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 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.

Determination to Succeed

teenage girl playing pianoStudies have shown that effort, not talent lead to amazing results. 10,000 hours seems to be the magical number required for mighty achievement but steady, regular practice will lead to success.

To spend years mastering an instrument requires the child to have great determination. Support and encouragement are very necessary. Teacher, student and parent all play vital roles in the learning process.

Our greatest gift is not talent but our ability to learn.
Parents must create the desire, fuel the passion and give children the confidence that they can and will succeed.

“Quantities of quality practice can transform a person of seemingly average aptitude into a much improved and possibly outstanding performer’. Michael Griffin

Parental involvement is the key to the child’s success. To have determination the child must be excited about learning. They should also be encouraged to commit to learning for however long it takes. This is a hard lesson to learn, but a very valuable lesson crucial for achieving anything in life. The only way to learn about commitment is by committing. The piano is a very complex instrument to learn. If the child and parent are not sufficiently committed, as soon as there is the inevitable low point learning will stop. Children are learning about responsibilities in many areas. There is a requirement to complete school homework and do household chores. But parents may need to encourage their child to do these, and so it is with music. If there are family expectations for some things but not music, it gives a clear message that music learning is not important.

Children who make a long term commitment makes the greatest progress.

The parent must encourage but not criticise and look for opportunities for the child to play and perform. Once a child has tasted some success they will be unstoppable. Determination leads to success.

Recommended reading: Learning Strategies for Musical Success by Michael Griffin

True Grit

little girl enjoying music through earphones

fuelling the desire

The key to success boils down to 3 essentials: determination to succeed, correct practising, and acquiring good reading skills.

Let’s talk more about determination, or sticking to the task however long it takes. What we might call having grit.

I want to debunk straight away the myth that you are either musical or you are not; that you are either musically talented or not. ANYONE CAN LEARN TO PLAY THE PIANO.

So why do so many fail to learn to play this beautiful instrument?
The answer is complicated, but our 3 elements are at the root of the problem.

  1. Fuel the desire. Those of you who have read any self-help books or looked into the whys and where-fors of success, will know to first fuel DESIRE. Without desire there can be no goal-setting and no determination. So first fuel your child’s desire to learn piano. Make yours a musical family. Sing and dance, clap and move as well as listening to a variety of music. Watch people playing the piano on Youtube. Make enthusiastic noises.
  2. Now we are warming up to the idea, fuel the desire by encouraging the goal setting and commitment. The commitment to learn to play should be open-ended, life long. The goal should be to become a good pianist, not necessarily in the professional sense, but to be the best possible. To decide to “try it for a year” is not good enough and doomed to failure.

The wonderful book by Michael Griffin, “Learning Strategies for Musical Success,” gives details of many studies that have been done measuring talent against hard work. Hard work wins out every time. In every case, child prodigies thought to be extremely gifted have found to have put in extraordinary amounts of practice. Mozart practised for hours from the age of 3. Tiffany Poon, the renowned prodigy who was awarded a schlorship to the Juillard School at the age of 8, played from the age of 2 and from the start of formal lessons at the age of 4.5 practised over 4 hours a day! She was also very curious about music. Encouraged by her parents, she developed the ability to concentrate for long periods of time at an early age. Yes, she may have been genetically more endowed, but it was her dedication and grit that lead to success.

And so it has proved for all professional players. Sheer hard work and persistence have been shown to be behind every success story. Child prodigies appear to be so brilliant because they are compared with children of their own age, not people who have put in the same number of practice hours. The magical number of 10,000 hours seems to apply, with  professionals clocking up well over 10,000 hours of practice, competent amateurs at least 8,000 and so on.

preteen girl thinking

dreaming, thinking

In his book, Griffin also cites studies done comparing children who were told they were gifted and so had acquired a “fixed intelligence mindset,” with children not labelled talented or gifted but who had a strong desire to succeed. What was found was that the children with the fixed intelligence mindset assumed they would be able to everything easily, but were also reluctant to test themselves in case they were not as talented as they had been told. Children who believed in developing their potential were less worried by mistakes. When practising the same number hours it was the second set, those prepared to work to achieve their goals, who achieved the highest levels of success. Children who believe they are talented often have fixed ideas about their abilities and are less open to teaching and fresh ideas.

“In the investigation of superior achievement, precocity can be explained in terms of practice hours, opportunity, parental support, and a young starting age.”