The Truth About Piano Lessons

A piano teacher looks at what it takes to succeed in music, how parents can help, and why they should care.

To piano teachers: This post is copyrighted. Please do not reprint the whole thing on your blog. Feel free to reprint the first paragraph and then link to it here. You also have permission to print it and hand it out, as long as my name and the blog address are visible. Thank you for respecting my copyright.

Dear Piano Parents:

If it seems like you’re always battling to schedule your kids’ activities, you’re not alone: The soccer coach wants to know if you’re doing traveling team, the Little League coach is scheduling practices, the dance teacher is putting her classes together. And you’re wondering about piano lessons for little Johnny or Suzie.

You want to know how much Johnny will be expected to practice. You want to know if Suzie can just “try it out” and see if it’s “fun.” You need to know what kind of instrument I expect you to have. You want to know if you can come whenever it’s convenient, and whether I’ll be flexible regarding hockey games, ski Fridays, school dances, ice-skating parties, holidays, and play dates. You want to know if I’m “reasonable” by which I think you mean: Can I change my schedule to suit yours, and am I a stickler for daily practice because Suzie has so much else on her plate andΒ  “things are crazy around here.”

It doesn’t usually occur to you to ask what you can do as a parent to help your child with music lessons, but that’s something you’re going to have to know, too.

I’m in a difficult position as a piano teacher because I’m afraid of telling you the whole truth. I’m afraid because the unvarnished truth may not what you are probably going to want to hear. And when people don’t like what they hear, they tend to bail out. You may go to another teacher (which is fine: Everyone deserves a compatible teacher). But I’m afraid you may bail on music lessons all together.

Because the truth about learning to play the piano scares people. That’s the last thing I want to do.

Benefits of Music Education

We all know the benefits of music education: the improved test scores, the correlation with less drug and alcohol abuse, the benefits of learning to be part of an ensemble and stick with a challenge. Music is one of the most powerful expressive forms we have in our lives. How powerful? Playing music (not just listening to it) is used to treat neurological problems, to heal people who have had strokes, to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Musician’s brains — as measured by MRIs — actually work differently than the brains of non-musicians. We (musicians) develop pathways that you (non-musicians) don’t, which help us make other connections. The ability to play an instrument, particularly a complex instrument like piano, has been linked to less dementia in old age, better cognitive skills, and faster healing from traumatic brain injuries. (Source)

Not to mention the sheer joy of it. How many adults do you know who say “I wish my mother hadn’t let me quit.” You may be one of them.

So if I scare you (and your child) away, I’m doing you a disservice on many levels.

Learning Piano and Modern Parenting Trends: Not an Easy Fit

The problem is that learning to play piano isn’t easy, and what it requires flies in the face of current parenting trends. You know the trends I’m talking about: The ones that have you drivingΒ  500 miles a week to ball games, play dates and the like. I had a student once who showed up for piano wearing his karate uniform, after eating dinner in a moving car. After piano lessons, he was headed for night skiing. No wonder this little 6 year old vomited at the piano. I felt nauseated just listening to his schedule.

Look, the truth is that your kid can’t be a black belt in karate and a ski racer and a soccer player and a pianist and an “A” student and a dancer and in the school play. Kids want to try everything, parents panic if they think they are missing the next new thing. You can go broad or you can go deep; that’s your choice. But you need to know that learning to play piano takes place in the deep end of the ocean.

The Process (and Practice) of Learning to Play Piano

Playing piano also takes a kind of concentration children are rarely exposed to anymore. If you’re one of those parents who wants to protect your child from frustration, you have got to come to terms with the demands of what I call “the big black beast.” Learning to play the piano is all about overcoming frustration. It’s about thinking through problems, breaking them down, solving them one step at a time, figuring things out, finding creative new ways to approach a challenge, putting the pieces back together and trying again and again and again. Piano lessons are life lessons. There’s a reason music students score higher in math. But music isn’t easy.

You’re not going to want to hear the truth because it takes a lot more effort to get your kid to practice than it does to get her to brush her teeth, and YOU are going to have to put that effort in every day for the next four years before she even has a chance of playing “Fur Elise” or “The Entertainer.” Even the most enthusiastic student is not going to want to practice every day (and yes, every day is recommended). Or practice enough. Or practice correctly. If you’re the kind of parent who calls your kid “buddy” and “pal” and “girlfriend” and thinks that regular practice is some kind of punishment that is enforced by the “bad guy” parent, you could be in for a rough road as far as piano is concerned.

You may think that Suzie has talent and will follow in the footsteps of Uncle George, who just sat down at the piano one day and started playing jazz standards. But I can guarantee that’s not how it happened for Uncle George, and it’s not going to happen that way for Suzie, either. Family myth notwithstanding, Uncle George had solitary time with the instrument, whether formally instructed or not, whether playing by ear or by notes. He wrestled with the big black beast — same as your child is going to have to do.

You want to know if Suzie can just “try it out” and the answer is sure: It’s your money, and I can’t stop you from taking a few lessons and quitting. But I can promise that if you’re not committed going in, you’re not going to stick around. Suzie might enjoy her lessons, but at home, she’s going to have to put her thinking cap on and wrestle with note reading and trying to remember where Middle C is and how to count and which finger is number 1 and which finger is number 2.Β  Sure, some kids find this early part fun, and if they do, you’re in luck. But I’ll be honest: Many don’t.

What You Can Do To Help A Child Learn Music

And do you have idea how long a half an hour’s practice time is for a 7 year old? It’s like dog years — an eternity. You may have to help, and ideally, this means paying attention during a young child’s lesson, taking notes, listening to how I tell them to practice and then making sure that they do it. It may even mean learning to read a few notes yourself (Yes, you can, and yes I will teach you, but you may have to work at it. Not every adult gets it on the first try. You need to be willing to brush off YOUR thinking cap, too). You don’t have to learn to actually play the piano, but I do expect you do be able to read a book aimed at a second-grader and figure out enough music reading so you can help them between lessons.

And then there’s the whole buying a piano thing. Teachers do differ, so you’ll need to listen carefully to their reasoning. But the more pleasurable an instrument is to play, the more a child will want to play it. They DO hear and feel the difference, and it does affect their learning, technique, and musical sensitivity.

Good News About Music Lessons

It sounds daunting, doesn’t it? Why not just cross it off the list and move on to soccer? Because a) You don’t want your adult child joining the chorus of people blaming their parents for letting them quit music and b) Because it’s good for them in so many ways: creativity, self-expression, working with others, mental health, good work habits, problem solving, cognitive development, neurological health, and the simple appreciation of art and beauty. (I’ll be writing more articles on the benefits of music education and links to studies showing these benefits in the upcoming weeks, so check back here.)

And let me give you some (more) good news.

Just about any kid can learn to play the piano. Some may take to it more easily than others; some may race ahead; some may lag behind. Some may read quickly, others may be aurally gifted, or able to move their fingers quickly and naturally. But it really does boil down to practice. Don’t give your kid the easy out of saying “Well of course Annie is playing better than you; she’s very talented.” In the long run, talent helps, but it’s not about talent: It’s about DOING IT And yes, there have been studies on this, too.

I’m not asking for miracles here: Most kids who practice in a focused way for 1/2 an hour most days of the week will learn to play well enough to enjoy participating in music in a meaningful way. It may, however, take 4 to 8 years, depending on goals, talent, and practice habits, before a student turns into a musician. When it happens, it’s like watching the tulips bloom in spring.

The bottom line: by giving your child music lessons, you are giving them a lifelong gift.

Music IS joyful, it isn’t always fun. Learn to know the difference — then teach your children well.

136 thoughts on “The Truth About Piano Lessons”

  1. Thanks for this insightful look at what parents need to consider when their child is taking piano lessons. πŸ™‚

  2. As a piano teacher it is so easy to point my finger at my student’s parents and say, “You really need to read this.” But then I look at my own kids and realize that I really need to read this too.

  3. Well said, Karen! I will be recommending this article to anyone who contacts me about lessons. Thank you for putting my thoughts into your words.

  4. Wow! Thanks so much for this wonderful article! So well-articulated, and like Joan, you have put my inexpressible frustrating thoughts into words so well!

  5. Good job, Karen. Learning to play well is certainly worth the years of practice. Just to clarify, does the “big black beast” represent a piano? (My piano is not black.) And did the 6 year old really vomit at his lesson or did he play badly? Thank you!

  6. Yes, the big black beast is a piano (I figure everyone eventually wrestles with one of those at some point, whether on stage or at home). And yes, the six year old actually vomited. Glad you liked the article, and yes, it is TOTALLY worth the work to learn to play!

