In my work as a piano tuner/technician I often have an opportunity to show young piano students how their piano works. The range of topics I present to children is fairly broad and largely based on what I think will inspire them. In retrospect though it really surprises me what they have not yet been taught. Piano teachers are trained to teach, have more accessibility to the student, and are positive role models. Here are eight things I would like you to teach your piano students.
1. Almost every 3rd grader I encounter is studying science in school and understands the concept of sound waves. When I raise this topic, their faces brighten up immediately because they remember that they know about this. What is amazing to me is that very, very few piano students (of many ages) have ever seen, heard or held a tuning fork. “It tickles,” they say when I let them touch it. Even four-year old tots are ASTOUNDED when I hold the vibrating fork close to an ear. And there is no trouble for the student to understand what a soundboard does when I place the end of the tuning fork on a wall in their house. “Vibrations travel,” I say. They get it.
2. Teach them to look into your eyes when they speak to you. Children are self-conscious, sure. But that view dissipates when you make a connection with your eyes. One teacher I admire makes the point this way: he says, “I can’t see you listening to me.” But that is not how I address this topic with young self-conscious children. Instead, when I introduce myself I gently say their name until they lift the eyes to mine. Then I smile brightly and say, “THERE YOU ARE! I SEE YOU NOW!” They are no longer hidden. I know them now. They know me. Consciousness is sensed through the eyes. I say, “My eyes tell you where I am. When I look into your eyes, I can see you.” Once this connection is made, the self-consciousness disappears.
3. Nine and ten year old students can grasp the concept of harmonics. I demonstrate this topic on a grand piano only. Most technicians will instruct you never to touch a piano string. Here is the exception. Lightly touch the F#2 string at the halfway point and depress the key. The fundamental is muted and the first harmonic sounds. Now depress the F#2 without triggering the sound and play a forceful F#3. The fundamental of that note will trigger the harmonic in F#2. I say, “When I hit this key (F#3) it makes this one (F#2) sound! How did that happen!!!” You can build on this presentation until you can play F#3, F#4, C#4, and then a F# triad in the fifth octave. Every note that is struck will trigger a harmonic in the F#2 string, and the sound of a chord will be heard. Children get this.
4. I teach children how to tell if the piano is out of tune. I help them hear the warble that is present on some of the notes. Since I have a tuning lever, this lesson is easier for me. I can alter the pitch and then correct it. The trick here is to get them to recognize the warble in the detuned note. They can hear it, but unless someone directs their attention to what they are hearing, they won’t know what a warbling note really means. I appreciate that teachers in the home will advise parents when it is time to get the piano tuned, but that is not the same thing as teaching a child how to recognize when the piano is out of tune.
5. Increasing self esteem is one of the fundamental benefits of learning to play a musical instrument. When band directors instruct new students they always press the point of caring for YOUR instrument. Children are taught to be responsible for the care of their instruments. There are rules to follow. 1. Do not let anyone else play your instrument. 2. Do not let anyone else carry your instrument to class. etc. The emphasis is always placed on YOUR INSTRUMENT. Piano students do not receive this kind of connection with the piano. It is Mom’s piano, or Grandmother’s piano, or Dad’s piano…but the same sense of ownership is not present between a piano student and a piano, unless someone specifically makes note of this connection.
6. To continue with that thinking, piano students should be empowered by knowing more about THEIR instrument than anyone else in the family. The obvious way to do this is to teach them how to play it. The less obvious way is to teach them how the piano works! Every time I open the “magic box”, children run into the room to watch. They are fascinated to see all the parts inside. I let them touch the hammers, the keys, feel the wood, and watch how the key moves the hammer. This is a great way to empower a student with knowledge and to increase a sense of ownership. Open the magic box and let them see what is inside.
7. Teach piano students what a piano tuner is and what he or she does. A piano tuner works for the piano student. A piano tuner will always be a part of the piano student’s playing experience. I want children to know that I work for them, and I state that whenever I can. “I am your piano tuner.” This is a very unusual relationship for a child. What could it possibly mean? I explain, “If your piano ever breaks, I can fix it for you. Just tell your parents if the piano does not sound or play correctly.”
8. Teach them how to shake hands. It is remarkable that children are not taught how to shake hands. Granted, there are not a lot of occasions to practice. Children do not often meet the hired help. The piano tuner is the exception. When I am introduced to the student, or the children in the house, I may offer to shake their hands to say hello. If no one knows how, I will ask with enthusiasm, “Would everyone like to learn how to shake hands?” The response is always in the affirmative. I hold up my palm and show the “Vee” that is created between the inside of my thumb and the inside of my forefinger. I ask each child to do the same. “You put your Vee right where mine is,” I motion. “And then squeeze.” A genuine sense of accomplishment appears on the face of each child. I do not let go unless they do one very important thing. (See #2) Works every time!
9. Teachers are wonderful people. (I married one, so I ought to know!) I am amazed that anyone could teach a child how to play a piano. I have seen small children play pieces by memory that I cannot play. (Rather humbling, I might add). Teachers do not often see their students when they are engaged with a piano tuner. I speak for all tuners everywhere on this next point. We would be happy to show your students how a piano works. A field trip to the local piano store to meet a piano tuner is an opportunity for a fun outing for your students. I cannot think of any piano dealer who would not welcome your visit. Help your students establish the connection they have with the network of people who are dedicated to the purposes of music education.
10. Teach them how to play four-hand chopsticks on the piano. This is a fun piece and a nice way to introduce any student to the concept of four-hand piano.
And with that, I shall retire. I salute all piano teachers. You are on the front lines. I see and hear your accomplishments in the music played by your students.