Just Say "Yes!"

Here's Benjamin with his Halloween piece - learned "too early" for the recital. He'll be moving on to something harder.

Benjamin has the single most important trait for learning.

It's not his talent or physical coordination. It's not his intelligence or parents who are delightfully present yet stay out-of-the-way. It's not even his big brown eyes that melt my heart.

Benjamin is inquisitive. He is naturally curious and has been supported by the those around him. When he doesn't understand something, he asks about it. When he has an idea, he says it. He likes to write on his music and I encourage him.

At his first lesson, I asked him to look at the picture on the piece, Up the Street.

"What do you see?" I asked, expecting the usual short answer. "I see a girl and a boy."

Benjamin looked at it calmly.

What do YOU see in this picture?

"I see a: 

  • Girl
  • Boy
  • Mother waving goodbye
  • Sidewalk
  • Grass
  • House numbers
  • Window
  • Couch
  • Picture of a girl
  • Sink
  • Faucet
  • Curtains
  • Lamb
  • Flowers
  • Backpack
  • Yellow door
  • Brown door with a window in the top

The best way to encourage this kind of inquisitive, active learning is by just saying "Yes!"

When a student says, "Can I...?"

Say "Yes!

If you start paying attention, you may be surprised at the number of times a student asks something and you say no. I know I was.

Unless the question is, " Can I please pour a large bottle of ketchup into your piano?", try rewarding their initiative. Let them explore their world. If the thing they want to try involves making a mistake, then definitely say yes! That's the absolute best way to learn.

Let's take a closer at Benjamin's Halloween piece.

Note Benjamin's unconventional fingering notation. The fingering is conventional, it's the way he explains it to himself that isn't.

Benjamin just started taking lessons a few months ago. He's flying through the Piano Town Halloween Primer and will be well into the Level One Book before the recital. It was in these books that he first encountered a flat. When he was writing in the fingering (Yes, something I encourage students to do for themselves - it's a fabulous way to help them learn so many basic things) he started giggling. "

"I'm going to write 3 1/2 for the black keys, OK?"

"Yes," I said. "What a great idea."

And a great idea it was. It made me uncomfortable, because it implied that the half step was higher than the 3rd finger, but I remembered that this was Benjamin communicating with Benjamin, not any kind of all-encompassing policy. Will it last forever as a way to finger all the sharps and flats in his future? Absolutely not. But was it a brilliant solution to help him remember the new notes in the piece? It was.  

It's easy to get ahead of oneself when teaching. To think, "This isn't going to work forever so let's nip it in the bud." This is what you need to tell yourself about things like, "The treble clef is for the right hand." That's not good teaching because it's not true.

But when a student comes up with a creative, problem-solving idea, let them run with it. Let them experiment and laugh and have all the fun they can.

To be honest, I wish I'd thought of it myself.