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

Why should my child practise?

Boy playing piano

starting to play

Let’s look at why practice is so necessary.

After years of teaching I know that to succeed in mastering the piano, three things are necessary:

  1. The determination to succeed
  2. Daily practice
  3. Good reading skills

If you are saying to your self, but my child doesn’t want to be a professional musician so there is no need to be practising long hours, you are only partly right.

Ponder these thoughts:

  1. How do you know that your child will not become super interested in music and want to take up music in some shape or form?
  2. Any amount of daily practice will give results if done regularly and with interest, but…
  3. Practice is only successful if it is done properly.

Children enjoy a challenge but most children don’t have a clue what they want to achieve or what to do at home.

This year I gave my students next year’s work before Christmas. Most welcomed the new challenges with great enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to get going. This suggests to me that the craving for new is a determining factor in the will to work. More about how to create interest in my next article. Let’s just talk a little about practice here.

  1. Your child should practise because playing the piano is a skill. The fingers and brain have to be trained to work together, just as you need to practise ball skills to succeed in that area. It is important to establish a practice routine right from the start of lessons.
  2. Your child should practise so that practising becomes a part of daily life, like brushing teeth. Even little children can be encouraged to play some pieces through each day in a fun way.
  3. Your child should practise everyday because establishing a routine is also easier for the parent to cope with. It just is – no questions.
  4. Your child should practise everyday because the amount of practice done determines the progress. But try not to watch the clock. Make practice goal-orientated.
  5. Your child should practise because not practising at all usually means an almost total lack of progress. Yes – unfortunately it is one after school activity that won’t happen by just turning up for lessons.
  6. Your child should practise to foster commitment which has a wonderful flow through into all other areas of endeavour.
Piano keys

practise means getting better and better

Parental attitude plays a big part in the progress of the child. Children are little clones of their parents until at least teens, and sometimes life long. You may not realise it but they pick up your attitudes like a sticky ball. Children will not like a piece if a parent doesn’t like it. If you want them to take music lessons but show no interest they will not be interested either.

If parents nag a child to practise but again show no interest, the child will not want to practise. Wild enthusiasm, interest and support give better results than nagging. And of course gently enforcing the practice routine.

The first thing parents should do each week is to check what their child is supposed to be practising. I write the weekly goals in a notebook. These are what should be achieved by the next lesson. But often I find the notebook has not been opened and the child has played old pieces all week. Parents can help a lot by keeping their child focused on what needs to be done.

The goals for the week are carefully chosen by the teacher to address the different aspects of learning the instrument. It might be finger training, looking for patterns in music, theory essential for playing, ear skills or improving reading skills. Challenges faced and overcome become a strength.

Left to their own devices many children will avoid aspects that they find not so interesting, thus causing weaknesses that can grow and become problems.

Practise takes effort and concentration but the results are enormous. Children can become addicted to the sheer success of hard work. Surely that can’t be all that bad! Why should your child practise regularly? Because without practice there will be no progress and they will fail to learn to play the piano. Learning to play is not just for the talented, but a wonderful achievement that anyone prepared to work can do.

Three Essentials for Learning Piano

teenage girls practising band

playing music with friends

The road to success can be long and hard. But does it need to be? Learning to play the piano can be a real chore for some children, but for others it is a great joy. Why is this?

I would really love to say I have an answer that will turn every child into a budding pianist but perhaps that’s a bit optimistic.  As a teacher I am always looking for better ways of helping each child to succeed. I have distilled the three essentials which seem to be true for all.

These three things that seem to indicate whether a child will be a struggler or fly along happily. Thank goodness all these things can be changed or improved at any time.

Children come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their natural musical abilities. Some children have no natural sense of rhythm, some seem to be born drummers; some can sing like angels, others need to learn how to use their vocal cords; some are natural memorisers, etc. etc. But everyone has the wonderful ability to learn.

These 3 essential elements greatly increase the likelihood of short and long term success.

1. Grit: Whether children are learning to spell, doing complicated sums, or learning to play the piano, the determination to succeed is crucial! Once the first excitement of starting the piano has worn off, there comes a realisation that to learn to play this beautiful instrument is really quite challenging. Some children enjoy this challenge and put everything into achieving ever greater goals. Some children groan and hand the whole responsibility of their success over to their parents and teacher. Needless to say without much success. Please note by success I mean baby steps. Really being able to play and enjoy a lovely piece how-ever easy. Grit, or determination keeps a child trying until they can – just like a little child learning to walk. Grit is crucial for learning a skill, and playing the piano is a skill.