  7. Great piece, and honest. Anything worth doing takes effort and Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers it takes about 7,000 hours of serious, committed practice to get to a high level of competence, whether it is sport, music, mathematics, computer programming…

    I look around at the young sportsman and musicians I have known, my son (pro basketball and now a management consultant) included, and that 7,000 hours sounds about right. That is a full time commitment for 4 years, or part-time for 8.

    Just as you suggested.

  8. Thanks Martin. I too enjoyed Gladwell’s book… He references (as I recall) a rather well known study in Berlin about music students. It came to the 10,000 hours conclusion for international-level mastery, and also concluded that practice time (and quality) are far more associated with success than raw talent. For recreational enjoyment, of course, the bar is much lower: A student practicing 150 hours a year throughout their pre-college schooling should attain satisfying recreational competency — ability to play songs from fake sheets, play in rock bands, accompany friends or singers on other instruments, play intermediate repertoire. But 20 minutes every Tuesday before the lesson isn’t cutting it, folks. I have students — sixth graders — who actually mark on their practice log that they practiced for THREE minutes!!!! Parents! Hey, come on! Where ARE you????

  9. Excellent article – I love your honesty. I’m posting a link to this on my blog/website. I hope all my current and potential students/parents will take the time to read.
    The 6-year-old’s schedule rings true. I’ve had similar students. One boy was so over-scheduled that even at age 14 broke down crying in most lessons because he just couldn’t do what he obviously had no time to work on. The parents were fully aware of this but didn’t want to take away any “opportunities.”

  10. Just a PS: I have to grin at some of the ads that pop up on this blog from Google. Things like “Learn piano the easy way! Without all the boring theory.” It’s just another measure of how dissonant our learning experience now is.

  11. I never actually really thanked my mom for not letting me quit piano when I was about 10 or so, after completing the Music for Young Children program starting when I was four…there were definitely some hard weeks and months in there when my (VERY PATIENT!!!!) piano teacher was even perhaps leaning to ‘giving it a rest’ for a while. Well, flash forward a little more than ten years, and I have not only NOT stopped piano lessons, but I have taken up and excelled at another instrument (flute) leading me to be nearing completion of my Bachelor’s of Music (flute, music history major) but I am a teacher of Music for Young Children myself! Perhaps having had a difficult patch when I was a child will help me to be a better teacher.

  12. I can not tell you how wonderful this blog article is! Thank you SO VERY much for writing it! I hope you don’t mint, I am going to put a link to this on my music studio website.
    You have put into words what I have LONGED to yell to the world so many many times!

  13. I too, as a fellow piano teacher, cannot commend you enough on this article. I have posted the link on my own studio website’s homepage, and am sending article to parents! I too have written my own article on Acoustic vs Digital pianos, BTW, written out of frustration with some of the excuses…Thanks again!

  14. Love it, love it, love it!!! I have been teaching for 12 years, and you have covered every level of frustration I have dealt with as a teacher. It never ceases to amaze me that I am expected to tailor my schedule to fit a student (which, by the way, I never do!) or that students think that they can learn this instrument without practicing. I am posting a link to this on my website AND making it required reading of all my current and future students! Thank you for such a great article!

  15. Just a note to thank everyone for the positive response: More than 2000 people have viewed this article from dozens of countries, from Estonia to Bolivia and Israel to Japan, so clearly, we are not alone!

    Yes, please feel free to post a link to the article on your studio websites. Private music teachers also have permission to print it out and hand it out to individual families; I’d appreciate if you made sure my name and the website address is visible on it so they can come here for the other articles, as well. Thanks!

  16. One big quibble:

    ” … and a pianist and an “A” student … “

    This one is where I’d take exception. Yes, you can. You most definitely can. I’ve never known a good musician who WASN’T an excellent student, and nearly everyone I met in graduate school in physics (and most of the mathematics professors as well) could play instruments at a high level. Every new crop of graduate students had enough musicians in it for bands and chamber groups.

    You can most definitely be a pianist and an A student. But the other activities? No. Too much. And out of all of them, music is the only one that one can do at a high level, on your own, for the rest of your life.

  17. BTW, thank you for your very reasonable article on digital versus acoustic pianos. I’ve often found many status-conscious piano teachers to be unimaginably unrealistic about the value of digital pianos. They seem to think that the whole world is composed of cute pigtailed six year olds with rich parents who only need to be told to buy a Steinway grand for the thing to materialize in front of the student. The reality is that many students (and I was one) will be playing landfill pianos for years, and that a good-quality digital piano will far outstrip almost anything that any but the well-off will be able to afford for their little prodigies. πŸ™

    As a student who grew up with very little money, my parents sweated even for the cheapie landfill creature I learned on, that wasn’t tuned when I got it and that was never tuned through 8 years of lessons. And yet here I am as a 45 year old who still plays and even writes music. Put simply, a poor child will not stop simply because their instrument isn’t perfect. Perhaps a kid from a wealthy family can quit any activity if things aren’t just so, but a poor kid never has that luxury. We must keep going through nonideal conditions, or else we’d never get anywhere. And that determination to soldier on through ANY obstacle is an asset in music.

    And as an apartment dweller in an area where the average home price runs around $400,000, I have a digital today. Compared to the ancient Kimball upright with two broken keys that I learned on, compared to my teachers old M&H grand with a millimeter of float on every key, and compared to most all of the acoustics that I’ve sat at since, it’s the best feeling keyboard I’ve ever played on. In most piano shops, there will be ONE spotlighted beauty way in the back of the store that will play better than my little Clavinova — usually a 7′ Yamaha or Steinie with a five-figure price tag. But my Clav will usually beat the pants off of every other instrument there in terms of sound and feel. Sure, an ideal, top of the line acoustic will beat a digital. But really, how many of those are there, and how many students have one?

    Sorry to harp on this, but a lot of times teachers simply don’t grasp or don’t want to grasp how this Acoustic Grand Piano Uber Alles attitude reads to poor or working-class people, and how their snobbery is a far bigger obstacle to performance than any digital piano will ever be. If a poor family doesn’t start lessons, or doesn’t keep going, it’s not because they aren’t smart enough or their piano isn’t good enough. To be very blunt, it’s usually because they walk away from the teacher thinking, “That rich b*tch doesn’t want our kind.”

    Thank you for not being like that. Teachers have no idea how utterly demoralizing that attitude is for kids from families with straitened financial circumstances. Sometimes I want to tell them that they should add in a caveat in their newsletters ads: “Rich Families Only, Please.”

  18. Oh, and regarding the A student thing — Sure, absolutely, you can be a pianist and an A student. I was. All of my fellow music majors at Northwestern were. My best student now are. The better the piano student, the better their grades in school. Formal studies even bear this out. But what I wrote was that you can’t be ALL those things AND and A student. I think you can probably pick two or three… but not everything. And that was the point. Parents today want their kids to do EVERYTHING… two sports, an instrument, play dates, skiing, the school play, and, yes, piano and grades — and you CANNOT do all those things well.

  19. Such a brilliant article. As both a piano teacher and mother to young children this has been a pleasure to read. From the piano perspective- I wish all my students and their parents would read this. Their overall experience with music would be so much more fulfilling if they spent the time needed to progress and gain skills.

    As a parent of a child who has recently taken up the piano, I have been looked at strangely when people have asked how often she needs to practise(daily) and horrified people when I’ve said she needs to do it for at least five years. I would rather teach her the value of depth than breadth.

    But also, as a parent I understand the underpinning need to provide your child with the opportunity to do everything, that emotional pull. I just have to catch
    myself to remind myself that even as adults it is impossible and unrealistic to expect ourselves to do everything. We must also be selective with how we spend our time. I would like to teach my children that. I think it would do them well throughout life.

  20. Hi Karen,
    Thanks for your honest and candid article about the truth about learning piano.
    I taught piano for 10 years and now am a composer. I have a 6 year old boy, and have been waiting to start piano lessons with him. The practice and discipline of music is so very important to unlocking just how fun it can be.
    I am really just waiting until i know we can can put aside the necessary time for a practice regime, and i know he can handle the inevitable frustration.
    I am hoping when he hits 1st class next year, and is over the “learning to read hump”, he will be ready. I truly believe that success breeds success, so i want to be sure he will start with all the necessary cognitive functions and motors skills.

  21. I cant tell you how rare it is to have a teacher who teaches you how to practice. I have grade VIII on 2 instruments but am an amateur. I now have a musical child (keen, perfect pitch, playing 2 instruments)

    I was blessed with the best ever first teacher. She did indeed teach how to play and practice. I was offered a music school place aged 11 purely because of the skills she taught me which I applied to my second instrument by myself. I use those skills today for my own child as no teacher since for either of us has come anywhere near to Miss Compton for rigorous goals apart from one world famous soloist and teacher who my daughter occasionally sees interstate.

