This is a question I am often asked. There are many possible answers and a number of variables to take into consideration, and I will give you my best shot at some answers here. I’ll go by age from the youngest upwards.

Under 4 years

  • One of the best things you can do to get your child ready for the piano under 4 years of age is have them listen to a wide range of music. Listen, listen, listen.

Here is 2 month old Naomi listening at the piano with the help of Gran and Grandad. She was making a lot of happy sounds (with arms and legs in action!)

 

  • If you are a pianist, then play as much as you can when your child is around. You don’t have to engage them actively if they are not interested, but they will notice that you do this thing of playing the piano so they will have a natural interest.
  • Make the most of any opportunity for them to see other people playing the keyboard or piano. There is so much in the way of recorded music that sometimes children can grow up without realising music doesn’t just come from a machine.
  • Give them shakers or other percussion instruments to play along with live or recorded music.
  • Involve them in some sort of social musical play such as Music and Movement.

4 years old

I started my son Isaac at the piano at the age of 4. He had been listening to the Suzuki piano tapes as a baby and I was often playing the music when he was up and around. One day he came up to me and asked if he could do it to. We took it from there. I began a Suzuki piano class with him and a few of his friends.

With this approach it is crucial to have full parental involvement both at lessons and at home. If you want to use this method you should be sure the teacher understands the Suzuki philosophy.

5 years old

At this age there is a lot going on as the child starts school (or kindergarten in the USA). If they are going to start piano lessons that involve any music reading, there are five areas to be in place:

  1. The parent needs to have some sort of music reading experience/understanding.
  2. The child needs to be able to read words, at least a little.
  3. The ability to stay focussed. Try seeing if they can stay focussed on a written page of words for about 15 seconds without their eyes looking anywhere else.
  4. They need to be able to sit still while learning a new activity for at least 5 minutes.
  5. They need to be able to repeat an activity in order to consistently play something the same way again on request.

This can be a big ask for some 5 year olds and it may be better to wait a bit before starting them. Keep up the sorts of activities mentioned above for those under 4 though.

 

Next week we will look at things to bear in mind when older children start piano.

Goal setting. What do you do when it turns to custard?

 – You could try making custard tarts.

 

I remember visiting our dear friend Lorna for a game of Scrabble not long after we married. She always had yummy treats to accompany our game, and I remember her holding a plate of goodies to me saying, “Do you like custard tart?”, to which Robin quipped, “I’m sure she does, but please don’t refer to my wife that way!”

 

I’ve never been a fan of planning out the whole year. One month at a time seems to work best for me. That way I feel I can make manageable goals. Then if they do go to custard, I can just start afresh next month.

I recently heard something about goal setting that has already helped me with some personal goals this year. It was about setting things up in your life so that the goals you make will inevitably be reached. I like that. If I actually keep to a recipe, things usually turn out right.

  Whether you are continuing your music lessons this year or starting out learning an instrument as a new adventure, here are my best tips (with help from the kitchen) for setting you up for inevitable success so that at the end of the month or year you are pleased with the results. These tips directly correlate to what I have observed over many years in pupils who developed a long term love of music.

 

  1. Know your limits (Don’t take on a recipe you don’t have the ingredients for.)

Realistically take a look at your lifestyle and make your aims in learning fit into what you and/or your child have time for. What will all the activities be? What time do you have before or after school to be around to support the practice needed? What day is best to have a holiday from practice? Knowing when to have a break needs to be part of the plan.

  1. Good communication between tutor, parent and pupil (Ask someone who knows how to cook.)

Your tutor can advise what amount of time you will need depending on the age of the pupil and the level they are studying. You can also discuss the styles of music you want to learn. My pupils have always done better when I’m in good communication with their Mum or Dad. We are all on the same page when there are difficult things to work through. And I get to celebrate with them on successes too because we have all been working together. This way there is an environment of support and the child does not feel they are on their own.

  1. A regular time (Cook every day at a time when the kitchen is free from other cooks.)

Short and regular is always better than long, but sporadic. Again, this needs to fit with your lifestyle, but only one practice a week is going to make progress unsatisfying all round. I have a pupil doing very well now whose mother cleverly restricted practice to 10 mins a day at the beginning. He had to beg to increase that when he needed more time to achieve higher levels. The key was that the time was restricted. There wasn’t a sense that it would go on forever when there were other things to be done. Practice length adjusts to the age and maturity of the child.

  1. Routine structure during practice (Follow the recipe systematically so things don’t get left out.)

When establishing basic skills, a clearly structured routine for what to practice is crucial. Your tutor will help you with this but generally it should include the following:

    • current technical skills such as scales, note reading
    • a new piece to work on
    • older pieces to revise
    • opportunities to be creative: playing by ear, improvising, listening.
  1. Longer term goal (Show off your best recipe to guests after practicing on the family.)

Have a goal for the end of term or the end of the month. For some it may need to be each week. Some examples of this:

    • being able to read notes on the page without looking at hands
    • perform a piece for a grandparent
    • working towards an exam.  
  1. Regular rewards (Before you know it you’ll be selling tarts at the local market.)

We all work for some kind of reward. As adults it is often our regular paid work. For children the reward of learning music in itself is not enough at the beginning. Star charts towards a special outing such as an inspiring musical performance is a great investment. You will know what works best for your child. Whatever reward system you set up, be sure it is something you can manage consistently for as long as is needed.

 

Life happens, and there will be times when the recipe above goes to custard, but keeping a flexible, positive approach (willing to make tarts out of custard) will mean you can just adjust things to still achieve something worthwhile…and certainly better than if you never went in the kitchen in the first place.