Oops, I forgot how to play that – How to help your child beat the forgetting curve.

Last week my nine year old forgot to pack his lunch box in his bag for school. It’s been a while since he has done that, so I quickly jumped in the car and drove it up to the school so that he would have something to eat for lunch.

It wasn’t always that rare for him; as a matter of fact, all my children forgot things during their early years of school. They forgot hats, lunch boxes, drink bottles, jumpers etc. and the result often meant lost items at school and money spent replacing things. Eventually, with our encouragement, our children developed routines and habits that meant less and less forgetting. Now it is infrequent in our house for something to be forgotten.

As teachers, we experience the same thing in lessons. “I forgot where my hands go Mrs, Collyer?” – “Let’s take a look at your music and work it out” is my reply, and together we begin to review our notes and finger numbers and to work out our hand position on the piano. Forgetting hand positions, forgetting notes on the stave, forgetting to hold minims and semibreves, forgetting what the dynamic means etc., are very common among beginner piano students. Forgetting things is very common for many children, and there is a huge reason why – the forgetting curve.

The forgetting curve, created by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus is a visual representation of how we forget learned information over time. It is interesting to note that within 24 hours of learning, we forget 70% of what we learned, and within 7 days, we have only retained about 10% of what we learned the week prior. It is no wonder young pianists can’t remember where middle C is, or the young violinist forgets how to hold the bow correctly.

But there is hope. Extending on his research Ebbinghaus discovered an essential key to remembering. If put in place, this key helps to maintain new knowledge learned, beating the forgetting curve.

The key to beating the forgetting curve is regularly reviewing newly learned material in regular intervals throughout the week. In doing this, students can retain 80 to 90% of the information learned in the previous week. Just three review sessions a week on days one, three and six after your child’s lesson will do wonders for helping them to retain and master material learned in their instrumental lessons.

One of the biggest reasons your child’s instrumental teacher is always talking about practice is because they know it is the biggest key to your child’s success. Outside of finding a great teacher and using age-appropriate engaging resources for your child, establishing a practice routine with your child at home from their very first lesson will bring your child many hours of joyful music-making and will help them to progress quickly and confidently through each stage of instrumental learning.

The Power of Sight-Reading

Lisa comes to lessons every week very excited to show me what she has learned.  Listen to me first, she exclaims in piano class, hoping this week she has finally mastered that piece.  As I listen to her piece, I bite my tongue as she plays,  pausing at every second bar, corrects every 7th note, and the rhythm is just non-existent.  At the end of her performance, we begin making corrections; we play it through slowly counting,  we read the notes in rhythm, we mirror play, and I deploy a whole other host of strategies until the piece is close to perfect.   Then it is written in the book for another week of practice in hopes that a week of practice will bring it back perfect.

This scenario is common,  all too common. To have a student come and sit at the piano bench and stare at their music with a blank expression on their face, or phrases like I don’t know where my hands go, or this music is really hard or some other comment that conveys the child’s confusion with the music.  Even worse is the attempt to play the piece with note reading mistakes played as confidently as a concert pianist.  I often ask myself,  how did this bright full of potential student get to this point?  I know the answer; no, it’s not a lack of practice or technique or even a lack of good teaching.  Rather it is more often than not a mismatch in a child’s sightreading ability and their current learning level.

We know that reading music is essential to any musician.  It is what guides home practice and is the key that unlocks our ability to learn music at a faster pace and to be able to create and pass on music to others. However, sightreading is regularly a skill we cram to learn in the weeks preceding exams. However, without time or thought is put into developing this skill, many students ability to read music at sight is very poor. Nevertheless, developing sightreading skills can become one of the most enjoyable parts of a students practice sessions.

What is Sightreading?

Sightreading is the ability to play through a piece of music effortlessly without (or with few) rhythmic and pitch errors that you have never seen before.  At Hope Performing Arts Centre, we often call a students’ sightreading level their functioning level.  It is a level at which the pieces are easy enough to play and enjoy without the need for too much thinking.

Being able to sightread allows students to enjoy playing music in much the same way someone would enjoy reading a book. Just like reading books, the more a student sightreads, the better they become and the more pleasure they derive from making music. 

Most students, however, skip over the sightreading just to get their practice done. Because of this, their sightreading skills suffer and fall further and further behind their learning level, making it harder for them to learn more difficult repertoire. 

What level should my child be sightreading at?

