Although teaching piano to children of any age takes skill and patience, giving lessons to younger children has unique challenges that many struggle to overcome. Kids ages 4 to 6 are energetic and easily distracted. They are still developing motor skills and probably have not learned how to read yet. But despite these challenges, young children have qualities that older students may not have, making lessons with them very rewarding. I have been teaching piano to young kids for years now, and I've learned a few things from experience that not all of the teachers' guides will tell you.
The Advantages of Teaching Young Children
- Young piano students approach piano lessons with a fresh perspective. They don't have much experience with music at all, and what music they have heard has most likely been fun songs that appeal to their innate love of play or lullabies that express a calm safety. Therefore, most young children, in my experience, approach their first music lessons free from the stereotypical expectations that older children might have.
- Young children are storehouses of energy, making lesson time a fun experience for both student and teacher. Young students rarely find music a chore when taught from a play-oriented perspective.
- With minds like sponges, young students have amazing memory skills and learn new concepts surprisingly fast. They have no preconceived ideas as to what piano lessons are, and therefore soak up anything you teach them.
When to Start Piano Lessons
My personal studio policy is to accept students no younger than four years old. Kids who are 3 and under are typically not ready for private one-on-one lessons. They have difficulty sitting still for any amount of time, and a classroom setting is still a foreign concept. If you would like to get your children younger than four into music in some way, consider finding a group music class where they can be involved with other children their age. These classes will focus on singing, basic rhythm, and hands-on activities that are suited for children under four.
The Benefits of Starting Piano Lessons Early
The progress of a young piano student will most likely be slower than that of an older student. So why start so early, you might ask. Music lessons are not just an ends to a means, that of learning to read and play music; it is an experience that enriches the lives of the student of any age. Besides being fun and exciting to make noise on the keyboard, piano lessons help develop motor skills, memory skills, and general learning skills. Students who take piano lessons are known to have strengthened self-motivation as well as better school grades. They learn to think logically, figure out problems, and apply their knowledge.
Another benefit to early piano lessons, young students grow up with the idea that music is a good thing. They won't have negative ideas of music or lessons, but see music as the blessing and gift that it truly is. Being able to participate in music will hopefully influence their lives for the better.
With the start of music lessons early on in life, students develop a natural understanding of music, including rhythm and sound. They grow up being able to listen to music in an understanding way and will be better able to learn more complex theories of music in the future.
The Shy Factor
One thing that many children struggle with is being shy. However, if you as the teacher approach piano lessons with a sense of adventure and fun, the student will eventually follow. Once the young student starts learning new concepts and plays music games with you, he or she will be more willing to open up to you, allowing the student-teacher relationship to flourish. Just remember that each student is an individual. Try finding something that he or she likes, whether it's a toy or an activity, and talk a little about it with him or her. Once your young student learns to trust you, piano lessons will become more enjoyable for both sides.
Teaching Music to Young Children
Remember that your young students are just now growing out of toddler-hood. They are still developing motor skill coordination and will probably need extra time to learn how to actually physically play the piano keys. I like to focus primarily on finger coordination before teaching note reading. Jumping straight into reading music on the first lesson will only confuse and frustrate your young student.
With piano, the primary focus is on the fingers. From the very first lesson, teach your student the finger numbers of the hands. By example, put your palms together and wiggle fingers two at a time, the number ones, the number twos, and so on. Then, have your student copy you. Repeat this process with hands separated. This last is very important because you want the student to understand how the finger numbers go in different directions. Review this with your student every lesson for a while till he can do it by himself. This will help your student be able to differentiate individual fingers on command.
Bringing this finger differentiation to the keyboard is a more difficult matter. Starting out with the black keys helps, but it takes time for a young student to learn how to play with individual fingers. Start small, with only two fingers walking on the two black keys (the twins), then move to the three black keys (the triplets) with fingers 2, 3, and 4. Music reading is not important at this point, but always having the music you are playing up on the rack does help emphasize reading skills for the future. Eventually move to white keys, slowly introducing different keys with different fingers. Middle C position is an easy position to begin with. The process of learning to play all ten fingers will take quite a few lessons, so don't get discouraged if your student seems to be making slow progress. He is learning finer motor skills and applying them to make music. It just takes time!
Tips for Making Music Fun for Kids
- sing some familiar songs and play them on the piano
- play clapping or drumming rhythm games
- make up silly songs on the keyboard to describe animals or stories
- let the student play teacher for a few minutes
- march around the room to music
Short Attention Spans
Young children have especially short attention spans and can only listen to one thing for so long. Because of this, I always recommend brief 15-minute piano lessons for children ages 4-6. There are definitely exceptions to this rule, as some children tend to find serious learning easier than others. So sometimes I increase the lesson time depending on when the student is ready to handle more in-depth lessons. However, it is surprising how much you can achieve with weekly 15-minute lessons. Switching topics frequently is a must to keep the young student attentive and excited to learn. In one lesson, I usually review the songs and topics from the previous lesson, teach a new concept and one or two short pieces, help with a worksheet or theory book, and if there's time, drill with flashcards.
Rhythm is something that all of us need to learn. Sometimes, we have an innate sense of beat, but oftentimes we don't. It's important to start teaching rhythm early on in piano lessons so that it becomes a habit in the student's practice. One fun way to teach rhythm to young children is to bring along a small drum to the lesson. Kids love making noise, and a teacher asking them to make noise will make their day. Make up rhythm cards with basic 3x5 cards, using colored markers and big notes. Make one set of rhythm cards in 4/4 time, and one set of cards in 3/4 time. There are a number of ways you can practice rhythm with the drum and flashcards, making games up as you go. After a student becomes skilled at reading the cards and beating the rhythm out at the drum, I usually introduce a listening game in which I play the beat and the student gets to guess which card I'm playing. And then we reverse so that the student plays and I can guess. Young children are especially drawn to learning rhythm this way, and it helps make lessons fun and interactive.
Stuffed animals are a good way to reach out to young students. Using them in lessons communicates that you as the teacher are willing to enter their world and explore new things with them. I like to use the Music for Little Mozarts books with my 4-6 year-old students, and as you may know, the main characters of these series are Beethoven Bear and Mozart Mouse. You can actually buy stuffed animals from the publishers to go with the books, but I just use a small stuffed teddy bear and call him "Beethoven Bear." Kids can us Beethoven to demonstrate music concepts, like jumping the stuffed animal on just the low notes or just the high notes. The student can "teach" Beethoven Bear things he or she has learned, or play a song just for him. There's no need to feel silly playing make-believe during a piano lesson; it just creates a fun learning atmosphere.
Color the Notes
Young children usually recognize colors more readily than letters or numbers. One way to help them learn how to recognize notes or keys is to assign a color to each one. Maybe put some colored stickers on the keys if you don't mind having them on your keyboard. I find that coloring in the notes on the staff on a worksheet is helpful, especially with children who tend to be more visual.
Just like any piano student, a young student has huge potential for learning how to create music. As teachers, it's our responsibility to learn more about our individual students to be able to cater to their specific needs. Young children may be challenging to teach, but the rewards are endless and the lessons are fun if you just relax a little and show your students that music is an entire world that is exciting to explore. Please comment below to share your experiences with teaching young children!