By Dr. Julie Knerr
Last year I spent the year in Athens, Ohio working on Piano Safari Level 2 with Katherine Fisher. We had a great year, and I taught a small number of students at Ohio University’s Athens Community Music School.

Now I have made my long-awaited move back to my home state of Connecticut and am teaching at the Hartt School of Music Community Division in West Hartford, which is a very large community music school This is  just the kind of school I have always wanted to teach in. It has been very exciting to settle in and meet new people.

I currently have six new beginners. I love beginners!! There is so much potential! They are ages 4 through 8.

I thought I would post some of my thoughts as I teach Piano Safari Level 1 to these students. I have a problem of always tweaking any books or materials I use to suit the student and my own teaching style, including my own piano method!!! I thought these thoughts/tips that might help others teaching beginners in Piano Safari.

Thought #1. At the very first lesson, I teach Charlie Chipmunk and Alphabet Boogie (see, I can’t go in order! I have tweaked already! But Alphabet Boogie is so easy to teach, and the kids pick it up easily). Next, we decorate the piano with balls and caterpillars on the piano and add CDE foam letters

Piano Decorating
and sometimes I teach the first variation of Hungry Herbie Hippo (black keys), and do a Black Key Improvisation.

So feel free to do as I do, and skip around a bit in the book. You will find that as you teach through the book, a student may need another Reading Piece or Folk Song but is not ready for a new Rote Piece even though that might be the next piece in the book. Skip ahead to another Reading Piece (though I try to keep the student working on one unit at a time). Every student is different, and assigning pieces as the student needs them, rather than adhering strictly to the order of the book, is best.

Thought #2. I have been experimenting with the best way for student to hold his/her hand when playing Charlie Chipmunk,  Alphabet Boogie, Hungry Herbie Hippo, and other pieces that use just one finger.

I used to just let them play with their 2nd finger and not mind the inevitable collapsed joint for the first two weeks.

But I just can’t stand to look at that collapsed joint! So I have been experimenting again to see if it is worth it to try to fix it right from the beginning. My concern with trying to fix this in the first few weeks is that It takes children some time to find their basic coordination at the piano, and stressing out too much about strong finger joints in the first week of lessons (especially from tiny little four-year-old girls with flexible joints) may cause the students to become tighter in their arms and shoulders.

The types of hand I have tried include:

Extended Finger 2:
Extended Finger
Bird Beak. Some students can, amazingly, still collapse their end joint even when braced with their thumb! When I try to make them have a strong end joint, they just put the tension in their arms.
Bird Beak
When I play these pieces, I find I prefer to hold two fingers together, which gives me better aim for the black keys. I have found most children do not find this one comfortable, at least in the first few weeks of piano. Interestingly, students who have been playing for several months and have gained some coordination often do tend to use this type of hand when we go back to review the beginning pieces.
2 Finger Hand

I have come to the conclusion, in my reexamination of the subject, that a free arm is better than a perfect firm end joint for the first few weeks. Most students prefer the Extended Finger 2, though I do make them try the Bird Beak also.

Some like to have all their fingers out when they play,
Open Hand

but I try to discourage this as it usually turns into this horrible looking hand.

Bad Hand

My advice is to have students use either the Extended Finger 2 or the Bird Beak. After the first week to month, when they can play these beginning pieces fluently and with a loose arm, then work on having a strong, uncollapsed, finger joint. Relaxation trumps perfect finger joints at this point!

3. One last thing in this long post. One teacher asked about the drum I use as the student and I tap the rhythms from the Sight Reading & Rhythm Cards , or as I play the accompaniment in the King of the African Drum. The kids love the drum.

In case you are curious, the one I have is from Type in “gathering drum” to the search box at the top of their page. The one I have is the Remo Kids 8×22 Gathering Drum.


 It was, along with my pedal extender,

Pedal Extender

which I got from, one of the best investments I made in my studio.

Happy teaching!