What age to start?

young beginner playing piano

Young beginner

I am frequently asked, what is the best age for a child to start learning piano. How long is a piece of string?

There are various factors to consider. Does your child love singing and hearing music? Have they shown an interest in playing? Another factor maybe the cost involved of buying an instrument and paying for weekly lessons. Now much time can you spend helping your child? Children of any age will need to follow up and practise their new skills at home. Can this be fitted into home life? Is there music in your home and an ethos of music and commitment in your family? Will you be able to be endlessly encouraging and supportive without being too dictatorial and put your child off?

The piano is often seen as a stepping stone to learning other instruments. It is certainly a good instrument to learn about music. People often forget that the piano is a beautiful instrument with a vast repertoire of music especially written for it. One never need be bored, the variety is endless. But it is also a very demanding instrument and to thoroughly master it takes about 8-10 years. A parent needs to realise the commitment required and be prepared to help a child through the peaks and troughs of learning.

Here are some pros and cons of starting at different ages.

girl at brown piano

Average age beginner

  1. The early starter (between 3.5 and 6 years): There are many advantages of starting early. If home is full of music of all sorts, your child sings and dances to music and has seen people playing instruments this maybe the route for you. Progress is usually slower at this age but lessons are fun and exciting and it pays dividends over the years as a sense of music is firmly established early and children have a headstart into quality music and the joy that brings. The disadvantage is that children require you to be beside them, joining in the fun for 5-10 minutes every day.
  2. Average beginner (7-8 years): This is a great age to start. The average child will make faster progress than the early beginner and is still young enough to see it as an adventure, springing from the music they enjoy at home. It is essential to commit to 20-25 minutes practising skills every day in order to maintain momentum and interest. You will still need to fan the enthusiasm and be around for their practice, but you may get away with being near. You will need to be involved and keep an eye on what they are doing.
  3. Later beginner (9-11): Although it is never too late to start we are reaching the limit here for children who want to reach a good standard of playing before they leave school. If a child is very committed it is just possible to get through their grades before leaving school if they want to pursue music further. To make the rapid progress they need and want to make, they will need to commit to 30 minutes practice a day and be fully involved in what they are doing. Usually children starting this age are more independent, but you may need to talk about goals and planning practice. They will need to commit to a set daily practice time which works for all.
  4. Teenager/adult beginner: These beginners are totally self-committed and as such get out of it what they put in. Often the goal is just to be able to play pieces they like on the piano, but a few aim for total mastery. I have known committed adults go from beginner, through their grades and become fine musicians.

Whichever route you choose, the journey should be fun. It is such a privilege to be able to paint sound pictures through our playing, in this wonderful living art.

Should children sit exams?

Library of classical music books

facing exams

Should children sit exam?  Yes that old chestnut again! Just about everyone has an opinion about this, even people who have nothing to do with music, or learning the piano. But somehow it always draws hot debate, with tales of horrendous childhood experiences abounding. Let’s face it, our society is soft on stressing children out, commitment, pressure.  But, although we are conscious of keeping stress down, these are the very things that build life skills and dare I say character.

Piano exams are upon us and for once I feel that our timing is not bad.  Pieces are still nicely in control, and we are relaxing and reaching the peak at just the right moment. But my pupils have worked hard to get to this stage, a year’s work has reached its peak and they are about to reach their reward – not just an impressive certificate, but the satisfaction of knowing that hard work has been done and a bench-mark standard has been reached. Learning piano is a very solitary past-time and it is very isolating to watch friends meeting for band/orchestral rehearsals. Eisteddfods allow some experience, potentially very frightening, of playing for an audience. But what about sitting exams – is it worth the stress and hassle?

As a teacher of 35 years experience, I have fluctuated between a resounding “Yes!” and resounding “NO!”  As a teacher I agonize over every note with my pupils when they sit exams, urging them on over all the fences.  Result – exhaustion!  As a parent I have agonized over every note and urged my children on over all the fences.  Result – “exhaustion!”  I’m sure teachers and parents will relate to that!  When between houses, we lived in a small townhouse with 3 children doing exams each on 2 instruments, the organization and stress was amazing.  Miraculously all the exams were passed.

So what about the children, do they benefit by taking exams?

