Piano—How to tell if my 3-year-old is ready for lessons

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Wei Fen Chu said: Jun 13, 2016
 8 posts

We have a piano at home (I play classical piano), and my daughter has been playing around with it since she was a year old. Now that she’s three, she seems more ready to pay attention to the keys. I have tried introducing some basic melodies to her e.g. Mary had a little lamb, Old McDonald, and Twinkle2 Little Star. She had expressed interest in learning, so I decided to go baby steps and tried to get her to position her hands and sit upright, but she doesn’t seem all enthusiastic about following these little rules. I had tried using finger puppets and hand puppets, and using little games, which worked. But she wouldn’t sit still and would refuse to listen after a minute or two. Her “lessons” are barely 10 mins long, as I stop once she gets restless. However, she’ll occasionally sit up on the piano on her own and fiddle around (once she played something by chance, which, to me sounded like Happy Birthday, but I kept quiet as I didn’t want to interrupt her playing. Interestingly, she also told the hand puppet that it was “Happy Birthday!” so I she really could identify the song). So I’m wondering if she’s actually digesting these mini sessions slowly— should I remain patient and persevere with the baby lessons?

To the more experienced teachers, is she still too young to start, at 3? What are the signs which may indicate readiness for lessons in children that young?

Phankao said: Jun 15, 2016
 128 posts

I’m not a teacher, but I do play the piano, and my youngest is doing Suzuki Piano. He has always heard the piano in the house and was banging on it from young, and could play out simple tunes, but he just never wanted to follow the suggestions I gave about using fingering. However, when I sent him for a trial lesson with a Suzuki piano teacher, he followed EVERYTHING she said!!!! Such a bully , right? hehe…. anyway, that was when he was 2yrs 11mths. He did 30mins lessons until last year when he was around 7 and his lessons were changed to 45mins. He’s in suzuki piano vol 4 so the pieces are rather long now.

So your girl might just be ready to start. But it might help with a suitable teacher.

Jennifer Visick said: Jun 15, 2016
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki Early Childhood Education, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
1069 posts

Yes, I agree that you may want to try finding a teacher who isn’t yourself: children often have an easier time accepting instruction from a person who is not their parent.

Some other suggestions…

*Try using Alice Kay Kanack’s “Musical Improvisation for Children” book, which is part of her “Creative Ability Development” method. This is not the method to use to teach the rules of proper piano technique, but it does help guide children in games that foster musicality and creative thinking, and it follows along the lines of how children normally like to experiment on musical instruments, and can be a great way to start informal music lessons especially for a young child who may not be ready for formal instruction—and you can keep using CAD after formal “how to play the instrument” lessons begin.

*I agree with Phankao—try finding a teacher who isn’t you. People are often much more willing to accept instruction from a non-family member—and instructors who only see your child once or twice a week and who don’t live in the same household as the child have a much easier time being patient.

*Try reading Ed Sprunger’s book “helping parents practice“. There are some good ideas in there as to understanding why parents don’t get the same results as outside teachers, and some ideas for what to do about it.

*Try shorter “lessons”—aim for one or two minutes, and no more than 5 minutes—try breaking down a teaching point into smaller steps. The key is not to stop the lesson when she gets restless, but to stop it before she gets restless.

Wei Fen Chu said: Jun 15, 2016
 8 posts

Thanks for the great advice. I did consider sending her for formal piano lessons, but my husband has decided to wait until she’s a little older, as we don’t want to pressure her at this stage. She’s not very good with strangers, so we worry that she may initially be intimidated by someone unfamiliar.

Phankao said: Jun 15, 2016
 128 posts

Yea, I was expecting my little boy to run around the studio instead of listening to the teacher. That’s why I booked a trial lesson with the teacher only. He surprised me instead—it was fun for him and he actually followed instructions.

So well, you never know until you try. Then again, yeah, you could try when your girl is older. I’m only sharing from my last 4+, nearly 5 years with the suzuki teachers.

Elizabeth Erb Sherk said: Jun 16, 2016
Suzuki Association Member
32 posts

Jennifer Visick’s list of suggestions is very useful. Wei Fen Chu, don’t limit your child by “protecting her from strangers”. Find a good Suzuki Teacher to whom you can invite your little girl to go with you to observe other young children taking short lessons….Absolutely no pressure, Just Exposure in an interested and curious way. “Don’t send her to another teacher” . Take her and watch and learn with her. That is one aspect of the Suzuki Way.

Eva Brodbeck said: Jun 16, 2016
 21 posts

Pretty much all the piano teachers I met recommend children to start their formal lessons when they reach four or even older. I think it might be beneficial for your child to wait for her formal lesson a little longer. It won’t hurt to let her listen to music and fondle on the instrument since you’re a player yourself. I think the difference between piano and violin study is that piano is laid out like a map. Children at the very young age cannot grasp the basic concept of visual-spatial relationship so it’d be very hard to instruct them on the piano. Vionlin, on the opposite, can be learned by simple audible method, for anyone that can sing a song should be able to memorize the tune using rote memory. It relys much less on the eyes than on the ears and fingers.

Karen said: Jun 17, 2016
Karen Huffman
Suzuki Association Member
Piano, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Portland, OR
29 posts

As a Suzuki Piano teacher, I love taking 3 year olds!! They have no problem learning the keyboard very quickly and learn it audibly just like any other instrument :) (as long as they are listening at home!) I always have these children come twice a week for 15 minute lessons, we go by very small steps as Dr Suzuki suggested and it works beautifully! I am honestly shocked to hear someone say they don’t think they are capable. But really, as a parent, you always know your child best!! Taking them to meet a teacher and observe some lessons should tell you all you need to know. And any good Suzuki teacher will be able to tell if the child is ready or not :) Good luck!

Mengwei Shen said: Jun 20, 2016
Mengwei Shen
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Cello
Jersey City, NJ
220 posts

I would think the logic of piano pitch is simpler because up is right and down is left whereas with violin, there is up and down and across the strings. To play by ear, you have to know how the instrument works and have a certain degree of control over your physical coordination. You could learn violin by rote (E22, 311), but you could also learn piano by rote (533, 422). Memorizing by finger positions doesn’t actually require you to hear what you’re doing (but obviously, that would prohibit your progress beyond a certain point).

3 year olds are very early in the process of learning how to interact with others appropriately. Generally, they need to learn more through games, with much smaller steps, and with a lot more parent involvement, compared to older children. A beginning 3 year old’s lesson is naturally over in less than a few minutes, and instead of just working with the parent the rest of allotted half hour, I rather that the child get to watch other children take their turns, the parent have the support structure of a parent network, and both see multiple repetitions of beginner tasks.

In my experience, no 3 year olds come in immediately able and willing to follow instructions for detailed instrument technique. It takes time to learn the other things, whether through other activities in life, lesson observations, introductory group, or just sticking it out for many weeks or months or years in a private lesson environment.

Eva Brodbeck said: Jun 21, 2016
 21 posts

In regard of following directions there’s an obvious difference between children that are three and children that are four and reaching five. But either age group needs time to adapt to structured private lessons. And their attention span is extending only along their growth. So there’s pros and cons to start a year earlier. The three year olds would have to struggle more to practice at home and follow instructions in the class. But by the time they’re four they already get used to it and ask no more questions about practicing. My daughter started her violin lessons at three and a half now she’s one year older and has been used to practicing. But the slow progress and struggles we’ve been through with a three year old student should be any parent’s concern. Do consider if you have enough energy, will, time and dedication to stick around before the start.

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