    My dear Miss C set very specific goals and said that they would take a minimum of 30 mins a day but often more. She liked to read how much I had done and said from the outset that under 30 mins a day meant the sack unless I was ill – I was 4 at the time. She had plenty of pupils clearly.

    Parent attended til I was 7 or 8 (started at 4) then I was alone but in a routine. By then I was boarding so no help available from parent but it didnt matter once the routines were set.

    This level of dedication to teaching how to commit is very rare. Most teachers (of all subjects, not just music) seem to think the pupils should lead the way these days!

  22. Hi Karen, would it be possible to mention our Music Store as a source of instruments and music? Regards, Sean

  23. Hi Sean — Absolutely. (To readers: Sean and Claudia Barry run The Music Store in Great Barrington, an independent music store that offers great service to teachers and music students. They’ve really taken good care of our students.) Sean — I’ll get in touch with you and/or Claudia to do an article about independent music stores, and we can talk about some of the advantages for music teachers of working with local musics stores versus the big box.

  24. Thank you for this. I am actually the parent of a 7 year old just beginning lessons (just started in Jan). Currently piano lessons are her only activity besides Wednesday night youth group at church. She does want to play ball during the summer which we will allow because she has played for the last 3 years. We are very realistic that she can’t do every activity and be great at them all. Her interest is in music and we want to foster that. My concern is with the fact that neither my husband or I play the piano and can barely read music. I feel like I am learning as she is learning. We are really struggling with practices because she wants my help and I sit at the piano with her as she practices but she gets frustrated so much quicker with me helping her than she would if it were her teacher or someone else. I have tried showing her the piece (as I learn it myself-which concerns me that I could be teaching bad habits) and I have tried setting up her work and sitting across the room to listen to her. Neither of these are really working. If I am not right next to her watching her every move she gets frustrated, if I am at the piano with her she gets frustrated. I have attended her lessons and she does very well with her teacher and does not get easily frustrated. I want to know the best way to help her and I am afraid if the practice sessions continue to be a struggle she will want to give them up. What is the best way to make practice sessions less frustrating for the both of us?

  25. Hi Stacie: Te good news is that this phase will probably only last through the primer. A primer usually lasts anywhere from three-four months to eight months, depending on the student. Once they get past the initial confusion, students move along more smoothly by themselves. But you bring up an important point: That many young students immensely benefit from parental involvement during practice, and that such involvement is VERY difficult for many parents, especially those who aren’t especially musical. As you’re noticing, sometimes, this can take the form of “acting out” frustration.

    I would suggest that you book a couple of lessons for yourself with your daughter’s teacher, not to learn how to play, but to learn how to help her. I can’t speak for your daughter’s teacher, of course, but in my primer lessons, I focus on teaching the student HOW TO figure things out. Not to memorize notes, but to remember how to figure out which one is what.

    The thing is, the primers are meant for small children: Many adults can parse through them without too much trouble (although some can’t).

    So then, your involvement in the practice means helping her remember how to figure things out.

    Also, attend lessons and take notes. At the primer level, I stress directional reading, hand position, and counting. You can learn the basics of these things.

    Using Socratic method works for me: Ask questions: Which note is this? Which finger goes on it? How many beats are in this measure?

    Sometimes, parent child conflict is impossible to resolve in learning situations: Just like I couldn’t teach my boyfriend to drive a stick shift, some parents simply cannot teach their kids, who take out their frustration on the equally confused parent.

    This unfortunately, is beyond my ability to help with on the Internet. I DO however encourage students to CALL ME with problems they and their parents can’t resolve. Knowing that the teacher is there with a firm correct answer can sometimes help the frustration simmer down a bit.

    Good luck to you — you are doing all the right things, and this stage will not last forever!

  26. Congratulations and thank you for your excellent article! I am a piano and voice teacher and a parent of a child who plays piano and sings. I will be sharing your article with my fellow music teachers on FB and with my parents and students from my Studio.Thank you!

  27. Great article! I teach singing lessons in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and experience the same thing. People don’t understand that it takes hard work, serious practice and high-level concentration in order to truly enjoy making music. I’m sharing your article with other teachers.

  28. Amen Sister, preach it! I have been a piano teacher for 8 years, and I completely agree with your article. Parents think it is going to be just another activity, but fun and cool, and many lose interest when they find out it is not only going to be work for their child, but for them as well. It doesn’t seem to matter to them if you tell them this going in… in one ear… That is why, when you find good supportive parents with a level head on their shoulders that doesn’t believe in constantly distracting their children with 10 different activities every week, you cherish them.

  29. Great article! I’ve been a piano parent for 6 years and when people ask me about starting their child up in piano I really encourage them to think about the commitment level they’re talking about. Most young kids won’t practice without an enthusiastic and attentive adult. But the life lessons kids learn through this process are priceless. My pianist is now 11 and working his way through some Haydn and Mozart Sonatas, Mendelssohn’s Venetian Gondola Song, and some Bach Inventions. The time investment has been WELL worth it even if he quit tomorrow in terms of life lessons learned.

  30. When I entered first grade, I began taking piano lessons from my Aunt Arline — it was not my choice. She was very strict and demanded practice and attention from all of her students, not just her niece. When I was a junior in high school, I was allowed to take the year off — I wanted to play sports and participate in other school activities. (To tell you how important my piano lessons were — I was allowed to leave school thirty minutes early every Wednesday afternoon for my lessons.) It was my choice to start taking lessons again my senior year. Even though I was committed to piano, I also had to time to study, play softball, do gymnastics and sing in the Youth Choir at church. It was because of my piano lessons and my mother’s insistence on practicing that I became proficient enough to finance my entire college education through music scholarships. I would not have been able to attend college were it not for those scholarships. When my younger sister started first grade, she also began taking lessons (again, not her choice) and became so good that she won several concerto contests in high school and was invited to play with the Shreveport Symphony. I went on to major in Music Education in College and she became a Math Major. So, you are right on target to extoll the virtues of an early music education. Not only do children gain a valuable appreciation for the arts, but I also believe it improves their ability to process information and attention to detail that children these days do not have. My dad hated that we practiced every morning starting at 6:30 a.m. but he sure was glad he didn’t have to shell out money to pay for our college tuition. Thanks for your great article.

  31. Having run my own piano studio for 8 years and taught private lessons for many years before that, I have a theory called Dual Roles. Outside of a few minutes here and there just dabbling, it’s not typically appropriate or constructive for the babysitter, parent, guardian, etc. to teach their own child a music instrument or function as their formal tutor (go ahead and start the Home School argument here). This is because the child has already learned one relationship with the specific caregiver, and has a hard time transferring to a new relationship. Although you’re only talking about helping with music assignments during the week, which is completely appropriate, the Dual Role effect can be felt there with some kids. Hence the frustration, sometimes manifested as silliness or playing dumb, lack of respect and lack of focus you’ll often see when Dual Roles are tried.

    Dozens of parents have told me “I know music, but my child won’t listen to me, I can’t believe I need to hire a music teacher.” I’ve also seen it in my own children. Without hesitation I hired a qualified piano teacher for my own daughter when she expressed interest in learning. I’m able to help her with her music HW but try not to get more involved than I have to, knowing she will figure out her own systems of mentally mapping everything, as I did with absolutely no practice help throughout my childhood of piano study.

    Any child will be motivated to figure out a piece of music if they like the music and have had good experiences figuring music out on their own before. Rewards, like stickers or small prizes after cumulative stickers, help too!

    Additionally, I would look at other homework or study situations and see if there is frustration there. Frustration comes from fear of not being up to some standard the child has in her head… and often, these days, we forget to teach our children that all learning takes patience and time. Nothing happens overnight, despite what popular media would have us believe. We are always in a hurry and our kids think that everything they do should be in a hurry too.

    Brava to you, Karen, for standing up to parents’ crazy schedules. I like to tell parents that music lessons are not just another weekly punch in the dance card. I find it astonishing how many kids are overscheduled, and school homework and testing is just getting worse. In a time when we need music lessons more than ever, the sad irony is that due to school and parents’ work schedules, it’s just getting more and more kicked to the curb.

  32. I love your frank, honest words! I have been teaching for over 20 years and can relate to your article. It never ceases to amaze me that parents often equate soccer practice with the piano lesson (which they also term practice). They just drop their kid off for a 30 minute-once-a-week lesson and presto!!! the teacher can magically turn their child into a prodigy. Some of my students who participate in sport only touch the piano at their lesson.
    Fortunately not all are like that. This year one of my high school seniors auditioned and was accept into a college piano performance music degree program. And while I did not teach my daughters, I am teaching my five year old granddaughter with much success and lots of fun for both of us. That just goes to prove the lifelong value of music lessons!

