Category Archives: Piano Lessons for Children

Piano Lessons: What to Expect

You’ve probably heard of the Mozart effect: Music lessons correlate with confidence and success in a variety of areas, from social skills to teamwork to math performance — even to acceptance rates in medical school! Who knew that “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was the first step in a road to success in a variety of endeavors.

And of course, there is the personal satisfaction: Of people able to express oneself through music. Accompany a friend singing. Play in a rock band. Or just noodle around.

So you’re thinking of piano lessons for your child, and wondering what to expect. This is a brief summary of what you’ll encounter in my studio. Each teacher has her (or his) own way of doing things, but I think it’s safe to say that we all share the goal of providing a supportive environment for learning an art that can sustain our students for the rest of their lives.

A Practice Instrument

A practice instrument. Students in my studio are expected to have a practice instrument at home. While I prefer that it be an acoustic piano in good shape (not to mention in tune), a keyboard is acceptable for the first year or two of study (depending on how quickly the student progresses.) The better the instrument, the better: You wouldn’t send your kid to learn tennis carrying a badminton racket, and you wouldn’t give them a bicycle helmet to play football. It’s the same with piano. For digital pianos, I prefer that you have 88 keys with weighted hammer action (I’ll give you more info when we meet), but a basic 61 key keyboard is okay for the start — as long as you understand that you’ll have to upgrade if your child sticks with piano. The damage to technique and finger development from practice on a substandard instrument cannot be overstated.

Regular Practice

I do expect regular practice. In my fantasy world (and in the world I grew up in), a beginner would practice 1/2 hour a day 6 days a week. That’s what I did, but I know, I know, things were different back then. Kids didn’t have as many choices, moms didn’t work outside the home, there wasn’t as much homework, and people’s schedules weren’t as busy. Nonetheless, if you can make practice a regular part of your family’s schedule, the progress you see will be remarkable. And it’s a virtuous cycle. As one nine-year old student told me “The more I practice, the better I get, and the funner the songs are.”

If you can manage to get a young beginner to practice 15 – 20 minutes 5 times a week, I promise you’ll see progress. For older students, I like to see 1/2 hour to 45 minutes a day 5 or 6 times a week…. although I rarely get that. I do have some dedicated students who want to be music majors who are practicing 2 – 3 hours a day in high school, but they have made that decision for themselves in order to meet their personal goals.

I work with what I get… but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell you what I think optimal practice times are for various levels.

Parental Encouragement

Parental encouragement during daily practice is helpful if you and your child have a relationship where that works. Not everyone does: Sometimes children assert their independence at the piano, and refuse the help. You are welcome to sit in during lessons so you know what I am assigning students to do. Even if you don’t know a thing about music, there are ways you can help… if it works for you.

All kids need to be reminded to practice. I needed to be reminded until I was in high school. Some parents say “as long as she wants to do it, it’s fine, but I don’t want to be the bad guy.” We need to stop framing practice in terms of “being the bad guy”! Practice should be fun. It is solving problems. Even so — you have to remind kids to brush their teeth and you probably get pushback from that once in a while! So expect pushback regarding the piano. Like any good habit, practice takes a while to set in.

I only accept children younger than 6 if parents agree to assist with supervising practice at home. Children that young simply cannot (in my experience) be expected to manage their own practice.

Studio Policy

Like many professional piano teachers, I have a studio policy that tells you how many lessons you are getting in a school year, what that will cost, when payments are due, and how and under what circumstances I handle make-ups. Piano teachers can only teach during a limited number of after school hours,. In order for your child to make progress, regular attendance is required. Please try to pick a time you won’t have to constantly change. I try to be as accommodating as possible, but unlike Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books, I don’t have a time turner.

Communicating

Please talk to me! I have taught hundreds of students. Some have gone on to be music majors. Many have stayed with me for many years. Parents recommend me to other parents … and perhaps even more important, students recommend me to their friends. I can help you work through problems your child may be having. Most of all, I want my students to both enjoy their lessons (which is the easy part) AND enjoy their practice time (which can be more of a challenge). I personalize lessons and repertoire taught to adjust to different student personalities and preferences. Open conversations help me understand your child better — and they help you understand why I teach certain skills and pieces of music to your child at different times.

Learning piano is a long-term, deep-end-of-the-ocean type of activity. That it is worth it seems obvious to me (of course it does — I’m a piano teacher!) — but also to my students, who often stay with me for 6, 8, 10, or even more years. Perhaps the greatest evidence I can offer is that frequently, my graduating high-school seniors ask if they can come back for more lessons during their vacations! For me, this is the greatest honor I can imagine — that piano lessons and their playing now mean so much to them that they independently want to continue — with me — whenever possible. (And what a kick it is to see a kid I knew as a 6-year old driving up my driveway in their own car for lessons!)

I look forward to seeings you in lessons — or hearing your child at a recital one day!

