Is there a right time in a child’s life to embark upon piano study?
The answer is not clear as I’ve discovered from years of teaching.
With technology creating an environment in which children as young as two or three are propped up at electronic keyboards hooked into big-size computer screens, the whole area of learning “piano,” or a toyish substitute for it, can be clouded with ambiguity.
So let’s start with the premise that piano lessons involve teaching a child to play on an acoustic instrument. A hammer-weight digital, comes in a distant second, since the nuances of touch and tone can’t be explored in depth.
That said, I usually recommend that a child begin weekly private piano lessons between the age of 6 and 7, but in some instances, after a preliminary interview, I might advise an earlier or later start.
Since I’m not a Suzuki teacher who follows the paradigm that piano learning is closely allied to language acquisition, and therefore incorporates a model of imitating the teacher’s playing without awareness of notation and musical symbols, I would decline students as young as 2 or 3. In essence, I don’t want children to “play by ear” as their primary learning vehicle because of its tendency to become habit-forming.
Rina, 5, a poster child for an instructional jump start, proved to me that a 4-year old (the age she began) could integrate cognitive, affective, and kinesthetic processes in a healthy, ever-growing piano-learning experience.
As an advocate of the playground as music teacher, I drew upon my staircase, for example, placing letter names of notes on each step, and had Rina romp up and down to “Frere Jacques.” Her spatial understanding of the tune, preceded its physical transfer to the piano and aided her learning.
In a capsulized journey, she had a cognitive sense of the music alphabet going forward in step-wise and skipped motion, and the kinetic experience of getting from one note to another in a prescribed space that was marked off with flashcards. Singing accompanied the activity with letter name recitation.
(Her knowledge of the alphabet was a given, and was well-embedded before lessons began)
It’s now been about 10 months into her instruction, and she “reads” a pre-notational form of music, knowing how to play quarter notes (“short sounds”), half notes (“long sounds”), eighths (“running notes”), whole notes, (“whole note hold down”) and the dotted-half note (“half note dot”)
We’ve placed cardboard notes on the piano rack so she can clap their value in a horizontal sequence even at her tender age.
Spatially, this 5-year old, sees floating notes on a page of paper, and comprehends which way is up and down. (Hand signals assist)
The best transfers ensue from playing activity away from the piano, to the instrument itself.
Back in the 70s, the ideas of Francis Webber Aronoff as expressed in Music and Young Children became popular. At the core of her teaching were play activities that sprang into rhythmic forms, subsequently transferred to instrumental study.
Likewise, a book titled, The Playground as Music Teacher by Madeleine Carabo-Cone revolutionized ways of teaching music to very young children. They were urged to clap, tap, run, and skip to a rhythmic stream of quarter notes, eighths, and rapidly, light sixteenths.
Three forms of “knowing” were identified: “kinesthetic” (physical), “cognitive” (analytical) and “affective” (emotional). In the total creative musical process, all were meant to fuse together.
On a kinesthetic level, the child had abounding energy that begged for release in movement.
In this spirit, Rina warms up with a relaxed flowing, improvised beginning to her lesson. As I play “Harmony of the Angels” by Burgmuller, she moves gracefully to the music. Her activities are age-defying.
When she sits at the piano, she emulates the tranquility of a weeping willow tree, having supple wrists and relaxed arms to evoke a graceful eagle. These images can be preserved in the imagination of a very young child, reaping benefits for piano study at its most basic level.
In all fairness to this discussion, there are children who can’t sit still long enough to benefit from a minimum dose of instruction. They might have a five to ten-minute attention span. In these instances, piano lessons might be postponed, or parceled out in small segments.
Irina Gorin, a piano teacher in Carmel, Indiana who’s created her own unique method book, Tales of a Musical Journey, takes students as young as 4-years old, especially if they have older sibs enrolled in her studio.
“With such young children, I give 15-minute lessons, twice a week, not requiring them to practice at home. Later, when a child is ready he graduates to longer periods of instruction.”
