Music has been shifting from a venerable acoustic tradition to a digital era that affects most music genres worldwide. Students in this new era need to understand the preceding conventions for making music even as they depart from them.
With the introduction of small, low cost portable electronic keyboards in the late 20th century, it has become practical to teach groups. Many teachers had negative attitudes towards this instrument; it was not a “real” piano. I saw these new keyboards as a means to engage such groups in learning the fundamentals of music. Students could experience how music works “from the inside out.”
I used electric reed organs for years in my studio waiting for electronic prices to drop. I used 2½ octave battery powered “toys” in my general music classes. My “Learn a Little Keyboard” curriculum included eight-to-twelve lessons a year. Students had a “hands-on” experience playing simple melodies and chords. They also composed short tunes. I’ve since been teaching in a community college piano lab.
My early piano lessons had always emphasized the performance of notated music. In other words, music was taught “from the outside in.” Also, piano had traditionally been taught “one to one.” Even the new classroom keyboard labs emphasized such isolated instruction by allowing teachers to individually monitor student practice and performance through headphone consoles.
This approach negates the distinct advantages of group instruction. In class, students learn from each other when they both succeed and fail. Stronger students motivate the class, and weaker students receive encouragement. Students’ sense of rhythm and pitch are developed very effectively through ensemble playing and solo experience.
Keyboards Provide: • A facile production of tones on an inexpensive instrument that requires no tuning for group instruction; • A keys layout corresponding to the staff lines and spaces that can de-emphasize letter name reading; • A setting for students of diverse backgrounds, interests, abilities, and preparation to learn together; • A hands-on, tactile, aural, visual, and thoughtful experience with music from the first lesson • A musicianship gateway to the polyrhythmic integration of melodic patterns with harmonic structures; • A means to engage today’s students through experiencing improvising, composing, and transposing; • A way to teach lead sheet harmonizing, intervallic reading, and ear training in a limited period of time; • A realization of the teaching principal “sound before sight;” • A musical foundation for other instrumental and vocal studies as well as computer applications; • A chance to develop lifelong interest in music that meets the objectives of the National Standards.
See YouTube “classroom keyboard” or www.classroomkeyboard.com for a CMEA 2018 presentation. Patricia Bissell is a keyboard instructor at Gateway Community College in New Haven, CT, and author of “Classroom Keyboard (.com) Play and Create Melodies with Chords,” co-published by NAfME and Rowman & Littlefield. She received degrees in piano and composition from Peabody Conservatory and Yale University, and was a Fulbright Scholar.
Published in the CMEA Summer Journal 2019