Why kids should learn to play the piano

Professional pianist, composer and co-founder of Most Entertaining, Will Pickvance shares how his love of playing piano first began and why it’s a brilliant instrument for kids to learn.

When I was a little boy, I asked Father Christmas for a spaceship. He brought me a piano. After getting over the initial shock, I started to realise the piano was a pretty neat present too.

Around that time I had heard a slot machine churning out Scott Joplin rags to entice people to come and play on it. “What is that cool music? I want to play that!” Being inspired by a piece of music or a performer is a great start.

It’s amazing how many kids having piano lessons don’t listen to music or have any contact with it other than through some beginners handbook – middle C is an obvious starting point, but can get pretty boring on its own. You can’t blame someone for wanting to quit that tedious drill.

Tip 1: Try listening to all sorts of music, find out more about stuff that you like. I used to pinch jazz tapes off my poor Grandpa, but now thanks to YouTube, you can discover things very easily.

Bringing home one of the best 61-key midi keyboard can turn out to be a fabulous investment ahead of your musical journey in the long run.

Early on in my playing, I discovered that you can change notes, add notes, miss notes out. This was possibly because I was lazy or messy, but it was also because I liked the variation.

Crucially, I survived to tell the tale. Knowing how to read music is of course a massively useful skill, but when kids are able to make the distinction between music as expression and music as some dots on a page, it really frees them up. Once upon a time, before any music was written down, it was first plucked out of thin air by composers messing around on the piano – or in their head if they’re a crazy genius.

Tip 2: Try experimenting on pieces you’re already playing. Maybe try crossing hands, playing it two octaves higher or double speed. Try adding a few extra notes or even playing with your head under the piano – go on, I dare you. You might even write your own piece.

I’ve always loved the cartoon Tom and Jerry and the music in the show is great. As I was growing up, I desperately wanted to play bits I liked, but the sheet music just didn’t exist. If I wanted to play it I had to work it out for myself, using my ear. It’s very exciting when you first start playing a piece that you worked out.

Tip 3: Try picking out some tunes you like, maybe something you heard on TV or a computer game. Start with something really easy. You’ll find that you get better at it quite quickly and you can find the note you are looking for more and more easily. If you’re feeling really ambitious, maybe try a chord or two in the left hand. Remember, if you get a wrong note, it really doesn’t matter. In fact, some jazz players think mistakes are the start of something even better.

After you have been playing the piano for a little while, people start to say things like, “Hey look, there’s that person who plays the piano – quick, get them to play something right now”. This happened to me and at first I would say, “I can’t, I haven’t got my music”. And it was a bit of a shame. Then I had this great idea – what if I can play a piece for memory.

 Tip 4: Try playing one of your pieces from memory. You might be surprised how much you can already remember. Is it your hands that are remembering it or is it your head? Is it a bit of both? The posh word for your memory bank of pieces is ‘repertoire’. If you can have three or four pieces in your repertoire at anytime, that’s fantastic. It’s not just about playing to other people. It’s about playing for yourself, whenever you want. What you find when you play a piece from memory is you are free to enjoy playing it more – you can add expression, even have a cup of tea at the same time.

When I started playing, I thought composers were just a bunch of guys who lived a few hundred years ago who had funny hair. Well, that is true to some extent, but of course, they didn’t all live at the same time. Hundreds of years and miles separate Bach from Rachmaninoff, for example. I’m always wanting to know a bit more about when the music was written and what was going on at the time.

Tip 5: Try doing some detective work on the composer of a piece you are playing. When were they born? Were they young or old? When they wrote the piece? What was in the news back then? What other famous composers were alive at the same time? Just a few questions you might ask.

The most important thing…

I’ve always enjoyed playing the piano and that is the most important thing for you to remember to do yourself. If you’re finding it dull, change things. There’s so much great music, so many styles. Practising is, of course, part of it, but playing is even better if you want to get good at playing the piano.


Key to an enjoyable performance!

I strongly believe that music should be accessible to absolutely anyone. It should not matter whether you are young, old, a beginner or an established performer. All musical backgrounds must also be allowed to shine – there should be no elitism. In addition to this, music should always be fun. It is no coincidence that every music teacher I have come across shares a passion for terrible, but funny light hearted music related jokes. Any previous student who have been  taught by me will vouch for my poor musical humour. For example, when teaching the word ‘diminished’ to exam students I often associated this key musical word with a Mini  – a small car which used to arrive into the music school car park every Wednesday morning!