8 Reasons why Children Should take exams:

  • There is a well-worn path from beginners to advanced (primary to Grade 8 ) which takes 8-10 years and leads to mastery of the instrument.  This standard is international and it is a good yard stick for comparing self with others.
  • Exams ensure that essential steps are not missed.
  • Exams help to build confidence.
  • Exams give a sense of achievement.
  • Exams can be very motivating and tend to make children strive for higher standards than they would otherwise.
  • Exams introduce repertoire that may not otherwise be experienced.
  • Exams provide the firm technical background essential for technique which may not necessarily be achieved otherwise.
  • Exams provide valuable life-lessons for coping with and conquering nerves when in stressful situations.

    Spelling star

    Spelling star

5 Reasons not to take exams:

  • Exams can be a very stressful experience if the child is not fully prepared.
  • Exams may take a long time to prepare for, and repertoire may be restricted if the teacher relies on this source for the year’s work.
  • A rigid syllabus can be very limiting for the imaginative child.
  • The goal of passing exams can become the only  reason for taking them. The musical element, what music is all about, can be forgotten.
  • A few parents use exams to watch their child shine and enjoy the reflected glory. They become obsessed with their child passing exams and their child excelling. This can lead to unrealistic expectations.

I now enter all my pupils, who wish it, for exams.  But there have been periods when I have refused to put children into exams.  During that period we were able to do a rich feast of music, adding a range of styles and old favourites into the usual mix.

But I found that, although the sense of freedom was marvelous, it was harder to get the best  out of pupils. It was hard to instill self-discipline into the practice routine because of the lack of enforced deadlines.

My answer is a compromise.  We try to spend at least half the year looking at music outside the main repertoire and then do our yearly exam.  So far I have had no complaints.

Teaching Music to Young Children

baby at piano

Starting early

In my music studio, from time to time I stop and look at my own teaching and assess what works, what I could have done better and what makes children smile.  I know all successful teachers are constantly looking at their own performance. It is a necessary part of growing teacher skills. Sometimes I think we focus too much on what we want to teach, and neglect the how, forgetting to adapt to individual learning styles.

Children should be happy to learn.  They learn best through laughter and play.  So if children are not smiling and not enjoying their lesson, they are likely not learning much.

I know this, but I still have to keep reminding myself.

Here are some of my thoughts which I hope will start parents and teachers thinking and reassessing how they deal with children in their care. Parents are their children’s first teachers and teachers can have lasting influences on their pupils.

I am passionately interested in how and why kids learn or don’t learn, so here are some points that worry me:

1. Children have an infinite capacity to learn.  If we unlock the door by capturing their interest at just the right moment, enormous things can be achieved effortlessly.   It feels like riding a huge wave of enthusiasm as large pieces of life’s jigsaw fall into place.   But how to open that door…. Trying to push knowledge though the keyhole of a locked door is very difficult as all parents and teachers know!  Hmmm…

2. How can I unlock this door by my presentation, and generate excitement without dumbing down learning, in the hope that children might swallow smaller bites.   How we bore children – they just stop listening!  What works well in my teaching?   What bores me and therefore everyone else?   These activities can be dropped – there is always another and better way to present.

3. I am lucky to work with quite young children who by their transparency give me instant feed-back of my success.  It is wonderful when teaching through fun and laughter to watch the doors fly open as we all move forward together.  I review the moods and quirks of the children and how much there reactions reflect their own age and home life.  How can I encourage each child to be open and relaxed, so learning can take place?

happy child rolling in sand

happy child

4. I regard the building of confidence to be the key to all learning.   A confident child will take up ideas and run with them.  A confident child will be willing to try new things and take risks.  A confident child will be willing to make mistakes, learn from them and keep trying.  A confident child will be willing to laugh at themselves and encourage others.  A confident child is a future leader.  How can I encourage this growth, knowing it is all too easy to accidentally put a child down and dampen learning?

5.  Do I make children feel happy and secure?  Are they drawn to me by my warmth and understanding?  Are they happy to follow my leads and add their own ideas?  In these days of pedophilia we tend to keep children at a distance. This is understandable, but children need to feel that you care about them as an important person in order to listen to what you have to say. It can be so easy to unintentionally antagonize a child with an unguarded look, a harsh word.  It is so important to respect the dignity of each person.

6. Who will need some special help next year?  How can I make a troubled child feel especially important?

Hope this has given you fodder for your own thoughts and that we will all strive to make this a very special year for each and every one of our children.

Bringing up Children: Do We Have It Right?

Boys acting as pop singers

taking time for fun

It’s total sacrilege to say it, but have we got the process of bringing up children all wrong? Parents have an unenviable job in these busy times, particularly mums who are often, through necessity, juggling jobs and giving their children every possible opportunity. How dare I say that maybe it is all going wrong?!  Auch!

