Fours Piano Counting Game


The first event of any significance in a child’s first piano lesson must be the act of actually making music. It can’t be an exercise, or a dull and lifeless “pretend” piece.

Step back and think for a moment of what music really is. By this I mean the end result, not the process that gets you there.

Think of yourself or your child when you hear a bouncing beat and catchy tune. It’s impossible for a human not to respond to appealing music, especially children.

So after I have subtly reassured the child in the first few minutes that I am even more determined than them to have some fun, we play a game called “Fours.”

A little background may help understand this deceptively simple game.

When I first started teaching in the “transparent” manner, I saw that I had to have a piece of music that any child could play instantly. And no piece that existed would do it, for they are all too complicated for the very first experience at music making.

Mary Had A Little Lamb comes close, but is still too complex:

3 2 1 2 3 3 3 2 2 2 3 3 3

The truth is that introducing any complications at all in the first lesson will result in play that becomes work, becomes effort, becomes exhaustion, becomes frustration, and on and on. Avoid that complication, especially IN THE VERY FIRST LESSON.

Later, you might get away with complexity, but how do you make the piano instantly available to a child as a toy in the very first lesson?

I realized that any child would understand the white keys starting with Middle C if I numbered them to give them a visual order.

Next I realized that if the child simply walked up the keys, one at a time, like a stairway, they would quickly understand the task.

Like this, in Piano by Number:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Then I played a bouncy, Chico Marx-like beat, that any child would find fun and interesting to hear an adult play. It’s really just “oom-pah,” or a simple alternation of the left and right hands similar to what underpins many a folk song and nursery rhyme.

I asked the child to play each white key four times as they went up, to their right. Younger children may be able to play each key only twice, a subtle sign that their attention is already being stretched by this simple task.

Also try to get the child to not SAY the numbers, but THINK them instead. I found that their instinctive speaking of the numbers interferes with their ability to draw all the tasks together. If the child counts aloud, try getting them to stop speaking and think the numbers instead, and you will see an instant improvement.

Here is the child’s part in Piano by Number:

1111 2222 3333 4444 5555 6666 7777 8888

You will probably have to take their index finger and demonstrate the events physically. I note that kids often do better at new tasks if you physically put their hands and fingers in the right place, no matter how awkward. Be gentle with their little hands, they are not used to big people moving their fingers around.

The feeling in their fingers is worth a thousand words. Show the task more than you tell about it. Actions are louder than words in this complex little world of children and the piano.

As soon as you get them going, they will laugh and start to race with the elation of a speeding skier. But the timing will become irregular, so start again and ask them to play it evenly, like a clock.

You may need to play some games being a clock, putting out a regular rhythm by another means, such as clapping your hands.

Almost all kids can put the two tasks together in a few minutes:

Task 1: Play the white keys ascending to your right, not skipping any white keys.
Task 2: Play the white keys as above, but in groups of four.

1111 2222 3333 4444 5555 6666 7777 8888

I begin by saying, “I’ll follow you, so start whenever you like.”

Lavish praise on the slightest success.

Next, add your part. Your part is what makes it all seem fun, like joyous music making.

CHILD: 1111 2222 3333 4444 5555 6666 7777 8888

The teacher plays chords, as mentioned above, in a jaunty, happy 2/4 beat.

As long as you approach it as fun, the child will try again and again to play it exactly with you. Kids instinctively understand and realize when you are both playing on the same beat, and the moment that “ensemble” occurs, even for a few seconds, you have connected with the child’s deepest pleasure center, as all toys and games do.

Kids will want to try other numbers, like “Fives” and “Twelves.” Give in and try it. Come back to “Threes” and Fours” (and “Twos” for the kiddies) for those counts are most useful for further musical experience. Musician’s minds are filled with counts, and numbers and wordless sequences of quasi-mathematical thoughts. Encourage this type of thought.

The youngest kids may only be able to play “Twos,” but that’s natural. Some kids can only play “Ones.” If that happens, take it in stride and enjoy the “Ones.”

The skills learned from this ridiculous little game are:

Counting as an abstract mental act.
Counting while expressing that count through the fingers.
Counting in a certain tempo and rhythm.
Being able to count and move your fingers at the same time
Knowing left from right.
Knowing up is to your right at the piano.
Keeping track of a sequence of events.
Enacting a series of events repeatedly
Enacting a series of repeated events in a changing set of positions
Finding out that the piano can be a lot of fun without reading music.
Finding out that music is a good feeling that you want to have.

Every one of the skills above is essential to learning the rudiments of the piano. All these skills and many others can and should be introduced and refined LONG before the child knows that there is such a thing as sheet music.

In fact, a child’s chance of succeeding at reading sheet music is astronomically enhanced if the child is exposed to many of these musical elements OUTSIDE of the confines of musical notation.

Don’t forget that the same skills in the above list are essential to reading music, and until the child is familiar with them it is usually useless to proceed further with reading music.

Once these skills have been started using Piano by Number and piano games, it is much easier to slowly introduce more complex tasks such as reading music.

Remember what “Fours” is for: it is the simplest manifestation of music that a child can easily express.

It is the closest they will be for a while to the zest of rhythm and coordination, because the “song” is so absurdly simple. “Fours” makes children into instant musicians, giving them a preview of the real thrill of making music.

Unless you show children the reward, making music, all the teaching in the world is useless. Show them why they will be doing all that work.

Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press

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