Dealing with Failure and Frustration

The New York Times magazine’s educational supplement recently published this article called “What if the Secret to Success is Failure.”  It’s about character education and how learning to deal with frustration and failure can help create success later in a child’s life.

The article didn’t mention music once, but it should have.

Throughout the nine-page article, the author interviewed principals of schools ranging from a tony private school in Riverdale, N.Y. to a stellar public school in the Bronx, along with educational consultants and experts. They talked about character components that were important for success in later life — grit, perseverance, curiosity, self-control, optimism — and about ways they had developed to measure and nurture these traits.

But I’ve got an easier way to see what kind of character a kid has: Just watch how he or she approaches music lessons. Does she slump down in fatigue every time a teacher asks her to play something again? Does he look for praise even after a lackluster performance he knows is full of flaws? Does she avoid practicing the hard stuff at home because it’s too “confusing”?

The more I teach, the more I see that success in learning music — and I believe, by extension, in learning anything — has to do with character. Not character as in following the golden rule and standing up to bullies, but character as in an attitude of approaching and dealing with the world and its challenges. Character as in taking responsibility for your learning. Character as is showing up for your life — prepared, eager, willing, interested, alert, energetic, engaged.

Interestingly, this is most evident with smart students — the ones for whom everything in school comes easily. According to the article, these students can be among the most resistant to tackling projects that actually require real work. In so many cases, bright students are underchallenged in school and never really have to deal with the mammoth difficulties that, say, a math-challenged student faces every day when looking at an algebra problem. Even in gifted program where bright kid are challenged, the steps for figuring out the problem come easily enough; the problem is usually solved without the head-banging frustration of just not “getting it.”

Music is a more even-handed task-master: It challenges the brilliant student just as easily as it challenges everyone else. Becoming a musician is an infinite process, and none of us ever stop learning, ever stop making mistakes. So the bright student’s typical modus operendi — figure it out, do a bit of work, succeed, be done with it — doesn’t apply. There is no “being done with it.” There is always someone better; there is always a harder piece; there is always something you can’t do. There is no such thing as 100 percent; an A+ is not the goal. There is no top to this mountain; there is only the climb.

The “problem” is never entirely solved, because as soon as we learn to play one Beethoven Sonata, we discover another, harder one, we want to play. As soon as we figure out what scales Art Tatum was using in his improvisations, we are faced with the problem of playing them as fast and as lightly as he did, with all the melody notes woven in just so. And even when (or if) we can do that, there are other pieces to learn, other styles to master.

We take forever to “master” a piece, then we perform it and make a mistake. The band director doesn’t pick us as first chair. We fail an orchestra audition and the job goes to a younger player. The audience likes a flashy showpiece by a  technically sloppy performer better than our note-perfect but less appealing offering. We perform our tour de force technical masterpiece at a community talent show, but the talk of the town is the six-year-old who improvised on the harmonica.

Do we fold up and go home? Or do we practice our piece some more, try again for first chair, re-audition for the orchestra, and kick our improvisations up a notch? (As for the six year old — well, best to learn to never share the stage with a talented little kid. Some battles you just can’t win!)

The choices we make are not talent questions; they are character questions.

We are used to hearing about the benefits of music education: Serious music students score better on standardized tests, do better in college, have fewer problems with drugs and alcohol. MRIs have shown that musician’s brains function differently in terms of neural pathways than non-musician’s brains.

But we don’t have to look inside a music student’s brain to find the answer: It may be as simple as the issue of  character — of getting up when you’re down, being honest about your mistakes, dealing with frustration, trying one more time, breaking a problem down and patiently putting the pieces together one at a time.

As we teach our students rhythms and notes and pedaling and dynamics, it’s worth remembering that the “character education” we are giving our students is equally, or even more, important. It is at the heart of what we, as music teachers, give to our students. And these are lessons that go far beyond the “Entertainer” and “Fur Elise” — to college, and life beyond.

News Flash: Musical Achievement is Not About Talent

Musical Talent, Nature Versus Nurture, and the 10,000 Hours Rule

Meet my sister. She started piano lessons at age 7, and practiced a half an hour a day pretty much for the next 11 years, sometimes doing a little more, rarely less.  

She didn’t especially love practicing, and indeed, it was hard for her because she doesn’t have a good ear: She can’t sing on key, could never learn to tune a guitar by ear, can’t pick out a tune by matching pitches. Most of the time, she had to be told that she was playing a wrong note, which my father vociferously did, shouting out from the back of the apartment whenever she hit a clunker.

My sister was smart in school, but she wasn’t what most music teachers would identify as “talented” in music: She never sat down and tried to pluck out a favorite song; she didn’t fish out chords and harmonies; she has trouble identifying the difference between major and minor. But she practiced that half an hour a day. 11 years: Do the math: That’s a total of nearly 2000 hours. And she became skilled.

