89/100 Teach the fingers ‘cos they don’t know what to do

I had a hilarious keyboard lesson last week with a beginner, a lad of about ten who has been learning for a couple of terms but not making great progress.

He has been absolutely determined to be able to hack his way through Jingle Bells in time for his last Cub Scout meeting of the term, in order to get a badge. It has been a tough journey for him. A few weeks ago he still couldn’t reliably find C D E on the keyboard, far less apply fingers 1 2 3 in any coherent way or show any confidence in reading the music.

Then, this lesson, he suddenly “clicked”, and could play the whole of Jingle Bells. “Great!”, says I. “Now let’s add the Left Hand chords.” This should have been a fairly simple step – he has already used the chords C F and G, and the keyboard even has coloured spots on these notes in the bass!

very tired snake

Could he get his left hand little finger on the F, marked with a green spot, at the same time as playing the right hand F for the “Oh what fun it is” part of the melody? He could not.

“Oh no, I’ve got it wrong again” was an anguished refrain. “It’s like this,” I explained. ”

Fingers have NO Brains, and they don’t know what to do. You have to TELL them, like a teacher.” He thought about this, and then I heard him glaring at his left hand and saying “Put the pinky on the green spot” in a tone of authority. “And as for you, ” turning to his right hand ” you need to do  finger FOUR”. Having made that clear, he applied both the fingers to the keyboard, and it worked!

“Do it again, and again, until they have learned what to do” I advised.

“I can do it!” he cried out, after a few goes.

“Well, have a star for those fingers!”. To my amusement, he took me literally, and stuck a star on the relevant fingers. By the end of the lesson, his fingers were covered with stars (which I had left handily within reach) and he had worked through all the songs on his sheet, hands together, without  any help from me.

This all fits with my teaching mantra “To teach is to learn twice“. When I am learning a tricky something-or-other – in the middle of a four-part fugue, or a series of Rachmaninov chords full of accidentals and other weirdnesses, I actively instruct my fingers where to go, until I am sure that they’ve “got” their moves. If you don’t understand what you are trying to do, whatever it is, at whatever level, then you are going to find it very hard to succeed!


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