"Mary Had a Little Lamb is a NURSERY song - will my students play it?"
Absolutely - don't worry! For new beginners, even adults, they are just happy to play something that is recognizably music!
And more than that, it is foundational for skill-building
Of all my piano music for beginning students, Mary Had a Little Lamb is the most necessary and the most versatile. Yes, it is just a nursery rhyme, but there is so much you can do with it!
Sometimes you just have to give them what's good for them
Though you would think children might turn up their noses at a nursery-rhyme song, only the occasional teenager looks mortified...I always preface the piece with "Now I'm going to give you a world-famous song I give to all my students, even 'grown-ups.'" And the pleasure of mastering a recognizable tune is such that they all end up enjoying it (for at least a little while!).
Eek! Why is it loaded with finger numbers??!!
Here it is with all the finger numbers (shades of John Thompson!) Yes, this is a rote approach, but no, it won't kill your students to learn a piece by rote NOW AND THEN. In fact, it will increase their comfort playing pieces by memory, or "by heart," as we sometimes call it. It's good ear training too.
There is so much you can do with this song! As piano music for kids, it is unbeatable for showing them how to use chords.
Now I'm going to show you the many ways I use Mary Had a Little Lamb, again and again, up to two or three years after the piano student has learned it the first time...
Add a LH chord
After the melody is well in hand, we start trying out an open C chord (c & g) with the LH (left hand), pressing the chord on beat 1 of each measure. Usually I will have them "be" the LH while I play the RH, just to show them how it sounds, telling them that we'll try adding it to Mary Had a Little Lamb next lesson. I don't draw notes for them, but show them how to make the chord. If they have been doing pentascales, it's easy for them to go "5, 4, 3, 2, 1" with the LH, and then hit 5 and 1 together. Kids love adding the chord to MHaLL; it makes it sound like a real song.
Identifying the chord
I point out (many times,generally) that chords start with the pinky, or bottom finger, on the name of the chord. It seems necessary to stress that"bottom" and "low" are LEFT on the piano ("where the men sing"), and "top" and "high" are RIGHT on the piano ("where the women and children sing"). Frequently kids and even adults will think that the C is where the LH thumb goes. No big deal---they'll get it eventually. Especially if they have been doing mirror scales, they will find that an easy mistake to make.
Now change it to MINOR - very cool!
I give it another couple of weeks, while other concepts and pieces are being learned, then come back to Mary Had a Little Lamb (they are still playing it) and turn it into scary, sad piano music.That is, I have them lower the third finger of the melody, E, to Eb. That changes the key from major to minor, and gives the song a sad or melancholy feeling, or even a hint of danger. Some kids are electrified by this tiny change, and the power it gives them to create a mood! We re-name our new-sounding song "Mary LOST Her Little Lamb." Very fun. And we get to use the same open LH C chord.
Now contrast major with minor
When they are comfortable with that, then their assignment becomes to play "Mary Lost and Found" -- first sad (minor), then happy (back to major). Minor sounds great down LOW, then we jump up to a higher octave for the happy version. Very popular with kids.
Adding in the V7 chord
The next change we make is adding a little G7 chord that I call a "pinch" chord. It is just a 2-note inversion. The LH stays in its C chord position, but presses G & F together with the 1 & 2 fingers. This doesn't happen until students are very solid with the I chord, C.
Don't bother writing LH notes in
I don't write notation onto their music (they wouldn't read it if I did), but scratch some symbols up above the melody: "G pinch chord" and "G/F" with circles and "1-2" fingers.
Changing chords is much harder than playing just one chord, so it will take a little more time to polish. I'll take over the melody during the lesson at first, so they can focus on the new chord change.
With chord symbols
Now it's time to enlist this song in a new cause - transposing!
After a few months, when Mary Lost and Found is second nature, I come back to it again with an entirely new mission -- transposing. From the keys of C major and C minor, we move it up to D major and D minor. No notation! This is rote, with the ear helping out.
First D major -- I play it for them, with the necessary f#, and ask if they notice anything different. I try to be patient, because if they can see what's going on without me just telling them, they'll remember it better.
Students are frequently intrigued when you point out that D major and D minor are just the opposite in appearance to C major and C minor; C major (C) is "all white notes," and C minor(Cm) has a black note in the middle. With D, and then Dm a week or two later, I make a big deal about how it is the "3" finger that makes all the difference. And their ear will tell them when it is wrong, almost all of the time.