Here’s a partial list of some of the (original) repertoire she played in junior high school: Chopin’s Military Polonaise. Debussy’s  Clare de Lune. Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances (actually, we performed those together when she was still in elementary school). Janacek’s “On an Overgrown Path.” Some Haydn sonatas. A few Chopin waltzes, polonaises, and preludes. She didn’t ever get to the big concert repertoire: Chopin ballades and etudes, the big Beethoven sonatas, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff. But she got farther than 95 percent of the piano students I’ve encountered.  

I think about my sister a lot as my students come in and out the door, with their practice logs marked “10 minutes,” “7 minutes,”  “3 minutes,” and a lot of “zeros.” I think about her when I’ve had a kid for four or five years who isn’t yet fluent in note reading, who has to be coached to figure out where a method book piece even starts. Four years of lessons, and “Fur Elise” is still an impossible dream for most of my students…. I admit, I still have trouble wrapping my mind around that.

Comparing students is fruitless of course, but people do it all the time. And one of the ways they do it is by bringing in a destructive little word: “Talent.” Joey has talent. Suzie doesn’t. THAT’S why Suzie can’t find Middle C after 100 piano lessons. THAT’S why Joey is playing the Fantasie Impromptu at the age of 12.  

Talent, Shmalent

In the early 1990s, K. Anders Ericsson did a study at West Berlin’s prestigious Music Academy. He interviewed teachers, asking them to put their conservatory-aged young adult violin and piano students into categories:  Those who had the potential to become professional performing artists. Those who had the ability to play in working professional orchestras. And those who were destined to teach in elementary schools.

An interjection here: I don’t like that last designation. Many fine musicians teach in elementary (and other) schools. But to argue about the classification is to miss the point: The teachers were ranking the students based on their professional potential as performing artists.

And then, in a blind study, the researchers interviewed all those students about how much practice time they had put into their music from the very beginnings of their introduction to music. 

The results were consistent across the board, with so little variation that it challenges our very notions about “talent.” As it turned out, the “talent” it took to become what the professors considered a potential concert artist had nothing to do with anything except how many hours the student had practiced. 

  • 10,000 hours: Master of the instrument; concert artist potential.
  • 8,000 hours: Professional orchestral musicians.
  • 4,000 hours: Teachers 
  • 2,000 hours: Amateurs

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the phenomena of people who live and work outside the bell curve: the geniuses, the achievers, the exceptions. He looks at questions like “Why do Asian children seem to do so well at music?” and asks “What is going on here?” He looks at the 10,000 hour study and then he looks at the Beatles and Mozart — and he concludes that just as important as any “talent” was the fact that they had those 10,000 hours. The Beatles played day in and day out in Hamburg, racking up hundreds, then thousands of hours of performance and rehearsal time before their “overnight success.” Mozart played music all day everyday, carefully supervised, starting as a toddler; he probably had his 10,000 hours in well before he was a teenager. 

No one is saying the Beatles or Mozart didn’t have talent: But would they have achieved what they did without those hours? Ericsson’s study says “no.” 

Talent and Practice: The Chicken and the Egg

To conclude that talent has nothing to do with anything may be a little facile, and it contradicts the evidence every music teacher has of students coming in and “getting” it” or not. Some people are better at certain musical tasks than others. And indeed, talent may have been one of the factors that made people practice more to begin with. Would Leopold have sat with little Wolfgang day in and day out if Wolfie had been a distracted little kid who couldn’t remember “Middle C”?  Maybe not. But talent without practice can be nothing more than an empty, unfulfilled promise.

Where talent may factor in is that people like doing the things they are good at. There is a virtuous cycle: They practice, they get results, they enjoy the results, they practice more. A child who simply can’t wrap her mind around how to figure out that “D” is one step up from “C” may not be having as much fun as the kid who sits down, grabs some notes, and starts playings something that sounds good. Kid number 1 practices less, Kid number 2 practices more. 

The Role of Will, Drive, and Character in Musical Achievement

The type of practice also matters: Good practice is a whole lot more than butt-on-bench time.  It can be active, engaged, critical, creative, and problem-solving. It can also be frustrating and boring. It’s not just the time; it’s also about intent and energy and efficiency.

Finally, there is the issue of personal will. Some kids simply have minds that like to wrestle.  

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: If I put a Beethoven Sonata full of 16th notes and 32nd notes on the piano music stand, most of my students will treat it as adult garbage that has nothing to do with them (and, they seem to hope, never will). Their initial reaction to it is that it looks “HARD” and “CONFUSING” and that is all they want to know about it.

But I have a couple of 9 and 10 year-olds who would IMMEDIATELY pick up that music and start trying to work it out. They would look at the threes against fours and ask how to play them, or ask how you play a chord with six notes with only five fingers, and what is that “x”  doing in front of a note where a sharp or a flat usually would go? They are curious — and they see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to try it. That’s not musical TALENT, folks: That’s character. Personality. Drive. Will. Curiosity. Interest. And I’m pretty sure it shows up on the soccer field and in school and in art projects, too.