  33. I hit this article after searching for “how to help children pay attention to detail in piano” since my issue now, after 1 year of the child playing, is that there is still a long way to go. With a lot of help between lessons they are able to get pieces together “reasonably” with timing and notes – although there are still hesitations – and from the beginning the teacher has accepted these imperfections, but now is upping the standard (which I think should have been there from the start).. however, the child isn’t rising to the challenge…. I don’t know why… and I don’t know what I can do during practice times to help… any ideas?

  34. Well stated! I first lessons started at the age of 7, and I was bored to death because I stayed on Middle C forever playing different rhythms. I walked to lessons from school and had to pass by a mean bulldog on the way. I don’t know if I hated the lessons more or if my true experience was linked to the bulldog. My mother set the kitchen timer everyday for 1/2 hour and she knew enough to tell if I was playing what was on the page. After begging to quit, she agreed. However, for some reason I missed taking lessons, knowing so young that I wanted to study and teach music. So, in the 10th grade my parents pinched every penny to make sure I was prepared. I studied with a college teacher, and it took one hour to drive there for a 60 minute lesson every week; and yes, I practiced every day for much more than 30 minutes. My piano was very old, out of tune, and tied together with shoe strings and anything else that my mother could do to keep it from falling apart. It was during the long practice hours that I knew the piano was my “ticket” to life. I was a high school choral director for 18 years and changed to being a full time piano teaching, which I still am doing. And, your article says it all. I will be sharing it with my parents and on my facebook page. And, I did forget to mention that my college piano teacher was so demanding, but such a tremendous teacher, that many days I practiced every hour I could find between classes, followed on weedends to six, and many days more, hours per day. Thank you Mom and Dad, for what you managed to give to me…my “ticket to life”!

  35. Thank you for the great post. I have been a piano teacher for over ten years and constantly encounter this type of thinking in music parents. Because my own parents (my mom is also a pianist) were so involved in my study of the instrument, I assumed at the beginning that most parents understood what it takes. I eventually arrived at a point where I had to write parent participation into the studio policy and yes I do teach how to practice properly. I also started teaching a workshop for parents in order to help them tackle common practice issues and set up a musical home environment to encourage their young musician.

  36. I just happened upon this article through Pinterest. Well said! I will definitely be finding a way to share this with my piano parents and families. It may be good to offer as a handout at the initial interview! You covered the questions that come up for so many parents and the additional honesty about learning to play piano – it isn’t easy. But anyone can do it – “It’s about DOING IT!” Thanks for sharing and for permission to use this.

  37. I am about to have my 2 kids quit lessons after 4 recitals. I guess you are right, I need to, at least understand what they are learning. My kids are doing great but it seems like they are losing their enthusiasm about playing. Not as much when they were just beginners. Thank you for sharing!

  38. I was given your article by a child psychologist at a meeting of my local music teacher’s association. I cannot thank you enough for providing such a succinct message to so many of the parents I deal with on a daily basis. The real piano is, though, without a doubt, the only instrument we can use to learn to play the real piano on.

  39. Great article Karen! I am a parent to a 7 yr old little girl who has been in lessons for 1 1/2 years. She was sight reading in 2 weeks and through 4 books in 1 month!! She is now playing in a level 4 and playing around with some masters music. She plays for a minimum of 1 hr a day and on the weekends sometimes 2-3 hrs per day. She also loves to sing and we have been told she has perfect pitch. I sound like a proud parent bragging on our girl but where we are having trouble is that her teacher doesn’t always know how to teach her. Her teacher is wonderful but has told us she has never had a student like this in the 40 yrs she has been teaching. We live in a very small rural town in Oregon and I am looking for some sort of music camp or program that we could get involved with during the summer that would feed our daughters passion for music. I am thinking a week long camp or something like that. I have been looking myself but am finding that her young age is a bit of a problem. If you have any ideas I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks,

  40. My 7-year old son has been taking piano lessons for two years. It has been a joy to see his musical endeavors evolve. As the parent who manages his daily practice sessions at home, I can attest to the level of commitment that studying piano demands. You are so right about the challenges of parenting today (“more” is not necessarily better ~ too many extracurricular activities can be a burden). Parents really need to think long and hard as to why they want to pay for piano lessons in the first place. Thank you for your candidness

  41. This is great information–I took piano lessons as a child. Now for my children I want them to do the same, I have even thought about giving them the option to learn music online with a live tutor. (that way I don’t have to drive them!)

  42. I would sincerely appreciate any advice on how to motivate my six year old to practice. My husband and I work til late every day so having our son practice is stressful for all of us. I really want him to continue learning and he shows talent but he is extremely reluctant as it is not easy for him to sit and concentrate for more than a few minutes (and really for any amount of time). Thank you in advance for your suggestions.

  43. Another question – do you think group lessons (the yamaha method) are effective for a six year old? Thank you

  44. A six-year old who is reluctant to practice either needs to wait until he isn’t reluctant to practice — or needs mom or dad to willingly and happily sit with him at the piano at a set time every day. (And even that may not work.) MOST six year olds need help to practice. They just can’t remember what the teacher said four days later, and they have no idea of the process and the goals of practice.

    Attention span is also an issue: It’s not unusual for a six year old, especially a boy, to not have the attention span to practice. Does he pay attention in lessons? If so, it may be a matter of needing that adult supervision and presence. He may not be able to focus on practice because he doesn’t understand what to do on his own. This is very common.

    Sometimes, a firm hand — making practice a regular non-negotiable part of his day, with you being there — works, but that depends on the relationship with the child, how authoritative your parenting style is, and how eager-to-please/compliant the child is, and how consistent you are with establishing the habit. But if you are your husband are so drained at the end of the day that working with the child on piano is going to be a dreaded drudgery (and goodness knows, I know how that feels!) this might not be the right time to do piano lessons. And again, he is only 6 — some kids do well starting at six, but many do better starting at 7, 8 or even 9.

    Could you try having him practice a different time of day — like the morning? Good luck with this — I’d say don’t feel bad if you decide to delay. When you pick it back up in a year or two, he will certainly have learned that this is a “big kids” activity that he needs to practice in order to keep doing. That in and of itself could set the stage for successs.

  45. I would say the “real” (acoustic” piano is the only instrument we can use to learn CLASSICAL piano on. But there are other kinds of “real” piano music for which a high quality digital piano would be acceptable.

  46. Thank you very much for your advice. As much ad I would like to continue with lessons, I think we will give it a break this year and hope he will want to pick it up again in the future.

  47. Anonymous, it sounds like you have a truly gifted child! If she really like sher current teacher, I wouldn’t worry about it too much until she gets older. When she is really way too advanced for the teacher, you may need to drive a ways to go to lessons – but it’s well worth it.
    As for camps, if she keeps up at the pace she’s at now, I would recommend Ithaca College’s Summer Piano Institute. It’s a little pricey but was one of the best musical experiences of my life.
    I was 16 when I went and I think the youngest kid was 12. You get to live in the dorms and they take you on fun activities. The other participants are really gifted so she will be challenged. Just a thought for the future!

  48. My daughter stopped playing after Grade 5!!..the issue was practicing everyday.
    This article is so well written…

  49. Thanks Karen for this insightful article – you are putting to print so accurately what every good piano teachers knows – wow, I love this. I have a feeling the teachers will love it more than the parents, lol. But if piano is not going to be taken seriously, it will not happen.

  50. Anonymous, I teach (flute) at a summer camp in Salem, Oregon called Young Musicians & Artists (YMA). Her age is definitely a bit young, but if you talked to the camp directors about her situation and ability level they might be willing to have her give it a try? It’s a really fun, supportive camp and our piano teacher is excellent! Hope that helps!

  51. This is an excellent expose on “the big black beast!” I had 4 years of lessons as a teen when my beloved teacher left the area without notice. OY!!! That hurt more then you’ll know. While I continued on with flute through county bands and college woodwind ensembles etc, the piano kept calling me back. I finally resumed lessons 30 years later and LOVE it!!

  52. Great post! I’m a voice teacher, and while I have had some wonderful, wonderful students, who have gone on to do great things, I’ve also had my share of calls from parents who want 4-year-old little Suzie to be next year’s American Idol, and high school students who want to prepare for college auditions, but who have so many activities that if they make it to two lessons a month, it’s a miracle, and my all-time favorite, adult community theatre performers who’ve never actually studied voice in their lives, but who want to know if they can come to me for A LESSON, just so they can brush up their audition piece for the next musical. It’s enough to make you cry. People think, “Oh, anybody can sing”, but they don’t realize the years of work and study and training it takes to sing well. Keep preaching it.

  53. Nice!!! All three of my kids took piano lessons; the middle one is 18 and has been playing for 13 years. When they used to complain about having to practice and ask why we take piano, I would simply smile and say, “because that’s what our family does! We play piano!” It made all the difference.

