Music & Life: Music Matters Blog (interview) | Easy Ear Training
Music & Life

Last time around we spoke with Joanne van de Heuvel-Berkers, founder of the Play On Education Music School in the UK, which is using aspects of play and singing to make early music education fun for children. This week we’re speaking with another expert in the field, Natalie Wickham, who runs the excellent piano pedagogy site “Music Matters Blog”.
Music Matters Blog: Creative, practical and up-to-date resources for the independent piano teacher
Music Matters Blog has been running for over 6 years, sharing ideas, guidance, anecdotes and plenty of useful resources for the modern piano teacher. Natalie seems to have a real flair for keeping the fun in her lessons and innovating new ways to escape the traditional teaching methods and really engage her students with music making – so you can see why we were keen to include her voice in the Music & Life series!Natalie at her new piano

Read on to find out her number one tip for encouraging music appreciation in children, learn some fun games to liven up music lessons and discover how modern technology has (and hasn’t!) changed her music education methods.

Natalie, you’ve explained on your blog that you started teaching piano at the early age of 17. Could you tell us a bit about your own experiences learning piano before that? Did the way you were taught affect your subsequent teaching philosophy?


My parents started me in piano lessons when I was 7 years old. My first teacher was very strict, and my sister and I dreaded going to our lessons each week. She moved several years later and we transferred to another teacher who was almost the complete opposite. While our first teacher sat and watched our every move with an eagle-eye, our second teacher often did laundry in the basement or washed dishes in the kitchen while we played our assigned pieces for her. We dutifully worked through theory and repertoire books, but very little real learning took place.

When I was 17, I attended a 3-week intensive music course where my mind was opened up to the wide world of music and all of its exciting possibilities! While there I took an elective class one week on piano pedagogy that was very enlightening and I began to consider becoming more involved in music.

Your teaching philosophy is particularly imaginative and creative compared to the traditional (classical) method. Could you tell us a bit about why you’ve adopted this approach and what kinds of things it involves?


About a year after attending the 3-week intensive music course, I enrolled in a one-week course devoted specifically to piano pedagogy. This is where my vision for teaching music was birthed!

We dutifully worked through theory and repertoire books, but very little real learning took place. When I was 17, I attended a 3-week intensive music course where my mind was opened up to the wide world of music and all of its exciting possibilities!

The instructor was a vivacious young lady who obviously loved teaching and was very good at it. I realized that I didn’t have to teach in the way I was taught, but that there were endless creative possibilities if I would invest my time and energy to learn and become the best teacher I could be. It was during this week that I sensed a clear calling from God to pursue teaching piano – not because I was any good at it yet, but because He would be glorified through me if I followed His direction for my life in this way. First and foremost, my approach to running my studio involves lots of prayer and seeking God for ideas that will motivate and inspire my students.

Instead of becoming complacent, I am always on the lookout for new ideas and projects that we can try. This has resulted in the development of yearly practice incentive themes, and The Psalms Project – a composition project that we put together each spring, producing documentary-type films, taking students to a recording studio, putting together multimedia recital programs – and more. There is certainly never a dull moment!

What advantages have you found in introducing games and elements of play into your teaching? Do you find it affects your students’ attitudes towards music?


Absolutely! To this day, I still get a foreboding feeling when I drive through my first piano teacher’s neighborhood. So I purposed years ago that I always wanted my students to have fond memories of coming to their weekly lessons.

5 For Fun Book - Games and Activities for the Private Piano LessonOne important key is being sensitive to each student’s responses. If I perceive that they are not enjoying something, we stop and talk about it. Then I try to come up with a creative approach that will engage them and make it fun while still being highly educational. It’s amazing how much more exciting it is to repeatedly practice a difficult section in a piece of music when a successful playing of it is rewarded by moving a penny from one side of the piano to the other and three successful repetitions earns them the right to keep those pennies!

I’ve even put together a book called 5 for Fun! that is a collection of brief games that can be incorporated into private lessons to introduce or reinforce specific concepts. Regardless of how discouraged or depressed a student may be when they arrive at their lesson, I want them to leave with a sense of worth, accomplishment, and inspiration for a new week of practicing.

Could you give us some examples of how you might help young children to start to appreciate and understand what they hear in music?

Listen to good music! I confess that YouTube is now my number one teaching resource. We are constantly looking up pieces and watching and listening to performances. Young children love to dance to the music, attempt to conduct it, talk about the dynamics that they hear, and more. It’s so much easier to learn to listen to your own playing when you have learned the art of listening to music in general.

It’s easier to learn to listen to your own playing when you have learned the art of listening to music in general.

Another really helpful tool is learning the terminology associated with sounds. Students feel so grown up when they can discuss what they are hearing in precise musical terms. Rather than dumbing down musical terminology, come up with fun ways to help them learn it – assume an Italian accent and exaggerate the dynamic ranges of “forte” and “piano” with your voice. Accompany articulation terms like “staccato” and “legato” with coordinating gestures. Make it memorable!

