When is a child too young to start piano lessons?
This question is almost guaranteed to stir up a debate and ruffle the feathers of both parents and teachers.
In today’s competitive world, parents want to give their child a head start. Years ago kindergarten sufficed, but today babies are yanked out of their cradles and plunked into a pre-school class when they’re as young as two and a half. Is it any wonder that parents think music lessons should be started as soon as the child stops gurgling and can croon a few words of a nursery song.
And to compound this pressure is the unfortunate presence of so many young “prodigies” who are displayed by doting parents and teachers on You Tube. It is far too easy to overlook the fact that most of these children are schooled by a mother or teacher with the same obsession and time given to hybridizing orchids. They in no way have normal childhoods and many are required to spend hours at their piano every day. And unfortunately by the time they reach their teens, they will no longer be playing that piano. There are a few exceptions, but very very few.
Understandably nearly every mother thinks her child is special and has more potential or talent than others of the same age. This is a charming concomitant of motherhood, but … alas … is very hard on the child and that child’s teachers. I recognize the fact that I will have only a very few children with exceptional abilities in my classes.
But I love teaching and for me each child is very special. Every one of them. The quick learners and the slower ones, the chatty ones and the shy ones. Those with limited attention spans who bounce around on the piano stool and the timid ones who sit apprehensively awaiting my instructions. I enjoy the confident and bright ones but dote equally on the awkward and insecure.
In each child I see the opportunity not only to give a skill but also the thrill of playing the piano. And above all, I hope to give them a love of good music for the rest of their lives, whether they continue playing long after lessons are over or like so many people find other interests as they grow to adulthood. By playing for them the finest classics and sharing the wonderful stories of the composers I expose them to “live” music in a way far too few teachers do. A few measures of a concert piece … a Beethoven Sonata or Chopin Ballade … can captivate a child like almost nothing else. They stand next to me as my hands streak across the keys and the look of awe on those young faces, ensures me that I’ve cast my spell on them.
Just as my very first teacher did over fifty years ago. I can still feel the thrill of her hands conjuring pure magic out of those ordinary piano keys. I couldn’t believe so much music could be contained in that instrument.
However the age of the beginner is a crucial question. Because if the learning process is too slow, the child will lose interest. A happy and enthusiastic student is one who is not being frustrated or bored by the learning process.
A basic truth is that the learning ability of an eight year old is exponentially much greater than that of a five-year old. Even a very bright five-year old. And unless a student has mastered his first learning “codes” … which are the A B C’s and reading … it will be next to impossible to grasp the much more difficult codes involved in playing the piano.
♦ A much overlooked fact is that if a child begins lessons at five or six and then when he’s nine, his friend begins to learn piano too, at the age of 10 and a half, they will BOTH be playing at approximately the same level. The nine-year-old will cover in a year and a half what the other child has taken five or more years to accomplish. This is a disastrous waste of time, money and above all, a child’s natural enthusiasm for learning. And even sadder is the fact that the child who started too early is very likely to be bored and apathetic about his lessons.
♦ And playing the piano is NOT easy!
In fact it has been said that the playing the piano involves more simultaneous separate brain functions than any other activity. The ultimate cerebral multi-tasking. Here’s what learning to play very simple keyboard pieces requires …
1) You must learn the names of every key on the piano. There are 88 of them!
2) You must learn the names of each of the notes on the five staff lines and the spaces between them, This is the Treble clef which contains the notes of the upper half of the keyboard and is normally played by the right hand.
3) Yep. There’s more. This is the Bass clef and the notes in the lower half of the keyboard. These notes are normally played by the left hand. Remember you have to play with BOTH hands and know the notes in BOTH clefs. See the different note names on the same lines. Maybe a little confusing huh?
4) Okay. Now you have to remember your finger numbers. This is pretty easy.
4) Now you have to play these notes “in time”. They’re not all the same length. Some you have to hold longer than others. These are just the note values. We have “rests” too.
When you get the correct notes on the keyboard matched with the correct ones on the staff lines with the correct fingerings as well as the proper beats, you’re just beginning. Then there dynamics and phrasing. Not to mention the dexterity required to play all those notes.
A five-year old simply cannot learn these basics in a reasonable amount of time. Unless of course, the parent wants to give up his day job and spend six hours a day at the piano with the child. It simply cannot be done. Yes there are “watered down” versions of teaching,. but if waiting a couple of years can avoid this stop-gap, it is by far the best decision for the majority of the younger students.
Another problem is a very basic one. The child’s hand size. We don’t have proportionate sizes of piano for children unlike violins which in Japan are sometimes made as small as 1/16th the regular size. Pianos are all the same size. Small electronic keyboards of course have fewer keys … but each key size is the same with of course a much looser action. No serious teacher would recommend one of these to a parent other than as a “trial” instrument for perhaps six months at most if there is no other option.
The most important reason of all to wait until the child is older, has larger hands and is more able to absorb the complicated lessons involved in playing the piano is to make the learning process EASY. If learning is too difficult, the child will lose interest and soon be whining that he doesn’t “like” piano lessons.
Making music should be a fun …. not a burden. Piano lessons should never be considered an extension of regular school classes but as a treat and as recreation.
Please don’t ruin music for your child by making it another chore.
It is one of life’s great joys and should be a privilege to be able to learn to share in making music. By waiting until the child’s body and brain are more developed and his attention span is longer, that learning process can be cut dramatically. A smart parent might even reward the child by saying …” When you’re eight, you can start lessons …”
And finally here is the age I DO recommend for beginners. I’ve found that a minimum of seven and preferably eight years old is optimal. Beginning earlier will NOT give your child that coveted “head start” in the majority of cases. It will more likely result in early boredom and drop-outs. Give your child a chance to love his music. It should be a joy.