The Piano Education Page - Tips - Your Child and Lessons
Retrieved: September 20, 2001
When Should My Child Begin Lessons?
A large number of questions that we get are about
our opinions on when a child is deemed ready to begin lessons.
While there are no hard and fast rules, there are some pointers
and signs that you can use to determine when your child is ready to
One cannot magically deem a child to “be ready” for
lessons at any given point. More
important is the idea that the child needs to be tuned into music from
early on – from the age of 1 day is a great starting point.
It doesn’t matter if you want to start a musical genius or if you
simply want your child to be delighted with the wonderful sounds of
serious music. Perhaps the single easiest and best thing you can do to
get your child ready to begin lessons is to expose yourself and your
child to lots of classical, jazz, and other forms of musically sound and
well performed music together. An appreciation of good music will help
get and maintain your child's interest.
How wonderful for the child to be hearing the music
of Bach's Violin Sonatas or Partitas, to Chopin Etudes, Mozart's The
Magic Flute, or Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony as well as the
jazz/improvisational sounds of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea,
George Shearing or Gary Burton! One does not need to have to spend
thousands of dollars investing in a huge CD collection; having a radio
station tuned in to the sounds of the great classical and jazz composers
is an excellent way to develop knowledge and appreciation of good music.
With rhythmic patterns, harmonics, and melodic ideas already well
established in the child's musical ear, the segue into lessons will be
an easier process because the child can see a well-defined goal for the
There are varying opinions as to when a child
should "officially" start lessons. Give a good deal of thoughtful
consideration to the fact that, the younger the child is when beginning
lessons, the more involved the parent will have to be with actively
helping out with practice time, attending the lessons and being
positively involved during the lessons. Generally, the child should be
able recognize numbers 1-5, and understand the correlation between the
numbers on the page and the finger numbers. If the child knows the
alphabet letters of A through G, that is all that is required from a
beginner. Most beginning books will spend a lot of time reinforcing
these skills, so don't be too concerned if the knowledge is not always
Your child should be able to sit still for about
10-15 minutes while focusing on having fun at the piano. Under no
circumstances should you expect a little one to be able to sit for
longer than 10-15 minutes at a time while keeping a strong focus on any
one musical concept. If your child can do these things, chances are you
can start meaningful lessons for the child. Many parents get very
frustrated because they expect their child to be able to concentrate for
a longer amount of time. The child simply cannot, and lesson time and
practice time becomes pure torture.
There are many musical concepts that can be taught
via moving physically up and down the piano, playing notes at the
highest and/or lowest parts of the piano for example, going up and down
the keyboard saying the letter names of the notes aloud, going up and
down the piano finding all the groups of two and/or three black keys, or
finding the individual natural keys on the piano. Rhythm can be
approached in a very active manner, having the child clap their hands
and/or march in time to certain rhythmic notation. If your child's
teacher doesn't do these things with the child, you can talk to the
teacher about them or do them yourself at home before the studio lesson.
There are of course exceptions to any and all
claims of appropriate starting ages for children. I have had excellent
students start as early as just under three years old. Others were not
really ready until later. Don't let your expectations and desires be the
sole determinant of when the child begins lessons or how fast you feel
they should progress. The most common frustration of the parents arises
because they have forgotten that their child is taking the lessons and
doing the practice. Remember, the child is a child, not a miniature
adult. Your child's teacher must also recognize this seemingly obvious,
but often overlooked, fact of life. When you interview the teacher for
the first time, observe carefully the level of patience the teacher
shows with your child and the ability of the teacher to generate
interest in the child. If the teacher can't accommodate your child's
needs and individual nature, look for another teacher.
