Most students seem to pick up on rhythm, note names, staff reading, and musicality naturally; they can sit down and sight-read a two-page piece with little to no difficulty at all, and they can do it all without losing proper hand/arm/wrist technique.
This sounds familiar, right?
Absolutely not. God has blessed some of us piano teachers with one, maybe two, of these students over our entire lifetime. However, most students do not learn that quickly or efficiently — and rightly so! This is not an easy instrument! It is not like the seemingly simplistic triangle (which, believe it or not, does have its own proper playing technique); this instrument has 88 keys and three pedals — and most people generally have 10 fingers and two feet.
Proper piano playing technique takes years to develop and a lifetime to master — and that is just the playing technique. I have not even mentioned any of the music reading skills and internal rhythmic stability and adaptability required for this instrument. So, naturally, beginners tend to struggle with sight-reading and rhythm.
Some teachers I have seen in the past teach directly from a chair sitting next to the piano bench. They open to the new page of music and ask the eight-year-old to sight-read the new piece. Depending on the level and ability of the student, this may or may not be a successful way to learn. I have had many a young student who just cannot feel the difference between quarter notes and half notes, or hear the difference between a step and a skip.
That is, until my piano pedagogy professor gave me some tools to use in lessons with my students that completely changed the way I approached teaching difficult topics and concepts. (It seemed like such a practical thing to do that I was annoyed with myself for not picking up on it sooner.)
Sing and dance. That’s it.
Let me explain: kids need to feel and hear and replicate something before they can even attempt to play it on the piano.
When I teach rhythm to a new or struggling student, we dance. If the piece is in duple meter (4/4, 2/4, 2/2, etc.), we walk like a march (just straight steps in time) while we clap and say/sing the macro or micro beat. Sometimes, I have even used a metronome; I can adjust the tempo every 15-20 seconds or so, and it keeps it interesting. If the piece is in triple meter (3/4, 9/8, etc.), we waltz around the room while clapping and saying/singing the macro or micro beat. (Again, metronome work is always good here.) Sometimes it is good to teach counting with words rather than numbers; e.g. “quar-ter quar-ter HALF-note” instead of “one one one-two” or “one two three-four.”
When I teach the melodic material of a new piece, we first start by closing the lid of the keyboard. Together, we look through the piece and identify similar patterns/measures/etc. Then, we “play” the piece on the closed lid of the piano with our fingers and sing the melodic line (as best as we can, without expecting perfect pitch or a flawless singing performance) as we “play.” After we have mostly mastered the piece by playing that way, then I open the lid of the piano back up and we talk about where their hands go.
The level of improvement I have seen in students when we start doing this exercise together is absolutely astonishing. Some students can even identify mistakes by ear before they recognize them physically, because the wrong note they have just played did not match the melody they already sang.
Please note: it is absolutely imperative that these methods be done by both the teacher and the student at the same time. You are both in this musical journey together.