Is it challenging to get children to pay attention to what they’re hearing, rather than focusing on the “doing” part of music? Do you have and tips or techniques to help with this?

Children naturally begin their musical experiences with an awareness of what they are hearing. It’s us teachers who usually knock it out of them with our emphasis on the doing. I’ve been guilty of this many times!

Improvising, composing, picking out tunes by ear, and learning pieces by rote are all wonderful ways to incorporate listening skills into the lesson:

  • Improvising – show the student a scale and have them improvise a melody in the upper register while you accompany them with a nice harmonic pattern in the bass.
  • Composing – encourage students to make up their own songs within specific parameters that you give them (e.g. a beginning student who is learning landmark notes could be asked to make up his own song using only the F, C, and G).
  • Tunes by ear – start with a simple folk tune and have the student figure out and play the melody in their right hand, then teach them how to find the right chords to harmonize it, and go from there!
  • Rote teaching – many cool-sounding pieces lend themselves well to just showing a student how to play it on the keys and letting them learn it without ever having to look at the printed music. This can really help them tune into the sound of the dynamics and articulations without merely associating it with words and symbols on a page.
At what age do you find students benefit most from these techniques? Are they useful for adults too, or do students “graduate” from the game-based approach as they get older?

A game-based approach works for anyone who likes to have fun! I think that would include most of us!

There must be a fair amount of challenge for the student to accomplish the objective without making it completely out of reach for them. You always want them to feel challenged, but capable of achieving success.

As long as the games have a clear purpose and the student gains real understanding and musical knowledge from it, it will be a winner. Games are so easy to adapt for different levels. For example, if I am playing a game where the student has to roll a 12-sided die and count up the half steps from middle C to determine what scale to play, a beginning student can be instructed to play the corresponding Major pentascale, while an older advanced student might be required to play the 4-octave minor scale in all three forms.

There must be a fair amount of challenge for the student to accomplish the objective without making it completely out of reach for them. You always want them to feel challenged, but capable of achieving success.

Many parents would like their children to enjoy a good musical education, but aren’t musically educated themselves and so struggle to know where to start or what to focus on. What advice would you give a parent in this situation? How can they help their child to develop a musical ear?

I have seen tremendous benefits in students I teach who have had early musical experiences.

Listen to good music! Look for recordings by well-known composers from the past. There is a reason that their music is still being performed and listened to today. Most contemporary pop music dies with its generation because it lacks true musical quality. Do a Google search for “favorite classical music” or “fun songs for children” or something like that to start developing a library of good music for your kids.

Also, consider participating in an early childhood music program like Kindermusik, or connecting with a private teacher who specializes in working with young children. I have seen tremendous benefits in students I teach who have had early musical experiences. You can also check out the Ideas for Parents category at Music Matters Blog for additional fun suggestions!

How much has modern technology influenced the way you teach? How do you think your methods would have been different if you were teaching 50 years ago?

One of the most significant (but indirect) ways technology has made a difference for me is through participation in the on-line music education community. I started connecting with other teachers many years ago through e-mail list serves and forums, then eventually moved more into the world of blogging. I have gained much inspiration and support from other music teachers that has spurred me on to become a better teacher. I also love trying out technological ideas with students – from recording CDs, to producing short films, to live-streaming a recital, to even teaching internationally via Skype.

Watch teaching videos on the Music Matters Blog YouTube Channel

Watch teaching videos on the Music Matters Blog YouTube Channel

Even if I was teaching 50 years ago, I think I would try to come up with fun projects and creative ways to engage students in their music studies. There was cutting-edge technology in the 1960’s, too. It’s just a matter of looking for new opportunities and not being afraid to plunge in even when you don’t know what you’re doing!

As teachers, we must devote ourselves to constantly learning and growing as musicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs.

Finally, what changes do you see happening in music education today? How do you think the way we teach music will be different in 20 years time?

One of the biggest changes I see is the accessibility of music lessons to almost everyone via the internet. Whether it’s through pre-packaged tutorials, YouTube videos, or one-on-one private lessons utilizing Skype or similar services, students anywhere can learn how to play an instrument.

I think that the demand for quality teachers is going to increase, though, because families will be so aware of the possibilities that they will look for teachers who can provide a comprehensive music education for their children and introduce them to a wide range of musical experiences – technological and otherwise.

As teachers, we must devote ourselves to constantly learning and growing as musicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs. We have such an incredible opportunity to invest in the lives of those who will continue to impact the culture through their music long after we are gone.

And that’s something that will never change!

We have no doubt that Music Matters Blog will continue to lead at the forefront of innovative music teaching methods, sharing new ideas, methods and advice on 21st century music teaching, and helping the next generation of teachers raise the next generation of young musicians.

Thanks to Natalie for sharing her insights with us. If you have insights of your own, experience introducing youngsters to music, or want to comment on anything from the interview you can share your thoughts below.

Series Information
This is part 11 of 24 in the Music & Life series.

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