A few thoughts about young pianists’ psychological processes

When kids first start the piano their primary responses are geared to /throu their fingers. Very few have sufficient ‘brainwidth’ to be able to process musical information other than as gesture. (See an exception!) ColourMuse Book 1 is intended to cover the phase from single-handed playing to rudimentary 'hands together' and the first stages of independence of the hands.

After learning a while beginners develop sufficient muscular coordination to become dimly aware that there is a bigger picture - where rhythm is perceivable by ear, independently of their gestural sensations. ColourMuse Book 2 tackles this by beginning to teach beginners how to swing. It does this partly throu the semi-familiarity and easy melodic shapes of old nursery tunes, but also by first learning binary rhythms (oom-cha, oom-cha) and then using the same notes in ternary rhythms (where oom-cha-cha, oom-cha-cha rhythms require the player to wait for the middle beat). Most children find the idea of not playing on a certain beat more challenging than doing so, for the reasons outlined above. 

At this point young pianists are acquiring a biofeedback mechanism where their consciousness learns to balance the intellectual /psychological responses from eye and ear with the primary physiological demands of gesture. The knitting together of this holy trinity creates the ‘blue touch paper’ which can then be ignited by engaging the child's aesthetic sense by the choice of child-centred repertoire.

Child-centred music may be defined as simple melodic shapes, ideally familiar tunes, that are 'finger-logical'. Familiarity either of a tune or of its style is a vital ingredient because it offers a degree of predictability whereby children can intuitively 'make sense' of a tune's shape, which in turns builds confidence. For this reason ColourMuse principally uses 'public domain' music, ie folk tunes, nursery rhymes, carols and blues which, even where the tunes themselves may not be familiar, the music's style/s and shape/s are. It supplements these with a selection of tunes written by children themselves - because often a young learner with a natural melodic gift creates a little piece which is perfectly playable by others of the same skillset and has a quirkiness that matches the 'probabilities' of that mindset and thus engages other young children in a way that adult-composed children's music rarely achieves.

I had a very interesting example recently of how ColourMuse seems to work for children, when other piano methods haven't. A young girl had begun learning at school with one of the well-known piano books featuring adult-composed tunes. She could control her fingers reasonably well but wasn't progressing because had no real idea of why she was playing the piano - the experience wasn't triggering her endorphins. When she came to me I endeavoured to continue with her existing book, but after a fortnight I could see that she felt no 'ownership' of the pieces. Melodically there was nothing in them to 'hug her brain' in that unique way that the best of popular music can, so I changed her to ColourMuse; and on the second week she bounced into my studio note-perfect in her new pieces. It seemed pretty clear to me that this was because the music connected with her by its combination of melodic arc and finger-logic.

Learning how to play swing offers an interactive mechanism for developing the intellectual /psychological skill of perceiving rhythm independently of gesture. Acquirin this skillset is really analogous to teaching kids to ride a bike or swim. They're ways of creating virtuous circles that build self-confidence and thus, ultimately, self-esteem and self-reliance.

The first two ColourMuse books use noteheads of 7 differentiated colours within conventional musical orthography. This means beginners can read pitch intuitively from their first lesson. Colour is handled by a different neural pathway in the brain, and this enables children to register pitch simultaneously while processing rhythm within their conventional monochrome/shape pathway. This sidesteps the problem of 'data choke' that can afflict young children trying to read all-black notation. Children with dyslexia-related issues are among those who find prioritising all the information from a black and white page especially difficult; but a lot children also suffer from confusion about perceiving lines and spaces as representing equal-step pitch values. Coloured noteheads simply eliminate that problem in the early stages, when there is often so much else new to confuse them. [I have written more about this elsewhere.]     

If children have developed rhythmic self-confidence* during ColourMuse Book 2, then Book 3 is designed to help them make the transition to black notation. It prints the first 6 tunes on adjacent pages both in colour and black to enable them to learn in colour then transfer to playing from black notation in order to wean them from the more intuitive appearance to the somewhat sterner appearance of the monochrome page. (*Rhythmic confidence & SELF-confidence go hand in hand. Developing confident rhythmic awareness invariably boosts personal confidence.)

This transformation is easy for most, tho some find it less so. I have noticed that in general boys have less problem with the abstractness of a monochrome page than girls. There is no over-riding distinction between genders but my observation is that girls definitely find colour and pattern are more appealing, and a handful resist going onto black notation. Recent research about how male and female brains develop different neural circuitry in adolescence would seem to support my empirical observations. 


This research would also tie into another observation - that males of all ages get far more upset by issues relating to dexterity than females. There seems to be something about tool use that is hard-wired to self-respect in the male brain! (Who knew?) At one time I taught quite a lot of young adult men who were actual or near beginners, and the only two I can remember persisting were already in bands and thus had a motivation to develop their skills. The rest became discouraged when they couldn't make what they hoped to play match their expectations. It is that latter word that holds the key because adult males seem to be particularly unforgiving of their own inabilities to meet the expectations they have. One can see this forming during the adolescent period. Boys below the age of about 17 can usually be helped over these hurdles because they don't have fixed issues around self-esteem and expectation, however these harden fairly rapidly once they're no longer protected by a family environment.

Surprisingly, I have discovered that pre-teen boys are far more prone to tears of frustration than girls! Indeed while I've witnessed a good dozen boys becoming upset or angry at being unable to play something I can only recall one girl reacting similarly - but she had other issues. Girls and women seem much more able to shrug off technical difficulties, and far less emotionally engaged by conquering them. The most awkward experience I've ever had as a teacher was with a popular local GP who decided to partner his son in learning the piano. As a medical trainer and tennis champ he was expecting to find piano an interesting challenge but during his first lesson he found it so hard to control his fingers to his own satisfaction that his whole self-image as a competent and confident person disintegrated before my very eyes. It was as distressing for me as it was for him, especially since I felt that he’dve been able to play reasonably well if he'd been willing to accept his initial limitations and given himself time ... but no second lesson ever took place.