I have played piano for 40 years, taught piano lessons for 15 years, and taught elementary school for 8 years. Additionally, I have three daughters. So, I have had lots of experience both with music and with children. And one thing that I have often observed is a child beginning piano lessons full of enthusiasm, only to quit a year later, discouraged by a lack of progress.
This does not have to happen! Piano lessons are something I would recommend for many children, because of the benefits music lessons impart in the areas of math, logical thinking, reasoning, and just plain aesthetic beauty. But, I also think piano lessons are often entered into lightly and without a full understanding of the commitment involved.
My tips to parents of children beginning piano lessons would be:
- Don’t expect great things overnight. Playing piano is a complex skill, and in just the first few weeks your child will need to learn about basic rhythm, note names on the piano, and how these notes correspond to written notation in a book. Add in learning finger numbers, and this is a lot for a child to put together. Consequently, for the first several months the songs will be simple. Children often begin lessons hoping that within a month they’ll be playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or a favorite Disney theme, and this is just not going to happen in 99% of cases. Encourage your child on the basic songs he or she is learning, and try to keep expectations within reason.
- Sit with your child daily while he practices. I know this is not usually done, because when I taught lessons I would encourage parents to do this and most admitted that they just did not have the time. Even if you do not know how to play piano yourself, your maturity and understanding will go a long way to helping your child “put it all together” in a piece of music and coordinate his rhythm, notes and fingerings. Often students say “I did practice”, but I see that they practiced a piece incorrectly and need to re-learn it, which can be very difficult. I have made the commitment to sit with my daughters each day they practice for the first several years they take piano lessons. After this point, they have progressed sufficiently to not need so much assistance. I know this is time-consuming, but I think this is the single most important thing parents can do to ensure musical success for your child. You might even learn something!
- Make it a priority to practice daily. When my girls studied piano, they knew that they are expected to practice their lesson daily. We did not set a specific time amount, but they were to go through each song 2 times. This level of practice usually ensures that the child will know a piece within a week of practice. Early in the week, your child may want to practice a piece with hands separately, or perhaps just work on a line or two if the piece is difficult. Later in the week, the first playing of a piece could be considered “practice” and the second go-through could include dynamics and an emphasis on phrasing. Progress may be slow on some songs, but the daily practice will definitely add up.
- Try make piano practice fun for your child. I often tell my piano students that learning to play piano is really pretty much drudgery for the first few years. Why, then, would anyone want to take lessons? Because when it all finally comes together and a student can open a piece of music and just play it, is magical! It is worth all the hours of practice that have gone before. One thing my students enjoy is when I offer to listen to them play a piece “in concert”. I will sit on the nearby steps and announce their song in a dramatic voice. It sounds silly, but this always seems to inspire them to play their best. Another thing they enjoy is playing “five buttons”. We keep five buttons on the top of the piano, and when the child plays a song they lose a button for each mistake, the goal being to have at least one button left at the end of the piece (only do this when the child has some degree of familiarity with the song). Other things you may try could be earning a sticker for a chart after a good lesson (or even after each day your child practices).
I hope these suggestions help you and your little musician! I tell my students that perseverance is important in learning to play any musical instrument. Many people say, “I took piano lessons years ago and quit, and I’ve always regretted it.” I’ve never heard, “I took piano lessons when I was a child, and I wish I hadn’t.”