By Dr. Julie Knerr

Decorating the Piano is one of my favorite activities for teaching White Key Names. This can be done in Private, Partner, or Group Classes, and at the end of this post, I will tell you about a way to make it a self-directed activity specifically for Partner Lessons or Group Classes.

I usually do this activity at the interview or very first lesson. Through this, I gain information about the child, including:

  • Whether the student knows the letters of the alphabet
  • How the student responds to my directions
  • If the student can distinguish between groups of two and three black keys
  • If the student has the attention span to decorate the entire piano.

I can use this information as we move forward with piano lessons.

Materials You Will Need for Decorating the Piano

  • 8 bouncy balls
  • 8 plastic caterpillars
  • Foam letters (I made my own from foam sheets)
    • 8 A’s red
    • 8 B’s orange
    • 8 C’s yellow
    • 7 D’s green
    • 7 E’s blue
    • 7 F’s purple
    • 7 G’s pink

How to Decorate the Piano

Step 1: Have the student put bouncy balls on the groups of two black keys.

Step 2: Then put the caterpillars on groups of three black keys.

Step 3: Hand the student all the D foam letters. Tell him the D’s are right in the middle of the groups of two black keys, under the ball notes. He puts the D foam letters on all the D’s of the piano.

Step 4: Ask the student what comes in the alphabet before D. Say, “A B…” He will say, “C.” Say, “Yes.   C comes right before D,” and put a C foam letter on the piano to the left of D. Hand the student all the C foam letters. He puts them on all the C’s of the piano.

Step 5: Ask the student what comes in the alphabet after C. Say, “A B C D…” He will say, “E.” Hand the student all the E foam letters to put on the E’s of the piano.

Step 6: Continue saying the alphabet and figuring out what comes next. “A B C D E…” “F.” Tell the student that the F goes to the left of the group of 3 black keys, near the caterpillar group. Hand the student all the F foam letters. He puts them on all the F’s of the piano.

Step 7: Repeat with G, then A, and then B.

Celebrate how great the piano looks now that it is decorated! I often have parents who want to take a picture of the decorated piano!

In future lessons, vary the activity by handing the student the balls, worms, and letters in random order. Emphasize that the groups of two black keys (ball groups) are near the C D E white keys, and the groups of three black keys (caterpillar groups) are near the F G A B groups. However, most students will need to find a specific white key by counting from the bottom of the piano (like in Alphabet Boogie). This is fine, but eventually, we want them to recognize the letters based on the groups of black keys as well.

Self-Directed Decorating

I enjoy teaching Partner Lessons, and I sometimes need time to work with one student alone. What should I do with the other student? I can have them decorate the piano!

This does require you to have two pianos, or a piano and keyboard, or at least a cardboard keyboard. Then one student can be decorating while the other student is working with you at the other piano.

Generally, if you hand the box of decorating materials to the student with no instructions, most children will naturally put the balls and caterpillars on the keyboard, and then they will put the letters on in alphabet order. This does not really help them learn the letters of the white keys. We want students to put the letters on in in a specific order that will make them have to think about where the letters go in relation to the groups of two and three black keys.

To make this happen, I put the decorating items in cups in the order you choose. So Cup #1 might contain 3 balls, 2 caterpillars, and 5 D’s. The next cup might contain 1 ball, 3 caterpillars, and 2 C’s. As you continue, the cup contents can become more random.

Then line the cups up and tell the student to go in order, decorating with the contents of Cup #1 and then continuing down the line of cups one by one. While the student is taking the 10 minutes or so to do this, you can work with the other student at a different piano or on another activity.