2. Practice: Knowing how to practise and when to practise is a crucial skill and needs some organisation of self and home to get it right. It is a self-discipline, and as such has enormous flow-overs into every area of learning for your child. In fact it is life changing. It needs to be done regularly and properly. A time should be found which will work every day, and it should be stuck to. The gains are huge and the side-effect is that your child will start to love playing. The ‘how to” practise is more tricky. Aimless playing through and watching the clock achieves very little and should be avoided. Having a goal to achieve for the day/week and succeeding shows real progress and is very inspiring. There are many good books written on this subject. It is definitely worth getting this right.

3. Good reading skills: Teachers call this sight reading. It means that your child can pick up a piece of music that they have not seen before and play it. How wonderful is that!! Good reading skills mean that your child can have fun playing lots of music, not just the few they are learning. Good reading skills have enormous pay-offs because now your child can read and learn pieces much quicker and so, you’ve guessed it, make huge progress. Some of you may be thinking – surely that is why my child is learning the piano? Absolutely! And yet it is amazing how many children are not able to read anything without months of excruciatingly slow learning. You would find it amazing if after years of reading your child could not open a book and read a story, but this is what I see everyday when children attempt to play through a new piece. I work through sight reading every lesson, but children need to play new music everyday to bring their skills up to a level where playing piano is a pure joy.

cartoon mountaineer

climbing to success

So there we have it. Some many disagree with this list, but after many years of teaching I have found GRIT,PRACTICE and READING SKILLS are the key to success. Your teacher is doing their best, but show your child you are serious about music and help to improve these three elements and watch your child succeed.

Explorers: Learning keyboard skills and music basics

Explorers

Explorers

Explorers is a two-year sequential programme for 3.5 to 5.5-year-olds. Those clever little preschoolers are brilliantly catered for!

In 2014 I taught Kinderbach to this age group. Kinderbach is a lovely programme pioneered by Karri Gregor. But as an ex Kindermusik and Kodaly teacher with ideas of my own, I soon found myself changing bits here and bits there, wanting to introduce more fun activities that I’d already used to great effect. So in the end I bit the bullet and spent some months developing my own programme.

The step by step approach of Explorers ensures that by school age children have a good gasp of music basics and are ready to move on to more mature piano tuition. Explorers achieves this in an easy and free manner through many short activities of singing, movement, dancing, beating, rhythm work, ensemble, creating, listening to stories and learning about other instruments, musical genres and composers. Children are taught to read music so that they can sing what they read and write what they hear. Much of this is learned through games. I have also ensured that children do not get out of their depth by careful nurturing and rethinking how to present new material.

This programme is definitely worth taking time to explore. It is not often that you find an activity where children shriek with delight, while learning so many valuable things. And developing their brains through music benefits other learning and character development for the rest of their life.

Evidence That Music Benefits the Brain

preteen girls singing

Life-long music

It is always exciting to read about scientific studies that back up what we already know, or think we know, about the benefits of music.

An article appeared last month in the Medscape by Megan Brooks which reported on three new studies which showed that musical training affects the structure and function of different regions of the brain. The studies were presented in San Diego, California at Neuroscience 2013. The role of musical training is shown to have great educational and developmental benefits.

Megan Brooks reports, ‘”Playing a musical instrument is a multisensory and motor experience that creates emotions and motions — from finger tapping to dancing — and engages pleasure and reward systems in the brain. It has the potential to change brain function and structure when done over a long period of time,” Gottfried Schlaug, MD, PhD, from Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical
Center (Boston, Massachusetts), an expert on music, neuroimaging, and brain plasticity, said in a conference statement.

These new findings show that “intense musical training generates new processes within the brain, at different stages of life, and with a range of impacts on creativity, cognition, and learning,” said Dr. Schlaug, who moderated a press conference where the research was discussed.’

One study investigating the effects of music training on brain structure, found that the benefit seemed to be greater for those who began music training before the age of seven.

“Early musical training does more good for kids than just making it easier for them to enjoy music; it changes their brain and these brain changes could lead to cognitive advances as well. Our study provides evidence that early music training could change the structure of the brain’s cortex,” Wang noted in a conference statement. “There is a lot of research showing that musical training has various cognitive benefits, such as better working memory, pitch discrimination performance, and selective attention,” Wang told Medscape Medical News. Yunxin Wang is from the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning at Beijing Normal University in China.

Two points came clearly out of these studies. Early music training is very beneficial and improvisation is of particular help. I’m happy to say that our early childhood group lessons and piano lessons include improvisation and composition.