Eight-year-old Addie DeLeonardis-Page perches on the edge of the piano bench, legs dangling, as she works her way through "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." She only misses one or two notes, but corrects herself after a quick glance at piano teacher Randal Pierce.
"Wait, no, it goes up, not down," she mutters, before plunking the right key.
Pierce, Addie's instructor since September, praises her for using her wrist correctly when striking the keys, then asks her what she'd like to work on next. She launches into a rendition of "Ode to Joy" — by heart.
"My sister plays that on violin," she tells Pierce, who has never heard her play Beethoven. "I try to listen to her and make things up so we can play together."
In that brief exchange, Addie reveals the secret behind successful piano lessons, and it has nothing to do with talent: It's all about discovering what's fun. Pierce, a local composer, performer and now full-time teacher, encourages her interest.
"Parents tell me stories about how their old piano teachers were really rigid and enforced really strict discipline, which can be as big a deterrent as anything," he says. "Kids see and understand music differently, so you try to figure that out, and then take it further."
For Addie, this approach means playing a game in which Pierce points to a note on the page of music, and Addie plays the note on the keyboard. He points to notes all over a page of sheet music, sending her up and down the octaves to find the correct notes and explaining how the treble staff (for upper notes) and bass clef (for low notes) differ. She's only been taking lessons for a few months, but already has a good grasp of what the notes are and how they relate to one another.
Not all students respond cheerfully when piano teachers suggest new songs, though. For the reluctant learners, Pierce says he just has to keep working at it until he finds something that interests them. "I happen to find music and piano really interesting stuff, so there's usually something I can find that strikes a kid's interest," he says.
Pierce notes that parents — even non-musical ones — can help their child learn the piano by putting music on around the house. "Even from an early age, what you associate with music and what speaks to you is really personal," he says. "Just listen and talk about music as much as you can — it doesn't have to be any certain kind. Just let them express how it makes them feel."
For Addie, it's all about practicing so she can accompany her violinist big sister.
"I got a keyboard for Christmas, and now we can play 'Hot Cross Buns' and 'Twinkle, Twinkle' and 'Ode to Joy,'" Addie says. "I mostly like playing along with her best."