For students who are just beginning to learn a musical instrument, their sightreading level should be close to what they were working on in the previous lesson. For beginner students who practice daily, this is generally achievable.  

As students’ progress out of primer method books and into level one and two, they should be able to read anything at the primer level with ease and be progress towards fluently sightreading the new notes and rhythms introduced in their current method books within a few weeks of learning them.

Once students reach their first examination, it is essential that they can play fluently; the different note/hand positions on their instruments that they have learnt up to this point and are beginning to read melodic (harmonically as well for pianists) intervals and chords at sight.  At this point, it is necessary for students to have an understanding of music theory as reading music becomes increasingly complex.

Below is a chart outlining the ideal minimum sightreading level for students up to grade 4.

How can my child get better at sightreading?

If you notice that your child is struggling to learn new music, it is often because their sightreading skills are too low.  One of the best ways to begin improving sightreading is to have your child reading through pieces from an earlier method book at their sightreading level for 5 to 10 minutes every day.  If you are not sure what your child’s sightreading level is, ask their instrumental teacher. They will be more than happy to provide you with the information along with suggestions of pieces/books your child can sightread through. 

For some children using flashcards can also be helpful (particularly in the very early method books) in building their confidence with the note names.  There are several great ways to use flashcards for developing confidence with sightreading; I will be sharing these is a follow-up post in the future.

At Hope Performing Arts Centre, we regularly provide supplementary material to help our students improve their sightreading.  Check out their practice diaries and book bags to see what exciting material your child has to read through at home this week.

Once your child is sightreading regularly, you will find them picking up past pieces or new easy pieces to play for enjoyment.  The more they play through new music at sight, the better they will get at sightreading and overtime, this will improve their ability to learn pieces of music at their method or grade level faster.

The Benefits of Piano Lessons for Young Children

Learning to play the piano has brought joy to many children all over the world.  It is one of the most accessible instruments for young children to learn and the study of the piano has long ranging benefits that will help your child both as a future musician and a learner.

  1.  Develops fine motor skills

Many children in the 4 – 6 year old age range are still learning to co-ordinate pencil control and finger independence.  Learning the piano helps children to discover how to use each finger separately and their fingers are strengthened as they use them to play pieces on a regular basis.  Developing good finger independence helps children with their pencil grip, scissor grip and writing skills.

  • Develops aural skills

Learning an instrument or being involved in music classes from a young age helps young children to develop their ear.  Learning to discriminate between different sounds, pitches and rhythms are part of the basis for developing speech. Learning the piano helps to further develop these skills, along with helping children develop the aural skills necessary for becoming a good musician. 

  • Builds Confidence

Children who learn the piano at a young age often feel more confident with their musical skills, even if they go on to learn another instrument later in life.  At the ages of 4 – 6, children are still exploring the world through play, and learning to play the piano in a way that fosters their exploring spirit enables children to build lifelong musical pathways in the brain that are transferable to other instruments.  Having these musical pathways helps children, as they grow and learn more about music, to be confident music-makers who love learning and playing music

  • Develops young children’s internal reward system

Recent research is showing that children who are internally motivated have more positive learning outcomes.  Learning an instrument at a young age in an environment that encourages positive interactions with the piano and with music helps children to develop their inner motivation.  As children learn to focus on and understand music, their desire to know and make more music grows.  They become motivated not by external rewards like stickers or the teacher’s praise but by their own love of music.  As children develop this love of music, most parents find that their children are very eager to practice at home.

  • Develops Creativity.

The younger a child is when they learn the piano, the more creative lessons are.  At the ages of 4 – 6, children still love to create things and are often eager to show what they have done.  Piano lessons at this age often include elements of creativity such as writing finger number tunes and adding their own dynamics or ending to the piece of music. By fostering these creative elements so young, children go on to understand music theory, and its purpose for understanding how to play their instrument, better.  Allowing students to be creative in lessons also helps them to discover the capabilities of the piano for themselves, which re-enforces their technical and musical skills on the piano.

We have worked with numerous young pianists at Hope Performing Arts Centre, and each one of them is thriving as they learn to play some of their favourite songs on the piano. The “Piano Explorers” program has been designed for children aged 4 1/2 to 6 years to help little pianists get the most out of piano lessons in a way that is fun, engaging and musical.  If you would like more information about the “Piano Explorers” or to book a complimentary introductory lesson simply fill in the form below and we will be in contact soon.