Written by Rebecca Mergen Pennington and Christy Miller Teachers of “The Piano Detectives Club” at The New School for Music Study
During the last few years of teaching, we have realized that there are many things we take for granted about most of our students. For instance, most of our students have reasonably long attention spans, decent hand coordination, and they know how to practice (whether or not they actually act upon it). These assumptions cannot be made for our kindergartners, however! Their little bodies are full of wiggles, “I need to tell you somethings,” and excitement for each new experience. While it might be easy to get frustrated or to label these youngest students unready, we have found that with some adjustments to our approach, these students can be some of the most gratifying to teach.
10. Less is More
Kindergartners love practicing and assignments but are easily overwhelmed. They may get more out of an assignment containing only two pieces than they would a larger assignment. Five minutes of practice is quite enough for some of these students for the first several months, and they will gradually build up more. It is frustrating to do too much too quickly. Before teaching kindergartners, we never realized how practicing is a learned skill that takes time to develop. For students who are hesitant to practice, tapping the rhythm of the piece at home may be a sufficiently challenging task—the point is that they are practicing something related to the musical skills they are building in their lessons.
9. Staying on the Bench is Hard Work!
Many of our kindergarten students continually slide off the bench. An amazing feat, considering the large pad they sit on to maintain appropriate height of the bench! We have much more success if we ask them to sit for very short periods of time (5 minutes) but really sit for that short time. Then we move around for the next activity before we need to sit at the bench again. Sometimes no foot rest and crossed ankles seem to help staying on the bench as well.
8. A Legato Sound is an Art Form
The most difficult skill for tiny fingers seems to be playing legato. Students who are able to achieve a good hand position may still have trouble with the legato sound. Of course, the first step is to make sure they can hear the difference. Some student may also need to “feel” the difference with their hands over the teacher’s (or gently vice versa). We find it important to work on this sound each week, though we have a variety of “tricks” to help students understand the right sound. Sometimes we dab some (imaginary) glue on each of their fingers and stress how their fingers are “sticky” and will stay on the keys longer. Other times, we talk about their fingers as magnets that are pulled to the keys and don’t want to let go. Still other times we talk about something very sticky that their fingers are wading in (i.e. peanut butter, etc). The big thing seems to be that if the fingers stay resting on the keys, rather than “popping” right up, there is a better chance of playing legato.
7. Practice Incentives Really Work
In general, we have some mixed feelings about practice incentives. We think that the kids who naturally practice very well will continue to do so, and the kids who don’t practice much won’t change their habits just from an incentive. However, we have learned that incentives really do work with this age group. Kindergartners are excited about prizes, even if it is just a sticker. And those kids that don’t practice much? If a practice incentive helps them go from 1-2 days of practice each week to 4, sometimes 5 days, it is absolutely worth it!
6. Kids Learn A Lot in Kindergarten
We always thought that everyone entered kindergarten having the same set of skills. Not true! There is a wide variety of readiness at the beginning of kindergarten. Some students know how to read, while others only are able to recognize some of the letters. Some can do basic addition very easily, while others are just learning their numbers. The great thing about kindergarten is that it puts everyone on the same page. So, even if some students are “behind” at the beginning of the year, they are usually caught up by the end. This is good for teachers to know—a student who doesn’t know their letters well at the beginning of the year will likely learn them very soon!
5. Elephants and Kindergartners—Never Forget!
We are so amazed by the ability of kindergartners to remember song lyrics. Often they know them after only 1-2 hearings. And, they never forget! If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Before they can read, children are taught everything by rote, so this ability is highly developed in young children. We are so used to teaching visually, it is important to capitalize on these great auditory skills. Singing song lyrics, ear training exercises, and rhymes for rhythm are all great ways to capitalize on this ability.
4. Reading and Writing are Two Different Skills
We have always thought that when young children can recognize letters, they can also write them. Not true! Writing skills are often much slower to develop than reading skills. So, some children will be able to recognize letters but have difficulty writing them (especially letters that look somewhat alike). Numbers can be difficult as well. The numbers 2, 4, and 5 are more difficult to write, and they are numbers we use in piano quite often. Many times I lightly write the number and have them trace over it, or I draw a series of dots for them to connect in the pattern. Or, clues can help, “Draw half a heart, and then a line to your friend” (Number 2). We have learned that we can help students with non-musical skills that are important in life, instead of shying away from teaching these students, saying they are not ready.
3. Big Movements are Fun
We have known for awhile that large movement make way to smaller, more precise movements. Babies grab with their whole hand before they learn to pick up food with their fingers. Young children learn to put on their shirt before they are able to manipulate buttons or zippers. By the same token, large movements with music can pave the way for smaller, more precise motions. Plus, kindergartners enjoy them! Some of the best large movement activities are having the children move to the pulse. Full-arm swinging and marching are great for this—a fun way for kids to be active, and so important in establishing the sense of a larger pulse. Other fun activities can include moving to the style or mood of a piece of music, or doing large body movements to signify rhythm or ear training elements.
2. Kindergartners Have Lots To Say
We have learned that kindergartners always have more to say than there is time to hear. They will stop after every piece (and sometimes in the middle of a piece!) to tell you something. And everything is very important. It is okay to say, “You can tell me just one thing now.” Or, “Save your thought for later; right now it is time to…”. At the same time, it is important for kids to share their thoughts and for them to feel like their teacher is listening. Sometimes there are wonderful insights into how they are learning.
1. Kindergartners Love To Learn
Kindergartners have more unbridled enthusiasm for learning than any other age group. They are willing to try new things and they absolutely love it. Their enthusiasm is contagious and it is thrilling to see and participate in their excitement. Teaching this age group is so rewarding because they are so happy to be learning and enjoying music. And isn’t that why we do what we do?