Recently, I’ve made some significant in roads in an area of teaching that has always proven difficult – teaching students ages 7 and below.  Like many teachers I know, I too often told parents that their child was too young to start private lessons, but lately, I’ve taken on three five-year-olds, two girls and one boy, and after a few rough sessions, I finally feel like I’m getting the hang of it!  (Funny story, I’m also a licensed attorney and after one of the first lessons with a five year old, I texted my boyfriend and told him I thought that teaching that age might be more adversarial than the practice of law.)

But really, it just takes some flexibility, creativity, and LOTS of planning to make it work. In the last few weeks, I’ve had a lot of success in teaching my five-year-olds the names and locations of the notes on the piano using a simple game that the children really enjoyed (one told me so himself).  So today, I’m going to share that with you.

The game is simple – memory – that game where you get to turn over two cards at a time and try to find all the matches.  You may even play it yourself on your smartphone.

For my version of the game, I created cards with either the two black key group or three black key group on them.  Then I colored one note on the card, using all the same color so as not to make the children think the colors had any significance.  Then, I divided up the cards into two sets – 2-black key and 3-black key.  The first time we played the game in a lesson, I would use just the 2 black key set.  After the student had mastered it (and could retain the information until the next lesson), I would play with the 3 black key set.

Student playing Memory Game

Here’s how the game works:

  1. It’s you versus the student (or if student has a parent present, have the parent play….creates an added bonus of making sure the parent learns the notes so that she can reinforce them outside of lessons).
  2. Lay all the cards out face down in random order.  Explain to the student that the goal is to find matching cards.  Whoever matches the most cards wins.
  3. Let the student turn over the first two cards.  Ask the student if the cards show the 2 black key group or the three black key group.  If they match and the student hasn’t noticed, ask the student whether the cards are the same.
  4. If the student finds a match, tell the student the name of the note indicated.  Then inform the student that she can get extra points if she uses the cards as a “map” to find that note on the piano.  Go with the student to the piano and help guide them to the right key by asking questions such as: Are you looking for a 2black key group or 3 black key group? Which white key is colored on the card?  Can you find the key on the piano? (Are you sure that’s the key….[point out a difference]?)
  5. Once the student has used the map to find the key, ask the student to find all those keys on the piano to get the extra point.  Do not be strict with requiring no mistakes.  Just encourage each correct answer and give a chance to retry given an incorrect answer.
  6. On your turns, generally try to lose most of the time.  Only try to make matches after the student has learned the key.  Allow the student to “steal” the points from you if she can find all the notes on the piano.  (Score-keeping really isn’t important here.  Just make sure the child wins if trying).
  7. Every time a card is flipped, if the student has already identified it on the piano, ask the student to name the note shown on the card.  Don’t introduce new notes until it has shown up as a match however.  This way, you have the students getting familiar with what to look for without having yet to identify it and the student learns only one new note at a time.

So far this game has been very successful both in entertaining my students, educating my parents, and in educating the students.  I almost fainted when one of my students came in for her next lesson after learning C, D, E in the previous lesson and she could still identify C, D, E on the piano.

Some key lessons I have learned from this activity and other recent experiences are:

  1.  Plan a good game to introduce a concept (although this one is pretty obvious it is worth mentioning);
  2. Introduce one concept at a time and give it a long time to sink in with multiple methods of reinforcement (visual, aural, tactile, etc).
  3. Use a gentle form of the Socratic method (asking questions designed to lead the student to the correct answer) to help students figure out answers themselves.  This makes the student feel better about the work she does and also tends to make it more memorable.
  4. Make sure your activity involves movement to some degree.  If the activity is a short one and won’t take more than 5 minutes, then maybe no movement is fine, but otherwise, remember that little bodies need to get up and move around to stay interested.
  5. Don’t try to stick with one piano method.  Pull things that work from the different methods as you see how the child is developing.  I use Alfred for some of it’s activity and ear training and notespeller worksheets, and Faber for a song to sing together, and Bastien for starting pieces using just the black keys.  And sometimes I change all of that and do something different.  HAVE MANY TOOLS READY TO GO.
  6. Always have something to color or draw if they get restless or bored. It’s a safe back up.
  7. Let the child have a few minutes to “improvise” on the piano if they show an interest in just playing at the beginning of the lesson.  Just inform them that they only get 3 minutes to play before the next activity.
  8. INCENTIVES.  Don’t forget to have stickers and prizes for your students.  I give my students stickers for good behavior during their lesson and a visit to the prize box for special accomplishments or winning a particular game.  (More on my prize box later.)
  9. Make sure your lessons for little ones are only thirty minutes.
  10. Pick one or two concepts to teach in a particular lesson and come up with at least three different activities to teach them.  Some activities may not work or may bore the child or something else might go wrong, so plan to have backups (see step 6 when all else fails).
  11. It’s easier to teach multiple five year olds private lessons than it is to teach just one.  If you are going to have to make all the plans and effort for one student, you might as well have other students of the same age so that your effort/student ratio is reasonable.
  12. Always start the next lesson with a review of last lesson’s information.  This is especially crucial with the young beginner because seeing you once per week is a long time in their comprehension of time.

Now, to share my memory game. To print, use cardstock and print on both sides, flipping on the short side.  Be sure to print in color two if you want the notes to be colored in red rather than being gray.  Click this link here to download: Memory_ ID THE KEYS Final.  Here’s a preview of what it looks like:

If you use this in your own studio, please comment with how it went and any insights you might have to offer.

Teach a lot of young beginners?  I’d love to hear from you too!


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