All posts by Karen Berger

Piano Lessons: To Quit or not to Quit?

Year after year, studies come out telling us about the benefits of music education. Music studies are linked to high scores on math tests, to high GPAs and SATs, even to the likelihood of getting into medical school. (One study concluded that percentage wise, music majors who applied to medical school were more likely to get in than biology majors!)

The benefits of piano (and other music) lessons go beyond merely learning to play an instrument. Even students who never truly master their violin, trumpet, guitar, or piano benefit through the process of attending regular lessons, working toward a long-term and often difficult goal, and seeing themselves improve in relation to the effort they put in. In a very real sense, music education is as much about building character as it is about learning an instrument, developing cognitive ability, or gaining brownie points for college applications.

Indeed, some of the most valuable lessons a child learns while studying have nothing to do with music at all, but rather with learning how to break down a difficult project into its component parts and tackle them one at a time. Music students learn how to work consistently at a project that may take weeks or even months to complete, and how to conquer fear of performing in public.


Why Students Stop Taking Piano Lessons

As valuable as music lessons are, they always end (unless the student becomes a college music major or a professional musician). Even the best, most enthusiastic music students grow up and go to college!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some students end music lessons much earlier. They may have no interest in working as hard as it takes to learn an instrument, or may refuse to practice. Sometimes, attrition is in part a parental issue. Parents may be worn down by a child’s incessant complaints about practicing, the inconvenience of a weekly music lesson commitment, the difficulties of coordinating music lessons with sports schedules and sibling activities, and the expense of lessons and instrument maintenance.

The problem is especially acute with piano students, who take private lessons as opposed to group lessons, and are often held more accountable for their practice. Many students also find piano much more difficult than other instruments, because of the multiple lines, and less “fun,” because they aren’t sitting with their friends in a group setting.

There are many reasons students stop taking lessons:

  • A child may have too many other activities to put in the effort to learn an instrument.
  • The student may be equally or more passionate about something else, and may decide to concentrate on that activity.
  • The child may hit puberty, and may care about nothing other than what peers and friends seem to care about.
  • A child may be overwhelmed or struggling with school work, especially in a new grade. Parents should, however, be aware that studies have shown that the grade point averages of music students tend to be higher than grade point averages of non music students.
  • The child may simply be unwilling to work as hard as music lessons require.
  • The child may need, but not be getting, parental encouragement and daily structure.

While many parents would prefer their children to continue with music lessons, many simply buckle under the hassle of it all. And others genuinely feel that forcing a reluctant student to take lessons may do more harm than good.

Encouraging Students to Continue Piano Lessons

Finding out what the problem is is the first step in solving it. Does the child dislike the teacher? The kind of music? Or is the child having difficulties and frustrations? Sometimes a teacher can dial back expectations for a frustrated child for a while, by assigning review pieces, easy pieces, fun popular pieces, or “pattern” pieces that rely on repeated patterns and are easier to learn. With some children, rewards for practice time are effective.

But the teacher has to know there is a problem before she can solve it. Most teachers are perfectly aware that a child is not practicing. They may not, however, know why. Communication with the teacher is key.


Issues to Consider When Deciding to Continue or Quit Music Lessons

While children almost universally like music, not all show an active interest in learning or studying it. Some find certain aspects of learning music especially difficult. (being Bone deaf, having difficulty learning to read music, and perceiving rhythms poorly are three common problem areas) .
Most children, even those who beg to quit lessons, have favorite songs to play over and over again just because they like them. But a child who doesn’t ever seem to get any pleasure out of playing anything at all is one who might be better served with another activity. This is especially true if the parents have made a concerted effort over a period of a few years to get the child to practice. A child who can play but never seems to get joy out of it is a child who should be doing something else.
Before deciding that it’s time to quit music lessons, consider the following issues:

  • Has the child attained a level of playing where she can learn songs she likes on her own? If so, the child has achieved some element of musical independence and can enjoyably play the music she wants to. It may indeed be time to simply let her stop lessons and play what she wants.
  • Is there a teacher issue that need to be addressed? Perhaps the child would thrive playing jazz or pop, but the teacher only teaches classical music.
  • Is the child involved in other musical activities?
  • Is the child talented? The ability to play a musical instrument at a high level can lead to lifelong creative satisfaction, and even a possible career path as a music teacher.
  • Is the issue of taking music lessons really about music lessons or is it something else? Some possibilities include a child of divorced parents playing one parent against the other, or a rebellious child making a power play statement.
  • Is the child getting adequate parental support and supervision? If not, we have a parent problem i addition to a student problem.

