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Play it for fun and they'll play it again

Handled properly, piano lessons could be the start of a beautiful friendship with music, writes Sally Newman

Some of my earliest memories are of my grandfather playing the piano - an ageing Jewish man, his face wreathed in smiles, banging his foot to the rhythms of his beloved piano. Later on, when I was about five, I would accompany him.

He would play away for anyone who'd listen; usually my grandmother, clapping her small hands to his rhythms, her face a picture of pleasure.

First I was given single notes to play alongside his rhythms, then chords of increasing complexity. When I was much older and learning the piano officially, he would beckon me enthusiastically into his living room, sit down at the keyboard and play new chords he had learned by ear. He never read music, though he had a huge respect for those who did. He just loved the piano, and left his children and grandchildren with a deep awareness of what the instrument meant to him. He was also enormous fun to listen to.

What has happened since? I've became a mediocre pianist myself, although my love of playing rivals his. But something mystifies me. No one I know seems to enjoy playing the piano, even those who learned to a high grade as children. It's seen as an ordeal, something they are useless at, something they can't bear to do in public and could never inflict on others. It is as if the piano is considered a romantic instrument, and playing it a middle-class accomplishment, something Jane Austen did.

Few who learned as children like playing as adults - they will not play in public, even to accompany children for the most basic of nursery rhymes.

Formal classical piano teaching seems designed to make all children into potential grade 8 performers, which leaves many with a huge sense of inadequacy. Wouldn't teaching them in a different way give them a skill they would want to use all their lives? My grandfather used to beat out tunes with abandon. This seems impossible for all but a tiny minority of adult pianists.

The solution could be to teach the piano less seriously. The grade system should be abandoned for most learners; playing the piano to find wonderful tunes has to be more fun anyway. Scales and arpeggios are necessary - but could be mixed with classical, pop, blues and jazz.

Teachers should also go at the child's pace; children should never be rushed. And let the child choose the pieces. A child who doesn't like a tune won't practise it.

Teachers should say: "Play that tune one more time for me because I love to hear you play it." In other words, children need to be shown right from the start that their playing is pleasurable. Hold short recitals in which each child plays something; serve food and wine for the parents and have everyone on comfy chairs. Concerts shouldn't be miserable, serious affairs held in institutional halls only.

Children should also be able to "waste time" in lessons, looking inside the piano, describing how music makes them feel, composing their own melodies, doing a range of tunes below their ability level as well as ones that stretch them technically.

And they need to play loads of duets. These promote orchestral and future choral singing skills, as they allow children to listen to their own playing while simultaneously listening to someone else's. When you make a mistake, you are showing that music can be a light-hearted business.

If you are an adult who played the piano even to grade 3, you are capable of teaching a beginner child. Buy a decent instruction book, pick your child (or let them pick you) and build a new generation of relaxed and happy pianists, at ease playing for pleasure, or accompanying other people. You will be benefiting future generations of singing, recorder-playing and piano-playing children.

Sally Newman lectures at the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, Reading University

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