The Christmas Wind-down

preteen girl thinking

dreaming, thinking

Christmas is just around the corner and in Australia I can begin to see the Christmas wind-down as children and adults alike become tired as Christmas approaches. But do we put music in a box and forget about it until February 2017? What a pity that would be…

Music is a living art that brings joy to most of us. How many of us would wish a world without music. But learning to play an instrument is very demanding, and sometime we feel we would like a break… just for a little while. Unfortunately any break from learning a skill means a lose of momentum, the muscles forget what they have learned, facts are forgotten and sometimes it takes a while to pick up skills again after the break.

Here are a few ideas to keep your child playing over the long break:

  • Organise a Christmas concert for family and friends. Perhaps include a sing-song to keep all happy.
  • Look out those Christmas songs and carols.
  • Play with a sibling who is learning a different instrument.
  • Play piano duets with a friend.
  • Play and sing old songs.
  • Start your own band.
  • Make up songs on the piano, with or without words.
  • If you have a keyboard let your child explore different sounds and rhythms.

Make piano part of family life and watch skills grow, even through the summer break.


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.

Dogs and Birds Piano method for children aged 3 to 6

Dogs and Birds book 1Introducing Dogs and Birds, a wonderful way to teach piano to very young children. Yes, children as young as 3 years can learn piano through the Dogs and Birds method. I have found that 3.5 to 4 years is the lower limit for most children but some children are ready to start earlier.

As a piano teacher I am often frustrated at the lack of musical experiences shown by children when they start piano lessons. Children benefit enormously if they have some sense of beat and sing before they start learning piano. In Australia, unfortunately, it is rarely so. A generation ago children learned nursery rhymes on their mother’s knee, then they would watch Play School or Sesame Street and pick up songs which they sang as they played. My son at the age of 2.5 years would wake us up each morning by singing through his extensive repertoire of songs. I’m not sure why but it doesn’t necessarily happen any more and children often tell me that they don’t sing at home and seem surprised I asked. The consequence is that children are deprived of a happy occupation and source of comfort.

I’ve been teaching these basic music skills to very young children for a few years now, but Dogs and Birds has made me very excited, as it really does include everything to make our little people into fantastic musicians and give them a love of music to last their life. The method is ideal for children aged from 3 to 6 years.

How does it turn a three-year-old into a wonderful musician, and is it hot-housing?

  1. Dogs and Birds was devised by Elza Lusher, who is a native Hungarian and studied at the Liszt Academy in Hungary. In Hungary all students study solfege for at least a year before learning an instrument. When Elza moved to England she discovered that it was necessary to build musicianship into her piano lessons. Dogs and Birds was born. Ella has taught the method to children as young as 2.5 years, but recommends the method for children over 3. She has
    animal tiles

    animal tiles

    taught groups in a Montessori nursery school with excellent results.

  2. The materials are beautiful and very appealing to young children. The pictures and stories are designed to capture the child’s imagination and excitement.
  3. Animal tiles and coloured staves significantly speed up learning notation. Children do not need to know letters or numbers, only colours.

    coloured staves and animal tiles

    coloured staves and animal tiles

  4. Children graduate from picture notes to traditional notation.
  5. Children sing as they play, reinforcing learning.
  6. Use of arm weight for first pieces ensures relaxed playing.
  7. Children acquire a good sense of beat and rhythm through activities and games.
  8. Imaginative play leads to sensitive playing.
  9. Children are learning the way they learn about everything, through a sense of fun and wonder. Parents do not need to push their children, so hot-housing it is not.

Early music experiences aid learning in many other areas, including reading and maths. This method is perfect for parents who are committed to giving their child the very best start in music. But I have some words of warning:Dogs and Birds stave

  1. This method needs a friendly and gentle approach. Parents need to be deeply interested and involved and be sure they understand what the child needs to do at home each week.
  2. The helper parent should assist with all home practice, never getting cross or forcing the child to practise. Dogs and Birds is a very enjoyable activity that small children will enjoy. It should be done every day but kept as fun.
  3. Although it is possible to learn with a keyboard, musicality is greatly enhanced if the child has a piano to practise on. Electric keyboards do not have the nuances and range of sounds that delight a small child.

Please contact us if you have a small child and feel that Dogs and Birds might be right for you.

For more information: Dogs and Birds
To see what people are saying about it: Testimonials

Piano Readers

Music sight reading books

Our new reading books

This year I am introducing readers for the children. I have made many books by selecting pieces from other books and combining them into suitably graded readers. This is a lending library and it saves me lending out dozens of books. As I own all the books I’m pretty sure it is legal. I hope!!

I took the idea from school readers. Children from first days take home a reader every night and hey presto, pretty soon they are reading quite well and very soon very well and so on. You would be amazed if you knew that many children take years to learn to read music, which I assure you is a simpler process than learning to read stories. What goes wrong, I feel, is that children do not read enough music, so don’t quickly become familiar with music. So these readers are roughly graded and can be borrowed and enjoyed, then returned and changed within the same colour. Once a particular level becomes very easy it is time to go up to the next level. At this point I will hear a few pieces to make sure the child is ready to move up. Mostly I will give a few hints and leave this books to be enjoyed.