The truth is that the average child is exposed to more and more in their early years, but seems to be less focused, less goal-orientated and less likely to stick to activities. Why is this? – certainly children are no less intelligent. The children I come in contact with as a teacher are often doing 2 or 3 after-school activities per week, some have an activity every afternoon.  Do they seem happy – no!  Many children find the constant activity tiring and stressful. Like you and me children like to relax after a day’s work, and although one or two activities are looked froward to, more become a chore and a stress as children realise they are not going to be able to live up to parents’ expectations.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some children who take it all in their stride, and crave more,  But more often than not our overloaded children are showing signs of stress and may be on the road to greater problems later. One of the sad side-effects is that we become used to our children not succeeding, which sends a message to the child that they are not very good. We begin to have low expectations often just because of this overloading.

As a studio piano teacher I find my job coming harder and harder.  More and more children seem to lack the skills to succeed.  Often television is blamed for causing shorter attention spans, but the answer is more complex. Everyone knows that interested children concentrate very hard for long periods of time. There are probably many reasons for lack of focus, but tiredness and our own lack of expectations, coupled with their lack of day-to-day problem-solving skills and sense of responsibility must weigh heavily. Many children from an young age do not expect to succeed.  Parents would do well to cut down the activities their children are involved with, and allow them to have time to think and order their own lives. Help them get their noses out of the iPads and explore their environment.

Happy girl playing chess

downtiming

I know every parent wants the best for their child, but these days we take a lot of responsibility off our children. We chauffeur them from door to door because of stranger danger, so they acquire little road sense; we don’t let them go to the park or shops alone so they perceive it is something they are incapable of doing; we book them into many extracurricular activities so they are given the impression that they can’t organize their own time without you. Not surprisingly children are losing the ability to think for themselves and to set their own goals. Of course we do not want to expose them to danger, but building up their coping skills and talking about day-to-day dangers and how to avoid them will greatly increase their self-esteem and stop them being helpless prisoners. Likewise, talking about what they would like to achieve and then supporting them to achieve that goal is helping them grow into a self-sufficient person.

Too many extracurricular activities can mean things are poorly done, so again children feel everything is too hard for them. They feel defeated and don’t expect to succeed. We should be gradually giving them more responsibility as their age and experience warrants.

How can we help our children be more independent?:

1.  Start giving children more responsibility in certain areas.
2.  Discuss things with them and encourage them to come up with solutions.
3.  Assume children will succeed in their endeavours and support them only as much as they need.
4.  Give that support with enthusiasm, joy and the confidence that they will succeed.
5.  Help them set their own goals – and set them a little higher that you would expect – they might surprise you!
6.  Enjoy your children.  Only allow them to take on activities that they really want to do, and give them time just to be a kid and do some free thinking.

children walking

happy children

Making Music part of Family life

Brother And Sister Playing Piano

the right start

So you have always wanted to play the piano and now your child is learning!  Everything is fine… or is it?  Did you know that children are unlikely to commit to learning if their parents are not very interested?  I mean, why should they, when you clearly don’t value it yourself?  Your children reflect your attitudes. So make music an important part of your life. Make music something the whole family enjoys.

Here are some ideas and thoughts.

1.    Music is a vital part of life, expressing our deepest emotions in a way that words can’t. It’s a great de-stresser.

2.    Rhythm is a fundamental part of who we are. Our hearts beat, we have sleep cycles, monthly cycles, digestion cycles. Moods can even be affected by the moon! Rhythm speaks to us like nothing else, hence the strong beat of popular music. A sense rhythm affects everything we do, even walking and playing sports. Beat is deeply satisfying and increases happiness.

3.    We are stirred by sounds of nature and try to replicate this in music.

4.    Our voice is our own inbuilt instrument, a great place to start discovering music. We were born to sing!

5.    Young babies are fascinated by sound and in fact respond to the music that they first heard in the womb.

family playing a game

being part of the family

6.    You cannot do better than introduce music to babies and encourage your young child to sing, move, dance, and make sounds in a relaxed and happy manner. Go on, have fun!

7.    Music training covers so many skills that learning an instrument can, and often does, rub off in other subjects, improving those areas also.

8.    Music enhances children’s play.

9.   Before starting piano lessons, make sure family music is an everyday part of your life.

Piano is a great first instrument.  It teaches all the basics of music and is really good for coordination.  It should only be learned when your child is ready, and with a great deal of support from you.

Music is for everyone, a beautiful part of life.  Make music part of your daily life.