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October 5, 2011

New Books: Learning to Play the Piano for the Very Young

Shortly after we moved to the suburbs, we had the insane luck of acquiring a baby grand piano for just the cost of moving it about five blocks. (I remain in your eternal debt, Craigslist.) I don't play myself, but my wife does, and she remembers learning as one of her warmest childhood memories. To this day,  even a few uninterrupted minutes at the piano is one of her favorite ways to relax and unwind.

This, as I know from friends' anecdotes about martinet teachers, is not everyone's experience of learning to play an instrument. So while we both would love our sons to make use of this gift from the suburban gods, we haven't pushed the issue; we decided to let the piano come to them, as it were. Both are showing interest in music in general, and the piano in particular, but the three-year-old doesn't have the attention span for any actual instruction yet, in our opinion. And to be honest, neither does the six-year-old, Dash, for whom the required focus remains something of a weak point.

So thus far, the piano has been more a lark for the kids than anything else. My wife has made some basic attempts at showing Dash how to read music, but not much more. We were still in this holding pattern when we came across the new book Learning to Play Piano for the Very Young, by Debbie Cavalier and Marty Gold. (I knew of Cavalier already from her Debbie and Friends children's-music albums, but she also happens to be dean of continuing education at Berklee College of Music; Gold, her grandfather, is a former orchestra leader who was also an A&R man for RCA in the 1950s and '60s.)

It's a 24-page primer aimed at preschoolers, but it works well even for an early grade-schooler without any training like Dash at getting the basic concepts across—the association of notes with letters, say. It's helpfully interactive--asking kids to write in finger numbers and note names—and just organized enough to help a child in a playful, not overly task-driven, manner. It slowly works up to getting kids to play simple, familiar songs ("Twinkle, Twinkle" and the like) with their right hand. At least for a book-obsessed kid like Dash, just seeing these basic concepts on paper was immensely helpful. At a time in his life when he wasn't ready for more formal methods of instruction, he dove into Cavalier and Gold's book and seemed to grasp its lessons—some of which my wife had been trying to get across for months—almost instantly.

Now, the jury is still out—still being selected, really—on whether Dash will take to the piano, or get beyond the initial stages at all. But in terms of teaching him the building blocks of piano in a low-key, undemanding way, and thus setting him up to take the next steps if he so desires down the road, Learning to Play Piano for the Very Young is just what we didn't even know we were looking for.

[Images courtesy of Debbie Cavalier Music]

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