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How do I know if my child is ready for piano lessons?

January 5, 2010
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There are a variety of things to consider when deciding to put your child into piano lessons.  Here are some ideas and information to contemplate when deciding if the time is right for you and your child.

1. The age and maturity of your child:  Typically, the youngest you would want to enroll your child in traditional piano lessons is 5 years old, though sometimes it is better to wait until he/she is 6-8 years old instead.  Piano lessons (even at the beginner level) require a child to listen carefully, pay attention, concentrate, understand basic counting/math concepts, recognize letters, etc.  While lessons can occur with a young child, who often has a very short attention span, both the teacher and parent need to be realistic in goals and expectations.  It is likely to take longer for this child to learn a concept and move into more difficult repertoire then it would for the same child at the age of 6-8 years old instead.

On occasion there are children mature enough and capable enough to begin lessons even as young as 3 or 4 years old.  I am teaching a student now who fits into this category.  However, this is an exception and not a typical situation.  This particular child is able to sit still and concentrate remarkably well for the age.  Even so, lessons and practice sessions are adapted to fit the shorter attention span, resulting in lessons of only 15-20 minutes in length and practicing of only 5 minutes at any one time.

2. “Wiggly” or calm: Piano lessons require concentration and sitting still at the piano both for the lesson and during practice sessions.  If your child is able to sit still and listen well then he/she may be ready to begin lessons.  But, if your child is very antsy or “wiggly” (can’t sit still for more than a few seconds at a time) and/or has a hard time listening or concentrating, it may be best to wait until your child has matured a bit more before beginning traditional piano lessons.

3. Numbers and letter recognition: It is perfectly OK to begin lessons before your child can read.  However, since learning the piano involves counting and recognizing letters and symbols, if your child is not able to do simple counting or recognition of letters it is probably better to wait a little longer before beginning lessons.  For a pre-reading child to be successful you will need to observelessons and actively participate in your child’s practicing at home!

4. High vs. low, loud vs. soft, etc: A child is capable of beginning lessons when he/she understands, and can hear, basic opposites such as:
(a) high vs. low
(b) loud vs. soft
(c) long vs. short
(d) same vs. different

You can “test” your child’s ability in these areas by doing some of the following:
(a) Singing higher and lower notes or playing higher and lower notes on the piano (if you already have one).  If your child is able to recognize which is higher and which is lower correctly (within 3 tries) then you can count that as “learned.”
(b) Playing a CD (or other musical device) at different volumes.  If your child is able to recognize which times (within 3 tries) were louder and which were softer then you can count that concept as “learned.”
(c) Making vocal sounds (like “bah, loo, bum, oo”) for different lengths.  If your child is able to recognize (within 3 tries) which sounds were longer and which were shorter then you can count that concept as “learned.”
(d) Clapping different patterns to compare.  If your child is able to recognize whether the rhythms you clapped were the same or different (within 3 tries) then you can count that concept as “learned.”

The greater number of concepts your child is able to understand, the better prepared your child is for beginning piano lessons.  If your child is not yet able to hear/recognize/understand these opposites then you can continue to work with your child until he/she does.  Waiting until *after* these opposites are learned to place your child in lessons will create an easier and more enjoyable piano experience for your child.

5. Level of interest your child exhibits: If your child is asking for piano lessons then chances are that he/she is ready to begin learning the piano!  A natural desire to learn the piano is an excellent indicator that your child is capable of the task.  However, if your child has provided no indication of interest, or worse yet has balked at the idea of learning the piano when you mentioned it, then beginning lessons is contra-indicated.  It doesn’t do your child any service to force piano onto him/her if he/she is not ready or interested. However, if you feel strongly that your child would benefit from learning the piano, even though your child doesn’t show signs of interest, then when your child is mature enough to understand the benefits of learning the instrument you can discuss the positive outcome of playing the piano and come up with a great reward system to help motivate your child to learn.  Accomplishing your goal of having a child learn to play the piano will be much easier if your child is mature enough to understand and weigh out the benefits of musical instruction despite a lack of interest.  Be sure to consistently provide rewards for positive behavior; this is the very best way to motivate your child to continue to practice and attend lessons.

6. Evidence of natural musical ability: Does your child sing, use pencils as drum sticks, pretend straws are flutes, dance to every kind of music, etc?  If so, your child has a natural love and ability for music.  This is a great positive sign that your child is ready to begin piano lessons.  Please note that if your child does not do the above listed items it does NOT mean that he/she is unable to learn to play the piano or love to play the piano!  However, if your child does show signs of music naturally flowing out of his/her body then this is a great indication of readiness to begin lessons.

7. Parent participation: As mentioned above, pre-reading children will need assistance in reading their assignment sheets, reading the titles of the pieces they are learning, recognizing symbols and letters, etc.  As a parent it is crucial for you to be actively involved in lessons and practices if you decide to enroll your child in piano studies before he/she can read.  Even when your child is older and independent it is still vitally important that you stay involved in your child’s piano study and be aware of what your child is learning.  Children need an in-home support system where encouragement is given, guidelines and responsibilities are established, and consistent rewards are received for positive practicing.  It is important for you to make sure that your child is practicing appropriately and adequately, and that assignments are finished for the next lesson.  It is also essential that you provide your child with a quiet environment in which to practice and supplies needed for learning (such as a metronome, flashcards, pencils, etc).  If at this time you are unable or unwilling to commit to participation in lessons and practicing then now may not be the right time to begin lessons for your child.  On the other hand, if you’re able and willing to participate then the experience will be rewarding for all involved (parent, student, and teacher).

If your child is ready to begin piano lessons the next step is to find the right teacher. If you do not feel that your child is quite ready for lessons yet, but you still want to provide your child with musical experiences then don’t lose heart.  There are many opportunities and resources available to provide your child with musical experiences prior to beginning traditional piano lessons.  Consider some of the following options:
1. Kodaly/Orff classes
2. Kindermusic
3. Suzuki piano
4. Community classes and resources
5. Dance programs

Many of these resources can be found online and specific for your location.

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