I’m hoping children will feel encouraged to explore, even pieces which may have unmet signs and challenges. They will not need to play every piece to me, so they may feel freer to explore and just have a go. The pieces are roughly themed and of a similar level but each book contains a variety of pieces and may vary in difficulty.

Yellow to Blue/Green cover first year to about Preliminary Grade ( that is equivalent to Grade 2 sight reading). Triple Yellow is stretching out and all the levels above are Grade 1 (Grade 3 sight reading) and up. You will notice that it is normal for a sight reading level to be approximately two grades below their actual ability level. These grades are of course piano grades and not school grades. For those unfamiliar with piano grading, there are 9 grades (Preliminary to Grade 8), Your child may take an exam at the end of each stage which is of a similar standard throughout the world. Preliminary exam is taken on average about 2 years after starting. Grade 8 is the final exam taken 8 to 10 years later by which stage your child will be a competent pianist.

It is important to realise that these readers are supposed to be easy to read and therefore should only be enjoyed at the end of normal practising (otherwise they will be playing way below their ability level!!) They are for enjoyment, and to show children that they are able to just pick up a book and read it. The world of music opens up! If children are struggling to read these readers the level is too high. It should not be a book to struggle over but one that can be read straight away. Hopeful also children will meet some music which they wouldn’t otherwise meet, and perhaps some old favourites from films, or that they have sung at school.

Please encourage your children to enjoy their readers. Show excitement and ask them to play a few pieces for you. Because while they are having fun, they will be improving their reading out of sight! Thank you.

Why play games in piano lessons?

Snakes and Ladders board

Learning music takes many forms

Here in Australia it is the second week of the teaching year. It is hot and steamy and the kids arrive tired and yawning from school. Really they just want to jump in the pool and cool off. What better way to make piano lessons the next best thing than to play a game or two in the air-conditioning?

Is that the only reason to play games? Not at all. In fact I wish that was what I was doing. Alas, caught on the hop as usual I am still not quite ready for the year. Why is the Christmas holiday never long enough? I have been making new music readers and grading them, making games, planning competitions, planning lessons. Phew! We are spending these first two weeks picking up the threads, checking nearly lost knowledge and forming our year plan. How much better if we could have done this through games. Well next week we will!

Yes, next week we will reinforce this knowledge through appropriate games and hands-on activities. And they won’t even know!!

I now make all my lessons 40 minutes, which gives ample time to cover theory, ear training, sight reading, rhythm and beat work, singing etc. without me feeling that I am neglecting areas. Games and activities using colourful materials allow this 40 minute lesson to be broken up into manageable sections which keep the brain firing.

What sort of games?

Board games, matching games, listening games, writing games, iPad games, hands-on……… whatever I can think of.

Preteen boy happily playing a video game

music apps

What do they teach?
  1. Names of notes
  2. Names of intervals
  3. Note values
  4. Rhythm and beat
  5. Keys
  6. Chords

In fact, just about any aspect of music can be taught through games or some fun activity. So if you are thinking “Why am I paying for my child to play games?’, understand that children learn quicker and more thoroughly through games. Games unlock the resistance about learning. Games make for quick learning because you have to know the rules to play. Games lead to easy success which is massively encouraging.

So dear friends. Never fear! As the year progresses I will be using more games in the lessons and maybe there will even be a few to take and play at home… along with the music readers……… but that’s another story.

What and How to Practise

mother and child at piano

learning to how to practise

Well here it is, the long awaited article of exactly how to practise. This is a biggie!!

We sign our child up for piano lessons and everything is happy ever after. Nope – it doesn’t work that way. Children have no idea how to practise. They may not touch the piano between lessons; or they fiddle about getting disheartened; or, if they are very keen, they will keep playing through their new piece hoping eventually it will sound right. Adult beginners are much the same. Sound familiar?

Did you know:

  • Children love it if you learn along with them and play together with them, duets or just the same notes. And don’t worry. If you are learning this can be very simple, but so much fun!
  • Success is achieved by a combination of quality and quantity. But at the start efforts may not be brilliant, so quantity may have to suffice until quality kicks in. Make sure your child has enough to practise to keep busy. Rote pieces can be great for this – yes, even chop-sticks!


lady playing piano with cat

Even adults need to learn to practise efficiently

  • Some children practise only one or two days for longer time, not realising that this strategy doesn’t work. Piano playing is a skill so half learning one day, forgetting, relearning the next day actually reenforces the process and gets best results. So at least 5 days a week to make good progress please.

For best results:

  1. Make sure your child knows what to practise – keep it simple – enjoy.
  2. Pieces should be practised in the head before playing. This saves children jumping in without thinking and is very successful.
  3. Longer pieces will probably have been broken into phrases by the teacher. Work on ONE phrase at a time. It doesn’t have to be the first phrase. I have been having great success by shutting the keyboard and helping the pupil memorise the piece before playing. This works so well if they really look. A phrase, if the right standard for them can be learned in as little as 5 minutes!!
  4. Repetition is an important part of learning. It needs to be done very deliberately to avoid mistakes creeping in. It should then be happily in long term memory, ready to call on when desired. I love this quote by Stephen Heller, a 19th century teacher and composer:

    The amateur practises until he gets it right. The professional practises until he cannot get it wrong.

To become a good practicer….. well you have to practise!