Although having an acoustical piano is not
mandatory for the beginning student, it certainly is beneficial to have
for the child to experiment with and create. If money is a factor, there
are many places that will allow a person to rent an acoustical piano
(not a grand piano per se). If you choose to get an electronic keyboard
initially, the keys need to be the size of a normal standard acoustical
piano and touch sensitive, because nearly ALL beginning methods DO
introduce dynamics such as forte (loud) or piano (soft) after a few
lessons. Make sure the physical
practice space has adequate lighting, ventilation, and a solid, secure
seat. One can often find piano benches at estate sales, garage sales,
etc., if your piano does not already have a bench. If you have an
acoustical piano, please make sure that it is in tune; having it tuned
twice a year will help. Remember that much of the life of a child is
devoted to exploration of new things and concepts, so the more you can
make the home situation like the studio, the more the child will be able
to indulge his exploration instinct at home.
It's important to keep an open dialogue going with
your child's teacher about how he is progressing in lessons. This is
true for children of all ages, but especially for really young students.
If, after some lesson time has transpired, your teacher feels it is best
for your child to stop lessons for a while and wait a bit before
restarting, it generally best to accept that advice, rather than force
the issue or create a negative experience for your child. Wait six
months to a year before restarting lessons. In that event, no one has
failed and it doesn't mean your child will never be ready to begin
lessons. Nothing negative should be thought of the concept of waiting a
bit to restart lessons. In the meantime, keep the music flowing at home,
let those notes continue to be heard. Then you can restart your child's
lessons a little later with the child still having an interest and
desire to learn.
If the previous exposure to music has been going on
for a long time, and if the parent(s) have reasonable expectations for
their child taking lessons, it should be a positive and life-long
endeavor for all involved. Always feel free to communicate honestly and
openly with your child's music teacher, if there are any misgivings or
questions about what should be done, or if things are not going as
smoothly as one would wish. However, please keep in mind that most of
these discussions should probably be done away from the child, perhaps
setting up a separate time for a phone consultation or personal time
with the teacher sans the child.
Being a Supportive Parent of a Piano Student
Many successful musicians regard their parents'
influence and inspiration as the most important in sparking their own
interest in serious music. Whether or not your child makes a career of
music, your efforts in bringing the world of music to your child will
make his or her life fuller and happier. You can help your child learn
faster and enjoy lessons more by doing a few simple things:
- Become Involved With Your Child's Piano Training. Discuss with your teacher the kind and degree of involvement which makes the best sense for your child. Should you attend lessons and, if so, how often? Should you supervise or coach practice sessions and, if so, how should you go about that? Communicate often with your child's teacher to monitor progress and learn what you can do to be helpful to the learning process.
- Encourage Your Child As Much As Possible. Be sure to praise effort as well as accomplishment. Even if your child does not learn as fast as another, in the long run, hard work will determine the final result. There is no better way to bring about the hard work than to reward the effort. Try to express interest in what your child is doing, even if you are getting tired of hearing "Chopsticks". Encourage your child in every way possible to perform for family and friends in relaxed settings.
- Avoid Negative Criticism. Most of us respond better to thoughtful, loving help than undirected criticism. If your child seems uncooperative, it may mean that they need more help, encouragement, and support. Punishment is usually not a long-term solution.
- Make Sure Your Child Knows That You Consider Music a Serious Commitment. Schedule piano practice time for your child just as regularly as you do Little League or soccer practice. See to it that practice sessions are as free as possible from distractions. If the piano is in the living room, try to limit access to the living room during your child's allotted practice time. If your child has not practiced for some reason, do not cancel lessons. If you find the child's interest in lessons waning, the best thing to do it to discuss the problem with your child's teacher; often, this can be solved with proper stimulation and supervision by you and the teacher working together.
- Provide As Much
Cultural Enrichment As Possible. The experience of listening to music
without the pressure of having to play the notes correctly can add
greatly to your child's
appreciation for music generally and lessons in particular. Go to
concerts with your children whenever possible. Introduce your
children to the works of the
masters by playing the music in your home. These days, computer
technology, especially the advent of CD-ROM disks, has made it
possible to explore great music
in a way that is fun for the entire family. If you have a
CD-ROM drive equipped computer, try any of several different
CD-ROM's of this type.
