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They’re people too!
The blessing of teaching under-fives
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They’re people too!
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Posted by Dylan Christopher, 2 years ago
Tags: young, piano, lessons

They’re people too!

I treat my young pianists, under the age of five, no different to my older pianists, that is, with respect, and a level of mindfulness; they are people too.  It is all too easy to forget that we were all young once.

The world can be quite a challenging place from the perspective of a child.  Even seemingly mundane things are approached from a position of awe and wonder.  I recall a lesson with a young four-year-old girl, who was mesmerised by my mechanical pencil.  The lead, which was hidden within the pencil, seemed from her perspective to appear out of thin air.

Before the lesson could continue, I promptly gave it to her and showed her how to operate it.  She was so, entirely and completely pleased with her accomplishment of, extending and retracting the lead form the pencil.  It was her discovery; to her, this amazing feat was now a skill in her skill-set.

A lesser, inexperienced version of myself might even have told her to be quiet, or, ignored her intrigue altogether.  Working with so many children, under the age of five, on a one to one basis, has given me an ability to read them.  She was not misbehaving by enquiring; she was doing the opposite, she was learning.

 “Children should be seen and not heard!”

I loathe this proverb with such disdain.  The first time I heard it was in reception, my first year at school, when Mrs Sharp, who was covering a lesson for our regular teacher, bellowed it at us while carrying out our assignment; perhaps we were talking too loud.  If only she knew the oppressive origins for the saying (that being, young women should keep quiet).

As a youngster, even then, my problems with authority saw me question this with “But, Miss, why?” to which the only reply was “Because I said so!”.  I was lucky; my best friend at the time, James Hanna was not so lucky and asked the same question, to which he was promptly smacked across the legs for not immediately complying. The good old days, right? I cannot imagine striking a person; more so, I also cannot imagine striking a child, not even considering doing so to a child that belongs to someone else.

A mantra that I tell myself daily, is, “If you have to shout, then you have already lost”.  Why should anyone waste time to listen, if you are not taking the time to explain it, calmly and clearly.  This means even more when dealing with children; if you have to shout, then you have already lost.  The child is likely not shouting, they are asking questions of you, and even if they are, as an adult, we should know better than to rise to it.  “Why do I need to do this?”, to which, as responsible adults, we must answer the question.  As Einstein once famously said: “If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself”.  A sad truth, but a truth nonetheless.

When I teach my very young students, I consider it building.  It is worthy to remember that they are not fully formed yet, and any skill you wish them to use in the future, must be priority learning from the outset.  This does not mean, giving a four-year-old ‘Fur Elise’, but giving them the tools to unlock it when they are at the stage when they want to play it.  The problems, that I encounter with older students, often are not to do with the individual themselves, but correcting and un-learning, which as we all know is considerably more effort than learning.

The first lessons I teach my under-fives is to listen.  It does not matter your age, in a lesson, if you do not listen to your instructor, or feel that you do not need to, then the interaction is moot; a glorious waste of time. I do not speak when they speak; I do not speak when they are not looking at me; I do not speak when they are playing the piano; and, I most certainly do not rise to any tests of my boundaries.  When I have their attention I teach them and it is as simple as that.

Next is discipline; I immediately heard a collective groan from all future readers.  This word is misunderstood and more importantly misused, as is the word strict.  Discipline is not imposing, and it is certainly not aggressive; however, it is a skill, in and of itself.  Discipline comes from within; you teach a child to do something, and the discipline is doing it, even when they think it is not needed.  Showing restraint and dedication is something that is learned, and the sooner a person learns it, the more self-control they can exhibit.

We spend a large amount of time on the fundamentals, them being clapping, counting and playing, without music.  Once they show maturity and independence, I issue them with homework.  To do so before this point, does little more than drive them away from music lessons, and piano for life due to frustration and constant, unnecessary, and demoralising failures.  How can a juvenile student perform and complete a task, which of itself is difficult for most adults, on their own?  Simply put they cannot, but somehow we expect this of them, or rather, some parents expect this of them.

Lastly, and a point that causes the most problems, is that I expect the parents of my young students to be a part of their learning.  Even sitting in the room can increase morale and motivation.  I try to include them in sessions by explaining what we are doing and asking for participation, to various levels of success.  This, of course, is optional, due to the fact that people are free to do as they choose.  However, this is a lesson, and I am not a child-minder; expecting a four-year-old to simply, “get on with it”, without any support at home, is unhelpful, to say the least.

I started lessons when I was four years old, and have had music in my life every day since.  Learning to play music requires concentration and dedication, and is a life-long skill that will enrich the lives of who so ever learns it for years.  Teaching and shaping the minds of under-fives is a moving, and heart-warming experience that I am extremely honoured to be a part of.

The lessons from this type of student are often the highlight of my day.


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Dylan completed his music training with honours at Colchester Institute, where he studied piano with Australian pianist Lesley Young, and composition with British composer Dr Mark Bellis. While studying, in 2009, Dylan won Colchester Institute’s Canon Jack Award for Solo Piano adjudicated by Andrew Ball.  A composer, promoter, and advocate of contemporary classical music, Dylan joined the membership of Colchester New Music in 2014.


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