Most parents understand the benefits of music lessons. But sometimes, it’s time to re-evaluate them, and perhaps even stop for a while. Sometimes, the mere fact that a parent is willing to allow lessons to stop is all it takes for the child to reconsider and want to start again.

When is a Child Ready for Piano Lessons?

Is picking out a tune on a keyboard evidence of musical talent? And when is a child old enough for piano lessons? The success of music programs for kids, such as Suzuki and Kindermusik, indicate that music lessons benefit children at virtually every age. Some music programs and curricula have even been developed for toddlers to start to learn to play the piano.

Talent is only part of the equation: the trick is to match the type of lesson and the teacher to the child’s readiness to learn certain skills and tasks.  Parents and teachers must always remember that they are dealing with a very small child who may still be uncertain of which hand is left and which hand is right. Learning to play the piano is difficult for anyone, let alone a pre-schooler. The pre-school music teacher’s primary jobs are to avoid frustration and to instill a love of learning piano. With four- and five-year-olds, this often translates to simply having fun. Sometimes group music lessons using percussion and other instruments appropriate for young children are more successful.

At What Age Should a Child Start Piano Instruction?


Typically, piano teachers recommend ages 7 or 8 as optimal for beginning piano lessons. However, almost every piano teacher works with beginning piano students who are younger as well as students who are older.

For younger children, consider the following:

  • Can the child focus for the length of a lesson, which may be up to a half an hour long?
  • Can the child follow directions?
  • Does the child know the letters of the alphabet? (This isn’t necessary, but it is useful.)
  • How well-developed is the child’s fine motor coordination? Can he hold a pencil? Wiggle each finger independently?
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, does the child really want lessons?


Choosing a Piano Teacher for a Small Child


In the first meeting with the teacher, the teacher will evaluate whether the child is ready for the program the teacher offers. Parents need to evaluate the teacher, as well.
The ideal piano teacher for a small child does not need to be a Juilliard graduate with an impressive concert career. Indeed, some highly trained pianists don’t like teaching beginner piano, and only do it because they feel they “have” to. Instead, look for someone who genuinely enjoys teaching piano to small children. The teacher’s attitude should be non-threatening and welcoming. It is also helpful if the teacher has had experience working with small children, has taken classes in early-childhood education, has worked in a pre-school music program, or has studied beginning piano pedagogy..

Recommendations from other parents are always a good place to start. In addition, a local community music school may have teachers who specialize in piano instruction for pre-school children.
The pedagogy involved in teaching piano to a pre-schooler is very different than the pedagogy of teaching a seven- or eight-year-old. Look for a teacher who adjusts curriculum by using age-appropriate materials, introducing games into the lessons, and varying activities so that the child doesn’t have to sit still on a piano bench for a half hour. Examples include rhythm and counting games, marching and moving games, or writing on a white board.

Be aware that many teachers of preschool children require that parents attend lessons and act as practice coaches during the week. To be effective, parents who don’t already know a little bit about music have to learn along with the child, at least for the first year or two. Musical parents obviously have a leg up on the process, but they, too, need to pay attention so that they understand the assignments and can mimic the teacher’s approach.


Buying an Acoustic Piano or a Digital Keyboard for a Young Piano Student


Most piano teachers recommend acoustic pianos for lessons, especially for a family that is serious about musical education. The acoustic piano versus digital piano debate will not be resolved anytime soon; for serious classical music, an acoustic piano will ultimately be required, although a digital piano can be useful for classical pianists. For a small child, digital keyboards are less intimidating (and for parents, they are less expensive). Requirements for a serviceable digital piano are:

  • Touch control. This means that when the player pushes a note with different amounts of pressure, the note sounds louder or softer. This is non-negotiable.
  • Weighted keys. This means that the keys have some resistance and mimic the feel of an acoustic piano. Using weighted keys develops finger strength.
  • 88 keys The full complement of 88 keys is preferable because the student develops a sense of keyboard geography by using peripheral vision that takes in the whole keyboard.
  • A reputable manufacturer such as Yamaha, Roland, Kawai, or Casio.

