Piano teaching

“Playing to learn” – introducing ‘Chopsticks to Chopin’ piano course

Guest post by Lizzie de Lacey

At this strange time in our lives, many of us have been forced to reinvent ourselves in one way or another. For some this has involved having to find a completely new way to earn a living; for others it has meant searching for ways to keep ourselves busy and, importantly, to keep our spirits up. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising there has been a huge increase in the number of people buying puppies…and pianos. As someone with both pup and piano, I can’t advise you on which might give you more pleasure, but I can offer some advice about learning the piano, although I have to declare a vested interest.

At this point I need to thank Fran The Cross-Eyed Pianist for very kindly asking me if I would like to write a guest blog for her website. So here I am, putting my head over the parapet to talk about what I have been cooking up during lockdown, while others have been getting to grips with sourdough. In fact my ‘piano method’ has been simmering for much longer than that. For many years, I have felt uncomfortable with the glaring gaps in the way we approach piano playing and teaching. As a result of those gaps, most of us are reliant on the printed page for every single note of music that we play. Playing by ear and improvisation are a completely alien concept.

For myself, I never really believed that I could call myself a musician if I could not make music without a printed sheet in front of me. The fact that I could not was a source of shame and embarrassment. Then one day I decided to teach myself. Working on the basis that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it, I found a group of willing friends and set about teaching improvisation. What resulted from those weekly sessions taught us, I believe, something even more important than how to add harmony to melody; it gave us a much greater understanding of how music ‘works’.

As a piano teacher during lockdown, I began to teach (with some trepidation) using video exchanges on WhatsApp. This approach was more successful and rewarding than I had anticipated, and brought me to some interesting conclusions about teaching in general. For my own part, the need to produce video lessons that were absolutely clear and concise, gave me new motivation, and stimulated fresh insights into my own teaching. As far as my pupils were concerned, learning from videos forced them, in their own space and time, to figure things out for themselves. Having to prepare videos to send back to me also seemed to give my pupils a new motivation to practice, until they were happy watching their own performance. Gradually it began to dawn on me that now was the perfect time to finally release my own piano ‘method’, which has been steadily germinating for longer than I care to admit. Despite lengthy dialogues with music publishers over the last three decades, my ‘book’ was ultimately turned down for being too ‘gimmicky’, too ‘different’, and, on one occasion, for teaching only pieces in C major for the whole of the first chapter.

Being different was always my intention. It has never surprised me that so many people ‘give up’ the piano so quickly (quite apart from the considerable, and often prohibitive, expense of regular lessons). Our obsession with teaching music-reading from the start, and the discouragement of any kind of improvised playing, means that many slow readers ‘fail’ before they have even started. At this uncertain time for musicians (and for classical music itself), it is even more vital for those of us who make and teach music to be flexible, so that we can adapt our style and our teaching in ways which will bring us and our pupils success, or at the very least, joy. For many classical musicians, the reality has always been a life of long working hours and low pay. Of course, there is money in music, as those successful in the popular music industry well know, but few classical musicians ever tap into this other world, even if they are struggling to sustain their careers. The reason? Their highly specialized training frequently has not included improvisation or composition, even at the simplest level. Almost unbelievably, it is still possible to graduate from a top UK music college, without ever having been encouraged to play by ear, or improvise. Yet armed with three or four chords, popular musicians come up with catchy tunes which are whistled and sung the world over, and which make millions, if not for the composer, at least for someone, somewhere along the line.

Learning to play the piano is a lifelong journey, and it should be a journey that we enjoy, every step of the way. In recent years there has been much evidence to tell us that, at all stages of our lives, we learn best when the process is enjoyable and playful. Instead of ‘learning to play’, this course encourages ‘playing to learn’. It is designed to keep the joy of learning and playing alive at every step, introducing colours to enhance the whole experience, and to impart a deeper understanding of what we are doing. Chopsticks to Chopin takes the student right back to the beginning – to Chopsticks, in fact – and then progresses via a very different route. It is easy, fun and creative, and can teach a beginner to play real music with two hands, from day one. It opens the door to improvisation, and encourages playing ‘from the heart’, not merely from the ‘dots’ on a page. The system can, I believe, be an effective alternative way into music for children or adults who face challenges such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, and ADHD, who may previously have tried and ‘failed’. It also has much to offer an experienced player who might be aware that there are important things which have been missed out of their music education.

So how does it work and how is it different?

My aim in this course is to be absolutely systematic and clear so that an adult beginner can teach themselves without difficulty, and without a teacher present. Equally, I would claim that an adult beginner can use the course to teach a child, or an older child a younger sibling, in exactly the way that Chopsticks has been handed down over generations. Chopsticks to Chopin is a ‘bottom-up’ method which starts with harmony, allowing you, perhaps for the first time, to tap into your own creativity. It will introduce you to vitally important concepts which traditional methods so often ignore, and which make playing so much easier and more fun. The use of colour makes learning and memorising pieces much easier and less daunting, so that tackling a new piece of music becomes a joyous and thrilling experience. Working in only one key at a time greatly speeds up the process of learning to hear harmony. Once these keys have been mastered it is easy to apply the system to any other key. Though not specifically designed for children, the system is appealing to all, and can be used from the earliest stages, so that children learn to play with two hands long before they have learned to read music.

One of the biggest challenges for any piano teacher is sourcing the right musical material for their pupils at exactly the right time. Music which is just too hard, or with insufficient appeal, can put a pupil off for life. To encourage playing by ear, however, it is vital to begin with familiar music with very simple harmony. For this reason, Chopsticks to Chopin starts out with well-known children’s music and folk songs. Whilst children’s music may not appeal to all, it does mean that this course is also perfectly suited to primary school teachers who wish to sing and play music in the classroom, and of course to parents and grandparents.

You can find the course at www.patreon.com. As a platform, Patreon has much to recommend it. Subscribers can work at their own pace; they can also ask questions and send feedback, so that anything that is less than crystal clear can be edited and improved. The course is designed to be fully interactive, and feedback from participants will help to shape its trajectory. With the addition of the linked Instagram page, the idea is to create a friendly community where people can learn from the video lessons, and from each other, in a stimulating and enjoyable way.

Chopsticks to Chopin is virtually free to use. Subscribing for one year will cost you less than the price of most single piano lessons. Fifty percent of proceeds will go to support selected music therapy charities, starting with Chiltern Music Therapy. Chiltern Music Therapy is a not-for-profit organisation which brings the joy and healing powers of music to people with diverse medical, psychological and neurological conditions.

Do come and join us. You can subscribe to the course from as little as £3 per month (for beginners). For experienced players, Level 2 costs £5.

REVIEWS

“As an early childhood music specialist, and as a timid pianist myself, I believe that Lizzie’s ‘colourful’ approach to piano can support the musical development of a wide range of students. Her method is suitable for beginners of any age, and also can give experienced music ‘readers’ a sense of freedom and the confidence to improvise.”

“When I have the colours, I only have one element to focus on. That gives me complete freedom to make music. Whereas if I have the score I have to focus on every single note.” “Much easier with colours! It’s also easier to be more expressive when you can see what’s coming up. Your playing can be more fluid.”


The creator of this course, Lizzie de Lacey, is a two-times graduate of the Royal College of Music, London. Her qualifications include ARCM (teachers); dip ABRSM (performers); and MSc in Performance Science. She is also Director of award-winning Skolia Choir.

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