When is a child ready for piano lessons?

When is a child ready for piano lessons? That is the question I’ve been asking myself over the last few years and I think I’m coming closer to an answer that makes sense to me.

I’ve been teaching piano lessons regularly for about 12 years now, and after working with several children ages 4-7, I’ve come to a conclusion (I think—it’s not definitive by any means). The conclusion is this: all children are ready for music exposure from birth; children ages 1-7 are ready for general music exposure/lessons in a group setting, involving singing, dancing/movement, and drumming/rhythm (using instruments or the body). But traditional piano lessons? I would highly recommend that parents put them off until age 8 or later. Why do I say this?

The nature of traditional piano lessons involves sitting for 30 minutes, focusing attentively on various tasks. It involves reading and writing skills: knowledge of the alphabet (at least A-G, forwards and backwards), the ability to write letters and numbers and shapes. It involves the ability to decode abstract symbols into sounds (and according to Music Learning Theory by Edwin Gordon, most children don’t develop abstract thinking skills until age 11). It involves following verbal instructions. It involves a degree of independence and the ability to be alone for a set period of time, with at-home practice. It involves fine motor skills.

Children aged 4-7 learn primarily through free-play and active movement. Do traditional piano lessons make sense for this type of learning?

From my experience, there is a wide-range of readiness in the preschool-aged set. I once taught twin girls who were not yet 4 when they started, and they surprised me with their ability to focus and sit still, and use their fingers for 5-finger scales. On the other side, I’ve taught 7-year-olds who could sit still for 10 seconds before getting up to bounce around the studio; unable to use fine motor movements or recite the alphabet. But overall, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is unfair to expect young children (ages 4-7) to sit still for 30 minutes and decode abstract symbols with many dimensions (including loud/soft; short/long; detatched/connected; and up/down, in addition to maintaining correct hand position and posture). Indeed, I believe it does harm to put a child in piano lessons too early, if they are not developmentally ready.

On the parents’ part, I understand their thought processes in wanting to put a young child in piano lessons. Maybe they read an article about how piano lessons makes children smarter; maybe their elementary teacher suggested lessons to help the child develop his/her ability to focus; maybe they want to expose their child to lots of activities to see what he/she is interested in; maybe they saw their child climb onto the piano bench and play keys with glee, or pick up a tune by ear; maybe they feel if they wait too long to put the child in lessons the window of musical opportunity will have passed. Whatever the reason, I ask that parents do more research before jumping into lessons.

Recently, I met with a piano teacher who uses a method called “Music Moves for Piano” by Marilyn Lowe, which is based on Gordon’s Music Learning Theory. This non-traditional method (and by non-traditional I mean that note-reading is put off for about a year and a half) first develops the child’s sense of rhythm, pitch, and pattern awareness. The idea is that kids (and adults too) cannot focus on reading abstract symbols while internalizing music (or really hearing it). If a child has never had training in singing, rhythm through movement, or playing by ear and pattern recognition (without written symbols, purely by ear), then notated music will not make sense–they probably won’t have a context for beat or resting pitch (the tonic or “key” of a tune).

I have used traditional reading methods for years (includes all the books you can find at a music store, such as Alfred, Faber’s Piano Adventures, David Carr Glover, John Thompson, etc), because that is how I learned, and I’m sure, how my teacher learned (and how her teacher learned, etc., back to the late 1800’s). I have been frustrated with these methods more often than not because I always felt like I was teaching to the method, and not how I (intuitively) thought kids should learn. Why were my students having a hard time with rhythm, beat, and note-recognition? Why couldn’t they improvise a simple 4 or 8-bar phrase? Why couldn’t they keep time? Why couldn’t they sing on pitch? Why couldn’t they copy a melodic pattern by ear? Why couldn’t they play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” by ear? I felt like I was going over the same concepts week after week with no improvement. It didn’t help that most kids weren’t practicing daily at home for a set amount of time. It wasn’t until I took an Orff Schulwerk class 7 years ago that I realized what was missing from traditional methods: a way to first internalize music before reading it.

If you’re thinking, well, most piano teachers learn through traditional methods and they turned out musically capable, think again. In my case, I can play well from a score, but feel uncomfortable if it’s taken away and have to rely on my ear to play a tune. I would like to be a better improviser, but my piano teacher didn’t introduce me to improv until I was in high school. When I became a music major in college I got frustrated because I couldn’t do melodic dictation to save my life, sight-sing, harmonize a melody (vocally or on the piano), or arrange a tune.  In other words, I was not a functional musician. I was a robot musician who could only translate a score into something resembling real music. I was jealous of my ear-trained friends who could improvise beautifully on the piano or make up sweet guitar riffs or sing a hymn in spontaneous harmony. I would guess that many, if not most piano teachers, feel limited in their functional/ear skills as much as I do. Over the years I’ve had to teach myself how to improvise, play chords from a fake book, arrange a tune, and sing on sight (still not good at that one!). In college I begged my piano teacher to teach me how to arrange jazz standards so that I could sound like Liberace. She had no clue how to do it.

Anyway, to make a long story short, in order for a child to be successful in traditional piano lessons, he/she needs to have prior experience making music by ear (again–singing, dancing, drumming), and seeing/hearing their parents make music too. Playing recorded music to your child isn’t enough. Active participation is a must. This can be accomplished through banging on pots and pans or instruments, dancing or marching to music, and singing along with folk songs or lullabies at home; or through taking  early-childhood music classes: Kindermusik, Music Together, etc. I also think if a child (aged 5-7) starts out with the Music Moves for Piano series, it will be a good foundation for music reading later on.

My new mission is to get more acquainted with Music Learning Theory and Music Moves for Piano, and to encourage families to make music along with the child taking music lessons or classes. Music cannot be learned in a vacuum; a child needs to be exposed to it through his/her home life (just like reading picture books) from an early age (preferably from birth!).

 

1 thought on “When is a child ready for piano lessons?

  1. Great article. I agree across the board.

    The amount of concentration that develops in young children over prolonged periods of music lessons is amazing. You would not believe it unless you saw it first hand. I think this is a must for any parent wanting their kids to develop and do better in school and life.

    I do not think there is a universal starting age for children to begin learning to play music. It is a case by case basis. My niece started formal piano lessons before she turned three. she loves them and has fun with them, but more importantly, she learns. If a child is mature enough to sit still and concentrate for an extended period of time, they are ready to start learning to play an instrument. Piano is one of the best instruments to start with as it is one that they cannot hurt very easily and one that transitions well to other instruments as they get older.

    Introducing a child to music and allowing them to play an instrument (even it is is a shaker or small drum) along with it is a great way to develop that part of their mind and ensure that they will become musical. There are even studies that suggest music lessons at a young age can help neurological development.

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