Parents who closely evaluate a child’s interest in and readiness for piano lessons, who choose a sympathetic piano teacher, who assist in practicing, and who purchase an appropriate keyboard will give their children a head-start in exploring and developing a life-long interest in learning music.

Acoustic Pianos Versus Digital Pianos: Which to Buy?

There is no getting around this bottom-line fact: A traditional acoustic piano is an instrument of beauty. It can out-sing a full symphony orchestra; it has complex overtones; it has an organic feel and sound. But there’s no getting around the downsides either: The black beast is big, heavy, expensive, and takes a lot of upkeep.

A digital keyboard might not be able to outshout an orchestra, but it can copy the sounds of one (not to mention the sound of a piano). Also on the bright side: it’s less expensive, light, movable, and doesn’t need tuning.

Which Kind of Piano is Better?

Choosing a piano depends on a number of factors. Consider:

  • For gigging with a rock band? (digital)
  • For a child’s practice? (either could work)
  • For a serious classical musician? (acoustic)
  • For an apartment dweller who needs to practice late at night?  (digital)
  • For a composer who wants to experiment with lots of sounds and voices? (digital)


Cost and Care Considerations when Buying an Acoustic Upright or Grand Piano

The great classics were written for the acoustic piano and can best be realized on an instrument that the great composers would recognize. So many piano teachers strongly encourage the purchase of an acoustic piano; some insist on it.

In practical matters — cost, portability, versatility —  the heavy, expensive acoustic piano loses ground  to the digital. But the acoustic piano has a certain sound and feel that simply cannot be duplicated by a digital instrument. For the development of proper hand position, finger strength and dynamic control, acoustic pianos are essential. Digital pianos offer neither the resistance nor the response of an acoustic piano. Advanced students cannot learn how to work with a piano’s sonorities by playing on an instrument that merely mimics them. Pianists are unanimous about this: No concert pianists currently perform classical music on digital instruments.

  • Cost of new acoustic pianos: Upright pianos start at around $3000: Good student uprights run $5000 – $8000. Grand pianos start at around $10,000 and, with name brands such as Steinway or Bosendorfer, can run upwards of $100,000 — clearly not an appropriate or even possible purchase if the user is a six-year old beginner.
  • Price of used pianos: Used pianos can be found in retail shops for less than half the price of new pianos. They can also be found when people move or are disposing of estates for far less. Always bring a qualified piano technician when looking at a used piano.
  • Acoustic pianos must live away from windows, sunlight, and heating vents: No exceptions!
  • Acoustic pianos are extremely vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity and in a volatile climate, they may need frequent repair work.
  • Acoustic pianos should be tuned twice a year.
  • If properly maintained, acoustic pianos hold their value and may even appreciate.

The verdict: Acoustic pianos are expensive, require maintenance and space, and are completely inconvenient when it comes to moving. But people still fall in love with fine acoustic pianos. And that is not going to change.

Basic Facts and Features about Buying Digital Pianos

Digital pianos are also known as electronic keyboards or synthesizers. If the keyboard is a synthesizer, it usually has a full range of sounds, including percussion tracks and sound effects A digital piano typically has fewer sounds and effects; its design is more concerned with achieving a piano-like feel and sound; it may even (sometimes) have a baby-grand piano look. Good synthesizers have both good piano-like quality and the full complement of synthesizer sounds. To be used as a substitute piano, a keyboard should have 88 weighted keys, touch control, and a pedal.

Digital pianos start at under $100; for that, you get an instrument with very limited use and poor sound and feel. They range up to more than $5000. Synthesizers with good piano tone and feel are available in the $1000 – $3000 range. Name brands (with a long history) include Yamaha, Casio, Roland, Kawai, and Technics.
Digital piano benefits include:

  • Multiple instrument voices, which can be used for composing and gigging. A split keyboard lets the pianist play one voice with one hand, and a different voice with the other.
  • Rhythm tracks and built in metronomes.
  • Transposing buttons for use in gigging situations.
  • Maintenance-free operation (mostly). Digital pianos don’t need to be tuned, and are not subject to the tone and wood damage problems that affect acoustic pianos suffering from changes in humidity and temperature. However, when something does go wrong, it can be hard to find someone to fix an electronic piano.
  • Upgradable with new software.
  • Attractive and easy; can be good choices for young children’s piano practice, because kids are likely to be intrigued by the multiple sounds and possibilities.
  • Ear phones allow pianists to practice any time, anywhere there is an electrical outlet.
  • Recording capability for practicing one hand against the other, or checking a performance.
  • Computer compatibility for composing and learning software.
  • Better overall piano sound, feel, and reliability at $1000 to $3000 price-point.
  • Likely to depreciate more quickly than a well-maintained acoustic piano.