  54. Fantastic post! Kids today have way too much going on, and they can’t dedicate the time needed to do anything well. Growing up, I decided to play guitar, and I practiced as much as possible. Now, kids get frustrated if they can’t do something right away – the disposable culture teaches them to expect things to happen quickly, and when it doesn’t, they get bored and move on to something else. Piano (or any instrument) takes dedication and discipline, something that is truly lacking today. Thanks for the post!

  55. I am immensely grateful today for parents who gave me piano lessons with an awesome teacher for 12 years, and grateful that I continued learning music into college and still play today (I am in my 50s). The gifts I receive from my piano far exceed any effort I put into it. Your article is amazing and I am sharing it via facebook and email with everyone I can. Thank you!

  56. Brilliant. Brings back memories of those awful half hours being made to practice piano, then cello. I now want to spur on my girls to do their practice as we’ve been close to giving up several times, but it’s so worth it in the end. Thank you.

  57. Amen. I played on an old upright Howard piano for seven years, one which never quite held a tune. Going to lessons was a thrill because my teacher had two grand pianos, a black Steinway and a brown Yamaha, and if I had done VERY well with practicing that week I might be allowed to sit at the black one to play my last bit. Having a so-so piano at home was enough.

    Eventually when it became clear that I was sticking with the instrument, my grammie found me a grand piano at an estate sale. It was in bad shape externally as it had been sitting in a garage for years, and the shell of her was scaled like alligator skin. But Grandma recognized her excellence and paid a $1,000 price for her. It turned out once we opened her up and got her tuned, she was a Steinway and Sons 1904 baby grand, and has the loveliest action ever. And she’s worth tens of thousands, but the estate sale people just saw her bubbly messed up “skin” and wrote her off as “old.” So, let this be a lesson! We eventually had her restored: she was black and crackly before but turned out to be made from a rosey wood of some kind, and is now the most beautiful thing in our home. Her name is Madame.

  58. As a piano tuner known as the “savior of the old uprights”, and as a university-trained pianist, I would be inclined to say that most pianos above the Kimball Whitney spinet will, with proper tuning and maintenance, sound and play better than most digital pianos. In my estimation, there are digital pianos under $1000 that even begin to feel like a real piano. As for sound, the science of the ear is quite misunderstood and, for that reason, most people tend to over-estimate the goodness of the digital sound.

    In my lifetime, I have owned a digital piano, two keyboards, a spinet, a cheap console, and two old uprights. With my skills, I managed to turn one land-fill destined upright and the cheap console into joys to play. No, they are not a concert grand or anywhere close. But, I would play piano on them over our church’s $7000 Yamaha digital piano any day of the week. (Of course, the Yamaha has killer organ sounds for church setting.)

    What the brain hears is analog sound. The sound the piano makes is analog. The complexity of the sound coming off a piano string is unbelievable. Digital pianos must try to reproduce these rich textures through speakers which are, at best, 3% efficient. The result is massive amounts of distortion. In our age of sound systems, we have all become quite used to this distortion and tend to block it out. But it is still there. And, over time, this causes fatigue and diminished satisfaction.

    Although lousy pianos have a lot of inharmonic sounds in them, they do not have the THD (total harmonic distortion) inherent in electronic sound. Over time, they produce much less fatigue. Even somewhat out-of-tune pianos will be less annoying over the long haul than this constant electric distortion.

    In a world where we are bombarded with a constant electric hum from lights, computers, wash machines, TVs, cell phones, etc, and the constant drone of motors of all kinds, there is nothing so relaxing as sitting down to an instrument that has no electric hum. Yes, many digitals are good. But, they are not, nor can they ever be, accoustic sound. This is what our soul craves. When possible, we should feed this craving. It takes, of course, commitment. But then, so does anything else in life that is worthy, like learning to PLAY the piano.


  59. How many times do your friends have to die of heroin before you decide not to take heroin? How many non-playing adults have you met with the strict piano teacher in their harrows of negative childhood memories? Force a kid to see a practice as a chore and ultimately he will likely run away from music.

    I suggest that the other side of lessons i.e. having fun with music with a responsible caring adult that doesn’t insist upon practice will ultimately keep that kid interested in music forever.

    When the kid gets to be a teenager he will hear music in a new way and put two and two together, realize if he practices real hard he can make his own music and then he does it for himself for the rest of his life.

    Now, these kids are unlikely to become classical music prodigies. As are most of the kids taking piano lessons from a strict teacher.

    Also, if you are going to teach a kid to read music, make sure you spend an equal amount of time teaching improvisation. I cannot tell you how many adult students I work with who are scared out of their mind to play a note not written on the page. Invariably, they all took years of piano lessons reading music. You know who reads music in the pro music world? Classical musicians. You know who mostly does not? Everyone else. Nothing wrong with classical music, I am glad I can read music and enjoy playing classical pieces. But most musicians will be hindered by an all reading curriculum.

    Just some devil’s advocate for you. All the things you are saying are good as well.

  60. This is one of the more important lessons a PARENT should learn. I think back on the years of tears and frustration my own son, the son of a music teacher, went through while learning the bass. I wouldn’t trade a single moment now that I have had the honor of sharing in his joy of performing, and doing so to a high standard. To watch your child transcend the mechanics of music to experience the mind, body, and soul of music, which only another accomplished musician can possibly understand, is priceless. The gift I gave my son by pushing him through the rough days, will be a joy that lives with him for the rest of his days. I should know, as my parents did this for me.

  61. This was such a helpful article!
    I was one of those kids who hated piano lessons and was permitted to quit. I despised the structure, and being forced to practice. Maybe it’s because my mom was my piano teacher, but I felt like there was no joy in piano. My 5-year-old mind was convinced that music was supposed to be a love, not a chore … which perhaps speaks more to how my parents approached the practicing element than it does to the concept of taking lessons.
    After I quit, I began playing for fun. Whenever I wanted to play, I played. I just worked my way through piano books, and when I saw something new and got stumped, I would ask my former teacher to clarify, and then I would return to my independent learning. I began to love piano! It took on a sort of coping mechanism in my young life. It almost became my voice. If something wonderful happened, I would play. If I was having a rough day, I would play. If I was feeling unwell or discouraged, I would play. If I had a crush on a boy, I would play! On most days, I would spend several hours with my fingers on the keys. My former teacher would have to threaten me, in order to get me off the piano bench! But when my peers would want toys or video games for Christmas, I always begged for a new book of music! Nothing produced excitement in me like finding a sheet of music I had not yet deciphered … my fingers would itch with anticipation at finding out what that new array of notes and symbols would sound like!
    Fast forward 9 or 10 years, and I finally agreed to start taking lessons. My new piano teacher had the challenge of catching up my theory and technique (I had never done scales and the sort!), but within 6 months, I was able to complete my Grade 8 piano exam. And then I quit lessons again and went back to my self-learning, but this time equipped with theory and a knowledge of how to further develop my technique.
    I certainly see pros and cons in how I learned the piano. For instance, I can see how I would have benefited in life from developing the character that is required to perfect a piece of music. But the repetition irritated me on an auditory level, and I just didn’t care enough about being perfect to bother tormenting my ears! For me, piano was more about discovering new sounds …. new harmonies and melody lines, and new chords that I had never played before … new composers … new styles. Is that wrong? I don’t know! But I did come out of my self-learning years with amazing sight reading skills!
    All that being said, my experience with self-learning the piano has made me very confused about what to do with my own children. Did I figure out the “right way” to learn piano? Was I just an anomaly? Would I be a better pianist if my parents had forced me to continue with lessons … or would I have come to hate piano so much that I would never have bothered to self-learn?
    So, in conclusion, thank you for this blog article. It gave me a much-needed different point of view. And I think that I WILL try to put my children in lessons after all. I will choose to motivate and support them, and hopefully succeed in that by conveying to them my deep love for “the black beast”! All I can do is give it my best effort! And if it doesn’t “work” …. hopefully my children will still choose to dabble and develop and maybe return to structured learning at a later point! Regardless of how it is approached, learning an instrument is life-changing! Learning to catch a ball, on the other hand … well, I still can’t catch a ball, but my university grades have never suffered. πŸ˜‰

  62. Thanks for your comment. Addressing one of your questions — based on what you wrote, and my experience, I think you were quite unusual. Most children I’ve worked with don’t have the ability and drive to self-teach, and even if they do, the resulting skills and technique can lack many fundamentals. I’m glad you found yur way through the thickets of learning music, and wish you luck as you try to guide your kids!

