Hands-On Teaching… Part 1

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know that I use a LOT of games and teaching props with my students.   Thanks to a few wonderfully active students who came through my door a handful of years ago (and drove me nearly to the point of exasperation), I’ve come to embrace a very multi-sensory, “hands-on” approach to elementary piano lessons.  We play games, throw bean bags, bounce playground balls… and at the end of the day, we play music!   It’s a ton of fun, and I know that somewhere amidst all of the creative chaos, my students are getting a solid musical foundation.

From time to time I hear from teachers who are excited to try out some games and teaching aids with their students, but question how they can budget lesson time to include one more thing.   When you only see each student for 30 or 45 minutes a week, every minute is valuable!! 

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to share a handful of posts explaining how things work around my studio – why this kind of approach has worked for me and my students, and how we manage to fit all of the games and aids on this site into weekly lessons.    This fall, I’ll also be sharing a weekly series of posts detailing some of my favorite “off the bench” activities to teach rhythm and pitch reading skills.  Stay tuned!


Before we look at HOW to fit all of these “fun” things in, let’s take a look at WHY we need them. Believe it or not, using games and structured “play” in lessons can actually make your teaching more efficient.  A little bit of time spent away from the bench in one lesson may very well pay off in a student’s ability to read and play repertoire down the road.   Here’s why:

They communicate in a language our students understand.

Students learn through three basic sensory channels: visual, aural and tactile/kinesthetic.  For most, one of those channels is dominant.   Some learn best by seeing, some by hearing and others by doing

Think about your elementary students for a moment.  Which of those channels do you think best suits them?  If you answered tactile-kinesthetic, you’re most likely correct, at least when it comes to your youngest students.   Research has shown that at age 7, students are predominantly tactile-kinesthetic.  It’s not until a few years later that children begin to gravitate toward visual and aural learning modalities.   

Now, think about a typical lesson.  Which sensory language do we speak most of the time?  How many minutes of each lesson are spent with our students seated, a printed page of some sort (music, workbook, etc.) in front of them?    Granted, we DO have to sit at the piano when we play music, but why do we have to sit and stare at the book to learn about music???  Every new theory concept, pitch pattern and rhythm combination presents an opportunity to get up off the bench and explore music using our bodies, our hands, and our ears.       

When we present concepts using a tactile-kinesthetic language, we communicate in a way that our young students can grasp quickly and easily.   They get it.  They remember it.   It’s a concrete experience they can latch on to.  Once we’re back in front of the book, all they have to do is link their new knowledge to what’s on the page and they’re ready to hit the ground running. 


They force us to take a break.

We’ve all had those fidgety students that just can’t sit still… and there’s good evidence that none of us should sit for long periods of time.  Standing up and moving stimulates blood flow, increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain, so students literally think better after they’ve had a chance to move.   They’ll come back to the bench with a fresh ability to concentrate.

They’ll also come back to the bench with fresh eyes.    The visual process of coordinating, fixating and tracking the eyes across a page of printed music is a complex one, and for some of our students, something their eye muscles haven’t completely mastered yet.  Pushing elementary students to read music for long lengths of time can cause fatigue, and invite a whole host of perceptual problems (how would you like to read notes from staff lines that appear to move??).    Periodic breaks from the music give young eyes a chance to relax. 


They’re fun!

Last, but certainly not least, adding games, colorful aids and creative movement activities to our lessons makes learning fun… and there’s no reason that lessons shouldn’t be fun!   When our students are relaxed and in a positive emotional state, they’re much more likely to accept and retain new information.   There’s plenty of discipline and hard work that goes into learning an instrument… why not play when you can??


Up next… we’ll look at the nitty-gritty details of HOW to make all of this happen, in 45 minutes or less!!







Hands-On Teaching… Part 1 — 1 Comment

  1. You have said it precisely as I believe. There are a few parents who struggle with my approach as well. They feel games are a waste of time and are not really teaching. However, I’ve lost only one student in 15 years because of this. Usually a clear explanation like yours is all it takes. Bravo!

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