And that, I think, is the bottom line here: Music is a great equalizer. In a world filled with technology designed to make everything we encounter as effortless as possible, music still requires, and rewards, work.

The Myth of Musical Genius

We have a myth about talent: We like to believe it exists, maybe in part because it lets us off the hook. We think of Paganini, or Robert Johnson, both supposedly possessed by the devil to play as they did. We hear about Uncle George who just sat down at the piano one day and started playing, and we shake our heads in wonder at George’s talent, and say that we wish we had it, conveniently ignoring that when George was a kid he banged away at the old clunker piano in the school lunchroom and tried to learn songs by sneaking into the local music store and looking at chord sheets to see if what he figured out by himself was right, and he listened to the radio when he was supposed to be sleeping.

I’m not sure we’ll ever figure out all the mysteries of talent and genius: The kids who can read music upside down, the prodigies who, at age six, start playing Mozart sonatas, the children with perfect pitch or an intuitive understanding of harmony. Such things certainly exist out at the far edges of the bell curve.

But professional musicians don’t all live out there in the land of freak outliers. Indeed, as the Berlin study showed, even prodigies need to practice to make good on their gifts, and the vast majority of professional musicians inhabit the more prosaic world of “practice makes perfect” and good old slogging.

The conclusion we can draw is an encouraging one: If we practice like they practice, we too may achieve remarkable things.

Just like my sister.

What Instrument Should Your Child Play?

School is starting up, and depending on your school and district, your child may be given the choice of playing an instrument, usually in third, fourth, or fifth grade.

I well remember when the band director at my elementary school came in to our classrooms with a demonstration of all the marvelous instruments that would be available for us to play. I remember the boys’ eyes lighting up at the drum sets (and the attendant let-down a few days later when they were all given little book-sized woodblocks to beat on). I remember the shiny wind instruments and the gleaming strings. I even remember Mr. Richmond’s name, even though this was $%^# years ago and I never took a single class with him.

Because, very unfortunately, my parents said no (one of the few academic mistakes I think they made): They thought piano was enough, and I already had other extracurricular activities on my schedule. But of course, hindsight is 20-20.

The fact is that in the early years, participation in band and orchestra is a pretty low-impact involvement on family schedules and finances. In the very early stages, school music directors giving group lessons don’t expect a whole lot of practice from students. Of course, the virtuous cycle of practice and reward kicks in immediately — students get out of it what they put in — but it’s still a low impact introduction.The students get their rental instruments, and squeak and squawk their way through a few ear-splitting recitals. Those who take to it eventually move on to private lessons, start practicing for real, and audition for all-district and all-state ensembles. Some switch to another instrument, or join a rock band. Some major in music. 

And those who don’t continue turn their rental instruments, sit back in the audience, and watch their friends continue. So there’s no downside to having your child try an instrument: The instrument cost is minimal (rentals), the teaching is done at school, and the time commitment, at first, is negligible. If you are at all conflicted about taking on another activity or trying out music, school group lessons are a great way to go. 

The upsides are numerous. I won’t belabor that point here (because I’m pulling together an article with links to formal studies about the benefits of music education: participation in a team creative activity, commitment, developing practice and learning habits, and side benefits like, oh, less drug abuse, greater math scores, and better overall academic achievement). 

So for now, suffice it to say: no downsides, lots of upsides. So the question: Which instrument?

Instruments are so wonderfully different from each other. My partner is writing a book on ukulele right now, and while I don’t mind listening to the uke, the thing feels like an alien monstrosity in my hands (even a so called baritone uke). I have to squeeze my big self into its little frets, and it feels all cramped over and high pitched. Give me a cello, a bass: Something that sends an expanding sound outwards and speaks from the gut. I have the same response to piccolos versus tenor saxes.

Other people are exactly the opposite: My just-post-college room-mate, for example, has become a leading piccolo recording artist. Lucky her, because it’s a heck of a lot easier (and cheaper) to travel with a piccolo (or a uke) than a tuba (or a double bass)! Not to mention a piano.

Instruments speak to people: They use the  body differently, and they speak in different voices, they speak from the gut or the heartstrings or the voice box. I can imagine myself playing a cello or viola but not the violin, and the idea of having to hold my breath and control it to put the voice in a wind instrument feels uncomfortable to me. Yet I can understand the appeal of that: What a blessing to use the breath that fueled your body to fuel the voice of an instrument!

And how about drums: The endless, amazing  varied sounds of the world’s thousands of percussion instruments: hand-drums, claves, marimbas, thumb pianos, cymbals, tambourines (and yes, we’re talking about little kids here, so the appeal of BANG BANG BANG).

We ALL respond to instruments differently.

