Teaching ourselves?

February 19, 2007

We have been most fortunate to have acquired a Casio learning keyboard.  This is a standard 68 key keyboard which, I have been told, is the minimum necessary for learning the piano.  This keyboard was a gift to my son from his grandmother (my mother). Since we have this wonderful instrument, my 7 year old and I have decided to learn to play the piano.  At the time I thought my mother was nuts for buying it but it has long since become a favorite in my house.   If we didn’t own one, I would probably purchase one because the expense is so slight compared to the enormous benefit of learning a musical instrument.  So, before I continue, a little shout out – THANKS MOM!

I like this keyboard.  It appeals to my simplistic nature of being small enough to slide under a bed or in a closet. It doesn’t take much room left out either.  We once had an upright piano given to us after my husband’s grandmother moved into a retirement home.  It was too large and bulky, taking up much needed space for one single instrument.   This keyboard gives us the option of playing the piano, the organ, and many other instruments by changing the programing.  It also has a learning option that uses a lighted key system.  In learning mode, the keyboard is very similar to the old Simon games we used to play as kids where the game played a bit of a tune with lighted buttons, if you followed the tune correctly you won!    Instead, you order up one of the pre-programmed music pieces and follow the lights.  While the  lighted system has been pretty worthless in actually learning to play, it does give lots of practice moving your fingers over the keys and gives you a small sense of accomplishment if you can pick out a tune by following the lights, not to mention, it is quite fun.

When we decided we had gone about as far as we could on the simplistic light system, we went online and found a wealth of free resources on everything from music theory including notes, time, rests, chords, and keyboard layout to games for improving your music reading abilities.   I did print out some of the learning options and created my own staves for our practice (using recycled paper). 

I have to say, I am rather proud of our accomplishment.   Without making a single purchase, my son and I have learned all of the keys on the keyboard, including sharps and flats.  We have also learned chords and octaves.

Unfortunately, learning the keys is only part of learning to play the piano.  In order to play proficiently, you must also read music.   Learning to read music is boring drudgery and knowing my son’s reluctance to sit down and do anything  that resembled school work, I saw my hopes fly out of the window. 

Not wanting to quit and knowing he can push past this if I found some way to excite him, I researched software and stumbled on a neat online game called Noteables that teaches you how to read music by using a flashcard system.  The game isn’t free but is reasonable at $30 and is downloadable so you don’t waste packaging or use resources.  It also has a free trial that allows you to use the program 25 times free.  We tried it and were impressed with the game’s functions.  What a great way to learn how to read music! 

At first, he rejected the idea of learning even with this new game, so I used a little psychology.  My son is a die-hard competitor.  He hates for someone to best him in anything.  Playing off that,  I challenged my son to a duel, to see who can get the best score.  He is now having  a blast on the computer identifying notes on a treble staff trying to beat me.   As he gets better, I change the program to include increasingly difficult sessions, with more notes, notes located above or below the staff, using a bass staff as well as a treble staff.  

Oh, I am a tricky, tricky mom! 

We don’t have a formal time when we have to practice.  Sometimes we go a week without ever touching the keyboard.   However, usually when we find a lull in our day, we head to the keyboard and start pounding away.  When we get time, we practice real stuff for about 10 minutes and then spend about 10 more minutes just goofing off, playing our own creations – keeping it short right now while we are beginning.  We play the note game.   Oddly enough, we don’t need daily practice to remember what we learned.  Perhaps it is because we are enjoying it so much.

Two people, a 7 year old and a 35 year old, with no background in music are teaching ourselves how to play the piano without an instructor, without lessons and without sitting at the piano practicing for hours a day. I don’t have to threaten or bribe.   This could take years but now we have something to do on those rainy days and days that are too cold to go outside.  Who could be bored when you are doing something so much fun? 

I did not start out intending this to be an educational rant.   I really was going to post on how to cure boredom but as this post developed I realized something:  this is what learning is all about.  Spending time together, picking through things and figuring it out, practicing, playing, having a good time, spending time away from it, spending days playing at it, just enjoying, as humans are meant.


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