The piano has a traditional role in schools. It sits in the corner of a hall or a music room, waiting for the ‘school pianist’ to play the songs for assembly or the carols for Christmas. Bring your piano out of the corner! It is the most amazing instrumental resource that you posses and provides some of the most productive avenues for work. Any of us who want to can spend years and years learning to be great pianists. What few of us know is that there are very many ways to use a piano with no expertise whatsoever.
Just a few technical tips:
- There is no difference between the black notes and the white. They just give a code to know where you are on the piano.
- When three black notes are grouped together, the right hand of the two white notes inside them is the note A. Moving to the right, the white notes are B, C, D etc. until you get to the next A.
- What you put in to the notes is what you get out. Hit them hard it will sound loud and angry. Caress them and you will get a soft beautiful sound.
- Each note will start when you touch it and stop when you take your finger off.
- When you put down the right ( sustain ) pedal, the notes will not stop when you take your finger off. This can be very useful.
- The left pedal makes the whole instrument a bit softer. This makes little difference unless you have a very good piano.
The black notes
The biggest favour someone did us when they designed the piano keyboard was to leave us with a set of 5 black notes. Try it out. The ones that look the same sound the same. 5 notes repeated up and down the keyboard. This means that we have a pentatonic scale to play with. In other words, anything we do will sound great.
Have a go experimenting with the black notes on your own or with a partner. It will never sound wrong but here are some ways to make it sound really good.
- Keep the right hand pedal pressed down until the sound gets too thick, then raise it up and put it straight down again. This ‘cleans up’ the sound.
- Play slower the lower down in pitch (the further to the left) you go. Low notes last for a long time so just a few count for a lot.
- Try to avoid the very top and the very bottom notes on the piano. Unless your instrument is fantastic, these will not sound great.
- If you want to be fancy, the note E flat (the right hand of the pair of black notes) can give a very good sense of ‘home’ to the music. Use it often quite low down and it will hold your music together.
To use this working with a child is very simple.
- You sit on the left and the child on the right. This way the child has freedom to play fast or slow.
- You control the right pedal.
- Work without talking. Let the sound itself control what is happening.
- Sometimes you will want to give the child clues as to what to play, at other times listen to them and imitate. This does not need to be fixed. Let it be an open interaction.
- Pieces finish when they finish. If you need to end a piece, slowing down a bit can help. Pieces usually last between 5 and 15 minutes.
The key of A minor
This is just a fancy way of saying ‘the white notes’. Using the white notes to work with is a little bit more complicated than using the black notes as you have a set of 7 notes to work with rather than a set of 5. This means that you need two or three extra rules to help it sound good to begin with:
- The note A gives a really good home to the music. Hold down an A with your left hand and mess around with your right. It will always sound ok. This is the key of A minor.
- The child should play one note at a time. This makes a tune and will sound best if the notes stay quite close together.
- Both you and the child should aim to make patterns out of the notes that you play. It doesn’t matter how simple or complicated these are – they will just give more focus to the music.
Using the white notes or the black notes gives a great focus to the sound. Some children may prefer to just splash around on the piano. This can be great for developing interactive work even thought the sound might be a bit confusing to anyone listening in.
- Having no rules can be very good.
- You may want to keep control of the right hand pedal.
- Sitting to the child’s left will always be the best way to start off with.
Electronic keyboards can be used in much the same way as pianos. On the down side:
- The quality of sound is rarely as good as a piano.
- The relationship between touch and sound is not as instinctive as with a piano.
- The vast range of buttons on most keyboards can be a distraction.
However, on the up side:
- They are relatively cheap.
- They are easy to store and move around a school.
- They can be used with headphones for private work.
- They can be positioned with a degree of flexibility for children with restricted movement.
- Some of the vast range of buttons can enable you to do some pretty fancy tricks.
- For most pieces using the piano sound will be great. However, different children love different sounds. Experiment away. ‘Pad’ sounds can be very useful for children who have slow movement as they sustain for a long time.
- Using the ‘STYLE’ settings, you will be able to set a drum beat going to accompany your music. This can be fun if you want to work with pulse.
- Most keyboards have an ‘auto chord’ or ‘auto accompaniment’ function. This means that a few of the lowest notes at the far left of the keyboard will play a full chord rather than a single note. This can help you a lot if you are not a skilled keyboard player.
- You can combine these effects. For instance, with a STYLE setting and the AUTO CHORD switched on, you and a child will be able to form your own mini-band, perhaps playing blues using just the black notes.