I’d try to stay away from gender stereotypes (Some of my five year old piano students are quite convinced that no boy ever plays the violin). It is, however, important to note that kids have different talents, skills, and physical abilities. The smallest kid in the class may not be able to reach the end note on a trombone, and a little boy who desperately wants to fit in with  bigger tougher peers may find more success and satisfaction with a trumpet or sax than with a violin or a piccolo. Some kids have trouble holding down strings on instruments or the fine motor motion of moving their fingers on small instruments.

Musical taste is another issue: When kids are small, this is a difficult factor to weigh, but the fact is that there are more jazz saxophone players than jazz violists, that it’s easier to score a position playing in an orchestra as a violist than as a flutist, and a clarinetist can not only play both sides of the jazz classical divide; she can play saxophone, too. A violist doesn’t have that many chances to solo because of the limitations of the repertoire; a violinist may or may not — depending on the competition. A string bass player doesn’t get to play in the football marching band (which keeps a lot of kids in music through their high school years) and a bassoonist and an oboist are going to have trouble finding a place in a rock and roll group.

At the same time, the decision you make today isn’t written in stone: Many musical children try several instruments. If your child is simply assigned one (because the school needs a bassoon player), they can always change later. In fact, the exposure to multiple instruments is a good thing, and can be a real asset down the road if you child becomes serious about music, either as a session musician or a music teacher.

And this point is also worth making: if your child hates music lesson, try to find out if it’s because of the instrument. Some kids just aren’t meant to play some instruments. It’s like choosing friends: The fact that your child and the neighbor’s kid don’t get along doesn’t mean that your kid doesn’t like to make friends; it simply might mean he doesn’t like that kid. Same may be true for the bassoon. 

So talk with the school music teacher about demands — physical, coordination, practice-related — of each instrument. Let your kid experiment. PLAY some music for them: If they think they want to play violin, play them a violin sonata or a bluegrass tune; if they are leaning toward clarinet, play a clarinet quintet or a great jazz player. And then let your child be your guide.  

Coming up next:  Should your kid play more than one instrument? (With a focus on piano. Well, I admit it, I do have a bit of a bias on this blog.)   

What Makes a Good Piano Parent?

Okay, so my not-so-short rant on parenting and piano lessons has now reached thousands of people from dozens of countries…. literally, all around the world. Clearly, it hit a nerve — in Russia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Jamaica, South Korea, Mexico, China, Portugal, Italy, South Africa, Israel, Japan, Bolivia, Estonia…

But there’s a “glass-half-full” aspect to all of this, and I wanted to share that, as well.

Last night, David and I hosted a music party to celebrate — well everything: The 9th year of our studio here in the Berkshires, the publication of seven music books in the Idiot’s Guides series, and a community that has given us amazing support in our mission to bring music into people’s lives.

And the performances of our students and the joy of David’s song-circle of guitarists playing old favorites together reminded us, once again, why we do this: it’s so much more than a job. Watching our students turn into musicians before our eyes is a one of the greatest gifts I can imagine.

So I wanted to share with you some of what I see that my really wonderful piano families (and David’s equally wonderful guitar families) are doing right:

1) They are making music a priority. For some, this means that lessons and practice are a non-negotiable part of life. Kind of like brushing your teeth.

2) They don’t overcommit. Our most successful students (and this includes those who are successful  academically AND athletically as well as musically) do two maybe or three activities at a time — not four or five.

3) They supervise their kids. For very young students, this means that they make sure the kids have put in their required practice, completed any assignments, have their books for their lessons. For older students, it means maintaining a presence: asking about a piece, showing interest, making sure their kid plays in recitals and other musical events. 

4) They support lessons by playing music at home and attending live music events — ANY live music events.

5) They listen in at lessons and then remind students of what the teacher told them to do. (Yes, we allow parents to sit in… I know some teachers don’t, and there are good arguments both ways.)

6) If they CAN help with practice (counting, correcting wrong notes, etc.) they do.

7) Even if they can’t help with correcting musical problems, they ask their kids to play for them and show them what they are working on.

8) They are JOYFUL about music: They see it not as just another chore, but as something special in life.

9) They listen to us when we talk about lesson length or practice times or overscheduling or summer lessons or the need for a quiet practice place uninterrupted by toddlers trying to bang along on the high notes or a blaring TV.

10) They communicate with us: Let us know about scheduling issues, school problems, and other issues that might affect how a child is doing. Sometimes we can help by changing the requirements, taking a break from the “serious” stuff to have more fun, or simply knowing that a kid is feeling overwhelmed.

If you’re a parent reading this: What have you done to support your child’s music education?

If you are a music teacher: What makes a great music parent in YOUR eyes?

Please comment.

Conversations With my Students

A few choice  words from my students…. Feel free to add some of your own!

Me: “So did you learn any goofy songs at summer camp?”
Student: “No, mostly they had sailboats in them. My mom knows the words.”

