Note: this blog introduces a methodology for teaching piano to the visually impaired (VI). Key features include ear training and hand muscle memory. As students embrace and practice these techniques, their playing can progress at a very rapid rate. Since this is a project I feel very strongly about, the amount of contents has grown considerably since its first draft – so please don’t feel compelled to read it in one sitting. Topics presented include:
- an introduction to a group of world-renowned pianists whose visual impairment was no obstacle to the mastery of their art form.
- a discussion of traditional methods for teaching piano which – in this author’s opinion – are deplorably lacking in their usefulness to the VI piano student.
- a recent recollection of how a young group of children in Malawi, Africa, easily learned to play piano – albeit at a introductory level – in approximately two hours, some of whom spoke only in their native language of chichewa.
- the presentation of a teaching methodology designed to make learning piano accessible to anyone with visual impairments – in the form of mp3 audio files; these mp3 files can be downloaded for personal use, or simply listened to as part of a YouTube video. Using YouTube videos has the added convenience that the audio can be ‘paused’, ‘rewound’, and ‘fast forwarded’ using the buttons inherent with YouTube.
- Of course the student does require a basic piano of his/her own in order to practice what is being presented. At each step of the way, emphasis is made on listening to what is being played (ear training) and how the hands and fingers are being held (muscle memory). There is a clear de-emphasis on rote memorization of music terminology – the student will naturally learn and remember music concepts by playing the piano.
So, on to the question at hand. What do Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Art Tatum, and George Shearing have in common? This is actually a trick question. Of course they are all renowned for their piano virtuosity, and this list is far from complete. End of story? No. The real story is that they all attained their prominence without sight. And being visually impaired (VI) in no way hindered their ascension to the top of their field.
The point to keep in mind is that sight is NOT a prerequisite for learning to play piano, or any musical instrument for that matter. In many ways sight can actually be an impediment – a crutch that limits one’s ability to truly exceed at his/her instrument. When playing or listening to music, sight can actually be a distraction that interferes with our sense of hearing and music appreciation. So often, music afficianados will close their eyes in order to fully appreciate what they are hearing.
With the preceding in mind, what might be the most effective method to teach piano to VI students? One clear answer is that every step of the learning process is audible rather than visual – and with today’s technology that becomes trivial. With the audible approach, ear training becomes a key component, as it should be with all students of music.
It turns out that this audible approach is considerably more effective, and more intuitively grasped, than the traditional approach to teaching piano.
In addition to learning by listening, the student learns by doing. At every point of the instruction, students are asked to repeat – on their own piano and with their own hands – what they just listened to. They can hear how their notes compare to the notes they just heard. In this manner, the information being taught goes immediately into practice.
To further emphasize these points, please permit me to relay a recollection of how I was taught piano – using the traditional method of teaching piano.
The Traditional Method of Teaching/Learning Piano
Like many young children I was intrigued by the piano. So my parents offered to pay for expensive piano lessons, and I eagerly accepted. My teacher was a gruff and stern man with little patience. His teaching strategy was to place a series of instructional books in front of me while point at the myriad cryptic music notation symbols. Then he would proceed to repeat: “Do you see this? This is a <fill in the blank>”.
As all piano students can attest, these blanks become such phrases as:staves, treble clef, bass clef, lines and spaces, time signature, ‘FACE’, ‘Every Good Boy Does Fine’, semitone, whole tone, bar line, measures, ledger lines, DC al cado, fortissimo, pianissimo, flats, sharps, key signature, three flats indicates the key of E flat, five sharps indicates… blah, blah, blah ad nauseam!!!!
I had yet to learn to play anything of interest, my eyes were blurry, and my head was clogged with a thousand cryptic symbols. I began to think “if this is what learning to play piano is all about, count me out”. But my parents were paying good money for this unpleasant experience, and there was no way they were going to let me give up.
After several futile months of trying to memorize music notation – visually translating globs of hieroglyphics into actual notes – I still struggled to peck out the notes from my lesson book. And if I had the misfortune of misinterpreting a symbol, my reprimanded was a rap on the knuckles from my instructor’s ever-present pencil (ouch!).
This is obviously not a pleasant memory for me, and I am not grateful nor respectful of my instructor, God rest his soul.
It wasn’t long before I gave up all interest in the piano. However, I still very much enjoyed listening to music – but the the drudgery of these lessons held no interest for me.
At the age of sixteen I experienced divine intervention. I was at a party when I heard the most beautiful sounds emanating from a nearby piano. When I entered the room I witnessed a girl playing the most amazing music, by ear, and with no sheet music in front of her. I thought: how was this even possible? As I look back I now realize that she was improvising!
From that moment on things were very different for me. I now wanted more than anything to learn to play piano just as competently as that girl had played – and to produce the lush chords and haunting melodies that I had heard that memorable night. I also craved to be able to spontaneously improvise like she had – by ear.
