I have a few adult students and 2 of them are absolutely beginners with no previous musical experience whatsoever. It’s always challenging but also I find it very exciting, not just because it’s a new beginning of something for them that they’ve never done before and also I know I’ll be able to help them discover a joy of doing something creative that lasts a lifetime. One of them just started today. She decided to take piano lessons after having watched what her niece was picking up from her piano lessons with me over the last several months. I thought I’d share some ideas of what I usually do for the first piano lesson with an adult absolute beginner student.
1. Sitting at the piano
Obviously, the first thing to do is how to sit at the piano properly. Always use your own arms to measure the distance from the piano by holding up the arms in front of you with a gentle fist like a karate pose and touch the piano fall board. The back should be straight but the arm should be straight in front of you. If the arms are bent, then you’re sitting to close to the piano or vice varsa. Then, gently bent your arm and bring them down to the key surface and rest on it. Now, open your hands like a flower bud opens. There, a perfect posture sorted! It’s best if the elbow position is slightly higher than the hand positions on the key surface.
My motto is to always start a lesson with asking a question, so that a student is put in a thinking mode, not just there to take in information passively.
2. Exploring the keyboard and exercising aural awareness
The second thing to do is to ask if a student recognizes any pattern on the keyboard; black-key patterns that’s what a student should be picking up. 2 black keys then a bit of gap, followed by 3 black keys then a bit of gap, back to 2 black keys again, etc. Have a student to press down 2 black keys as a cluster across the piano, to the right and then to the left. Now, there’s a reason for it, it’s not just to feel how the keys should feel under the fingers. The important thing is to ask a student whether s/he can describe how the sound changed when s/he went to the right and to the left. First step to exercise aural awareness starts here! And then introduce the concept: going to the right is actually ‘going up’ because the sound gets higher and lighter; going to the left is actually ‘going down’ because the sound gets lower and deeper. A simple but obvious fact for someone who can play a few tunes but not for an absolute beginner in music making. Covering this concept makes it easier later when a student starts learning about notes going up and down on the score. And it’s good to have an early start in developing the ear to know what to listen for in music.
3. Time to play a simple tune with both hands
No need to start from middle C or play unmusical repetitive tuneless exercise like CCCC, DDDD, EEEE with no rhythmic interests. There’s a lot you can do in the first lesson with very limited knowledge. My favourite one is a simple tune with 3-note descending scale in the right hand (played in a detached manner, not legato) and 3-note descending/ascending scale (played in a detached manner, not legato) in the left hand going at the different rate. Although, I use white keys for children, black keys are often too spread out for little hands to get a good grip on them. Here’s how the tune looks like on the piano and the score.
There’re a couple points that a student can explore at this very early stage, such as how the fingers should get a grip on the keys, how wrists movement should be part of playing, how the arms should be relaxed, etc. And practically a student is working on a co-ordination skill at the same time. To my opinion, piano playing is all about co-ordination. The sooner a student gets to work on it, the better!
4. Understanding rhythm
Another detail I draw a student’s attention to in the first lesson is the rhythmic pattern that s/he is playing. Firstly, attention to the right hand pattern by asking a student which key s/he held longest. Helping a student to see that the first two keys were held shorter. For rhythmic reading, I usually use simple but sensible terms such as, short (for eighth or quaver note) and long (for quarter or crochet note) to sing out the rhythmic pattern, so that a student is conscious of the fact that s/he’s actually playing different length of notes, which makes music sound more pleasing! Singing and playing is another co-ordination exercise. I find it very important to do complex things like that when a student is still learning very, very simple tunes. Holding down one finger in the left hand on the key while one finger in the right hand has to go up in the air is the first challenging but very useful co-ordination skill to acquire, so it’s worth spending some time on it. A student can start practicing these 2 different actions between the 2 hands on the piano lid. Let the muscles memorise the movement and remember how your arm/hand should feel like, then try the same movement on the keys.
The usual 30 minute lesson is easily absorbed by exploring the above activities. Hopefully this blog can be understood by non-pianists as well? Maybe you could try it out on your friend’s piano? It’s be interesting to find out how that works!