When to start piano

March 13, 2013

in Concentration, glenn doman, Kodaly, Musical prodigies, Piano, preschool education

Ariel LanyiWhen is a good age to start learning to play the piano? Is four years too young? I had this interesting discussion with some other parents of children who play the piano the other day. I had always thought the earlier the better, as soon as the child is tall enough that he can sit and play. This view was based on the fact that most famous pianists started from when they were toddlers – Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Glenn Glould, Lang Lang to name but a few. Music prodigy Ariel Lanyi (pictured) was encouraged to love music from birth. I started when I was four, and I had always assumed this was the standard view. However, many parents nowadays seem to think four is too early and one should wait till at least six or seven (and they say this is what most piano teachers recommend). The arguments for waiting a couple of years longer are

  • Shorter attention span and less discipline to practice regularly in very young children
  • Less understanding of how music works and not yet able to read at four
  • Smaller fingers and hands which makes it more difficult and frustrating for the child
  • Better to build up a general feeling for melodies and rhythm first – for example through gymnastics, ballet, singing, or early musical development classes (classes following the Kodaly method, for example)

I agree with the latter two arguments. I am less sure about the first two. First of all, in my experience toddlers have an extremely long attention span. Certainly, many can concentrate on one activity for 30 minutes if they enjoy it. It is parents who often disrupt this natural ability by overloading babies with toys or putting them in front of the TV or ipad as soon as they are bored. If you regularly read books with your child, you will often notice that your child will happily demand to be read 20 books in a row while the parent starts to get fidgety and say “that’s enough!”. My 2 year old often demands “more books, more books” when I am falling asleep already. On the playground I observe the same. Babies enjoying the swing and happily swinging for 30 minutes and looking around. It is usually the mum who gets bored and interrupts the activity (usually with the argument “it’s lunchtime!”, “it’s nap time!”, “it’s cold”, or “Daddy’s waiting”. If you go with the flow from early on and encourage your child to keep going with one activity as long as they are enjoying it, you will notice that they develop a very long attention span and will easily follow a music lesson for 30 minutes or longer at the age of four. Similarly, it’s not important to be able to read words in order to learn how to read notes (and even if it was, this could be a good opportunity to learn to play the piano by the ear rather than using notes).

My main concern when you start early is that you may not find the right teacher at the beginning. Maybe it’s better to find a high quality teacher when the child is 6 or 7. The best piano teachers may not be interested in teaching four year olds. And in highly skilled activities (this counts for the piano as much as tennis), beginnings are very important. You want to start with the right technique. You don’t want to spend two years practicing suboptimal movements and habits. And given how young children need a lot of physical activity. maybe the time is better spent doing a Kodaly class and some dance classes, as many parents I talked to argue.

I think it is a very different case for children whose parents are musicians already however. Their children will pick it up naturally from birth and it would be absurd to keep them waiting so long when their parents and older siblings are playing the piano at home and they want to get started, too. The most difficult part about 3 or 4 year olds, in my experience, is that they are still tired quite regularly and need a nap, and they can be a bit unpredictable. So if you have a lesson planned at a certain time of the day, you might get stressed when you child naps too late and you know he’ll be cranky at the piano class. If they learn it from you at home, it is much easier because you can just pick those 30 minutes every day when they are happy and alert. It’s not something you can schedule in young children. So my advice is to let them start as early as they want to in your home – but if you are thinking of instruction by a piano teacher outside of your home, wait till they are old enough to be alert and happy for most of the day, and let them enjoy dancing and singing in the meantime!

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