As you may well know, kids are great fun but sometimes a challenge to teach. Their minds wander within seconds from “oooh one of the strings is red” to “fire engines are red” to “my favourite colour is yellow” and then you’ve lost them on tangent train through the woods of imagination. As frustrating as it is, I also find it incredibly inspiring to listen to the random thoughts that pop into my student’s heads. Often they’ll tell me about their day, ask me questions about why everything has to be done a specific way and always, always challenge my answer!
“Why do harps have to be played with the sound box against you, instead of the other way round? Why are the levers on the left hand side? If this string was a slide, do you think it would scary to go down?”…Uhm…I don’t know?…Google it? Ask Siri?
One of my students always asks me if I’d like to go down one of the string slides. Every time I’d give her an answer something a long the lines of “I don’t know, what do you think about the red one? Can you remember which note that was?” But no matter how hard I tried to bring her concentration back, she’d wandered off to a theme park of red, white and blue slides. One day she disappeared off to the loo during our lesson, giving me 3 minutes to have a look around the living room I was sat in. I found a collection of her toys; Lego Duplo people, aeroplanes and dolls. That’s when I finally realised I was trying too hard to make her learn a tune in a way that I, being 15 years older than her, would do.
She ran back to me, almost tripping over the harp and collection of toys I had at my feet, to tell me all about her plans for her birthday and if I’d come to her birthday party! (Yes I am going and my guinea pigs are invited too!) That’s when I introduced her to my game: Harp slides…(it’s a working title!)
I put the harp on it’s side so the strings were parallel to the floor much like a dulcimer. I told her that if she could copy me playing a bit of the tune we were learning, one of the Lego people can go down the slide of a string of her choice. However, and I’d like to add that she introduced this rule, if she got it wrong the people would fall off the string and be injured… a bit morbid but I ran with it! Then when she’d learnt a whole section of the tune, we decided that all the people could sit in the aeroplane and go down the slide/string. And so we started the game: I’d play C-D-E-C and she copied me perfectly, when before she might remember one note and then be distracted. So, we pushed the first Lego person down a “slide”.
Next I’d play the start of Frere Jacques again but add the next three notes onto the end: E-F-G. I was impressed to see that she copied me perfectly again, even using the correct fingering. Weeeee! Another person sent down the slide. We were making progress so quickly that I had to start thinking of new challenges. I stood the harp back upright and asked her to play it “like a harpist playing a concert” to her audience of dolls and Lego people. She did it. No hesitation. No slip-ups.
The game carried on until the end of the lesson, we didn’t get the whole way through the tune but she’d done so fantastically well that we sent all the Lego people down the slide of her choice in the aeroplane.
I have to say, I felt more than a little crazy when explaining to her parents that this was the way we were going to get her to remember tunes, but they accepted it with a few giggles after their daughter showed them the remarkable progress she’d made.
So, in conclusion, the easiest way to teach kids is to teach them on their level. In this girl’s eyes, the strings were slides. Asking her to concentrate was never going to work. Asking her to repeat what I’d done when she wasn’t even looking was definitely not going to work. But making learning the harp a game worked like magic. Being flexible with your teaching approach is the way forward. I once had a harp lessons where I was given plastic dinosaurs and when I got a tune right they’d be able to go to the herd but when I got it wrong they had to leave the herd. It’s funny how attached you can become to plastic dinosaurs. I remember learning to write Bach Chorales using sweets as the notation. I’ve learnt tunes at triple speed to teach me how to play slowly and not rush.
Why can’t all lessons be silly and fun?