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