How Young Is Too Young?
Barbara J. Savage
believe every piano teacher has been asked, "At what age should a child start lessons?" Usually, we respond with what we have found works best for us. I know some teachers will not accept a student unless they are at least six-years-old, in the first grade, and able to read a little. Other teachers have different criteria. I, personally, don’t have a set age for starting students, but usually I am looking for a child to have the attention span necessary for a thirty minute lesson, at least be a pre-reader, and have some aptitude for early rhythm and tone matching. Following is a summary of my experience with one student that shows even the very young can benefit from lessons on the piano along with some tips about how to judge if a very young student can start lessons. Additional information on this question can be found in our article for parents,When Should My Child Begin Lessons.
Recently, one of my adult students asked if I would consider teaching her then two-year-old grandson. I knew her grandson from when I went to her home to teach her lessons, and I had to agree that he was quite advanced for his age. He not only could say and recognize the alphabet; he was already starting to read simple things, like his name. I knew that he would be turning three in a few months, but I had never considered teaching a child that was still in diapers.
Usually, I would have never considered teaching such a young child, but I had a good relationship with his grandmother and decided to try for her sake. I explained that what we might end up doing was more music appreciation than actual learning of the piano. I also explained to her that just because a child is gifted in one area, doesn’t necessarily mean that he will be gifted in music as well. We went over how I would not be teaching any method where the child only imitates what the teacher is doing on the instrument. I have had too many students that I have accepted that after years of being taught through imitation had yet to master even the fundamentals of music theory. She understood and I agreed that I would give teaching this young child, Dane, a try. We agreed to 10 to 15-minute lessons right before we started her lessons each week.
Before we started lessons, thoughts of the legend of Beethoven’s father pushing him to learn at too early an age kept running through my mind. I had to develop an approach that was both fun and interesting. First, I researched all of the pre-reading early beginner methodologies that I could find. I chose one that incorporated stuffed animals into each lesson. There was also a lot of story telling, but I chose not to use the lengthy story base, and abbreviated the story for use in the lessons. Much of the book was too far advanced for Dane to comprehend, but I saw a way I could use the toys to establish the basic concepts of high and low.
He looked so tiny sitting at the baby grand on his first lesson. He quickly mastered high and low with the toys. I then played Mozart while he clapped and marched in time. Finally, I showed him how the black keys were in patterns of twos and threes. He quickly grasped this concept. We played a game with the toys of placing them on a group of three low black keys, or two high black keys, etc. He stayed attentive for the first lesson, which lasted for 15 minutes. I was very happy. Over the next few months, I was able to teach him the concepts of short and long. Soon, he could read quarter and half notes. He was able to find all of the white keys by name. At first he played with either hand, using only his index finger, with all other fingers balled up. I taught him how to un-ball his hands by having him lay his hand on top of mine while I played. Soon, he was able to play without rolled up fingers. After about three months, he learned to play with left and right hands as instructed. He played in two of my recitals. The first one he played with his grandmother sitting beside him, the second one he wanted me beside him on the stage. He, of course, was the star of each program. Unfortunately, Dane’s family recently had to move out of state. I hope they can find a teacher that will continue teaching him.
I noticed that Dane was trying to color and draw letters with sidewalk chalk, and that helped me in deciding to teach him, since it gave me a sense that he might have the sufficient physical maturity for lessons. More generally, when deciding if a child can benefit from lessons, it is imperative that the young child be ready to learn. Can they sit still and be instructed or do they have to be in constant motion? It’s okay if they have short attention spans as music appreciation includes full body rhythm lessons like clapping and marching in time, but there must be a point that the child sits still and absorbs the patterns and intricacies of the keyboard. They must be willing to try. They can’t sit passively while you talk. They must want to create music and be interested in the differences in tones and rhythms. I noticed that my young student had all of these attributes. In short, do they show an interest beyond just banging on the keys for the joy of it, or are they trying to discover what it is the instrument can actually do?
I never thought I would teach someone still in diapers, but I was glad I gave this child a chance. It was a challenge, but the rewards were worth it. Teaching someone so young brought me back to what music at its purest form is all about. Isn’t music just distance between tones and are they long or short? I have learned that we shouldn’t set an age or demand that a child must be able to read before they start lessons. We shouldn’t declare when a child is too young to start lessons, there will always be an exception to the rule! Now, when someone asks me how old a child must be to start lessons, I answer, "It depends."