Saturday, May 30, 2015


Don Music is a trademark of the Children's Television Workshop and The Jim Henson Studios
Sorry if you're too young to get the reference

An open letter to the staff at Piano Nanny


I recently attempted to use your Piano Nanny website to learn how to play a keyboard I recently acquired. I say attempted, because I hit a brick wall at "Starter Studies" Lesson Eight: Page 1.

Now, maybe you've been playing piano long enough to make the natural transition from Lesson Seven to Lesson Eight, but as the most raw of beginners I have to tell you, in no uncertain terms, Lesson Eight is a deal-breaker. Anyone who gives up learning to use a piano, organ, or keyboard will give up at Lesson Eight, and I can tell you why: The transition from Lesson Seven is way too steep.

Allow me to explain: you literally go from, "tap this one note to the beat," to, "play these two notes, then these two notes," to, "Use one hand to play these five notes, then the other to play these five notes, then switch the positioning of both hands and play these notes using different fingers simultaneously." The average, uncoordinated oaf (such as myself) can't do it even after an hour of practicing over and over. It might be simple to you, an experienced pianist, but to the rest of us it is too much too fast. There has to be a better way to teach it (or perhaps some people will just never learn to play the keyboard no matter how much they try). In any event, all excitement that I had about learning using your system died with Lesson Eight.

I am looking for alternative teaching methods at the moment, but I will probably not be coming back to your site, and will not be recommending it to any other beginners that I come in contact with. So as someone who makes a living creating instruction manuals I'm going to give you some tips:

  1. Be more basic. The problem with the "sink or swim" method is that most of your students are going to drown. You'll get a few that will keep going, but you're going to lose your audience if you expect far too much too soon.
  2. Don't be as basic. You know what "play one note in time with the beat for three minutes" really teaches your students? That music is boring. Give them a little credit -- work on coordination with multiple fingers and notes BEFORE tedious muscle memory exercises.
  3. Focus on one thing before moving on to the next. Which is more important, learning to move your hands to play higher notes, or learning to use both hands at once? I know that you want to break people of the "leave your hands in one place" method of playing as soon as possible, but most of us aren't coordinated enough to press two keys at the same time let alone two keys with two different hands even if we're using the same fingers, let alone two different ones without substantial practice. Figure out which is more important (or better yet, which is easier for your students to learn) and teach that before combining them into a key-smashing bout of frustration.
  4. For Pete's sake make sure the media is easy to use. The MP3 files on your site start IMMEDIATELY on the first note and then have a substantial rest towards the end that makes timing on the loop EXTREMELY difficult to anticipate and compensate for. A simple edit to the timing (and even a longer loop) could fix this and make the loop less likely to throw the beginner, well, for a loop. 
  5. Enforce the language before moving on. I can't read music.  I have never been able to link the sound of "C" to a note on the staff. After studying musical notation in preparation for this project, I have concluded that musical notation is dumb. It is needlessly complicated and too gated to be understood by the layman. I know that you, as a musician, are used to it, but to someone with a background in say, computer programming it is obtuse. We use strings and symbols to differentiate, and mere upticks on the scale are not easy to identify or visually helpful. I understand the basics of what it is trying to accomplish, but I'm not sure that it is enough for beginners. You should make more substantial notation on your sheet music to compensate.
Not being a music student or teacher, I'm not really sure what the best method of teaching people this incredibly inefficient skill is, but I do know one thing: It's not the method on your website.

Thank you anyway for trying.

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