  63. Thanks for your comment. I think in playing devil’s advocate you are encouraging a common but false dichotomy: Classical = strict and joyless, pop = free and fun. I don’t buy into that. To be good at ANY kind of music, you need solid skills, and those take drilling — whether it’s playing classical exercises or drilling modes over all the chord progressions. I hate the assumption that pop and jazz musicians can’t or don’t read, just make it flow and have fun while classical musicians are all drudgery. Good pop and jazz players put in endless hours — and the more drilling, learning, and practice you do on the fundamentals, the more tools you have to realize your musical vision. And yes, many working musicians — not just classical players — do read — studio musicians, etc., church musicians, etc. True, not everyone wants to be a working musician, but when we are teaching music, our job is about opening all possible doors.
    Personally, I’m tired of hearing poor skills among (some) aspiring pop musicians — indifferent musicianship, lack of phrasing, stick riffs, poor technique, etc. Just go to any open-mike to have your ears assaulted by mediocrity. GOOD musicianship is good musicianship whether pop or classical, and in either case takes practice, sensitivity, and skill.
    I do hear your comment re: improvisation: When I was growing up, classical teachers didn’t touch popular music and improv, and there ARE plenty of trained classical piano players who can’t improv their way through a bluesy “Happy Birthday.” But today’s (good) teachers DO teach improv. Among other things, improvisation was very much a part of early Baroque music (which shares a great deal of foundation with modern jazz).
    I think the key issue is carrot and stick, at least at first. idealistically, we want music to be fun — we want every student to share the joy WE have as adults. But the thing about kids is: They DON’T know what they want, they don’t do what they should, whether it’s brushing their teeth or doing their homework. Practice doesn’t happen on it’s own until much later (for most kids).
    By which time, they’ve lost opportunities to learn. I had one student who quit because he was doing too many other things, but he sort of kept playing on his own. Unfortunately, he stopped before he had developed any real musicianship, and he bangs on chords — it’s hard to listen to. Trouble is, now he thinks he wants to be a singer of some sort. And his lack of keyboard skills is a real problem. — in music school, if he teaches, accompanying himself adequately, playing solo gigs, etc.
    You ask how many students have been irrevokably injured by too-strict piano teachers. In my experience, very few. But the opposite — how many people wish they had practiced enough to be able to play an instrument — well, all you have to do is look around a random group of people. Someone there fits that description. THOSE are the people who come to you and me as adults saying “I took two years of lessons and I wish I hadn’t quit.”

  64. My sons’ piano teacher sent all the parents of his students a link to this article. I’m so glad he did. My boys never seem to really enjoy piano and I’ve worried I’m pushing too hard(they also take violin, which they don’t enjoy much either). They don’t complain much, it’s just part of their routine, but I’d hoped they would come to the point where something about music was fun. πŸ™‚ It’s good to know they are “normal” and that whether they end up being “for real” musicians or not, the benefits of music lessons are still going to be with them for a lifetime. Thanks again, Julia

  65. I find my digital keyboard very useful, and I totally agree that if that’s the kind of instrument a family can afford or has room for, and it’s the best option for them, that’s what they should have. Every student should have the best and most responsive instrument possible, whatever that is in their situation. We just have to remember that the acoustic piano and the digital keyboards are fundamentally different instruments. They ask different things of us. I have to adjust my technique and what I expect to hear quite a bit when I play my Yamaha MOX8. If I expect it to be a piano and to respond like my grand (which is a big brown beast!), I will be frustrated. If I take it on its own terms, I can enjoy playing it and use its strengths.
    Great post– I’m going to point my piano teacher friends here.

  66. When I was a kid I took piano lessons, my parents “helped” me practice every day for years. I became quite a good pianist, even performed on stage in my teen years. The only problem, I hate playing the piano, its one of the most boring things imaginable. I would never contemplate having a piano in my house, and would certainly not inflict this torture on my kids. As for all these benefits, just lies music teachers tell you to make you think it is worthwhile. I just wish that my childhood memories were of fun and friends, rather than hours of practice and recitals.

  67. One of my piano student’s parents found your article and emailed to me. I have been saying these same things to my piano students for over 30 years, usually in friendly conversation. Some parents listen, some don’t. The parents who don’t listen and make better decisions, have children who don’t learn as well.

    There is a lot more to say about music’s benefits. For example: music/vibrational healing. Music can even help with learning disabilities.

    Everyone should be involved in some sort of music. It works their brains in different ways. Also, the JOY of creating music is wonderful. Being able to share it with others is a great JOY too.

    As far as people wanting to “try out” piano lesson, I don’t usually waste my time and theirs. They are lookiing for a way to back out before they even start. It tells me that they have too much going on in their lives.

    It is not a piano teacher’s job to try to accommodate everybody else’s schedules. We have a hard enough time trying to deal with our own schedule. Some times we can make exceptions, for special occasions. Then if parents try to take advantage of that, then we have to have “the talk”.

    Thanks again for the great article

  68. As a former piano student as a child for 7 years I can agree with some of what is written, but have different opinions and other parts of it. It is true that children don’t like to practice, myself included and looking at a new piece of music full of many clefts, chords and notes and rests and tempo marks can be discouraging.

    I think for piano teachers it is good to teach the basic music theory and notation, but better to start integrating chord theory much earlier and showing the piano student that is given a new piece of music, “here is the notation, but the chords are right here” and that they can substitute playing the chord to get the same note in the melody as playing the 3 notes separately.

    Also, after they learn the basics of music theory let them start learning songs they want to play, not just songs picked for them by their instructors with the intent of building their skills. You can have a separate exercise book(my teacher used the FINGER POWER series) to learn finger flexibility and dexterity, but explain this is just to train your hands and fingers so they can play what they want to play.

    The key is to remember that a child who says they want to play music, wants to play music, not just read notes and notation for 5+ years. explain that note reading is a foundation for chord theory, but if they want to jump into chord theory and they have the motivation then go with them so they can play their favorite songs even if it lacks all the fancy finger note playing that makes it fancy and impressive. Once they experience that they can play songs with basic notes and chords then they may get the motivation for all of the fancy finger note playing and inversions.

  69. The tone of this piece is fitting for an information sheet to parents who are considering enrolling their child for piano lesson: it sets out your expectations of both child and parent quite clearly with a detailed explanation of what is “good” for them (and you). It is an example of how to set out in advance the way your studio functions. However, I can’t make the leap from an individual method for musical growth to some universal statement about good parenting and the “right” way to nurture good musicianship. So unlike many other commentators on this blog, I find this post a mix-up of issues, facts and opinion. It doesn’t explore the complexities of choosing an instrument, what the child wants and also the many different ways a child learns music (including age related development). To be more precise, this blog post could be boiled down to what the writer wants to say to parents (in a rather fed-up tone): “Get Your Kids To PRACTICE!” Of course the parents may need to support their children’s practice more if their teacher calls their instrument “the big black beast.”

  70. I never did practice logs, as a student or as a teacher, but I would have been terribly embarrassed to have written three minutes if I had used one.

    Different things work for different teachers, so I would not presume to challenge what you do. I just thought I would share that it is simply too stressful for me to track the student’s practice. I would be angry if it becomes apparent two minutes into the lesson that the student who says she practiced every day is lying to me, and that would completely ruin the environment I try to maintain in the studio. Therefore, I never even ask. If a student voluntarily tells me they had a bad week and did not practice as much as they should have, I thank them for being honest, then I essentially guide them through a practice session before sending them on their way. I have also been known to remind those I can tell did not practice that they need to do it every day, but I never ask. I figure it’s their money (or their parent’s money), and they are essentially wasting it if they come to lessons when they have not practiced, but I don’t want to make that my business. I teach and collect the tuition, and I leave the both finances and discipline to the parents.

  71. Thanks for your comments — of course this is a mix up of issues, facts, and opinions — it is a BLOG!!!! But if you look around on this site, you’ll see many more posts that address some of the other issues lacking here — but really, I’m not writing a book in one blog post, so no, I didn’t cover choosing an instrument or cognitive development and its relationship to teaching strategies mostly because — that’s not what the post was about. As for the “big black beast” — that’s intended to be a bit of metaphor. I guess not everyone see that. (I also say things in lessons like “Oh no! The piano’s going to blow up!!!”)

  72. Many teachers today DO start incorporating chord theory and reading from lead sheets earlier in their teaching. I think the lack of this was (and still sometimes is) a real flaw in traditional teaching, but lots of teachers today DO incorporate popular music and popular playing styles into lessons. It can definitely help students stay motivated!

  73. I am so thankful that before I started formal piano lessons at the age of 5, my dad sat down with me and “played” the piano. He taught me how to play duets with him (Heart and Soul and Chopsticks) and one hand of the songs he would play. This gave me some “good” piano music to fall back on when I was tired of the baby piano music you have to start with. It really helped me through the hard beginning years (also a mom who insisted I practice and sat through every lesson and EVERY practice helped a lot!)

