Teaching Youngsters, Parental Involvement

Children should be tested for their readiness to take piano lessons at ages between 3 and 5. The first lessons for beginners, especially young children under 7 years old, should be brief, 10 to 15 minutes at most. Increase the lesson time only as their attention time span and stamina increase. If more time is necessary, divide the lesson into sessions with breaks in between ("cookie time", etc.). The same rules apply to practice times at home. You can teach a lot in 10 min.; it is better to give 15 min. lessons every other day (3 days/wk) than to give hour long lessons every week. This principle applies at any age, although the time between lessons increases with age and skill level.

It is important for youngsters to listen to recordings. Even if they can't truly interpret Chopin until they demonstrate some maturity, they can listen to Chopin at any age. They should also listen to recordings of their own playing; otherwise, they may not understand why you are criticizing their mistakes. Do not feed them music just because it is classical or it was written by Bach. Play what you and the youngsters enjoy.

Youngsters should learn counting by counting out loud -- without hearing their counting, the teacher may have no idea whether the child understands the concept. Youngsters develop in spurts, both physically and mentally, and they can only learn what they are mature enough to learn. In other words, you can't teach them something until they are ready for it. Therefore, part of the teaching must consist of a constant testing of their level of readiness. On the other hand, most youngsters are ready for many more things than most adults realize and once they are ready, the sky is the limit. Therefore, it is also a mistake to assume that all kids must be treated as kids all the time. They can be surprisingly advanced in many respects so that treating them as kids only holds them back (for example, by letting them listen only to “kiddie music”) and deprives them of the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

For at least the first 2 years of lessons (longer for youngsters) teachers must insist that the parents participate in the teaching/learning process. The parents' first job is to understand the methods that the teacher is teaching. Since so many practice methods and recital preparation procedures are counter-intuitive, the parents must be familiar with them so that they can not only help to guide the students, but also avoid negating the teacher's instructions. Unless the parents participate in the lessons, they will fall behind after just a few lessons and can actually become a hindrance to the child's development. The parents must participate in deciding how long the students practice each day, since they are most familiar with all the time demands of the students. The parents also know the students' ultimate objectives best -- are the lessons just for casual playing, or for advancing to much higher levels? What types of music do the students eventually want to play? Beginning students always need help at home in working out the optimum routine for daily practice as well as keeping track of weekly assignments. Once the lessons start, it is surprising how often the teachers need the parents' help -- where and how to buy sheet music, how often to tune the piano, or when to upgrade to a better piano, etc. The teachers and parents need to agree on how fast the students are expected to learn and to work towards attaining that learning rate. The parents need to be informed of the students' strengths and weaknesses so as to be able to match their expectations and plans with what is or is not achievable. Most importantly, it is the parents' job to evaluate the teacher and to make proper decisions on switching teachers at the appropriate time.

Students need a lot of help from their parents, and the kinds of help change with age. When young, the students need constant help with daily practice routines: are they practicing correctly and following the teacher's instructions? It is most important at this stage to establish correct practice habits. The parents must make sure that during practice, the students make it a habit to play through mistakes instead of backtracking, which will create a stuttering habit and makes the student mistake-prone during performances. Most youngsters will not understand the teacher's instructions given hurriedly during their lessons; the parents can more readily understand those instructions. As the students advance, they need feedback on whether they are playing musically, whether their tempo and rhythm are accurate or if they need to use the metronome, and whether they should stop practicing and start listening to recordings.

Parental involvement should go much farther than just helping the teacher. Piano or music education can start at home as soon as the child is born. Listening to the "right" kind of music, and listening to the sound of well tuned pianos, can have the most profound effects on the child's brain and its development. In addition to supplying the musical stimuli, it is also the parents' job to keep testing the child for when s/he becomes receptive to the different stages of musical development. Is the child ready to start pressing piano keys? Can the child sing or hum a tune? Is the child ready to start (music) reading lessons? Note that music notation is much simpler than the alphabet. Does the child have rhythm? Does the child have perfect pitch? What kind of music or instrument does the child like? You never know until you test them. It is generally counterproductive to try to push children into something for which they are not yet ready or do not show interest. You cannot just push children in some direction; the only thing you can do is to arrange the environment so that they will develop an interest in that direction. Familiarity, good, pleasant experiences, and success are factors that can lead a child in those directions. Before they are ready, the only thing you can do is to provide these environments and to test them; but if they are ready, watch out! They can progress far faster than you ever dreamed.

Mental development is the main reason for letting youngsters listen to classics -- the "Mozart Effect". The reasoning goes something like this. Assume that the average parent has average intelligence; then there is a 50% chance that the child is smarter than the parents. That is, the parents cannot compete on the same intellectual level as their baby! Mozart (or any other genius composer) is different - few babies will be able to challenge those intellectual levels. In addition, music is a universal language; unlike the crazy adult languages that we speak, music is inborn, so babies can communicate in music long before they can say "dada". Therefore, classical music can stimulate a baby's brain long before the parents can communicate with the baby even on the most basic levels. And these communications are conducted at the levels of the genius composers, something few parents can hope to match!

Parents must also balance the physical and mental developments of their children. Because learning piano can be so fast, those olden days -- when dedicated pianists had insufficient time for sports and other activities -- are over. Techies and artists don't have to turn into wimps. There is this disturbing tendency to classify each youngster as brainy or brawny, creating a wall or even antagonism between art and physical activity. Actually, the two follow eerily similar principles. As an example, the rules for learning golf and piano are so similar that this book can be turned into a golf manual with just a few changes. The Greeks had it right a long time ago -- mental and physical development must proceed in parallel. If the parents do not provide proper guidance, some youngsters will devote all their time in one direction, neglecting everything else and wasting precious time. Health and injury is another issue. Those music players with earphones can damage the ears so that you begin to lose hearing and suffer maddening tinnitus before age 40. Parents must educate their children to turn the volume down on those earphones, especially if they are listening to those genres of music that are often played extremely loud.