It has been almost six decades since that evening. I now play the piano for hours and hours every day, wife permitting. My bookshelves contain not a single piano instruction book nor a single piece of sheet music. When I want to learn a new song, I grab the chords from the internet and memorize them (there exist many songs that have only ONE chord, with many other songs having only two or three chords. Even I can memorize three chords).
“But not so fast” you say. “What about the melody? Certainly you must have a melody sheet in front of you for every song that you want to play? You know, so that you can read the sheet music and visually translate the melody to notes on the piano!”.
NOOOOOO!!!!! So much of the enjoyment of playing an instrument is the process of hearing a melody in your head and easily being able to reproduce that melody on your instrument, or simply hum or sing it. Sometimes you can’t get a particular melody out of your head! We hum melodies all the time, often in the shower for that awesome reverberation effect. No sheet music required! This is when music is truly being enjoyed and appreciated. Every Beatles song can be instantly recognized and sung by billions of people – without sheet music.
Please don’t go repeating what I have just said to the Sheet Music companies – they need you to believe that you can’t possibly play serious music without sheet music in front of you. What they don’t want you to know is that the purest form of enjoyment for a musician is to be able to listen to chords and melodies, and – with repetition and practice – learn to play them from memory. Go to any concert – the musicians aren’t reading sheet music. And the stellar musicians take a simple music theme and improvise on that theme – using the techniques that they have practiced and committed to memory.
I have only one disclaimer, and that disclaimer applies to orchestral performances. When you have a sizeable number of musicians all playing the same piece at the same time, sheet music is a practical means for them to remain synchronize (“Musicians, begin at bar 23 of the second verse”). So for you orchestral musicians, my apologies.
A Story from Malawi
A recent experience will serve to demonstrate just how quickly young students can learn to play the piano – when introduced to it in a logical manner. For some time now I’ve been traveling to Malawi, Africa, to teach piano to a group of youth in the capital city of Lilongwe. These youth, some of whom speak only chichewa, were so eager to learn piano that a mere language barrier could not deter them. When I prepared for these lessons I packed nothing but my portable piano, some percussion instruments, and mental notes on how I planned to teach music to these eager students.
The first lesson began with a simple snapping of my fingers at my favorite ‘tempo’. I did not try to elaborate on the theory and nuances of ‘tempo’ – these youth had more rhythm than I ever will. I just want them to hear and feel a tempo. Within the first ten minutes we had tempo and rhythm under our belts and it was time to move on to the piano.
I began by playing some simple chords with my left hand and a simple melody in my right hand, just so they could hear what these sound like. They appeared to be pleased, or perhaps just amused?
The next step was to convince the students that there are only seven piano notes to learn. With up to 88 keys (52 white and 36 black) on a full piano keyboard, I wanted to avoid imminent panic, and to assure them that just seven piano notes, ‘A’ through ‘G’, were extremely simple to learn. Even the chichewa language contains the characters ‘A’ through ‘G’ in its alphabet.
I took a permanent marker and wrote these seven letters on the corresponding seven keys on the piano keyboard. My friend Rocky Kaunda then asked each child to play the seven piano notes – which they did effortlessly. Ten minutes into the lesson and these kids knew more about the piano than I did after a month of lessons.
I know what you’re thinking: “but what about those intimidating black notes, and what about ‘sharps’ and ‘flats’, and key signature, and …? Aren’t you being just a little simplistic?”. Ask me that question at the end of this true story.
I then erased the markings on the piano keyboard and asked if anyone could tell me where the “C” note was. Obviously, no one could. This is where they discovered the usefulness of the ‘black notes’. “See this pair of two black notes – not that other pair of three black notes? Ok, show me the white note immediately below those two black notes”. And they did so. “This note that you just found is the important “C” note. Remember how you found it because it will become our ‘home base’, the key where we will so often want to return to”. And they did. At the end of fifteen minutes of the very first lesson, all these children knew how to locate “C” on the piano. Incredible.
Next step: “start from the ‘C’ note you just found and play each note up the keyboard while reciting the alphabet ‘C’, ‘D’, ‘E’, ‘F’, ‘G'”. Upon reaching ‘G’ we reminded the students that the next key higher than ‘G’ is ‘C’, where the sequence begins again. At this point, Rocky had every student come up to the piano, find a ‘C’ note, and play all the seven notes of the piano – ‘A’ through ‘G’.
Rocky then helped me explain how these seven notes repeat all the way up and down the piano, and that a group of seven white notes comprised an ‘octave’.
I explained to them that the technique they had just learned to find the ‘C’ note applied to every ‘C’ note on the piano. These children were now playing notes up and down the piano saying “this is ‘C’, this is ‘D’, this is ‘E’ …”. Thirty minutes into the first lesson and these children could identify every single white note on the keyboard.
