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Is It Time to Begin Piano Lessons?

The question is floated often: when is the right time to start piano lessons?

The answers to the following questions can provide clues as to whether a child is ready to begin piano study.

Physical Readiness

1. Can the child cover five adjacent white keys on a standard-sized piano without unnatural stretching between the fingers?

The hands should be relaxed and comfortable while playing the piano.

Also consider that it's important to own an instrument with full-size keys in order to assess adequate hand size for piano study. Keyboards with mini-keys are unsuitable as practice instruments in that the child who plays on one would align his or her fingers differently than on a piano with full-size keys.

2. Does the child have enough finger strength to fully depress the piano keys?

Pianos vary in how heavy their actions are. A prospective student should already possess the hand strength to use full tone when playing each of the ten fingers, on both the home piano and the studio piano.

Mental Readiness

1. Does the prospective student know the alphabet?

The musical alphabet consists of the first seven letters of the alphabet. Knowing what those letters look like, how to write them (for music theory work), and how to recite them in order is imperative when learning the names of keys and music notes.

2. How far can the child count?

Numbers are used often in music -- finger numbers, time signatures, rhythm-counting numbers, and the like. Facility with counting, at least up to ten, is an important prerequisite to music study.

3. How long is his/her attention span?

While we change activities fairly often during lessons, a beginning student should be able to stay on a single task for at least ten minutes, both during the lesson and in home practice. Children who have difficulty remaining in one place for very long, or who are easily distractible, may benefit if formal music lessons are delayed several months or longer.

Emotional Readiness

1. Does the prospective student show interest in learning piano?

Desire to study piano may be the most significant determiner of future success at the piano. Those who want to learn the instrument, as opposed to those who are required to study before they show desire, tend to stay with lessons longer, and find more joy and fulfillment in the process.

2. Is the student willing to follow the teacher's instructions?

There is room for creativity and student autonomy in some activities at the piano; conversely, there are times students are expected to follow exact specifications. A strong-willed child who persistently does things his or her own way, whether at the piano or off-bench, is better enrolled in lessons after maturing and exhibiting a more cooperative spirit.

Parental Readiness

1. Are the parents of young students willing to read the practice instructions to their children?

Children who are beginning readers or pre-readers will need a parent to sit with them during their practice sessions and remind them of the instructions and tips written in their music scores and assignment notebooks. If parents are pressed for time and unable to sit with the child during practice, lessons are better left for a time the child can read independently and with comprehension.

2. Are the parents willing to regularly encourage daily practice before the child is mature enough to practice without reminder?

Piano practice on a regular basis is required for consistent progress. Children need help developing routines, and maintaining them on their own is a skill that grows with maturity. In the meanwhile, parents are instrumental in assisting the child with daily encouragement to head to the piano.

3a. Has a schedule been set up that allows for sufficient, unhurried practice time around the family's other activities?

One way to help a child develop a daily practice routine is to have one set time for practice to begin each day. If this isn't possible, due to varying activities on different days of the week, then having a calendar with specific practice start times outlined day by day is a useful tool.

If there isn't enough time to practice thoughtfully and without hurry, then parents would do well to analyze their family's overall activity schedule to determine where piano practice fits among their other priorities. Music students need to practice at least five to six days a week, and shouldn't plan to "make up for lost time" by doing long practices a few days a week, while skipping practice on the busy days. Slow and steady -- day by day -- is the key!

3b. Does the family's schedule allow for frequent and consistent attendance in the assigned time slot for lessons?

Music students benefit from consistent routines, both in home practice and lesson attendance. An unpredictable or highly variable schedule that necessitates frequent changes in lesson days and times or causes too many missed lessons unfortunately hampers steady progress. If this season of family life is in constant flux, a quieter season may be more conducive to a successful start in piano.

Musical Readiness

This is a category that deserves more attention than it's often given. There is more to readiness than simply the parental and student characteristics we looked at above. Musical readiness is an important part of the overall picture that can lead to long-term success and joy at the piano.

1. Is the home a music-rich environment?

Prospective piano students who hear music played or sung in their homes, whether recorded or live, have begun to acquire a sense of rhythm with its underlying pulse. They've started to comprehend form in music; they've probably heard expressive qualities put into play -- shapes of melodies, thickness of harmonic texture, qualities of tone. Immersion in a musical home environment prior to instrument study helps make music more understandable to the learner.

2. Does the child have opportunity to explore the physical characteristics of the piano before starting lessons?

I've written about this previously, but it bears repeating: music is a language, and is learned effectively when approached in the way a hearing person learns spoken language. First comes listening, and then speaking. (Speaking the language of music means playing just to play, without interpreting a musical score.) Reading and writing come later.

Any individual desiring to study piano is better prepared for the first and future lessons if he/she already listens to music and has access to a piano and the freedom to play it. A background of listening and playing before starting lessons means there are fewer new elements to absorb in the early lessons. The keyboard geography (arrangement of black and white keys), the feel of the keys under the fingers, and the sound of one's practice instrument are all familiar already, to name just a few benefits.

Putting It All Together

I posed many questions above. Do they all need to be answered "yes" before beginning piano lessons? You may breathe a sigh of relief -- no!

Piano lessons themselves are sometimes the means by which children develop maturity. For example, students who begin piano while weak in maintaining routines without reminders may become more independent, diligent workers in various areas of life by virtue of their sitting down to practice the piano each day.

Therefore, a parent doesn't need to answer yes to all these questions, because some of the "no" answers might develop into "yes" after children take up the discipline of regular piano practice!

That said, though, being able to answer many of the questions with a "yes" is a strong benefit, musically speaking. Learning piano will go more smoothly when most of these considerations are already in place.

Is it time to begin piano lessons? If you're reading this post, it very well could be! If you have any questions at all about assessing or developing your children's readiness for piano lessons, feel free to ask in the comments section or contact me with your thoughts.

The gift of music lasts a lifetime. Here's to beginning the journey with a strong start!

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