Grammar Stage: Little P Explores the Old Upright Piano

    By Dave Miller

    Kid at PianoMy tenants moved out and had no room in their new apartment for the old upright piano. I told them I’d “buy it” for $200 as I had no stomach for rounding up the manpower to move the behemoth. Besides, I thought, it just might be a selling point for a new tenant. It was.

    A new set of tenants moved in as the old ones moved out. In the transition, I’m doing repairs and remodeling, and casually listening to 2 year-old little P get acquainted with this musical piece of furniture. In the classical model of education, the beginning of learning is called the Grammar Stage (followed by Logic and Rhetoric). Lasting until age 7 or 8, children learn the “grammar” of the world in which they crawl, toddle, walk and run. They learn the ABCs of just about anything they can. They love nursery rhymes, learning things by heart, parroting back what they — “Little pictures have big ears.” Patterns are established that will last a lifetime.

    Little P is exploring what the piano does. He pushes on the pedals. Nothing happens. (One of those pedals will make the note he plays sustain, but he’ll learn that later.) He tentatively pushes down on a white key. It makes a sound! He presses it again with a little more force. Again, a sound, this time a bit louder. Now he presses several keys with his right hand. If one hand can make sounds like this, what can TWO hands do?! Cacophony! Like chickens cackling in a henhouse at feeding time he goes Bang! Bang! Bang!

    So this is when mom or dad or older sibling has a choice: Scream at Little P to STOP THAT RACKET! or firmly remind him that a piano is an instrument and needs to be treated gently (while demonstrating a few pleasing chords). I’ve found that a two-year-old banging on the piano really doesn’t hurt it. After all, didn’t Jerry Lee Lewis make a whole-lotta money banging on a piano? Great balls of fire! I’ve just found that saving my sanity is important, too. Besides, screaming at Little P to stop is likely to squelch the exploration process.

    (This is a good place to interject that “re-directing” rather than “squelching” the discovery process is almost always the best tack to take in parenting a child. You could even use a little Cline-Fay Love and Logic, “Now Little P, I love to take little boys to the park to swing who know how to treat the piano like an instrument without banging on it.” Or something like that.)

    Now, Little P resumes his exploration. He presses two keys next to each other down at the same time with one hand. Then two separated by a key. Hey, that sounds better. He wonders what the skinny black keys sound like. He bangs on them with his fist. Mom says, “Gentle, Little P.”

    There’s so much to explore on this instrument when you’re two. Wise parents or siblings will allow for some dissonance in their life in the hope that Little P will move on to the Logic and Rhetoric stages of making music.

    The scope of this blog is not to show you how to teach your child piano. There are lots of books and methods on how to do that. In fact, in the comments section below, would you list any resources that you’ve found helpful in teaching your child to not only learn to play but to LOVE to play?

    Another quick story to illustrate the Grammar stage of learning, this time in drawing:

    My wife Renee decided to take a beginning art class at the local community college when she was in her 30’s. The instructor pretty much told the class to take up their pencils and create something. Not having any formal art training (Grammar level), she didn’t have the slightest idea where to start. Visions of stick figures danced in her head. How do you even hold the pencil?

    When the second class proved to be as dismal as the first, she called the instructor over and asked, “Do you play the piano?”

    “No,” he answered.

    “I do,” she said. “If I sat you down in front of a piano and asked you to ‘Just play something that sounds good,’ do you think you could do it?”


    “That’s exactly how I feel when you tell me to ‘just draw something.’”

    “Oh, I had no idea.”

    Unwilling or unable to change his methods, Renee did not return for a third class.

    Since then, she has found some very good Grammar stage art books that have helped her become pretty decent at drawing:

    Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards
    Drawing Textbook, Bruce McIntyre
    The Artist’s Way, Julie Cameron

    Feel free to add to the list in the comments section below.


A professional educator since earning his teaching credentials at San Diego State in 1985, Dave’s 26-year teaching career has been both challenging and rewarding, often in the same day. He and wife Renee have lived and taught in San Diego, Germany, and Colorado, traveled to dozens of countries and are still raising six great kids. Along with his role as Guidance Counselor at The Garden School, Dave has been reinventing himself as a work-at-home dad and recently promoted to Vice President at Lightyear Wireless. Now he gets to teach people how to live the life of their dreams.


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