As an experiment to myself, I asked one girl to again locate the groups of two and three black notes, but this time with her eyes closed. With Rocky’s help she learned to distinguish the feel of the two black notes, and how that feel differed from the feel of the three black notes. Next Rocky asked her to find the ‘C’ note just below the two black notes – and she did, without sight. At this point I am absolutely dumbfounded, but also extremely encouraged.
I asked another student to place his left hand on the keyboard with their pinky finger on the C note, and the rest of his fingers on each successive white note going up the keyboard. With his hand in this position I asked him to play the notes under each finger, one at a time, starting with the pinky – which he did. I then asked him to close his eyes and repeat this exercise – which he did.
At this point I was absolutely certain that a VI student could learn to play the piano, and quite rapidly – without the distraction of sight!
The next exercise was to have them play a simple triad chord consisting of three notes. With their left hand still placed on the keyboard, the pinky finger on a ‘C’ note, “play the notes under your pinky finger, your middle finger, and your thumb”. With a little finger-coaxing they latched onto the idea. We asked them to observe how they were playing every other white note (play a note, skip a note, play a note, skip a note, and play a note). ‘C’, ‘E’ and ‘G’. Child’s play for them.
Once the students were comfortable with playing a triad chord, we asked them to slide their hand position up and down the keyboard by just one white note and repeat the playing of a new triad – which they did. Within the first hour of the first lesson these students were playing C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor and B diminished. And they could tell me the bottom note (root) of each of the seven chords (“C” chord, “D” chord, …).
The next step was to ask them to explain the difference between the seven chords. Their first response was to say that the bottom note was different for each chord. Yes, true – but what else? After showing them how to count musical intervals between any two notes by counting ‘steps’ as they moved from one note to the next note, they began to realize that the intervals between the first, second and third note of each chord were slightly different. Some chords had the intervals of 4 and 3 steps, while other chords had the intervals of 3 and 4 steps.
Now comes the exciting part. I played a major chord and had locate the intervals: 4 and 3. I played a minor chord and had them explain to me how the intervals were now 3 and 4.
I now had the students close their eyes and listen as I played a major chord and then a minor chord, explaining how the major chord had somewhat of a ‘happy’ sound while the minor chord had somewhat of a ‘sad’ sound. After some repetition they could decipher whether I was playing a major chord or a minor chord – with their eyes closed. Ear Training! Within the very first lesson, these students could hear the difference between a major and minor chord, AND they could explain the difference by pointing out the different in intervals. They could now start with any white note on the piano and form either a major chord or a minor chord by counting intervals. Whew!
With their newly acquired proficiency in playing all seven triads, I enabled the piano’s feature whereby it recognizes a triad chord and automatically provides musical accompaniment to that chord. A tempo for the accompaniment can be set by having the student tap the desired tempo on a ‘tempo’ button. I set the piano to begin playing accompaniment when the first chord was played.
Here is how that all went down. A student feels a tempo in his head and begins to tap that tempo. I have him repeat that while tapping the piano’s ‘tempo’ button and the piano comes alive with a rhythm playing at the student’s tempo. I tell the student to play any triad he wants using his left hand, and when he does so, the piano comes alive with complete rhythmic and chordal accompaniment to the student’s chord. He is now playing his very first ‘song’. I recall seeing the smiles and enthusiasm on each of the student’s faces as their friend was creating his own music. By the end of the lesson, students were lined up to play their own songs, each comprised of all seven chords of the C major scale. And with practice, they could do this with their eyes closed.
The Malungundi School for the Blind
Later that visit we traveled to the Malungundi School For The Blind. It was here that I delivered several Kalimbas, also referred to as a ‘thumb’ piano, to the students. The kalimba is a musical instrument that actually originated in Africa sometime around the 14th century. It has approximately 17 tines arranged in a rather non-intuitive pattern – but since all the notes are derived from the C major scale, virtually any combination of notes will sound pleasing to the ear – which by the way is exactly what happens when you play just the white notes on the piano, which also form the C major scale.
As I watched these blind children playing the Kalimba, I thought to myself: what if it were a piano that they were being introduced to? I felt confident that with the correct guidance and patience, these blind children would have little difficulty learning to play the piano.
Putting Ideas Into Practice
Upon returning from Africa I began considering how best to teach piano to VI students. Considering that Sideman was designed with these students in mind, I set to work creating a series of tutorials – of which only the audio portion is required to teach a VI student. During this process I became absolutely certain that these students can become seriously proficient – only limited by their interest and motivation. As I post these tutorials, I look forward to any and all comments and feedback because I am passionate about making this project a success.
- Sideman: Accessible Music accompaniment Software
- What do Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, George Shearing and Art Tatum have in common?
- Help – I’m Lost! Getting Familiar with the Keyboard
- Eating your Way through new Jersey: 5 Black and White Notes
- Naming the Five Black Notes
Editor's Note: This post has been reposted on Paths to Technology with permission from pro-piano.com.