Images by Jordan Mirrer.
This is another FAQ that should be addressed. The short answer is that it depends on your child. I’ve seen kids start as early as three and as old as 15. I started when I was five. But here’s the long answer.
Most children begin recognizing and writing letters by ages four or five. They start recognizing rhyming patterns and developing a vocabulary. Reading doesn’t really kick in until ages 6-10.
How does this tie into learning music? If a child cannot see that the letter ‘A’ is an ‘A,’ it will be nearly impossible to teach him or her how to read musical notes and symbols. There is an extra step beyond just recognizing the letter ‘A.’ He or she would have to translate that from the space or line on the musical staff which is the musical note ‘A’, and then find the corresponding ‘A’ on the keyboard. That process would include three steps of translation in all!
Very young children naturally listen to and imitate new sounds. They have fun saying and singing these sounds repeatedly, and then they stick. Most children begin to learn to read when books are read to them out loud. Shouldn’t we teach music to non-reading children in a similar fashion?
Instead of having non-readers painfully decipher one note from another on the staff, they could listen to different musical melodies and rhythmic patterns and attempt to sing or play back what they hear. Children love games, and this could be an easy way to capture his or her rapt attention while exposing them early on to music education.
I find that young non-readers excel in group lessons that are short, fun, and aurally-based. It’s difficult to pursue private lessons for this type of child, as one-on-one sessions can be rather intense and lacking in the social interaction department. Children love being around their peers and can learn from them in this type of environment. It’s more about ‘play’ and less about ‘work.’
In order to pursue private lessons that cover a comprehensive curriculum (including note reading), not only does your child need to be a reader (or at least have the ability to recognize letters and numbers), but he or she must have the ability to focus for short spurts of time. It’s natural for children to get distracted by the smallest of things (and believe me – they have no filter). But if your child is consistently interrupting the lesson and is unable to play through a short piece without a disturbance, he or she might be too young. If your child is still in the squirmy stages, it may be beneficial to hold off for another year or so.
With all of this being said, it’s crucial to recognize that everyone learns in a unique way. Learning milestones can occur earlier or later from what’s considered to be ‘average,’ so don’t worry if your child isn’t following the typical route. Even if your child is too young to start taking private lessons, expose him or her to music by having them listen to music. Play a recording of your favorite song or piece while you do the dishes or drive the car. It’s a powerful yet simple way to ignite the spark!
If you’re not planning on spending time away from home (and a piano) during the long summer months, here are some tips on keeping you or your student motivated to keep up their piano chops!
- Enroll in a music camp or class outside of the normal private lessons. My best memories were at the Aspen Music Festival and School, a summer-long classical music program. I was lucky to earn scholarships to go twice when I was 15 and 20. I loved the nature-y atmosphere, the free concerts performed by both students and the world’s best, the friends I made, and how much I learned by simply being surrounded by music day and night. The practice rooms were right off a bumbling brook, and you could hear the water rushing by as you played.
- Go to summer concerts! Sometimes you need to see and hear someone inspiring to get inspired. The Hollywood Bowl, The Greek Theatre, and your local community orchestra – even free street music – can offer experiences that stay with you (I remember the awesome time we picnicked to the music of Andrew Bird when we won free tickets). Check out this summer guide for the latest concert highlights in Los Angeles.
- Enroll in more than one private lesson per week. Summer can be a time of catching up, as the school months are hectic and filled to the brim with after-school activities. When there is the pressure of having two lessons per week, students are more likely to amp up their practicing in order to be ready for the next lesson.
- Observe or participate in a master class. It’s sometimes a rewarding opportunity to have another musician or pedagogue critique your work in front of a live audience. Masterclasses are held throughout the year and usually are a part of summer music programs.
- Form a chamber music group. What better way to learn to listen than to play with others? There are so many possibilities: piano duos and duets; multi-instrument trios, quartets, quintets, sextets; and collaborating with another instrumentalist or singer. Grab a few friends and play!
- Organize a recital. This can be an informal event held at a local school or church, including friends, family, and the local community. You could even share the program with another musician (and your chamber music group!). Sometimes having a deadline is the best motivator.
I was five years old and dressed in a flouncy dress covered with rose prints. People around me clapped, my mom nudged me toward the stage, and I marched directly to the shiny black piano. Then I flopped down and spewed out Hot Cross Buns. It was over before I knew it.
I don’t remember much more about that piano recital, but I do remember that I wasn’t shy or self-conscious. Maybe one could say I was puzzled, rather. All in all, that little performance led to many, many more, and I have to say that despite all the fuss, stress, and jitters I felt before each one of them (lacking the unabashed qualities of a five-year-old), they have rewarded me with more inner strength, resolve, and motivation to push myself to learn challenging pieces and to improve upon my mistakes. It really takes a lot out of someone to want to partake in such a self-revealing event on stage that also requires a lot of focus and preparation. But more importantly, this entire process sticks with you, showing you what it takes to fulfill a pretty big achievement.
I’ve had all kinds of performances: good, bad, nerve-numbing, nerve-wracking…you name it, I’ve done it. But all of these varying experiences come with the territory, whatever that may be for anyone. What matters is constantly moving forward, being inspired by what is not yet within your grasp, and sharing what you already have with those trodding along the same path. This is why I teach, even though I’m still moving along a path connected to that piano recital when I was five years old.
Share some of your “first recital” experiences, whether they be a performance on stage or Little League game. We’ve all had that first shot at something in front of other people, whatever that first experience was.