Thoughts on improvisation, playing from sheet music and playing by ear

First of all, learning to read music is only possible for those pupils who are also able to learn to read (language). This is true for most children who are 6 or 7 years old, some younger, some older. The following thoughts apply therefore only for pupils who have reached this stage. For younger pupils and for some pupils older than approximately 11 years of age different principles apply.

Many piano teachers think that improvising, reading chords or playing by ear (i.e. free piano playing) is more important than playing from written music. These two methods are regarded as separate ways of teaching – thinking that the pupil doing free playing will lose the motivation to learn to read music while the other who reads music will not get the opportunity to be creative and play freely. Experience shows that these thoughts are true in a way. Therefore both methods should be taught equally from the start (ages 6+).

Many think that it is easier for a new beginner to play freely rather than struggle to learn the written music. In doing so they overlook a very important factor. While playing freely the pupil can watch the keyboard all the time and check the position of the fingers. When playing from music this is not always possible as he has to read what is written and in so doing is able to develop an awareness of where to place his fingers without always looking at the keys. This ability is called “haptic orientation” and is an important skill, also when playing freely. Without this skill the pupil can develop a feeling of losing control if he has to look away from the keys in order to read the music.

Haptic orientation – a sensing through touch – occurs at a more advanced level, i.e. when the left hand is playing an accompaniment with many jumps and the right hand has to play largely by feeling its way around. Also, when rapid passages are played, the eyes definitely must (and sometimes only can) aim at some single keys, while the actual control must be transferred to the sensory skills of the hands. These and many other difficulties can arise while playing from memory as well. It could therefore be arguably concluded that the lack of a distinct skill in haptic orientation will always result in many random errors and wrongly played keys, no matter if one plays the piano freely, by reading music or from memory.

Another reason why a pupil is not looking at the music is often found, when he is taught right from the beginning to read the regular music notation system, which unfortunately can not be read intuitively. Most pupils learn thereby subconsciously that the music sheet does not contain much usable information anyway and it therefore does not make sense to look at the music at all. To avoid that this negative attitude to the music emerges in the pupil the PianoSeesaw tone symbols were developed. These are immediately understandable, and therefore the above described effect is prevented.

(Excerpt from teachers guide for the PianoSeesaw method)

Musical Notation Transformation – MNT

< Watch how MNT is applied on the PianoSeesaw method >

Musical Notation Transformation is about transforming a customized notation system back to the regular notation system. The customization goes preferably this far that the system gets intuitively understandable but not ambiguous.

The PianoSeesaw notation system meets this challenge by assigning simplified note symbols to an image of keyboard keys.*) This system is readily understandable for children and easy to implement. The students just understand intuitively what the symbols mean. There is no learning required because it is self explaining. During several stages the musical notation transforms smoothly (MNT) and at the end of this process the notation shows the regular staff with treble and bass clef.

The pupils learn to read music effortlessly, so to speak, without noticing it.

Take look at the method here.


*) The first piece though does not provide an image of keyboard keys. It only introduces the PianoSeesaw rhythm notation for black keys.

The PianoSeesaw app made it !!

< The piano method is now available on the App Store for iPad and iPhone! >


Student pieces, pedagogical guides, backing tracks and teacher parts – all in one place – on your iOS device – offline, without need to be connected to the internet.

New version of the demo clip of piece no. 1 “Hello!”

– Several info text screens are shown at the beginning of the clip.
– The whole piece written with PianoSeesaw tone symbols is shown at once.
(Not only one successive line)
– Fewer things er going on simultaneously.



New version of the demo clip of piece no. 2 “Waltz of the Bear”

Hi there! Every music symbol is now related to a specific black key. As you have learned within the first song, squares and rectangles always refer to black keys regardless of wether they are white or black. Black squares are quarter notes on the black keys and white rectangles are half notes or dotted half notes on the black keys. Some songs further on there will be introduced circles and ellipses which will represent the white keys.

The animation with the colored keys and the green moving song position line will not be part of the iOS app because this will distract the student form reading the music.