Taking an Active Role in Your Child's Piano Training
As we have said elsewhere on The Piano Education
Page, it is important to choose a teacher who can not only teach your
child how to play the piano, but provide musical enrichment experiences
like performance opportunities (home concerts, recitals, and
competitions), encourage access to professional music concerts, and
develop an overall appreciation of and interest in serious music. What
may not be so apparent to parents and students is that these extra
activities represent a major commitment of largely unreimbursed and
uncompensated time and money for the teachers and organizations who make
them possible. This fact of life is especially noteworthy in light of
the fact that only a small fraction of teachers make them available at
all, precisely because of the time and financial burdens required to
bring them about. Thus, the task of bringing these activities into being
falls disproportionately on a few active and committed teachers. Even if
your child's teacher doesn't actively support such enrichment
experiences, your child benefits from the efforts of other teachers and
volunteers who do the extra work to put on a competition or recital.
You can have a major impact on the quality of the
music education your child and other children receive by volunteering
your time and/or contributing money or goods to support such enrichment
activities. Volunteering can take only a few hours of your time a year,
but can be of tremendous help to already overburdened teachers and
organizations who run such events. Such volunteer service generally
requires no special training, but can be critical in producing the best
possible experience for your child. It can also be a lot of fun for you!
For example, by volunteering to provide and handle
refreshments offered to students at competitions, you can not only make
the competition more fun and enjoyable for your child and other
children, but take some of the load from the teachers who must run the
competition itself. You can also serve as a monitor, receptionist, or
usher for the competition. When your or another teacher mounts a studio
outing to the symphony or other performance, offer to drive and
chaperone a car full of kids. You'll get to see the glow in the kids'
eyes as they experience their first professional performance. If your
teacher does recitals or home concerts, you can lift a major burden from
the teacher by offering to organize refreshments or a bring-a-dish
dinner after the recital. If your time is limited, we can say without
fear of contradiction that monetary contributions to your local music
teachers organization will be greatly appreciated and well-used to
enrich your child's musical training.
These are just a few of the ways you can help.
Getting involved is easy. Just talk with your teacher about how you can
help in the studio's activities or call the local music teachers
organization to volunteer. Your piano teacher should be able to give you
the phone number of a contact person there, as well. If these kinds of
activities aren't readily available locally, talk with your teacher
about the possibility of starting them with your help. If they are
available and your teacher doesn't participate in them, encourage the
teacher to participate and to volunteer as well. We think you'll find
that you'll enjoy helping to better music education for all the students
in your area.
My Kid Wants to Quit Piano!?!?
It's very common for kids, usually about the time
they reach the middle school years,
to begin to temporarily lose interest in their piano lessons. If
they are allowed to quit lessons, they usually regret it in later years.
It is possible to get your children through this difficult period
without having them make a decision they may later wish they hadn't made
and for which their young age and limited experience ill prepares them.
We firmly believe that, while kids say they know what they want at Jr.
High and High School levels, they really don't know exactly what they
will be missing by quitting the study of the piano. We have had many
adult students who kick themselves for having quit and now realize the
folly of their choice made as teenagers.
One thing that often works well in keeping kids in
piano lessons is a tit-for-tat agreement to continue lessons in exchange
for some privilege or reward (sometimes known as "positive
reinforcement", sometimes known as a "bribe"!). Such rewards need not be
monetary or material. For example, a possible "contract" might be
allowing your daughter to get her ears pierced in return for her
continuing piano lessons for 3 more years.
Similarly, you can reward good lessons and participation in
recitals and contests, irrespective of whether your child won.
Many teachers will also help this process by
rewarding students with special things. Some teachers will take the
student and their parents out to dinner after a contest to celebrate the
experience. Others will have "team" T-shirts made when a group of
students travel out of state to compete in a contest. Your teacher can
also help by gearing repertoire, within limits, towards your child's
tastes during those difficult years. Gershwin and Chopin may appeal to
teenagers a little more than Bach or Beethoven and can be musically and
educationally just as valid as learning goals. Because social
development and acceptance are so important during the early teen years,
ask your teen's teacher to try to arrange opportunities to participate
with other teen's playing chamber music, duets, or any other musical
group activity which stresses classical training. This would not
normally include high school band participation, unfortunately. The
guiding principle is to find ways to make the musical experience as fun,
exciting, and new as all those other activities that compete for a
teenager's time and interest.