The main reason for my blog is that Most Entertaining’s Spring concert is now less than two weeks away and excitement is growing amongst a huge range of students and teachers. Since joining Most Entertaining last year as a piano and brass tutor, I have found that the company is much more than just a teaching agency and that public performance is a big part of the organisation. Having regular concerts allows musicians to meet each other, form new friendships as well as gain self confidence from playing in a relaxed setting. I am seeing first hand the benefits of having these concerts as a target for lessons, and pupils seem to love it. 

In terms of performance I would like to share a few thoughts about preparing to play live to an audience. I believe the most important point is to try and enjoy it and have fun. For me, I have found that I can overcome performance issues through performing to someone I know in the audience, such as a family member. They can offer a smile and lots of support. Also, remember that everyone makes mistakes, no performance is perfect. Always keep the flow of the piece. Finally, and for me the most important point is to make the performance your own. Communicate,  through dynamics, interpretation and style. If you feel the music should slightly slow down or speed up, do it. My final tip for more advanced performers is to try and understand the harmony behind your piece.  It is with this understanding that it is then possible to react to the composer’s intentions much more, making way for further sensitivity within the performance.
Robert Briggs is the former assistant director of music of the Bethany School in Kent and now is a full-time piano and brass tutor for Most Entertaining. He will be accompanying students at our next concert on Sunday 29th April 3-5pm, Life Care, Cheyne Street, Edinburgh.

If you are interested in getting involved in music and wish to find out about taking up an instrument, but unsure whether to learn the piano, guitar or sing, please feel free to give us a call and we can help advise you. 0131 477 7821.


New York New York

Last week London hosted a very special residency by the New York Philharmonic at the Barbican Centre.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend one day of this residency, which is still very much a new concept.  The idea being for the orchestra to hold a range of activities throughout each day and evening from symphonic concerts, family events, new commissions and creative learning work.  It was the latter, in the form of a masterclass, that took my interest most.

Each principal player of the New York Philharmonic, who are held in the highest regard as some of the finest orchestral musicians in the world, gave a 3 hour long class to a select group of instrumentalists from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – a very close neighbour of the Barbican Centre itself.  The ‘open’ masterclass for trumpet was given by no other than Mr Philip Smith.  The class opened with a spine-tingling performance by Philip Smith of the opening trumpet solo from Mahler 5, as he said, ‘to gain our attention’.  There was no doubt that he did.

Over the course of the 3 hours Philip Smith led an extremely insightful but also relaxed, good humoured class with 6 variable trumpet ‘guinea pig’ students. Each student presented a performance of a piece they were currently working on, including works such as, Jolivet’s Concertino, Honneger’s Intrada to a very accomplished interpretation of Enescu’s Legende.  After each student’s mini lesson by the master – he opened the floor up to questions from a room filled with trumpet players.

I thoroughly recommend any student or professional musician to take time to attend such opportunities when they arise.  There is nothing better to re-bolster one’s motivation or rekindle inspiration for your own instrument than listening to one of the world’s greatest exponents of it.



The function of music

I want to start at the beginning and write a little about the function of music.

In a culture where everything is measured, assessed and standardised, there is little reflection on what making music means and how we can use it to promote well-being, improve our family and social relationships, and of course, to express ourselves.

The word music is derived from the Greek ‘mousa’, which refers to the nine Greek goddesses (or nine Muses) who inspired creation and embodied all art. Another interesting fact is that many other cultures don’t have a general word for music. It is such an integral part of their existence and way of life that it simply doesn’t exist as a separate subject or activity. The word as we know it was defined by Edgard Varèse as ‘organised sound’. The idea being that any sound deliberately organised by human creation, is music. He also stated that natural sounds (such as waterfalls, or birds singing) can be musical, but are not actually music.

If any organised sound is music, then how do we define good music? If sound is created as a result of a highly skilled person playing an instrument to a respectably high standard, then surely it is good music? I don’t think so. The Greeks had the right idea. They believed music to be divine, and a result of direct intervention of the Gods. This meant that music had a high purpose, and it was believed that music brought people closer to the divine. If we take out the spiritual element but hang on to the same idea, then good music will bring people closer to each other, or closer to God if they so desire. The performer or the creator of the music is the messenger, so he or she needs to have this intention for it to pass on to any listener. As a composer or a performer, if a musician’s intention is to do this, then it is good music whatever the level or standard of the musician.

Nadine teaches piano at the Royal Academy of Music Junior School and is Director of Classical Babies, Teddington.