THERE ARE ADVANTAGES TO STARTING YOUNGPiano study is a long-term endeavor. The fundamental goal for all our students is life-long musical self-sufficiency and literacy, not professional stardom. Just the same, it takes diligence and a great deal of time to reach this goal. Although it varies significantly from student to student, you can expect it to take the typical young beginner at least five years to reach the point where they can take a substantial new work and learn and credibly perform it on their own.
STUDENTS OFTEN LOSE INTEREST IN MIDDLE SCHOOLStudents who start at age 5 have a big advantage when they reach the teen years: with six or seven years of focused study behind them, they’re pretty good! If they do quit, they usually will have mastered some skills that will stay with them. And more importantly: they’re less likely to want to quit in the first place! We all are less likely to lose interest in something at which we’ve always excelled, compared with something that we’ve only recently picked up.
OK, SO HOW YOUNG CAN WE START, THEN?It depends on three main factors: the specific temperament and style of the teacher and/or program you are starting; the amount of time and energy the parent has to invest in the project; and the child’s expressed interest in lessons and demonstrated readiness.
WHAT KIND OF LESSON PROGRAM ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?The readiness skills and level of parent support that are required for success in a general music class or recreational program are different from what are required for success in serious one-on-one individual lessons. If your primary goals are to give your child exposure to music and music-learning, and to build their readiness for more academic study at a later time, there are many group-lesson programs that specialize in giving students a foundation in music fundamentals through enjoyment-focused classes. The goal of a “serious” individual lesson program is a bit different: to give the child a comprehensive music education that is grounded in performance achievement. (We define “performance achievement” this way: learning to play music with a sense of purpose and completeness; and, playing music that demonstrates increasing mastery over time.)
PARENT ASSISTANCE AT HOMEIf you’re looking for a comprehensive piano-based music education, the single greatest determinant of the youngest child’s success is the parent’s availability to assist and support the child at home. Pre-schoolers lack study skills! They don’t have any idea how to implement practice directions on their own. They need a lot of support and assistance. This doesn’t mean that they can’t study music in a serious way; but it does mean that the project of music lessons and at-home practice is something that is done together with parent and child working as a team. Musical training for the parent is not necessary—just a positive working relationship with your child, a sense of humor, and a desire to discover and explore alongside your child. When a child starts lessons at age 4 or 5, the parent needs to observe most lessons, and to make at-home practice a fun and enjoyable experience every day in two to three short practice sessions.
DO YOU EXPECT YOUR CHILD TO PRACTICE INDEPENDENTLY?It’s probably best to wait until study skills are more fully developed—and this is older than you might think. Sitting a 6 year-old down at the piano for 30 minutes without offering detailed interactive guidance is in most cases going result in practicing that is minimally effective. And more importantly, it’s likely to lead to boredom and/or frustration! Children can rarely be expected to practice without direct and active support before age 7, and many students don’t figure it out until 8, 9, or even older. (Parent assistance is best thought of as a continuum: the 8-year-old can still benefit from guidance—it’s just less necessary than with a pre-schooler, and you can reasonably expect your older child to complete practicing with less assistance.) There’s a big risk in starting at older ages, though—it gives your child time to get interested in other things! Your 9 year old may have the study skills to take music lessons…but you might have missed the window for capturing, and keeping, her interest.
BOTTOM LINEBoth the child and the parent need to enjoy lessons right from the start in order to capture the child’s interest for the long term. At some point, the child will need to learn how to practice in a focused and academic manner at home. Otherwise, she’ll never develop real skill at the instrument. But happiness is the foundation on which achievement is built: if the child doesn’t like what she’s doing, her music education will be short lived. You can help to make lessons enjoyable and to kindle the spark by offering your child lots of positive, fun, and detailed at-home support; or, by finding a fun group class or a recreational-focused program; or, by waiting until the child is old enough to study independently. In an ideal world, an early start between the ages of 4 and 6 makes for a more complete and successful music education—but an early start also means a lot more work for the parent. Decide when to start by considering how much energy the parent has to commit to the task; the child’s expressed interest in lessons; and the child’s demonstration of traditional readiness skills. Music study is hard work, but it should also be fun. And if done right, it’s a journey that will last a lifetime—good luck!
ADDENDUM: Traditional readiness indicators, special considerations, and thoughts on group programs.
TRADITIONAL READINESS INDICATORSStudy skills and active parent support are the most important factors in deciding how young to embark on an individual lesson program. The following traditional readiness factors are also important, but secondary:
Reading or pre-reading skills: Can he read? If not, does he have pre-reading skills? Does she know her alphabet and numbers? Can she spell her name? Can he track visually? Students do not need to be reading fluently before beginning lessons, but pre-reading skills are an indicator of readiness.
Pattern identification: Can he complete basic exercises such as “which picture is different”? Playing the piano and reading music is all about identifying patterns, starting with groups of two and three black keys on the piano. If you already have a keyboard in your home, ask your child to find the groups of two black keys by covering them with a card. If you don’t have a keyboard, it’s easy to test readiness with similar pattern identification games.
Listening discrimination: Can she distinguish high sounds from low sounds? The next step is to see if the child can identify whether a short pattern of notes is going up or down. Aural same/different games are also useful indicators of the child’s ability to hear and distinguish tones in an organized way.
Kinesthetic/small motor skills: Young children learn to perform music (and most complex tasks) by starting with big muscles and progressing to small muscles. Can your child keep a beat while dancing or marching? Can they sway or move their arms in time to recorded music? Good small motor skills are also desirable because the student will find it easier to learn new songs at the very beginning. At the same time, somewhat weak small motor development is not usually a major concern because in most cases, motor skills will eventually “catch up” to musical ability in time—and of course daily practice naturally improves motor skills.
Attention span/following directions: Your teacher is going to give you a lot of directions! Many young children seem to follow directions naturally without effort; for others, it’s not so easy. Regarding attention, a threshold of at least ten minutes of focused concentration is a useful indicator of readiness. Board games, direction games (“mother may I”), and games with sequential turn-taking can all give clues about youngest kids’ readiness.
Student interest: Does your child seem to like music? Is she asking for lessons? Does she improvise or play around on the piano, xylophone, or other instruments? These are all typical, and strong, indicators that your child is ready for lessons. On the other hand, moderately weak indicators of self-interest shouldn’t prevent a child who is otherwise ready from enjoying music lessons. A very few children have an almost-magical innate interest in music learning…but most young students’ interest level is determined primarily by the interest level of their parents (which they model), their relationship with the teacher, and of the many successes and achievements which come with consistent practice.