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The Piano Whisperer


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There is a certain way that a piano teacher can act that a child will find delightful. This manner will inspire children to try things that they are sure they cannot do at the piano.

Much like the film, “The Horse Whisperer, " I believe I have found a way to gently nudge kids towards success at the piano by simply talking and communicating with them.

The manner is warm and comic, as if the last thing you really wanted to do is teach them a piano lesson. You're just some affable guy that happens to be there at 3:30 PM every Thursday.

First, race to the piano and play something funny, to break the ice and let them know that we are here to both learn and have fun today.

Look at the child's face at the beginning of the lesson. Are they smiling? That child better be smiling when you're done, or you're fired.

I sit on a chair next to them and always talk quietly while they play, praising every small victory, a fingering remembered, a note or three memorized. I offer them the option called BQWIP (Be Quiet While I Play) but we always both end up talking anyway.

They know that I speak the truth to them, either good or bad, and that both good and bad news are delivered to them with the gentlest of velvet comic touches.

If they make a mistake I smile and say, incredulously, like an English butler (or whatever character I am today) “Deeply sorry, sir, but that was completely wrong!"

Laugh. Laugh at mistakes, and the child's fear is defused and they will want to try again. I'm serious about this. Laugh in a friendly, non-derisive way and they will listen to everything you have to say eagerly.

But this mock bad news must be accompanied by a genuine smile, and often an explanation that to make a mistake is not bad, but a good thing: mistakes tell you where you can make it better, usually easily. Say this again and again to them, like a mantra.

If they stumble, make it easier. If they still stumble, make it easier still.

Find that child's comfort zone at the piano and guard it with your life, for in that zone they are really able to learn.

No matter how inept they may seem at piano acrobatics, find something at which it is clear they are succeeding, and concentrate on that skill, clone it, add to it, embellish it, make a game of it.

Find a way to base your entire curriculum, for that child, on that one strength they actually have, and have exhibited to themselves.

With time, every damaged and reluctant, fearful “horse" will respond and first walk, then trot, then gallop, when they are confident and ready to go.

I know it works.

I've whispered to these “horses" and all they ask is patience and understanding.

By John Aschenbrenner Copyright 2000 Walden Pond Press. Visit to see the fun PIANO BY NUMBER method for kids.

John Aschenbrenner is a leading children's music educator and book publisher, and the author of numerous fun piano method books in the series PIANO BY NUMBER for kids. You can see the PIANO BY NUMBER series of books at


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