Archive | January 2014

Teaching “Mary Had a Little Lamb” during a First Piano Lesson

“Mary Had a Little Lamb” has only three notes and three note values, so I find it a good song to teach to absolute beginners. I do not tell the students that they are learning this particular song. They discover that as they follow instructions and play the tune for themselves.

"Mary Had a Little Lamb"

How to teach “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to beginner students.

Before learning this song some groundwork needs to be laid. Play the scale match-up game (see article “First Piano Lesson”) or have students practice finding and playing C, D and E on the piano. They can also write out these notes on staff lines for practice. Students also need to learn crotchet, minim and semibreve (quarter, half note and whole note) values and notation. Also, feeling the weak and strong beats of 4/4 timing will help students understand why they will write out bar lines to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” which is in 4/4 time.

Using only one note (so students will focus only on rhythm), play the rhythm for the song, one measure at a time. Have students repeat what they hear. Next, have them write out the note values for what they have just played onto a blank sheet of paper. After the symbols for the rhythm are written out, add bar lines. Tell students that every time that the notes add up to 4 beats they can add a bar line.

After students have written out the rhythm and added bar lines, play notes one measure at a time and have students play what they just saw and heard while saying or singing the note names out loud. If a student is young and there is a staircase available, a variation is to assign three steps to the notes C, D and E. Sing the note names and have students hop up or down the stairs to the tune. This is a fun exercise and will help children release some of their energy while learning at the same time! After students play the notes, have them write out the note letters (or sol-fah) above the rhythm that is already notated from the last exercise.

At this point students are ready to play the whole song and they probably will recognize the tune. Have students play from the sheet that they just created. Afterwards, have students draw a staff lines on the same blank sheet, adding the time signature, bar lines, notes and rhythm for the tune “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The students can play the song a few times for assessment, familiarity with the song and for practice on the keyboard.  In addition to assigning students to practice “Mary Had a Little Lamb” during the week, a good follow-up assignment is for students to write a simple composition using the method used for learning this song–choose a rhythm, add notes, and notate it on staff paper.

If you are a parent to a young student and you can read some note names, a fun exercise to do with your child would be to sing tunes from a beginner method book and have students hop up and down the staircase to the melody. If you are a student, why not create a composition by creating a rhythm, choosing notes to go along with the rhythm, and writing it all out on staff paper? If you are a teacher, consider teaching this song to beginners since it will help students understand the steps to composing a basic musical composition and because it introduces a variety of simple yet important musical concepts.

Musical Instruments Quiz

Piano students should learn about music as a whole. One way to learn about the broader musical world is to quiz students on musical instruments. I created this quiz sheet by copying and pasting images from the internet onto a blank document. After coloring the instruments I laminated the sheet. The quizzing usually takes less than one minute or two, and students simply name the instruments from the page. A variation of the quiz could be to play clips from certain musical instruments and to have students say which instrument is being featured (ex. playing a clip of a violin).

Paste clipart images of musical instruments into a blank document and quiz students, asking them the names of the musical instruments.

Print images of various instruments and quiz students by asking them the names of the musical instruments.

First Piano Lesson

Individuals have unique personalities and diverse learning styles.  While every student is unique, all students can benefit from certain considerations during their first piano lesson.  I believe that a successful first piano lesson provides answers to at least the following four questions.

Why piano lessons? Motivations for taking piano lessons are varied and it’s good to know why a person finds himself or herself in front of my studio’s keyboard. Some students know just a little about music but are very interested and excited to begin lessons. Perhaps others already can play whether by ear or by reading music and want to learn more songs. Other students are taking lessons because their parents want them to study music. Whichever category a student falls into, it’s helpful to know what motivates them to study the piano.

Any hobbies?  Knowing if someone does many activities or has many responsibilities helps me have an idea of how much time the student is able to dedicate to music. Knowing a person’s interests is also useful because I can use analogies that the student will understand. For example, someone interested in art would appreciate the comparison of dynamics in a piece of music to hues of colors in a painting.

How much musical knowledge? Everyone knows something about music. Even a toddler experiences rhythm by marching or moving to a piece of music.  Students can quickly learn a few basic things about the piano: that it is a percussion instrument (which has a variety of sounds based on how quickly the notes are played), that the notes have a repeated pattern and that the notes have high and low sounds.  The first lesson is also a good time to assess how much a student knows about rhythm and music notation reading.

Rhythm needs to be felt in ways such as clapping, tapping or counting from the very first lesson.  A good example of natural rhythm is by having a student hold their hand over their heart to feel it’s rhythm.  A picket fence is a good analogy for explaining the consistency of rhythm.  Each beat is the same distance apart and some notes have one beat (“picket in the fence”), others have a few beats of duration.  Note value and time signature flashcards are visual helps.  The website “Color in my Piano” has a free download  of flashcards for both simple and difficult rhythms .  A nice aspect of these flashcards is that the dimensions of these cards change based on the length of the notes.  If I am teaching an absolute beginner I want them to learn three note values by the end of the first lesson: semibreves, minims and crotchets (whole, half and quarter notes).

Students match up the C/do scale using homemade laminated flashcards.

Students match up the C/do scale using homemade laminated flashcards.

Flashcards of notes are also helpful.  A simple set of flashcards is two sets of the C/do scale which can be hand-made and laminated. Set the scale in order so that students can match their mixed up notes from the second set of flashcards on or near the scale that is already in order. Alternatively students can place the flashcards in scale order without any aids. If students already can read notes a little, show them individual flashcards and ask them to play those notes for you.  If someone is an absolute beginner I like to teach at least 3 note symbols to students: middle C, D and E/do, re and mi.

If I am teaching transfer student I don’t assume that they have a good understanding of notes or rhythm values.  I isolate concepts to better see a student’s strengths or weaknesses (example: reviewing only note names will give an idea of how well a student can read notes) .  Sight reading a piece of music is also useful for assessment.  If students bring music with them, I ask them to play something that they have already studied in the past.

What can they take home? I either want to teach students something they can practice at home or help them with a piece that they have already started learning. If a student has brought no music along I typically teach the song “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (I plan to explain steps for teaching this in another article).  It’s important that a student goes away from the lesson having achieved something while also realizing that there are many other things to learn.

If you are a teacher, perhaps some of these suggestions will be helpful to incorporate into your piano lessons.  If you are browsing this site and are considering lessons, this article should give you a general idea of the first piano lesson at Flynn Piano Studio.