What to Teach Young Pianists?Preparing the next generation of capable keyboardists

by Adam Baus

Like every piano major, I prepared and performed a senior recital in college. I even sponsored my own recitals throughout my college life, and prepared for college by giving recitals both as a high school junior and senior. Upon completion of my degree, I could play a recital with the best of them. However, if you had asked me to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in F-sharp major, I would have been terrified.

This is exactly how I felt when a local doo-wop group called me to perform a two-hour show, with ten days to learn the music. I knew how to sight-read and practice, but I couldn’t improvise or transpose. Working through those basic I-vi-IV-V-I chord changes in multiple keys melted my brain and, while I survived, it wasn’t pretty.

On the subject of what to teach our next generation of young pianists, the real question then is, “What does a gigging pianist need to be capable of?” Most gig work distills down to being able to play what’s in front of you (read the music), improvising or filling out the music, and transposing as necessary. Of course, all this must be done with fluency and musicality.

The task of preparing the next generation is very demanding, and I believe there are two considerations to this topic:

  • Many working pianists do not teach at all, or do not like working with kids of any age.
  • Many piano teachers don’t have the practical, real world experience of performing, music directing, or gigging in general. While studying piano, they were taught the standard Beethoven sonatas, Czerny & Hanon exercises, etc. If they wanted to gig as well as teach, they had to find their own way. (Jazz pianists are, perhaps, the exception. They are “taken off the page” in their training, so their music reading abilities are different from their classical counterparts.)

Inspired by my first private piano students, I wrote “Learning Music through the Piano” – a self published method book I use as a means to teach the language of music, and then use one’s fingers to express one’s self. I believe that if you say you take piano lessons, you should be able to play something – anything – for those who show interest. I vowed that my students would at least be introduced to the essential skills that I lacked entering the real world. This is the cornerstone of my teaching.

Like most teachers, I have a lot of graded material I use to teach beginner pianists how to read notes and rhythms. As a working pianist, I find the ability to read rhythms accurately absolutely vital; something that was highly overlooked in my classical training. Repertoire choices are also extremely important. I love classical piano music, but I feel it is important to have students learn music they might actually get paid to play someday.

I accompany my students constantly, both in lessons and in concerts. Having them learn and play the accompaniment parts provides a different, yet requisite, skill. Our concerts have a lot of duets, either with me accompanying, or the students accompanying each other. The music is richer, and their performing abilities improve more quickly because of it.

To tackle the daunting task of transposing, I start with the five-finger scales, and teach a basic tune. Since Milwaukee was having a very foggy start to summer this year, I used the end of “A Foggy Day in London Town” as a nice easy melody to learn and play in every key. We listened to recordings of Ella Fitzgerald, or Fred Astaire, and then figured out what key they sang in. It’s pretty cool to see a 9 year old work this out!

I’m proud to share a few success stories of my students’ accomplishments:

  • When learning “It Had Better be Tonight” by Henry Mancini, a student and I listened to a recording. The second verse modulated up a half step. The student looked at me and groaned, “Do we have to?” We agreed it sounded cooler with the transposition, and he learned how to play the whole thing in both D & E-flat minor. He was 11.
  • My wife and I chose to have two of my students play during our wedding ceremony. Beyond preparation of the repertoire and coaxing the proper blend of tandem (duet) playing, I worked hard to create a positive performance atmosphere. The kids (11 & 13) had extra lessons, practiced on several different pianos, and rehearsed in the performance venue. The performance came off magnificently!
  • Two students performed “Moondance” by Van Morrison in concert – one playing the accompaniment and the other playing the melody. There were both 12.
  • Every time a student in a lesson asks, “What key should I play this in?”

Like most piano teachers, I do not possess a cadre of burgeoning young piano enthusiasts, but just regular kids who have to juggle lessons with school, sports, family life, and other activities. I know that if I want to compete with that, I have to make their practice time productive and engaging for them. I have found that teaching piano in this way — teaching transposition, improvisation, sight-reading, and playing by ear, in addition to reading music and learning technique — engages the students further and better prepares them for a future of gigging.

Adam Baus, The Traveling Piano Man, does house call piano lessons on Milwaukee’s North Shore. He enjoys music directing, conducting, and performing at the piano as much as he loves bringing up the next generation of pianists.