Me: “So, what’s new and interesting this week?”
Student:  “Grandma has spiders on her legs and crinkly elbows.”

Me: “So what’s new this week?”
Student: “Mom got a new pooper scooper.”

Me: “That was interesting…. You had some creative rhythms in there that I don’t think the composer ever considered.”
Student: “You mean it was a train wreck.”

Me: “That was pretty stinky.” (said to a student with whom I have a long-standing relationship that can handle this!)
Student: “I thought it sounded pretty good…. until it didn’t.”

Me: “So, how do you think that went?”
Student: “Pretty good.”
Me: “Yeah? It’s written in 3/4 time, but you played it in 4/4. And you forgot all the sharps in the key of A major. And you skipped these three lines entirely.”
Student: “But it was still pretty good, right?”

Me: “So, what’s new?”
Student: “After piano, I’m going over to my uncle’s house to play with my band.”
Me: “Really? Who’s in your band?”
Student: “Me and my uncle.”

Me: “That was great. Your finger position was so good that even if I were standing all the way over there in the kitchen, I would be able to tell how good your hand position was just by listening to you.”
Student: “I think piano teachers are a different kind of human.”

Group Piano Lessons: How to Make Them Work

Traditionally, piano lessons have been taught one-one-one in private lessons. But with the advent of portable, inexpensive digital pianos equipped with headphones, programs have sprung up to teach piano to groups of beginners. For parents, these programs are less inexpensive than private lessons. At the same time, they can be more lucrative for teachers. Win-win. but what about the students?

While there are pros and cons to teaching groups lessons versus private piano lessons, group lessons for beginners can be successful if certain elements are in place. Here’s what to look for if you are parent… and what to be sure you are doing if you are a teacher.

Elements of Success in Group Piano Lessons

The success of group lessons depends on the skill of the teacher, the class curriculum, the number of students, and how well matched the students are in age and learning ability.

  • Teacher Skill: Typical group lessons may be an hour in length, which is a long time for a small child. Therefore, the teacher must have a bag of tricks to keep students interested and keep the class varied and moving. The teacher must also have class management strategies in order to deal with working with one child privately while keeping the others busy with independent learning tasks, regaining control when the class turns chaotic, and coping with different learning styles and abilities.
  • Class Curriculum: The curriculum should be developed or modified so it is workable for groups. For example, the teacher should have plenty of supplemental activities to reinforce concepts, and to give to students who finish assignments before everyone else. Materials should also be age appropriate, as young children who can’t yet read have difficulty using instructional materials developed for older children who are reading fluently. The curriculum should include plenty of variety in order to revive interest when students get tired or lose focus.
  • Number of Students: While some classes have experimented with teaching a dozen or more children, most teachers of group piano classes prefer a group size of about four children. This gives everyone plenty of time for individual attention, but allows for camaraderie to develop. Group dynamics add to the “fun” elements of the class.
  • Student Compatibility: Children should be grouped by age, and, when possible, learning ability. Children who are five should not be in classes with seven or eight year olds: The cognitive differences between different age groups make classroom management and evenly paced instruction virtually impossible. Even children of the same age can be vastly different in learning ability. The most successful groups combine children of similar ages and abilities together. Indeed, group lessons may not be appropriate for children who are very talented, or those who need constant extra attention.

Materials Required for Successful Group Piano Lessons

A professional group piano studio will have most of the following elements:

  • Digital pianos, one per student: Digital pianos must have headphones. Touch control (dynamic control when keys are pressed with different amounts of force) is required. It is preferable that keyboards have pedals and 88 weighted keys, so they feel as much like an acoustic piano as possible.
  • A photocopier: For writing group assignments and homework, for photocopying parts and music when needed.
  • A whiteboard or blackboard (and appropriate writing implements): Used for writing games such as drawing and naming notes.
  • Inexpensive percussion instruments: For rhythm exercises.
  • Computers (optional): Computers with mini-piano keyboards can be used for music theory and music-reading exercises. Teachers should be sure that the learning programs being used penalize students for mistakes, otherwise, students simply click randomly as fast as they can to try to score points.
  • An acoustic piano (optional): Having an acoustic piano enables the teacher to demonstrate, and allows the children to move among instruments and feel and hear the differences for themselves.
  • CD player (optional): for listening exercises and games.

With an enthusiastic teacher, a well-designed classroom, an age-appropriate and varied curriculum, and a class of compatible students, group piano lessons can work well for the first year or two as an introduction to more advanced, private study.

For more information on group music lessons, see Group Music Lessons for Young Children.

For more information on piano lessons, see: How to Know a Child is Ready for Piano Lessons.

How to Choose a Piano (or Music) Teacher

If you’re like most parents, you’re probably wondering where the summer went. back-to-school specials are in full swing, and you’ve probably got a mile-long list relating to soccer schedules and PTA meetings. And music lessons.

