Is your child struggling to stay focused when they’re practicing the piano? That’s normal–it just means it might be time to add something new to the routine! Get some great ideas for music games for kids in this guest post by Santa Cruz, CA teacher John S...
Can your 4- to 6-year-old keep her focus through the entirety of a traditional piano practice? Music demands a tremendous amount of attention, in several different areas at once: reading music, being careful about pitch, rhythm, and fingering, and much more! Some children have no trouble keeping on task with all these endeavors. However, if your young child is like the vast majority, you may need to break up their practice with other activities. In between their private lessons, playing music games for kids can certainly help–and most of these you can play with your child even if you don’t have much of a music background!
1. Be an animal
Most young children love pretending to be different animals. Not only that, but the intuitive connection of musical features with an animal’s characteristics comes quickly and effortlessly to most kids. Try something like the following, perhaps while looking at a picture with lots of different animals:
You: Ok, which animal would you like to be?
Child: A snake!
You: A snake, wow! What would snake music sound like?
The child may immediately have a sense of snake music. If so, let ’em play! It may not fit your idea of snake music in any way, but if they’re engaging with their imaginations, let them be.
If a child isn’t sure what to do, you might make a suggestion like the following:
You: To me, a snake is a slithery thing. (Play a stepwise melody that moves up and down the piano in a sinuous fashion.) Do you think this sounds like a snake? What do you think would sound more like a snake?
2. Use a picture book
Books for young children that have great pictures are a nice way to guide an improvisation that progresses through a beginning, middle, and end. Many children will respond immediately when you ask them to look at the picture and think about what it would sound like.
If they get stuck, you can point out specific features in the pictures. For instance, “See the twinkling stars? Can you make a twinkling sound like those stars might make?” or “Those are some big, hairy monsters! How can you make a big, hairy sound on the piano?” You can always play them a little example to get them started. Chances are, they will be impatient for you to stop so that they can get their hands on the piano keys.
3. Make up a story
This is a great game for kids if you know how to play piano as well. Start off by thinking of a story, like the following:
“A man was walking down the street” (play ambling, rhythmic music at an andante tempo) ”when suddenly,” (stop playing) “he saw an elephant right in front of him.” (pounding, ponderous bass line perhaps with circus-like qualities) “The elephant was dressed in royal finery, and being ridden by a man in a suit of armor.” (fanfare, clanking sounds) Let your imagination run wild with bold, big images that you can translate into music.
Next, you can ask them to contribute, either with story ideas, or by playing the piano. Gradually, you can encourage them to do the whole thing, story and music, by themselves.
4. Pick four pitch classes
Restricting the available pitches is a great way to make improvisation sound better. It turns out that four is a perfect number, because all combinations of four pitches can sound musical.
You: Let’s take turns choosing the pitches we’re going to use for this song. You can choose any letter A through G, and you can make it sharp or flat if you want.
You: Good, so you can play any A-flat you want. (play all of the A-flats on the piano) You can be sure you have an A-flat when it’s the middle black key in a group of three.
Then it’s your turn to choose a note, and alternate until four pitches are chosen. Even if it is a cluster, the group of pitches can sound good.
Let your child play on those pitches in any rhythm they like. If they play a note that’s not one of the four you selected, tell and show them exactly what note they played by mistake, and remind them of the notes that were chosen.
5. Repeat after me – Rhythm
This is another great game if you don’t know much about the piano, because you can play it away from the piano, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Here’s how I play with my students: “Me first, and then you,” I say, then start with simple rhythms, banging the floor or clapping while saying the counts aloud. I chant, “One and Two and Three and Four and,” while alternating hands pounding the floor, L-R-L-R on the main beats.
Look at your kid around beat four and more than likely they will get the right idea and repeat after you. Gradually increase the complexity of your rhythms so that they are fun and interesting, but not too hard.
While using large movements and big muscles is the best way to get started in this game, it need not stay there. When they are comfortable with large movements, ask them to make gentle finger taps. Then, they can start playing specific piano keys; for example, you can play B-flat while the child plays E-flat.
6. Repeat after you – Three pitches
Sitting next to your child at the keyboard, ask him or her to play any three pitches, one after the other. Then play the same pitches, perhaps in a different register. You can spice it up by asking for different dynamics: “Play me really soft ones now,” or “Try three loud ones.” Make sure that your child plays the notes separately and clearly so that you can accurately repeat them.
Use your imagination!
Of course, these games for kids are only the beginning. Taking your cue from your child’s natural creativity, you can develop a whole world of musical games. When your child experiences the power and joy of direct musical expression, he or she will gain confidence in their musical creativity that will last a lifetime.
John S. teaches singing, piano, guitar, and more in Santa Cruz, CA. He received his a doctorate in music composition from UCSC. Learn more about John here!
Photo by amanda tipton