The choice between an acoustic piano and a digital piano will be affected by budget, the kind of music, and gigging and traveling requirements. Many keyboard players and pianists ultimately end up with both a traditional piano and a digital keyboard. Or two.

Group Piano Lessons or Private Lessons? Which is Best for Children?

Piano students take a different path than most other instrumental students, and the reasons is simple: Piano is a solo instrument. True, guitar and organ can be solo instruments, too. But guitar is commonly played in a group, and few children study organ.

What this means is that other instrumentalists – violinists, flutists, trumpeters – often take group music lessons (at least at the beginning), where playing music takes place in a group context: Practice may be private, advanced instruction may be private, but the ultimate goal is to play with others.

But beginning piano students typically take private lessons right from the start, and these lessons rarely include participating in ensembles, playing in orchestras, or learning the essentials of group performance. Although the piano has a rich and varied library of ensemble and duet music, and although advanced pianists often accompany choruses, singers and instrumentalists, or play in bands or chamber ensembles, piano education is primarily a one-on-one activity leading to solo performance.


Group Music Instruction and Piano Education

Group lessons can be difficult for pianists: First, the instrument isn’t portable, which means that groups usually use keyboards, not pianos. The nature of the piano and its repertoire can make group lessons challenging, as well, because much of the traditional pedagogical material was written with the intent of being taught one-on-one with a private teacher. To be effectively used in a group class, material must often be modified, for instance, by breaking it into parts.

Finally, the complexity of the instrument comes into play. The piano is polyphonic (meaning that pianists play multiple parts at once). Pianists read two musical staves at once (bass and treble clefs), and must master both harmony and melody at the same time. These are skills that are difficult to teach in a group setting, and they are also the factors that make the piano satisfying to play as a solo instrument.

However, group piano lessons can make sense for many young beginners. When evaluating music lessons for a small child, here are some issues to consider.


Advantages of Group Piano Classes

  • Longer class times. Most group classes run at least an hour, with plenty of time for varied activities.
  • Price: Typically, n hour-long group lesson involving about four students will cost about the same as a private lesson that runs a half-hour.
  • Fun Factor: Children enjoy learning in games and with their peers, and a well-run group lesson includes plenty of musical fun.
  • Performance classes: Children learn to perform infront of their peers.
  • Group activities: These are ideal for teaching musical concepts such as rhythm and counting. Marching around the room to a beat, dancing, and clapping are all more fun for children in groups, and these activities teach fundamental skills that will set the stage for a student’s later learning.
  • Ensemble skills: A well run group will include music that can be played in parts. Students therefore learn the skills need to perform in a group. This is an element of music education that many private lessons fail to teach.
  • Lower stress: The low-key recreational approach of many groups may be appropriate for younger children who don’t yet have the dexterity to develop finer instrumental skills.

Advantages of Private Piano Lessons

  • Individual attention: Private lessons focus on the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Piano is a multi-sensory, complex activity requiring learning by ear, eye, touch, and intellectual understanding. Each student combines these elements differently.
  • Appropriate pace: A group class that involves mismatched students will deprive both slower and faster learners for the attention they need. Private lessons go at the student’s learning pace, stopping whenever necessary to review concepts, repeat material, or explore a topic the student shows an interest in.
  • Skills development: For more advanced students, private attention is needed to work on micro issues such as fingering, as well as finer points of expression and interpretation. Issues such as technique and hand position are also better dealt with privately.
  • Progress: Progress is almost always faster in a private lesson than in a group lesson.
  • Stability: While the advantages of a group class often fall apart under the weight of an unruly or mismatched group, private lessons can follow a tailor made plan developed for each student, without being derailed by the needs of the group.

In music education, there isn’t any single right answer to the group versus private lessons conundrum Both group piano lessons and private piano lessons offer advantages. One option: Look for one of the many private piano teachers who incorporate some group instruction in the form of periodic group or performance classes.