Gorin believes that teacher preference plays a strong role in the choice of one age group over another.
“I love teaching young kids even though it can sometimes be nerve-draining. When I raise a student from a young age, it’s an intensely wonderful relationship that evolves over time. And it should be emphasized that the beginning stage of learning is the most important one for a developing musician.”
Eddie, Gorin’s 5-yr. old student plays a Russian folk melody:
Irina Morozova an esteemed teacher and concert pianist who instructs young children at the Special School of the Kaufman Center in New York City weighed in on piano study and the right time to begin.
“Based on my 30 years of teaching experience, some kids are ready to study an instrument at as early as 5. Most, not before 6. I started at 7 myself and do not think it was too late. A few of my best students started at 8-9 and caught up with kids who had been playing for much longer.”
She asserts that “good students are those with a high IQ, a good ear, and self-motivation. Everything else she “considers much less important.”
Daniel Mori, a Morozova student plays in a recital at the tender age of 6:
From my perspective, a child beginning once per week lessons for a full half-hour to 45 minutes should be mature enough to assimilate musical symbols, such as clef signs, the grand staff, notation, meter, etc. introduced gradually through materials that are creative and innovative. It helps if the child can read his language and have expressive writing skills.
But the ingredients of the singing tone and how to produce it must be at the core of early exposure to piano study. That’s where Gorin’s Tales of a Musical Journey excels.
For those using the Faber Primer Piano Adventures books, the Lesson and Performance albums show a small map of the keyboard, and begin with notes floating in space with up and down movement. Words imbue rhythm and the student would do well to have a first grade-level reading ability, basic coordination skills, and a good attention span.
A positive feature of the Faber series is its introduction of black-key combinations of two and three groups at the outset with significant playing experiences using these notes. The white ones are then easily identified by their proximity to the black keys, but they stick around a bit too long without black key relief relief. It’s a backslide in the learning sequence.
A 6 or 7-year old can gradually acclimate to the feel of the piano, using black notes; acquire basic rhythmic awareness through the word-driven music, and slowly but surely progress to putting the floating notes on the staff with letter names attached. Along the way the teacher and student will play duets that bring even two-note melodies to life through harmonically rich accompaniments.
But to re-emphasize, I believe a child should have some basic readiness to digest what the Fabers have offered.
One youngster, for instance, may have unusually good coordination skills, but not have reached a maturity level to focus on printed-page lesson material. Another might possess greater strength in cognitive areas but need more time to improve technique.
This is why each prospective student should be evaluated individually without any hard and fast rules governing his so-called readiness.
Even before lessons are undertaken, I advise parents to surround their children at home and in transit, with good music in many forms and styles: classical, folk, ethnic, jazz, etc. and I recommend that they attend children’s concerts in their area that are specifically geared to capture the interest and imagination of young people.
In many cities there are music appreciation-based groups for very young, pre-school age children that provide singing activity, and pitched, non-pitched percussion exploration. (The Orff Schulwerk and Music Together are prime examples)
These can be wonderful experiences that prime a child for private piano lessons.
“Music Together,” in particular, “is an internationally recognized early childhood music program for babies, toddlers, preschoolers, kindergarteners, along with the adults who love them. First offered to the public in 1987, it pioneered the concept of a research-based, developmentally appropriate early childhood music curriculum that strongly emphasizes and facilitates adult involvement.” (http://www.musictogether.com)
I’m familiar with a local powerhouse Music Together teacher who engages so many little ones and their parents in kinetically-driven musical experiences, integrating folk-based themes from all over the world with classical and jazz idioms. It’s an exciting musical potpourri that my student Rina sampled for at least 3 years before she started private piano lessons.
In conclusion, the guidelines I addressed with respect to age appropriateness and developmental readiness for piano lessons, should be a working model for parents who are considering private instruction for their children. An open mind is needed along the way.
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