  74. You might look for an Orff Schulwerk ( or MENC ( or the MTNA ( cell near your home. They can put you in contact with people who are creating community camps or master classes. You might think about asking her teacher to give her challenging music outside of the method books or learning to accompany for church choir or school choirs. This would feed her need to learn interesting music while still giving her opportunities to learn essential piano skills.

  75. As a piano teacher of mostly young students, I find that the biggest frustration comes from not knowing the notes (how to identify, the name, and where they are on the piano) and also not knowing the rhythm. There are lots of games you can do on the piano with your child to encourage them to figure this out. Ask them to play all the C’s on the piano going from lowest to highest, etc. There are also a TON of flashcards (my favorite are the Bastien ones) that can help with note reading and rhythm reading.

    I also encourage my students to go through the music several different ways: just clap the rhythm while counting aloud; then play just saying the note names; then play while counting the rhythm aloud; then play while singing along with the words. Saying the rhythm/notes/ words aloud is extremely important (even though you feel really silly talking to yourself). This helps to build up the skill level through repetition and increasing difficulty from easy to hard.

  76. I was one of those weird kids that loved piano lessons…oh I didn’t always want to go, but I loved learning new stuff. My teacher would fuss at me sometimes because I moved ahead of her (which meants I learned some bad habits too) She would carefully restructure my “fingering” but I think secretly she loved having a student who was eager to learn. I started lessons when I was 10 and stayed for 3 full years and then took off and on another 2-3 years. I am certainly no Liberace or Dino Kartsonakis, but I still enjoy playing at age 53. It’s my relaxation method and I believe keeps my brain from fogging up (that’s debatable, according to my family). Thanks mom for not letting me take tap lessons instead(although I still want to do that too)

  77. I love your perspective here! Funny thing about the “big black beast” is I was sure you meant concentration and problem solving, skills that are so sorely lacking in many people young and old today. Thank you for addressing that parents are an equal partner in the process of learning. I so often face “good cop/bad cop” parents, all rolled into the same person at times. (“sorry they didn’t practice, it was a hard week.” followed by: “they didn’t practice! get on them for that!”) Keep up the good work!

  78. Funny – I took piano lessons for about 6 years, and I am actually very grateful to my mother that she let me quit (eventually, after asking for about a year). I had plateaued at a point where I could read music, but very slowly, and I was getting old enough that fitting in practice time was really hard. I could tell I wasn’t getting any better, and I wanted to pursue other things.

    HOWEVER, I am also grateful that I DID have piano lessons. They taught me the foundation of reading music – I got much better at reading after I took up the trombone, which let me (a) follow just one set of notes at a time and (b) required a completely different set of muscle coordination, so I began to think of notes in relation to each other (intervals) instead of simply thinking about where they were on the keyboard. Learning both piano and trombone helped me greatly when I got serious about improving my voice (I was a great choral singer, but couldn’t really do any solo work because I was untrained). I already knew how to read music at that point (more or less) and how to discipline myself to practice (especially how to concentrate on my trouble spots instead of always trying to go straight through a piece from beginning to end). I no longer play piano OR trombone regularly, but I do sing – a LOT, and now I can read music without any instrument to “help” me. πŸ™‚

    My five-year-old is starting piano lessons with her grandmother this spring. πŸ˜‰

  79. I really like the quote where it says, “Music is joyful…” and it really is. Yet learning to play the piano seems very difficult

  80. Are there any parents out there who actually don’t need to be told all of this? Most likely, but they are becoming less each generation. It took me a full year to convince my parents that I wanted to play the cello. When they finally said yes, it came with one stipulation … practice. Everyday. For at least an hour. No excuses, ever. While not a musician herself, my mother grew up in a home with a mother who worked at home. In fact, her work provided the family’s income. She was a piano teacher and a voice teacher and a church organist. So my mom KNEW! And she listened. No getting away with sloppy practicing or half hearted scales. They never once had to threaten. My cello never went back to the shop from which it was rented and I ended up doing my college education at a music conservatory. Did they ever know that once I had that instrument in my hand all I wanted to do was play it? Probably. I even left a beloved teacher my freshman year of high school because he was too un-demanding. And I craved challenge. My personal experience with music, however, translated to how I parented my own children. Alas, although they had access to a piano in their home and lessons when they were ready, I never pushed. Encouraged but not insisted. My mother-in-law, an accomplished pianist and teacher warned me and yes, my grown children have made the occasional “why didn’t you make me keep taking lessons?” query. But they grew up in a home filled with music and art. A life of concerts and plays and operas. Perhaps they will take a lesson from me and do better with their own children.

  81. I took piano lessons from the age of 7 to 14, and my only complaint was that the two teachers I had, were both inflexible in the scores they made me practice and learn. If they had found modern music that I could associate with at the time, I’m confident I may have continued with this instrument. On that note though, my piano lessons did provide me with the music basics, and I later proceeded to teach myself both guitar and bass guitar, and have played successfully for over 40 years. I love music to this day.

  82. How well you are engaged by your teacher makes a big difference in your life attitude. My first piano teacher took the time to work with me and made piano “fun”. Very often we would end our lessons by playing the duets in my books. She was the wife of our pastor and many times my lesson was after church on Sunday, and when the lesson was over my mother would make lunch for everyone.
    My son has a piano teacher that has worked well with him for years. She has understood his situation (split household, mother that doesn’t support him learning piano, minimal opportunity to practice) and has helped him to learn both music theory and be able to play for music enjoyment.

  83. Thanks for the great post! I love the list of benefits you have. I used to teach a little league baseball team, and there was this cute little boy who could pitch like nobody’s business. When you asked him how he could aim so well he would grin and say, “I play the piano!” I thought it was so awesome that he understood the benefits of him playing the piano.
    Dolores Brown |

  84. My son is learning piano via you tube. He has a music lesson going on, but the class is a group class and focusing more on listening and playing rather than reading the notes. He is 8 years old and he finds the song learnt in the class is not enough. Therefore, he is picking up the children pop songs e.g frozen let it go or even some classical songs e.g variation on the kanon, fur elise via you tube. He learns the song mainly referring to the piano tutorial and by hearing. Now, he don’t bother to look into the whole tutorial and started to try his left hand by looking the best suitable sound to match. Sad to say I don’t know much about piano. I am wondering should I continue to encourage him to learn those songs or shall I wait till his fundamental is getting stronger? Pls help!!! I need the advice badly!! Thanks alot!

  85. Our 16 year old is addicted to the piano. He will play for hours at the expense of homework and other responsibilities. It is a blessed problem to have with a teenage son! He has a teacher but it mostly self taught. He loves to compose. He plays all styles of music from classical to pop. He has done covers of bands and the bands have become his fans on instagram. As a parent how do I foster and feed this passion without interfering and killing it?

  86. What an interesting and insiteful article. I can tell you from my own experience, however, that I don’t agree with all of it. As a child of 5, I was one of those kids who would sit down and wrestle with the big black beast every single day, because I simply loved to play and I wanted to be good.

    Nobody had to send me to lessons. Nobody had to coerce me to practice. At age 51 now, I cannot remember exactly how much I played when I was 5, except that I played every day, multiple times per day, and I know for sure that by the time I was 8, I would play for hours every single day (yes, 7 days a week, even on Christmas, even when I was sick, unless I couldn’t sit upright).

    It wasn’t hard. It was simply something I loved to do, something I HAD to do.

    Over time, I have come to believe that unless you feel that way about playing music, you are never going to be any good at it because too much of that “beast wrestling” time is going to feel like work. For me, whether it was trying to copy Billy Joel’s “Angry Young Man”, or the vicious arpeggios in the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, I would play a short part over and over and OVER — no matter what it took — to master it.

    (I deeply appreciate the patience of my parents, who must have been driven crazy by my incessant practicing of a single part!)

    But it was never “work”. Never. Not at its most difficult. Not at its most frustrating. Never. It was hours of joy, conquest, stress relief, and wonder.

    Some encouragement is nice. Offering lessons, but never forcing them, is nice. Removing too much TV and video games, and too darn many after-school activities are all important. I am 100% with you on those points.

    But if your child doesn’t just naturally want to sit on that bench and play and play and PLAY AND PLAY without being pushed, I don’t think they will ever “have it.”

