Storytelling and the Music Lesson

Everybody loves a good story, especially when it’s being told in a skillful way.  Ever heard of Garrison Keillor?  He’s the host of the popular radio show The Prairie Home Companion, in which he weaves stories of the residents of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon.  I’ve listened to countless radio broadcasts of The Prairie Home Companion, and I was lucky enough to be in the audience twice for a live show.  You can hear a pin drop as audiences sit spellbound listening to Mr. Keillor tell tales of the daily events ofLakeWobegon.

On the website “Australian Storytelling”, Louise Phillips articulates the reasons that storytelling is an effective form of communication.  She says storytelling develops the following in young children:

  • An understanding of human nature.
  • An understanding of feelings.
  • An awareness of the role characteristics people assume.
  • An understanding of sequence.
  • Language skills (vocabulary, grammar, syntax and pronunciation).
  • Their attention span and their ability to listen.
  • Their ability to follow instructions.
  • Their ability to co-operate with others; and
  • An understanding of concepts.

I would like to focus in on the last point – that storytelling develops an understanding of concepts in young children.  I have noticed that storytelling goes a long way in engaging my students in a new piece to be learned.

When introducing “Ode to Joy”, I like to paint the picture of the genius composer Beethoven, having lost his hearing, composing one of the most magnificent symphonies of all time, and not knowing whether the audience had liked or approved of his latest effort.  The story is told that one of his friends walked Beethoven out on stage to see the audience going wild with praise and applause because of their love for the new symphony.

After the story is told, I ask the student to pretend in their daily practice that they are the entire orchestra, playing its heart out for Beethoven.  “Make your performance of “Ode to Joy” the best performance that Beethoven has ever heard.”

In his article titled “Effective Storytelling”, Barry McWilliams gives some suggestions for storytelling:

  • Keep it brief and simple- especially for younger children – pare down to the heart of the story.
  • Stimulate their senses so they feel, smell, touch and listen and see vivid pictures.
  • Describe the characters and settings, and help them sympathize with the character’s feelings.

Doesn’t every beginning student love the story behind Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony”?  “Haydn was sick and tired of all the wealthy royalty falling asleep during his orchestral masterpieces, so he worked in a way to wake them up!”  I then start to play the piece, and act as if I am falling asleep.  When I come to the accent, I jump off the bench in an exaggerated show of being shocked out of sleep.

Application for the student’s home practice – “maybe you will put your mom or dad to sleep at the beginning of the piece, then wake them up at the accent – just like Haydn did!”

Not all my stories are historical in nature – sometimes it’s just fun when I’m about to play a duet with the student to tell how my mother’s piano teacher sat on the bench with her at one lesson and broke the bench!

The point is, students should be engaged in their pieces.  Give them something to imagine.  Something for their minds to grasp onto while they are sitting on that piano bench at home.  Maybe they will come back to their next lesson and have a wonderful story to tell you!


Recital Remembrance


Another great recital season has come and gone.  The annual Christmas recitals were a hit – out of thirty students, my colleague and I heard six renditions of “Jingle Bells”, three renditions of “Away in a Manger”, and a solid representation of Christmas tunes, old and new.


One thing that always comes back to me – recitals are joyful celebrations.  Despite the usual nerves that come with performance, recitals should never become a breeding place for fear or unattainable expectation.  Whatever performance is given , it should be celebrated and congratulated.  “You did it!  You conquered your fear, got up on stage and played for us!”  Every offering is encouraged and greatly appreciated.


I love it when families proudly invite extended family and friends to hear their children play.  I love it when the stage is packed at the end of the recital with proud parents taking pictures of their children at the piano.  I love the reception time when relieved students talk in excited tones about their performances.


These times are precious. They should be held up as remembrances of great achievements.  They should be revisited in conversation as a point of pride.


“You did it!”