It’s hard to imagine anyone learning to walk from scratch as an adult, but people who suffer brain injuries often do. They have no self-directed period, but are forced to adapt to constant, intense challenge. It can be difficult and frustrating. They usually struggle, needing lots of guidance, understanding, feedback and encouragement. If said adult sticks with it, he will master it eventually, or at least become competent enough to get around. But he will struggle during the process in a way a child never would because of the child’s self-directed period of immersion, exploration, play and discovery.
Learning to walk again as an adult is pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum. If self-directed learning is the planting of a seed and naturally nurturing its growth, this is more like grafting a branch onto a tree. It requires a teacher—whether we call the teacher a guide, therapist, or whatever. There must be someone to plan a good program, with effective learning processes, and guide the patient through it, teaching, sympathizing, cheering, keeping track of progress and so on. And the reason for this is that learning to walk after losing that ability to brain injury is very difficult. There is just a great deal to learn, and if the process gets too intense, frustration can get intense and the desire to give up can become strong.
Many (if not most) children have not regularly had music or music making in their lives before beginning piano. They are actually more like the adult learning to walk again than the oft self-directed child they are with most things. They will face significant challenges in the beginning and along the way, because as with the man learning to walk again, there is simply a great deal to learn.
There is, however, much we can do to minimize this problem—or possibly render it no problem at all. Mostly what we need to do is manage the process of getting piano lessons started and all the musical seeds planted well and sprouting. The problem is that starting lessons—even though many seeds are planted in lessons—is more like grafting than planting seeds.
When grafting a branch onto a tree, there are limitations, but if done properly it can usually be done successfully. The size of the branch vs the size of the tree is one limitation. The species of tree is another. The health of the tree, the light available to the grafted branch, the care taken in the preparing for the graft, the grafting itself and the process of the tree and branch growing into one another, becoming a whole tree again.
When a person has to learn to walk again, this is basically what is happening, and the doctors and therapists working with him are managing the grafting process. It is a steep climb, so they aim to make it easier somehow. When students learn to play piano, this is basically what is happening, and their parents and teacher are managing the process.
The 7 Stages of Piano “Tree” Growth
Managing a process is far easier when one is clear about how the process progresses. To help with this, I have divided this process into 7 stages, distinguished by 7 milestones and corresponding to stages in the life of a tree.
The Soil – A Self-directed Period.
In the big picture view, then, learning piano is a long-term endeavor that ideally begins with a period of pre-piano lesson preparation. This could begin at birth with exposing the baby to music, recorded or sung or played. She could have various forms of self-directed periods before beginning lessons. Besides exposure to music, there are preschool musical instruments, music boxes, various toys for exploring music, and classes that with some teacher-directed learning such as Kindermusik , Music for Little Mozarts. & MusiCanopy. In general, anything involving sharing musical experiences with parents or friends adds nutrients to the soil, so to speak. As the heading says, though, this is a self-directed period, so the aim is to expose, engage and create opportunities, and let how much or how little interested she is guide her.
The Seed – The First Lesson
Once the first lesson has occurred, the seed has been planted. She may have been thinking about learning piano, and that was kind of future tree lying protected in the dormant seed. But now, she is officially learning to play the piano. For the next few months, many things will be established. It will be up to us to see that they are established well—although it will still be up the student to do the work required.
The Sprout – Mastering the Basics of Music & Piano
This is really the most critical period, when those things are established. No longer safe in the dormant seed, the sprout is not strong enough to stand on its own. It needs to grow stronger, but is vulnerable until it does. The interest and learning is very much like that for a beginning piano student. She has strength and weaknesses when she starts, but she doesn’t have any relevant habits or skills. Plus, she can’t really use the means she has been using. Consequently, if parents can oversee practice in the beginning, they can help ensure that she learns good practicing, the right focus, and any elements & skills, and can develop good habits. Those things greatly determine how much she will struggle with effective practice, mastering pieces & skills, and so on. If these basics are mastered, there will likely be little struggle later on.
The Sapling – Mastering Self-Sufficiency in Learning & Practicing
Once the basics have been mastered, students should be learning to learn and practice effectively on their own. This is like the tree’s stage of youth when it establishes its roots. This takes time, because it just takes doing repeatedly. In a sense, they have learned how to speak, but now they have a ton of vocabulary to learn. Musical elements and experience are the vocabulary of self-sufficient progress.
The Maturing Tree – Mastering Confidence, Style, Expression & Polish
In the life of a tree, this is when the tree truly becomes self-sufficient, its roots able to tap the water table, its foliage soaking up ample sun. Students in this stage can learn things on their own. Focus can shift from getting them to learn pieces to fleshing out their musical personality and pianistic finesse. Gaining experience, they gain confidence. Learning more music, they learn how to play more styles and with more expression. Going through the process of learning to play pieces, they learn what polish can be and how to achieve more of it.
The Tree in its Prime – Mastering Repertoire and Performing
In the life of a tree, this is when it begins to do what it was created to do. Producing fruit, casting cool shade—whatever it does, it begins to do it with splendor as all trees before it has done. What musicians do is learn and perform repertoire. In both the Classical and Jazz worlds, there is a body of music that are considered Standards. Everyone is expected to have at least learned them, if not to keep them in their repertoire. This is true of other genres of music, although less so in the popular world. When students have built up a mastery of confidence, style, expression & polish, they are ready to focus on mastering the standard rep and performing it, to begin doing what musicians do with splendor.
When one gets to know the various levels of musical activity locally, around the nation and around the world, it’s rather astonishing how many there are and how they are interconnected. There is a kind of musical forest spread all over the world, connected in various ways. Consequently, when the first seeds are planted—or even when the soil is being prepared—the connections to that vast forest are begun.
If we prepare the soil well, if we make some sort of self-directed period possible, and if we manage the grafting of this new, piano branch of learning onto the existing musical tree of the child’s heart & mind, the odds are very good that it will take, the branch will grow, and become an integral part of that tree and the surrounding forest. And this Piano Tree may be the foothold in the forest for other, related trees. Its grafting may plant other seeds of learning such as playing other musical instruments, playing or singing in an ensemble, composing, improvising, listening, learning about and to play different styles, playing or singing in church—there are so many possibilities once the tree has become firmly established.
Music is not the only thing that matters, of course. Parents must look at all of this in that broader context. Yet, while a forest of only birds might not be a good thing, a forest without them would seem strangely without life. Helping a child to liven her heart & mind with music is a beautiful thing for her, and for the forests of our lives. It’s my mission to help children of all ages, and parents, make that happen.