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Feb 16

When Can I Start?

Noah And Kian Gigging

Noah And Kian perform at their first gig

MAJOR UPDATE since I wrote this post I was alerted to this video by @stevesilberman on twitter. PLEASE watch this and then read the post.

I am often asked about giving children piano lessons. Parents, keen to fill their child’s day with activities come flushed with pride that their toddler always perks up at the sound of a particular TV theme or a tune on the radio and while that’s a great indication that they can hear, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the next Joseph Horowitz.

Before I go on, this isn’t meant to scare people away from getting their kids into music, its just some of the realities involved.  I’d LOVE more people to get involved with a real instrument, learning to read music and away from the loop based drivel we have on most record charts.

Learning to play the piano takes years. I know – I started very young, just before I was seven years old and I’m still learning. It is possible to start younger. The Suzuki method advocates starting children as young as two years old and by the time they get to five years old, they are really quite accomplished musicians, but the method has its faults.  For me, I don’t see how a young person, with barely five years of life experience can accurately and honestly convey the emotions written into a classical piano score, although the method usually teaches playing by ear rather than learning musical notation.  The philosophy behind this is that a child can normally speak before he can read.  Add to this the inescapable limitations of their physical size – I have never yet met a five year-old that can stretch an octave with one hand or legs long enough to reach the pedals,  and I am yet to be convinced that making a child so small spend so much time learning is actually a good thing.  Kids need to be kids while they are young, missing out on a childhood has consequences that are very well documented.

I normally recommend that if a child can read, then he or she should be ready to start learning to play.  My own children have had music all around them all of their lives and very rarely touch the piano, and that’s fine by me,  I never followed my Dad around asking for a lathe and overalls.    I would say that if we are honest about it,  very few children take music classes of any kind of their own volition.  Its normally a pursuit driven by the parents and as such, the progress of the child will be stymied if the parent loses interest and doesn’t help with practice sessions.  Learning the piano at a very young age needs to be fun.  They may be able to read the words on the page of the current lesson, but will they always understand the context?  No, they won’t and so the parent needs to learn alongside for a while until the child at least gets the gist of it.

Practice is everything when it comes to making any kind of progress.  Without practice, the lessons are worthless and many parents get frustrated that they are paying for lessons with little or no results. Getting the child to put the time in on his or her own isn’t really fair if the child is young.  They have no idea why they are practising or indeed why they need to.  The key to children making inroads in their playing is regular supervised practice sessions.  Even five or ten minute bursts will work if they are done regularly.  Away from the teacher, the parent needs to make this fun and as such should be prepared to share the responsibility for their child’s initial progress.  Also, its useful to remember that not every child who picks up a cricket bat will go on to be a professional cricketer, the same can be said of playing an instrument.  There are those who only want to play music, and you will have no problem recognising that in them because they will apply themselves, they may not be very good, but they will try really hard.

Henry

Henry in rehearsal

Others will do it for enjoyment and fun, picking out their favourite tunes without your help or assistance, but the majority of them don’t want to do it.  You can tell those that are doing it for their parents because their parents will always speak for them when dropping off for lessons and their progress is always very slow. I feel very sorry for those kids.

Myself,  I used to practice for an hour at a time from a very young age,  unsupervised,  because I wanted to do nothing else but play music.  If I wasn’t playing the piano, I would be playing the guitar, tapping the table with my knife and fork,  listening to records or tapes (showing my age now) and, seeing that I had a bit of talent,  my Dad would sneak in,  lay on the sofa and somehow manage to coax another hour out of me.  As a consequence I made a lot of progress very fast.  I was the exception though.  Friends at school would take years to plod through to grade 5.  When I decided to go for some exams as I was becoming more serious as a musician, I started at grade 5 aged 13, and did that and grades 7 and 8 in less than two years.  It took a minimum of two hours a day.

The bottom line is that all children learn at different rates, and the amount of attention the parent is able to give will also be a factor in the child’s development as a musician.  External distractions such as school work and other activities also play a part.   Ask yourself, as a parent, do you have the time to commit to the activity and is the child playing for himself,  taking each exercise as a challenge to be overcome and enjoying that challenge, or are they doing it for you.

If you are embarking on this particular journey, I found these wonderful tips for encouraging your child by the excellent Dan Delaney, Berklee trained pianist, at his website PIANO INSTRUCTION which he runs with Bill Chotkowski

2 comments

  1. sara

    brilliant article – I couldn’t agree more!

  2. Sue

    As a teacher I agree with every word. Love the website. Well done Marc.

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