  87. I was the same way — so I get what you are saying. But I have taught hundreds of students, and I can tell you that one of the biggest mistakes a teacher can make is assuming that others are like us. The fact is, very few children just naturally want to sit at a piano bench. I have had many many students — and even seen this happen in my own family – – where the young child needed to be “forced” to practice (ie, the parent needed to put it on their schedule and make sure it happened.) Some of these parents ALMOST gave up — but didn’t. And now, some of those students are AMAZING musicians who adore music — they are not going to be professional musicians, but they play with their friends, they come in with downloaded music they just “have” to play from the internet, and they are looking for colleges where they can continue taking lessons — just because they love it. This happens with almost every kid that sticks with it. Yes, there are some kids who probably SHOULD quit…. but I would say that FOUR years in elementary school is a good trial period. If I can’t get them loving music and playing by then, maybe it’s time they do something else — and at that point, even if they quit, they will experienced some of the many benefits of an early music education, including music literacy, learning about musical styles so they can become part of an educated audience, learning to read music so they can help their own kids some day, learning to practice regularly, learning to take apart a complex problem to solve it, and much more….. You say that those who aren’t like you will never “have it” — What is “it.” Concert potential:? Maybe not — but there are many other benefits to music education. My 6th to 10th year students — most of whom started as reluctant practicers — are now playing Beethoven sonatas and Chopin pieces and are choosing to continue on their own.

  88. When I was younger I wanted to get piano lessons and learn how to play like my cousin does. That way we could have played songs together. I wonder if it would be too late to learn now. If it wouldn’t be too hard for me to learn now, I would totally get some lessons.
    Jak Manson |

  89. Masud
    I like this article very informative for parent like me who is struggling to control and limit my daughter over playing tablet and smartphone games. When I was trying to know how to limit and control them I have searched and tried everything but there’s this app that do such a wonder it was Screen Ninja that had helped me a lot without monitoring them what they do on tablets and smartphones. This Screen Ninja helped me control and limit their usage and playing time and if they want an additional playing time they need to solve a math problem to gain more minutes and you will just see how they passionately solve math problems. This app helps you to control, limit and at the same time teach them about mathematics depending on their age. πŸ™‚

  90. Interesting article!

    I am one of those parents who struggle with motivating my son to practice. However, keep on reminding him that when Iwas 8 years old, I had piano lessons for a month – 3 minutes each week! hat was all my parents can afford.

    In High School, I took organ lessons, again for a month – 3 minutes each week!

    But, those simple lessons encouraged me to love playing music. So, in my teens, I learned playing the guitar in high school from friends. In college/university, I again learned how to play the piano and organ from friends.

    In my twenties, I played the organ and the guitar at our church services.

    So, I constantly remind my son that he is much better than me in playing the piano now because of his piano classes. And that if he perseveres, he can also learn other instruments later.

    However, most of the time, he is just so disinterested in practicing. We have to push and encourage him daily. The piano teacher suspects that we are not pushing him to practice because his progress is very slow! Well, you can only bring the horse to the water but you can not make it drink!

    Anyway, we are hoping that he himself will appreciate this opportunity to learn playing the piano later in his life.

  91. This is really the most crucial suggestion I will give you. The benefit of online learning is as you are able to drop in and from it if you like. Nevertheless, without some sort of timetable for the lessons, you may be persuaded to keep it for later and begin to slide behind. Click Here

  92. Hi Karen, I loved your article. I am a mum with a different problem: I do agree with all you wrote, and this is why I’ve kept pushing my daughter, now 13, to take theory courses for 5 years (it is compulsory in her academy) and to play the piano for 6 years up to now. This year she’s enroled as well and is starting her lessons these days. Last year she’d play between 1h and 1h and a half each day; her end of the year exam program was an invention by Bach, December by Čajkovskij, Golliwog’s cakewalk by Debussy: it was necessary to play that much otherwise she would not have passed her exam. And what was the result? Brilliant, she received top marks and honours.I am not focusing on exam results, by the way, but this is to give you an idea of her level and of the general situation. So, where is the problem? That sadly, she does not enjoy it AT ALL. She finds it boring, she plays only beacuse I tell her that it’s good to, it’s only a duty to her, she would ditch it immediately if I let her do it. During summer she did non even touch the piano. That said, she loves music, sings all the time, remembers movies more by their music than by the plot etc etc. What can I do to light up her appreciation for the instrument? I thought of a music group (but I do not know how to fine one), or a different way to teach her (I am not good enough: I played in the past but in the classic standard way, I am not a real musician that can imrpovise, compose, help her out with accompaniment…). I sometimes feel really down because I’d loke music to be a joyful experience for her, not a duty πŸ™ And grandparents whispering to me: “she’s going to hate it, she’s going to stop as soon as she can, she should not be pushed if she does not enjoy it…..” Please, can anybody help? Pleaseeeee

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  94. There is no doubt that everything Ms. Berger stated is true when using all traditional teaching methods. The question is, why have music educators accepted this outcome? Is it because it is fundamentally true, or is it because no method has thus far been ‘established’ which has shown a different outcome? What if a method was introduced which demonstrated dramatically different results? Would music educators accept it, or is the prevailing opinion so entrenched that all music educators naturally believe change to be impossible and that anyone who suggests otherwise to be a charlatan? Music educators have their own experiences through their own training growing up as well as that of their students to validate the perception that it takes 4 years for a student to achieve the level of being able to play Fur Elise. Consider the following. If a music methodology was introduced that demonstrated that virtually ‘anyone’ could play advanced songs such as Beethoven’s Waldstein after 18 months of instruction, would educators still continue to teach traditional methodologies which guarantee either failure, frustration, or a 4-8 year time frame to obtain music competency? If so, why? It must be considered that the traditional approaches to music education are so entrenched that they have become almost sacrosanct, as if they are some universal truth which is not to be altered. There is even a perception that the graphic symbols of Western music notation are inviolable, art in and of themselves, and a fact of natural law. It is as if the perception of Western music notation is as fundamental as the periodic table of the elements. The periodic table of the elements is based in provable science. Western music notation is an abstract invention replete with flaws. Although the structure of music (as sound waves) is grounded in fundamental harmonic science, the Western music notation system and correlating terminologies are not. They are severely flawed inventions. Most music educators never question the system itself or attempt to grasp each and every ‘abstract’ concept contained within it to further understand how each and every detailed abstraction is an impediment to actually reading and learning music. These abstractions and impediments are taken for granted. They are assumed to be natural law and something which must be contended with instead of a problem to be solved.

    These problems have been the sole research focus of Virtuoso Music for the past 18 years. We have a working solution which has been implemented in practice for the past 10 years that is continually evolving. It is a complete revamping of the entire approach to music education, the Western notation system, and correlating terminologies. Western notation is still implemented, but in dramatically different ways using fundamental harmonic science in the education process. Students can on average reach advanced levels of music and performance competency within 18 months, practicing 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week. This includes individuals with autism, dyslexia, ADHD, and dyscalculia who have been shown to advance at nearly the same rates as traditional learners. These comments are not being made to sell any music educator anything. Our goal is to initiate a valid and much needed conversation with music educators to help change the status quo. Our results are real and can be demonstrated live via Skype to any music educator who is willing to investigate. The point is to provide the opportunity for music educators to evaluate how multiple current paradigms can be transcended and to identify the underlying problems. The traditional music education results so clearly elucidated by Ms. Berger should not be accepted as the only recourse. Questions must be asked. Conversations must ensue. The system must change.

    Information on our research and methodology can be best obtained via our Facebook page or website.

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  96. Hi – thanks for the article. I have a question about my daughter who turns 7 this month. She has been playing for about 16 months or so. About 6 weeks ago, she had her first recital and played very well. We went away for a week or so but when we came back she was still able to play the piece pretty well. After that she resumed lessons and started a harder piece. She seems to have an aversion to looking at music and trying to read it and seems to favor trying to play by ear – her method is to press random keys until it sounds right. We have to practice with her all the time in order for her to make any progress. Eventually after a month or so she was able to get this new song to a reasonable level. However, we just tried to have her “sight read” the recital song which one month prior she was playing really well, and it was like she had never seen the song before in her life! Is this normal for someone her age and level, or does it indicate some sort of learning disability?

    She does have some signs of dyslexia in that she reads in a halting fashion and cannot seem to remember how to spell simple words even though she has seen them and is able to read them. None of her teachers have indicated to us that she may be dyslexic, but I read that dyslexia really doesn’t become a major problem for children until they are about 3rd grade (she is in 1st grade). Thanks in advance for any advice or insight.

  97. Well, it would be irresponsible for me to try to make any sort of real diagnosis as I don’t know your child and am not a psychologist. But as a piano teacher, I can tell you that I have seen many children do exactly this. Children go with their strengths, and a child with a strong ear will almost invariably prefer the “hunt and peck correct when it sounds wrong” approach. One thing I have kids do is red the notes names aloud without playing. This can be practiced at home. Also, saying the note names while playing is helpful. And making a game out of playing the notes right the first time is another approach that can help. As for forgetting her recital piece: Even *I* can’t necessarily play a piece well that I played two months ago without “brushing up on it.” If you have concerns, definitely talk with teachers and get her evaluated…. but as far a piano goes, nothing you’ve said is at all unusual.

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