Go as far as you can; you can always come back again later
We'll stay with C, Cm, D, and Dm for a while, then gradually, as the student is able, start moving to all the rest of the keys or positions. If they are not yet grasping the formula for building a pentatonic major scale (Tonic, whole, whole, half, whole) then I draw little hollow circles on their lesson sheet to represent the 5 notes of MHaLL, and color in the ones that should be black keys with pen or pencil (or let them do it). Even if the "Tonic, whole, whole, half, whole," is hard for them, we still say it together and make the scale at the lesson. Sometimes they'll forget how to do it at home...we just do it again.
The pentascale of B is the biggie
Getting to the key of B is a big deal, and we have a Transposing Chart that a star goes onto when they have finished with the white note tonic keys. (This helps me keep track, as well as giving them a sense of accomplishment.)
If they have really understood the concept of transposing well, and memorized "Tonic, whole, whole, half, whole," we may go on to the black-note keys. (But if they are burned out on this song, we may very well switch to something else and start over again at the key of C.)
Now for the black keys
Gb is the best key to start with, as Mary Had a Little Lamb doesn't require the 4 finger, and so there will be only black notes, no white notes mixed in. The keys of Ab and Db will feel similar to each other, but Bb and Eb will be a bit of a challenge. (Whenever we are playing in B or B flat, I have a little mantra I say to them that helps them remember: "B is white on the bottom, black on the top. Bb is black on the bottom, white on the top. The B's are different than all the others!")
Some kids really love transposing. However, I often wait for the second or third transposed song before I have them try transposing into the black-note keys, especially if there was a struggle learning it! Even older transfer students who read into Level 3 music have been known to have difficulties. But transposing is so good for learning the finger patterns of the different keys, and for sharpening the ear.
More songs for transposing
When they're through with Mary Had a Little Lamb, I always have them help me pick the next piece to transpose. Ode to Joy, Jingle Bells, and any piece that stays in a 5-finger pattern is usually a good bet.
A few of the songs in their lesson books lend themselves well to transposing, too, such as pieces at the end of their Primer, and "Firefly," "Girl on a Bicycle" and "Boy on a Bicycle" in the Faber Piano Adventure Level 1 book, and "Ice Cream" in the 2A book. For a minor piece, "Forest Drums" is a lot of fun.
Starting to learn beautiful chord patterns
The last thing I use MHaLL for is chord pattern practice. The melody is so easy, that when it comes time for them to stretch themselves a little and start using broken chords in the LH, MHaLL is the perfect song.
The RH can be put on "autopilot" and attention given to coordinating the two hands. This is the song I use when kids are ready to start playing the pattern I call "broken chord stretch," which will open up the world of playing really beautiful chord songs to them.
It is a stepping stone to greater things
One of my favorite piano studio stories happened the year the movie "Titanic" came out. It seemed that every week, yet another little girl would come to her lesson and ask plaintively, "Can I play Titanic?" Usually, the technique involved in the arrangement of the Titanic I was giving my students was just beyond where many of them were -- it was, in fact, full of "the broken chord stretch."
Eventually I recognized this desire in my students for the opportunity it was, and posted a sign on my studio door that said, "Yes, I will give you Titanic, but only after you can play Mary Had a Little Lamb with broken chord stretch in all the keys!"
This is for kids whose hands are large enough to make the octave stretch, of course. First they learn the chord pattern: a C open chord plus another C on top. The 2 finger goes where the 1 has always gone, on G. Use it like an anchor or a hinge, I tell them -- the 2 finger is a pivot...and don't try to hold the pinky down!
A new level of coordination
"5-2-1-2, c-g-c-g..." I play the melody to Mary Had a Little Lamb while they do the C chord. (Just the C chord, not the G chord. That's for later, when they've got pretty solid.) They will frequently come back to their next lesson having played this LH pattern all week long with their favorite hand,the right hand. Oh well! We just do it again, and maybe have THEM try the melody of Mary Had a Little Lamb to it right then,so there will be no mistaking which hand does which. "Can you rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time?" I ask them, demonstrating.
This is always fun to do, and illustrates for them that this requires a new kind of hand coordination. Physical skills like this are fun to learn... it takes work, but I tell them to just TRY it with Mary Had a Little Lamb 1 time (1x) or 2x a day at first. And to treat it just as when they learned to ride a bike... when they "crash," just start over again and see if they can get a little farther.
Some kids will get it right away. Others will struggle a bit. But they will all enjoy it, especially when you ask them to put the pedal down and play it up high.
Mary Had a Little Lamb is TRANSFORMED.
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