Whatever reward system you choose, make it clear to
your child that this must be a good faith agreement between you, the
parents, and your child. Regular practice and attendance at lessons are
every bit as important to the child's fulfillment of the contract as
your allowing the privilege. For this to work, the child has to know
that if they "welch" on their end of the contract, you will not trust
them in similar situations in the future and they will lose those
privileges they might otherwise have gained. Such an arrangement not
only helps keep your child in piano lessons, but also builds character
and responsibility for their future.
Despite your best efforts, your child may refuse to
cooperate. Should you force the child to continue lessons? Every
situation is individual, so we can't tell you what to do here.
However, in this event, careful consultation with the child's
teacher is called for. The teacher may be able to rebuild interest by
changing repertoire, using computer teaching tools, setting up
opportunities for playing in groups with other children the same age, or
other incentives based on the teacher's knowledge of your child. Simply
allowing the child to quit lessons is usually not the best way to handle
a resolutely uncooperative child. Such a decision should only be taken
as a last resort and involve extensive consultation with the teacher.
Finally, a word just for you parents: hang in
there, it's worth it! Give yourself a pat on the back that you recognize
and are dealing with the issue. Chances are your children will thank you
when they get a little older for encouraging them to stay in lessons.
Suggested Practice Techniques
You can learn faster and easier if you do a few
simple things. These suggestions are not time-consuming and easily
carried out if you schedule time for them in your day on a regular
basis. The most important thing to remember about practice is that it's
not the amount of time you spend, but how well you use the time that
counts. If you practice several hours a day and simply repeat the same
mistakes each time through, you have not practiced effectively.
- Take the time to read your assignment book. The specific assignments and practice suggestions are intended to assist in practice.
- When practicing, make sure that the environment is free from distractions and noise. Turn off the TV, put the answering machine on, and give yourself a quiet environment to work.
- Make sure the music is legible and well-lit.
- Set aside a specific time each day for your work at the piano and stick to the schedule. If you are a morning person, practice in the morning. Avoiding or delaying getting to the piano will just make you run out of time.
- Unlike studying for tests or exams, piano practice cannot be crammed in at the last minute or day before the lesson. Plan the time to do practice every day.
- Don't try to learn a piece all at once; take it in sections and practice a section until you can do it without mistakes three times through. Then move on to the next section. Remember the value of taking a section slowly, making sure that you play all the notes correctly and that you count through difficult sections. Worry about playing to tempo when you have the notes and the rhythm right. A very valuable way of knowing whether you've learned a piece is to learn it well enough that you can play either hand independently starting at any place in the music. When you can do that, you can begin to work on being musical with the piece.
- Learning a new piece of music is hard work. Reward yourself after a good practice session by playing a familiar and favorite work just for the fun of it. Think of this as the dessert after meal.
- Above all, don't simply repeat mistakes. Use practice to work out mistakes, not to reinforce them by continually repeating them. When you repeat mistakes, they are just that much more difficult to get rid of later.
- Take the suggestions from your teacher seriously. After long years of training and teaching experience, chances are your teacher's suggestions will prove successful, if followed.
- If possible, participate in concerts and recitals at your teacher's studio, even if only to audit. So much can be learned by performing yourself and listening to others perform. Attend as many recitals and concerts as possible. Given the large number of musical organizations sponsoring concerts there is ample opportunity to hear music. The more music that you hear, the more of an idea of the musical concepts you can get.
- Read biographies of composers, performing artists and conductors. Also, rent movies that are related to the lives of musicians. There are so many wonderful movies and books readily available, that really no one has the excuse not to know more about the composers, their lives and music. If you can't find the time to read books, classical CD's and records usually have useful and interesting information about the composer, the musical structure and ideas expressed, and the performers in the recording.
- Obtain a musical
dictionary. The dictionary will give the meaning of the Italian terms
(for example, Allegro vivace or Molto espressivo) which are used in the
score to indicate how the piece of music should be played and how it
should sound. You'll find your playing of the music will improve faster
if you understand how the composer meant the music to sound in the first
place. You can also get this kind of information here from The Musical
Using a Home Computer For Music Education
The benefits of music training for cognitive
development in children are well-demonstrated and extensively
documented. Given the natural affinity of computers and music, it is not
surprising that visitors to The Piano Education Page often ask us about
how they might use a home computer to develop their children's (or their
own) interest in music. It is actually quite easy and relatively
inexpensive to use your computer to provide a fun way for kids to learn
about, appreciate, and even play music. In fact, if you want your
children to learn to play the piano, you have an especially good set of
options. While the computer will never replace a quality, dedicated
teacher, it can be a huge help with lessons, both in providing training
and drill and in broadening the child's appreciation for music as a
Music software generally doesn't require "big iron"
to run. If your computer can run modern games, chances are it has more
than adequate power to run the overwhelming majority of music software.
Even if the kids are using your old "clunker", they probably have enough
hardware to run most of the software. Any 486 class or better machine,
so long as it has at least 8 Mb RAM, a CD-ROM drive, and sound card and
speakers is adequate. Some very good music software will even run well
on a 25 MHz 386. If you have an older computer with a
less-than-realistic FM-synthesis sound card and tinny speakers, you
might want to consider upgrading the sound card to a wavetable-type and
the speakers to ones with a separate subwoofer. You'll find that this
upgrade will make a HUGE difference in the quality of sound you can get
from the computer; it can be done for under $100. In our view, there is
no inherent reason from the standpoint of the hardware capabilities to
choose a Macintosh or an IBM-compatible, though you will pay more and
have a lesser choice of software if you use (or buy) a Mac. If you would
like to learn more about how sound and music are generated on the PC,
see our article, Creating Sound and Music on the PC on our sister site,
Although much of the available music and piano
software will run without a MIDI keyboard, virtually all of it is easier
to use with a keyboard. In addition, if you or your kids want to try
your hand at composing on the computer, you'll almost certainly want a
keyboard. While it's possible to
spend over $1000 on a full size digital piano keyboard,
you probably won't want to make that kind of investment unless
you plan to use it as a temporary substitute for an acoustic piano.
Fortunately, there is another acceptable route.
Several commercial piano teaching packages offer a reduced size
(4-5 octaves) MIDI-compatible keyboard as part of the hardware/software
system. The MIDI keyboard is simply plugged into the MIDI/joystick port
of your sound card or into the serial port interface. We have reviewed
one such package, whose software is also very good, here on The Piano
Education Page. You can find additional information about MIDI keyboards
and piano teaching software in an article we wrote for our sister site,
Muzine, and in another article on digital keyboards here.
You can use software on your home computer to enjoy
and increase your knowledge of music, aid in learning an instrument,
indulge your creative impulses by actually writing and publishing music
on the computer and, finally, just to have fun with music. Each of these
areas is represented by large numbers of software programs - too many to
adequately review here. Our article, Choosing and Using Music Software
in the Studio and Home, has lots of great tips on how to choose the
right software and how to get it up and running efficiently. Generally
speaking, we think you'll find that most music software is good to
excellent, both in usability and pedagogical soundness. It's usually
easy to install and get running. The only "tweaking" you're likely to
have to do is, occasionally, some minor adjustment of your MIDI
configuration settings in Windows. If you're on a tight budget, there
are many different music software shareware packages, several of which
we have reviewed on The Piano Education Page, that you can download and
try for free before you commit to purchase. Most commercial music
software programs also have free downloadable trial versions available
(see our reviews for links to many of them). For more information on
music appreciation software, see another of our articles for Muzine.
For in-depth reviews of many different types of music software
packages, read The Piano Education Page Software Reviews.
Many teachers use computer teaching labs in their studios. Most run standard off-the-shelf software available to everyone. Although a computer can't be seen as a replacement for a teacher, you can use your computer to give your children some of the same advantages that the best teachers provide with their computer teaching labs. It's easy and your kids might even thank you for doing it!
"Let us come before Him with thanksgiving and extol Him with music and song." Psalms 95:2
"Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music." Psalms 98:4