass clef instrument. The right hand and treble clef naturally gets more work because the melody of simple songs are usually written in the treble clef and right hand.  It's the bass clef and left hand that seldom get enough extra practice.

Any student who really wants to learn to play the piano probably can do so. It's simply a matter of practicing and working through that  time period when it's not a whole lot of  fun. A good piano teacher can motivate students through this period by trying to find musical selections the student really wants to learn to play.(Choose a piano teacher wisely. It can make all the difference in the world.The teacher obviously needs a thorough command of the piano and of music in general, but the person also needs the ability to make playing the piano as much fun as possible.)   Still, there is some drudgery involved. Today's parents aren't accustomed to making their children stick with an activity once it's no longer fin for the child.  Giving in too early is doing the child a grave disservice, or  if you're an adult and you quit once you reach the hurdle of not knowing your notes well and you quit, you're doing yourself a grave disservice.  use flashcards or just practice a little harder and your child or you can work through the rough time.

Practice time is another myth. Most people grew up thinking an hour a day was the absolute minimum time of practice on the piano ion ordby theer to master the instrument. To become truly proficient, at some point a pianist will need to put in that much time and more, but in the early stages, Quality matters more than quantity. If a child puts in two intensive fifteen minute practice sessions a day for the first year, he or she can probably master what needs to be learned, The second year an extra five minute per session should be add, and an at least additional five for the third year. A parent or adult needs to monitor the practice session to some degree. If the child is playing songs he or she learned from God knows where or songs he's mastered weeks ago instead of what has been assigned for the current lesson, the practice is of limited benefit. in some cases, rather than setting a time limit, a student can be asked to play each assigned piece X number of times per day. If the child is young or not very reliable, the parent will probably need to monitor to ensure that it actually happens.

If  a parent follows these practices diligently for two years, by year three the parent may have a child who is self-motivated, or at least in need of less supervision. In terms of time, a child does not need to give up other activities in order to practice and master the piano. It may cut into TV and video game time, but i that really such a bad thing? 


  1. Sympathy for being still housebound. It drove me crazy when I was recently. So much so that I returned to work too early but I would never confess that to anyone.

    You succinctly outlined my piano struggles. My teacher wrote the names of the notes over the music,I had three or four pieces to prepare for exams that I learnt by rote. I have a steel-trap memory so never developed facility reading music.Then came the horrors of being pushed to play for Mormon services when I could only manage the melody line with errors and at dirge like've experienced that and blogged about it!!! I think that may have been one factor in my delights in exiting the horrors of Mormonism.

  2. Mormons force people -- usually young people -- to play in public far before they're comfortsble doing so, and often even if the proposed musician himself or herself would have the gumption to reject the calling, parents wouldn't allow it. And again, in addition to the dirge-like tempos, often it's mainly the right hand playing because the person lacks the skill to play with both, , further perpetuating the demise of learning to play with both hands.

  3. I took piano lessons for a couple of years when I was very young. I can't really play now, though that was where I found out I have a fantastic ear. I am definitely a singer rather than a player, though I wish I had stuck with lessons so I could play like my mom does.

    1. it's too bad you didn't develop the keyboard skill your mom has, but those few years of lessons may have given you a significant visual connection to what you're hearing with both the printed notes and with the notes you hear versus what is being played on a keyboard, both of which are forms of theory and in practice. And if it brought you to singing earlier than you might have otherwsie fundnit, that alone is a benefit from yu having taken lessons.