New version of the demo clip of piece no. 3 “Triplet- and Twin-Keys Song”

Some colleagues suggested that in the second part of the video the music should be shown in just the overview presentation size. Must say I agree 🙂

Demo video of the third piece “Triplet- and twin keys song”

Five months after finishing the previous demo video I am happy to finally present the next one. I had to code 8 different animations in Xcode and then do a lot of editing and composing in ScreenFlow.

This clip shows how to rotate the music in order to change the reading direction from reading top to bottom, to reading in the ordinary way from left to right. The clip also shows the three different presentation sizes.

I also completed a preliminary version of all help-files in German and Norwegian including many tips and suggestions on improvising and composing. After my German colleagues are finished with revising the files I will translate them into English.

Guide for piece no. 1 – “Hello!”

For every song of the PianoSeesaw method there is a pdf-guide included which suggests a didactical approach to the PianoSeesaw-notation-system *) and provides additional teaching ideas. The guide also specifies new skills to be learned and comes often with some more exercises which fit into the related learning fields.

Tonight I finished the guide for the first piece. It was a tough one because it was very difficult to determine how much information and what kind of information should be included in the first song. Of course, the over all question was, what do a teachers who are new to the PianoSeesaw method want to know first.

*) Usually children between the ages of 6 and 10 have at first only a limited capacity to visually understand a regular notation system and its connection to the keyboard. This often results in frustration which could have been avoided by starting off with a child friendly notation system. This fact was the main reason for developing a new system that starts off with a notation that is not too different from the ordinary notation but never the less intuitively understandable. After a short explanation about the PianoSeesaw notation system, students readily understand the information which is provided by the notation’s simple symbols and they know exactly how to implement them. The PianoSeesaw notation system which is at the beginning significantly different from the regular notation system, passes through a smooth process of change (musical notation transformation – MNT) during the method. At the end of the method this process ends up using the regular staff with treble and bass clef. The pupils learn to read music effortlessly, so to speak, without noticing it.

Take a look at the method and its teacher guides by clicking here.

New version of the demo clip for the first song “Heia!” or “Hello!”

I have received some feedback on the clip presented in the previous post. By the way, feedback is greatly appreciated!

According to some colleagues the clip did not explain clearly enough why the pianist (that would be me) is doing what he is doing. To address this I added some text bubbles in the clip. Hope this helps. Comments?


Demo of the first song

Here is a clip which explains how to play the first piece of the PianoSeesaw. The animated symbols just show a rhythm which should be played by using the black keys. Take a look at the clip and you will get an idea of how to do it …

Instructing young students (age below 11) the teacher says at the end of the song either mouse, bear or cat. Depending on which animal the teacher announces the student has to play either some high keys, low keys or medium high keys. Maybe you are wondering what is the goal of this? The “mouse” will replace the word “right”, “bear” will replace “left” and “cat” will determine the middle of something. Why? Because most children are not able to distinguish between left and right. And we need a simple way to refer to the black keys. Instead of saying: “left triplet black key” or “f sharp” (which has no practical meaning to a child and therefor it is so hard for them to remember) we can after a short explanation say: “bear triplet” or “bear triplet key” and the child will always know which key we are talking about. Respectively the other black keys will be named as: “cat triplet” (G#), “mouse triplet” (Bb), “bear twin” (C#) and “mouse twin” (Eb). By the way, before you introduce the new key names you should replace “left hand” with “bear hand” because the left hand is nearest to the bear keys and “right hand” with “mouse hand” because the right hand is nearest to the mouse keys. Now we have child friendly expressions for all things we want to talk about in our first lessons.

But remember never to use these terms with teens (age 11 and older) because they will consider them as childish!

For older students mouse, bear or cat should be replaced with finger-numbers. Then the student has to strike a key with the respective finger of both hands.

The animation of the music symbols will not be part of the app. Animated symbols will only distract the student. During ten years teaching with this piano method every single student understood the PianoSeesaw music symbols within a minute in the first lesson. In this context understanding means easily reading AND playing what the music shows and as a result much fun in the piano lessons and at home. Motivation problems? What was that again?

Here is the sheet music of the first piece: