Why Should My Child Start 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 for lessons.

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 whether 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 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 lessons.

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 perfectly articulated.

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 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.

"Fun" and Piano Lessons

Parents often comment that they want their children's lessons to be "fun". Many teachers respond to this desire by working hard to make lessons more pleasurable for students. This certainly makes sense to a degree, since lessons that become drudgery are hard to continue and succeed at over the long term. However, the single-minded pursuit of fun may not be the best reason for, or approach to, piano lessons. Lessons should be comprised of real learning, leavened with fun aspects. There need not be a dichotomy or conflict between learning and fun. It's just a matter of approach, on the part of both the parents and teacher.

Standards of accomplishment should not be sacrificed or downgraded in the pursuit of fun in piano lessons. Of course, a teacher who has high standards, along with no sense of humor and no willingness to make lessons enjoyable to the degree possible, would be hard to take lessons from. This could well result in loss of interest on the part of the student. However, it's high standards, whether self-generated or provided by others, that encourage us to become as good as we can be at any skill or endeavor. Having others set high standards for us has, perhaps, its greatest value in helping to teach us how to set high standards for ourselves. Unenjoyable lessons usually don't relate to setting standards too high (admitting that it's possible, in rare cases, to set ridiculously high standards that nobody could achieve) necessarily, but rather to a failure of the teacher to provide the knowledge and emotional support to achieve reasonable standards. A teacher who encourages the student, uses humor, praises accomplishment and challenges students to do their best will make even the most traditional of lesson approaches "fun".

Learning to play piano is a bit like learning to read. Most people enjoy reading. Yet, because they learned so long ago, most forget just how hard it was when they started trying to learn to read. Phonics, vocabulary, grammar, punctuation and lots more were all hard to learn. People who enjoy reading do so because they devoted so many hours to practice their skills at reading. It's now second nature to them. Nobody could say that this learning process was all "fun" or easy. Of course, we all started reading at a level and with subject matter that we could succeed at, relate to and even enjoy. Patient, positive and helpful teachers (and parents!) made learning easier - and, yes, more fun. As we got better, they challenged us to read at ever higher levels, thereby building our skills and knowledge. Most adults don't read "See Spot run" anymore, but that's probably where they started.

Those who go into the process of looking for a teacher with "fun" as their only, or main, criterion may be misleading themselves. Piano lessons shouldn't be drudgery, but if "fun" is all that they contain, students might be just as well off with a computer game or a movie at considerably less cost. "Fun" really isn't in the lessons, which entail some hard work and dedication, but in the teacher, the approach and the sense of accomplishment gained by the student from achieving a significant goal. Parents can help make lessons more fun by encouragement, attention to lessons and recognition of progress. See just below for more information on how you can support your piano student. Parents and teachers who pay attention to these aspects of taking lessons will make lessons enjoyable, without sacrificing content and standards.

Being a Supportive Parent

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, technology has made it possible to explore great music in a way that is fun for the entire family.

Taking an Active Role

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 Kids Want 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. I 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. I 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