Don’t wait to look for a piano teacher: Many already have their fall schedules booked. But if you are at the beginning of the process, here’s a brief road map to finding the right teacher for your child.

Finding Potential Teachers

Many music teachers rarely advertise. Most of us find students from word of mouth, and of course, the better the teacher is, the less her or she needs to advertise. So you generally won’t find your town’s most popular teacher in the yellow pages.

Many piano teachers do have websites, which you can usually finding by searching for “piano teacher” and “your town, state.”  Websites may give a little bit of information about the studio, its location, and the teacher’s credentials and philosophy, along with contact information.

You can also ask for recommendations at the local music stores, piano shops, sheet music stores, and the like. Note, however, that some music stores offer in-store music lessons, so they may steer you to their teachers.

Public school music teachers are another resource. They tend to know the private music teachers in the area, and can give you some names of teachers who have good reputations.

Also check to see if your area has a community music school. These schools generally vet the teachers. Many require college music degrees, or significant performance experience.

Questions to Ask a Music Teacher

The following issues are some that you’ll want to cover in your interview with a music teacher. Some are purely practical. Others address issues of compatibility and teaching philosophy.  There’s not right answer to any of these questions: An excellent teacher may or may not have a music degree, and may or may not have performing experience. But the questions will get you talking to each other, and will help you feel out your compatibility.

  • What qualifications and experience do you have?
  • How long have you been teaching?
  • What ages do you typically teach?
  • Do you teach one style of music or many, and how do you decide?
  • Do you do studio recitals?
  • Do you participate in any out-of-studio programs (such as state contests or Piano Guild competitions)
  • How long are lesson times?
  • What is the cost?
  • What is your payment policy?
  • What is your make-up and cancellation policy?
  • Where are you located (or do you teach in students’ homes)?
  • What is your availability?
  • Is there anywhere I can hear you play? (Answers might include local gigs, the Internet, or a CD)
  • Do you have any experience dealing with a child who…. (has ADD, Aspergers, is four years old, has a learning delay issue, etc.)?
  • What is your philosophy about teaching music?
  • What kind of instrument is required?
  • How much practice do you require?
  • What can I as a parent do to help?

Having an open conversation with a teacher and being sure all your questions are answered is the first step in establishing the foundation of a relationship that lasts for many years.

Group Music Lessons for Young Children Teach General Skills

If you’re a parent, I don’t have to tell you this: You already know that your small child loves music. Maybe she sings, dances, claps, marches, and moves to music she likes. Or perhaps he bangs a drum or picks at notes on a piano.

Based on this obvious interest (not to mention possible aptitude), you may be considering enrolling a young child in music lessons. But while private music lessons work for some small children, not all preschoolers are ready to focus for a half-hour private piano, violin, or guitar lesson lesson. Many aren’t ready to adhere to a regular practice schedule. Not to mention that young children simply may not have the dexterity to move fingers independently to make notes on a piano or a violin.

But small children can handle other instruments appropriate for a pre-schooler’s development, size, and age. Percussion instruments, and sometimes harmonicas, recorders, or ukeleles, can be managed by tots. The trick is to find a program that suits your child’s level of development and cognitive abilities.

Groups Lessons Offer General Music Instruction

Perhaps the most famous pre-school music education program is the Suzuki program, which started by training children as young as three or four on violin, and has expanded to offer music instruction in piano, recorder, percussion, and other instruments. The Suzuki program has some astonishing success stories, but it isn’t for every child: It involves both private and group instruction and focuses on the development of specific instrumental skills. Other group programs focus on specific instruments, for example, group piano classes. But not all preschoolers are ready for this level of instruction.

Children who exhibit an interest in music but who aren’t yet mature enough for private lessons can benefit from general music lessons in a group setting. Some of the better known programs with classes all across North America include Music for Young Children, Kindermusik, Musikgarten, and Gymboree Play and Music.

In addition, countless local programs offer group music classes for small children. Many of these programs have been developed by instructors who have experience working in various other major programs. Local group music programs for small children may be offered by just one teacher working out of a home studio; or they may be offered at community music schools, at community centers, in YMCAs, in pre-school programs, at colleges and universities, or in music stores.

The well-known programs vary: For example, Musikgarten has programs for infants, whereas Music for Young Children’s Sunrise Program starts wtth children ages two and three. But though the specifics vary, all the programs include games and activities designed to teach children about pitch, rhythm, singing, listening, music appreciation, and even composing.

Benefits of Group Music Lessons

Group music lessons serve several important purposes in setting the stage for a child’s music education.

Perhaps most importantly, these music classes focus on what small children can do (move to music, count, recognize pitch, sing) and not what they can’t do (make a perfect note on a violin, play with good hand position on a piano, blow a note into a trumpet). Group music lessons don’t focus on istrumental skills; instead, they include age-appropriate activities that most preschoolers can handle and will enjoy.

