The cajon is a very simple, almost nondescript, percussion instrument with a fascinating history. It looks like a wooden crate or box. To play it, you sit on top of it and play with your hands, reaching lower for a bass sound and tapping towards the top of the drum to activate a higher-pitched snare sound. I first heard one in a concert of flamenco music and have since tried it in piano lessons.
But before I invested money in buying one, I wanted to try it out first. Our local store, Long & McQuade, has a rental option. It cost me less than $12 for the month.
What I found in my trial period was that I love using it in piano lessons! I didn’t realize how versatile it would be, both in keeping a steady beat and as an improvisatory aid. I encourage any piano teacher (or teacher of any instrument) to find a way to incorporate one into your studio. Here’s why:
1. You can’t sit on a metronome
Unlike the metronome, the cajón can be used to keep a steady beat and as a chair. Double points!
Though said tongue-in-cheek, it’s true. Lately I’ve been sitting on the cajón while I teach and love it.
Mine is nearly the exact height of my piano bench. Like a small chair, it’s light and easy to move around. Because there’s no back, it encourages me to sit with good posture while I teach. A cajón drum makes a great piano teacher’s chair!
2. It’s instant
Usually in a lesson I can feel what tempo my student should use at any given point. With a metronome I need to test out a few tempos before I find one that’s just right. This only takes a few seconds, but any time the student is sitting and waiting is a loss. Not just of time, but momentum.
When you need to guide your student with a steady beat at a practice tempo, the cajón is there at your fingertips. Tap out a quick lead-in before they play and have them join you. Or, if they’re already playing, you can join in seamlessly and match their tempo. No need to take time to fumble with the metronome.
Since I’ve started using it, I’ve noticed a big change in the flow of the lesson. This must be experienced to be believed.
3. Spontaneous rhythms
When a steady beat seems too boring, the cajón enables you to enhance your student’s music with a little spontaneous improvised rhythm. This can even be in the style of the piece they’re playing.
Some kids truly rebel against the metronome. However, playing with an external beat is part and parcel of being a functional musician. It’s a required (and acquired) skill. A metronome is an external beat. I compare it to a drummer in a band. But a piano teacher sitting on a cajón is a drummer in the band — the piano lesson band!
Instead of tapping out a metronomic beat on the cajón, tapping a simple rhythm makes the skill of playing steadily with an external beat seem more real-world and relevant. Students don’t seem to protest playing with the cajón. They actually like it!
4. Flexibility with tempo
Steady beat is paramount for making most music. But steady beat doesn’t cover all music all of the time. There are special moments in some pieces when the music calls for a fermata or ritardando or accelerando or rubato.
When using a metronome through these moments of tempo change, you either have to reach up and stop the metronome so the tap doesn’t interfere with the change of tempo, or override it with your voice guiding the student while the unhinged tick is still going.
It is much more musical to keep the beat yourself on the drum, and then adapt the timing of the beat with the student through the tempo change. This helps teach a natural instinct for pacing the various changes.
5. Student keeps the beat
When you need to demonstrate music and trade places with your student, invite them sit on the cajón, not passively, but as an active music-maker. They could keep a steady beat or improvise their own rhythm.
The benefit is that the student doesn’t just observe what you’re showing them, but through the beat or rhythm, they’re absorbing and internalizing what you’re teaching before they even try it on the piano.
6. Teaches downbeats and upbeats
One interesting and unexpected benefit revealed itself in real time during one lesson. I was reviewing metre, beats in the bar and how we know which beat should feel the strongest (the barline sets up the next beat 1), when my student and I traded places and he sat on the cajón. All of a sudden he was playing the downbeats low on the drum and the upbeats high on the drum.
Not only did the terms “downbeat” and “upbeat” match spatially where on the drum he was playing, but the sound and emphasis also matched. The lower he played on the drum, the deeper and heavier it sounded, and the higher he played, the lighter. My student pointed out what he had figured out and I thought it was nothing short of brilliant.
Bonus: Two reasons you should keep your metronome
The metronome is still irreplaceable. Every studio should have one. I have a small collection — from vintage to my ‘cat metronome’ — each one fascinating to my students. To cap off this blog post, I’ll add two bonus reasons you don’t want to throw it away:
1. Metronomes are timeless reference points
With 1815 as the invention date of the metronome, musicians have now been using it for more than 200 years. Beethoven was one of the first to adopt its use. The metronome is the most accurate way for any composer to communicate in print exactly what tempo he or she has in mind. This takes away any guesswork for performance tempos and is the number one reason to keep your metronome.
2. Metronomes are still for home practice
The cajón is great in lessons, but doesn’t help with home practice. All students will still benefit from doing some practice with the metronome at home. For this reason, you’ll want to take time to teach them how to use theirs and assign tempos for home practice. Many pieces can be learned at half tempo in the initial stages. You’ll want to check the performance tempo and do the math to get the half-tempo number for home practice, and write it in their instructions.
The metronome is also a valuable tool for working a piece up to performance tempo.
As rhythm and metre are the basis of all music, the backbone and heartbeat, the elements that most of music hangs its hat on, it gives your students a huge advantage to have a cajón in your studio! This simple little percussion instrument keeps it playful and experimental. You get the feeling that in the middle of a lesson, anything could happen!
- It serves the dual purpose of beat keeper and teacher’s chair.
- It’s instant and can be added seamlessly
- Adds the element of rhythmic improvisation
- Allows for flexibility with tempo
- Gives opportunity for the student to keep the beat
- Teaches downbeats and upbeats
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Video of the Week
Jazz that Train (Early Intermediate, Level 3) from the print and eBook collection Rock That Train, 11 Late Elementary to Early Intermediate piano solos. Or, check out the studio-licensed eSheet for Jazz that Train!