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Should Piano Lessons or Organ Lessons start with Middle C?

Traditional Piano Lessons and Organ Lessons

If you come to a teacher seeking piano lessons or organ lessons and you have not had lessons before, a significant number of teachers will start by helping you find “middle C”. The majority of commercial tutorials such as John Thompson, Michael Aaron and the like commence with the location of middle C and place a thumb on this note. White notes are taught first with black notes being introduced at a later stage.

What’s wrong with these Piano lessons and Organ lessons?

If I am totally honest, I used to be one of those teachers, but now I totally disagree with this stance. Here’s why:

  1. We don’t locate where a note is by the white keys as the ends of the white keys are identical. The alternating 3 and 2 black note groups create the patterns on the keyboard that help us identify notes. This is therefore where we should begin.

  2. Students begin to perceive “C” as always being the thumb rather than considering “which finger should I put on this note?”.

  3. When the longer fingers (fingers 2-3-4) are placed over the black notes a more natural hand position is readily assumed. The little finger and thumb drop to the side slightly and a natural ‘arch’ with curved fingers is easier to establish.

What should a beginner’s piano lesson or organ lesson look like?

  1. It should start with the black notes because of the patterns that they create and because of the more natural hand position that can quickly be established.

  2. The whole piano should be used through improvisation to encourage greater familiarity with low/high (left-right) and the contrasting timbre in different registers.

  3. Improvisation allows imagination to flourish.  Different rhythms (not just crotchets or ¼ notes) are used immediately, call and response phrase structures can be used, extra-musical characteristics can particularly be used with younger children (bird song up high or a dinosaur on low pitches) and even articulation can play a part (the frog leaping versus the slimy snake).

  4. Simple melodies can be sung, ideally using relative solfege (the do-re-mi system) so that aural skills are evolving from the first lessons.

  5. Alongside this, rhythmic syllables can be used over a marching beat to ensure rhythmic accuracy and further develop aural memory.

  6. These melodies are then transferred to the instrument, so the student is moving from sound in their mind and voice, and then making their instrument ‘sing’.

  7. The melodies should then be played in different registers of the piano and different keys. Transposition begins immediately and students begin to understand intervals, the distance between notes (particularly useful if transferring to step vs leap reading).

  8. Same for the left hand and pedals.

  9. Two hands together, even if the left hand initially plays the beat on one pitch.  You can then try playing in octaves in all different keys.

  10. To be able to play your tune over an accompaniment is always great as it aids the concept of playing in time.  Even playing over a drum track can be great fun!

  11. Perform as a round with yourself – sing one part and play another.

  12. Combine the various items above and create an extended improvisation.

  13. Developing chords and accompaniments are much more advanced, but a great way to revisit material later on and take the piece further.

This lesson is holistic. It has included aural, improvisation, technique, coordination, transposition and ensemble skills.

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Robin Harrison is an academy teacher for the Royal College of Organists and has been teaching for 30 years. He is contactable through,

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