Games might include stretching hands up when notes go higher in a song, or crouching down when pitches get lower, marching and counting to music, tossing a ball in time with rhythm, and learning note names and how to count. Thus, lessons are not frustrating for the child; they are fun.

Secondly, the skills that can be taught to very young children – pitch recognition, musical form, counting, playing in time – are essential for beginning study on any instrument. Not only that, but these skills are very effectively taught to groups via games.

Many private teachers breathe a sigh of relief when a young child comes in the door who has already taken part in a group music program that teaches pitch and rhythm. A student who has not had this exposure is often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of all there is to learn and do when starting an instrument: find the note, play it correctly with the right finger, learn the difference between high notes and low notes, short notes and long notes, and so much more. Students with early exposure to fundamentals often find the first lessons on an instrument much easier, because they already understand some basic musical concepts.

Other Advantages of Group Music Instruction for Pre-School Children

  • Group lessons are fun because they involve play with other children. Small children take cues from each other, and learn by playing and engaging directly with material that interests them.
  • Group lessons instill an early appreciation that music is an enjoyable activity to be played in a group setting.
  • Group music classes focus on skills that small children are cognitively and physically able and ready to learn – not skills that will frustrate them..
  • Group music classes create a quality educational family interaction. (Most programs require parental attendance and participation.)

In short, group music lessons give pre-schoolers an opportunity to play with music, to have a stress-free and enjoyable introduction into the world of music making, and teach them skills that they will be able to apply to instrumental study – when they are ready for it.

Learning an Instrument: The Importance of a Practice Routine

Learning a musical instrument is unlike almost any other endeavor a young child attempts. Virtually no other activity requires the same kind of weekly private instruction, the intense individual effort that must continue over a period of several years, and, most of all, the daily practice that is so essential to learning to play piano, guitar, violin, or any other instrument.

Quite simply, music education requires practice. And not just sitting down at the instrument for five minutes. Playing a few notes and declaring yourself done doesn’t do it.

Importance of Practice Routine in Learning to Play an Instrument

While music teachers may differ on the specifics depending on the student, the age, the level, the instrument, and the teaching philosophy, teachers almost universally agree that practice should be part of a regular, preferably daily routine. Last-minute cramming works about as well in music education as it does with any other subject, which is to say, not at all. It is better to practice in routine small chunks than in sporadic, intense, long outbursts. The brain simply processes musical information better that way.

In a day and age when every family seems busier than the family next door, finding time to practice in between soccer, homework, and play dates is admittedly difficult. It’s even more difficult if parents don’t have their own personal experience with, or are ambivalent about, music education and the sustained daily effort it requires.

To be effective, practice has to be viewed as a primary activity, like doing homework, eating lunch, or going to school. Parents need to understand that daily practice is not an easy habit. (And any parent who thinks practice is, or should be, easy, should take a hard look at his or her own exercise habits. Practicing every day is just as difficult as keeping New Year’s resolutions to go to the gym).

Children need to be reminded and encouraged to practice their instruments, just as they need to be reminded to brush their teeth or do their homework. One effective solution that works for some families (but certainly not for everyone) is for the child to practice in the morning before school. Just as with exercise, this gets the job done and out of the way. If there is time for more practice later in the day, great. If not, at least the minimum practice requirements have been met.

 

How Much Practice Should a Music Student Do?

The amount of practice required to progress depends on three things: the level and age of the student, the student’s ambitions, and the instrument.

The level and age of the student are the first issues. Often teachers will suggest a time of 15 to 20 minutes of daily practice for very young beginners, 30 minutes for school-age elementary students, 45 minutes for middle-school intermediates, and an hour or more for advancing students.

The student’s ambition is another factor. Is the student planning to major in music? Where? If a student’s ambitions soar toward institutions such as Juilliard, then several hours of daily practice will be required at the high-school level simply to prepare music for the audition. If the student is thinking about majoring in music education at “Typical University,” competence is required, but not virtuosity; the practice required to get in will be commensurately less. Teachers should ensure that any stated goals are in line with actual practice time. Students often have no idea of how high the bar is for professional performance or advanced study. Watching a few YouTube videos of talented students of similar ages to your students may be a hard dose of reality, but it’s important for an ambitious student to know that the competition is not lazy Larry down the street; it’s a focused student who is playing concert music at age 11.

Finally, each instrument is different. For example, piano practice times tend to be longer than practice times for other instruments, in part because the repertoire and demands of the instrument are so vast. Also, it is physically possible for pianists to play for longer than it is for trumpet players (whose embouchures cannot survive a six-hour practice session) or vocalists (who can damage their voices). Still, any instrument can be over-practiced to the point of injury. Regardless of the instrument, at the first sign of muscle strain, tremors, aches, or stabbing pain, talk to a teacher.

In addition to time and routine, two other elements contribute to successful practice: A comfortable practice space that encourages practice and a mindful approach to practice that effectively and reliably solves technical and musical problems.