Theory for 5 year old?

said: Aug 27, 2006
 104 posts

I’m back with another question regarding my youngest musician! What advice can anyone provide regarding teaching theory and note reading to the youngest students? I’m not perfectly sure about my daughter’s note-reading abilities. There are times when she SEEMS to be reading music, but in fact is not, and then there are times when she seems NOT to be reading, but must be because she’s looking at a page of music I know she hasn’t heard played before and she’s playing it!

I will oftentimes ask her, “What is the name of this note?” and she will just play it (correctly, on the violin or the piano) without responding in words—and she seems to prefer that because if I give her notespellers, she often seems to be just guessing and not really able to read the music at all. Although she enjoys doing seatwork in other subjects (like math or spelling) she hasn’t thus far shown much interest in music theory on PAPER—only with an instrument at her fingertips. She does like “I Can Read Music” and will literally fly through those lessons—she can look at the notes and play them much faster than she can read them aloud to me. At the piano conservatory, she does Theory Time workbooks, but is moving slowly in those because they only meet once a month for theory, and she gets discouraged by the idea of just sitting and looking at a book about music instead of actually playing.

Any suggestions for “hands-on” theory I can do with her that is appropriate to her age and interests? We have Freddy Fiddle and the Shirley Givens books (she likes those at times, but her playing ability—middle of book 2—is way beyond the level one and two exercises in those books). Many of the piano theory books focus on the mnemonic devices (FACE, Every Good Boy, etc) which aren’t particularly effective with my daughter (she can read words but I don’t think the mnemonic devices are relevent to her). I don’t want her, at this age, to be sitting down trying to trace treble clefs or count out intervals—but I would like to assist her in her quest to read music. Help!

Gabriel Villasurda said: Aug 28, 2006
Gabriel Villasurda81 posts

My advice would be: Relax, don’t worry.

Remember that music theory is more than reading. Consider the elements of music: Rhythm, Pitch, Texture, Intensity, Form, Timbre. There are importantt concepts of each of these that need to be perceived, described and appreciated.

Take the realm of Timber, for starters. Every instrument ever created has a distinctive spectrum of tone qualities. A violin playing middle C sounds differrent than a viola or a cello or a clarinet playing the same tone. Even a Strad and a student violin will produce different tone colors. One could spend an entire lifetime comparing nuances of timbre. The New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony can play the same Brahms Symphony and sound different. Furthermore, the Boston Symphony will sound different when it plays Beethoven as opposed to Ravel. Noticing and describing the differences takes great ears and the ability to discriminate and verbalize the differences.

So, rather than taking a “workbook” approach to theory, think about starting from the listening end of the process and work back to the concepts. Instead of concentrating on terms (vocabulary), start from the child’s level of perception. Knowing a word doesn’t assure that a child will recognize the concept by listening.

Another place to start might be to listen to two different performances of a Kreisler piece. Ask the child which one he/she prefers. Then ask why, and you’re off to the races. Then add a third version and a fourth.

Of course you (the parent) or the teacher have to be able to trace back to the concepts, and that requires some knowledge and experience.

Think about it.


Gabriel Villasurda
Ann Arbor MI

Nobuaki said: Aug 28, 2006
Nobuaki Tanaka
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Mount Prospect, IL
115 posts

have you look “music mind game”? I heard from several parents that this is beneficial for young students

Debbie said: Aug 29, 2006
Debbie Mi138 posts

Also, there is a book by Sally O’reilly that teaches rhythm using fruit and pies. It is a sort of non-analytical approach, and might work very well with 3 year olds. I cannot remember the title of it, but I have seen it in many music stores.

said: Aug 30, 2006
 104 posts

Oh, Mr. Villasurda, I’ve been doing exactly what you recommend in your post—yet, the piano teacher is intent on getting my daughter to “do” theory workbooks. Today, she was looking over my daughter’s work in a Faber theory book, and frowned when she saw my daughter had written “L” under a note—the child just turned FIVE and half the time just wants to scribble in the book. She isn’t very interested in doing theory in a workbook. I maintain that she should have some other way to learn theory, and that the focus should be hands-on (for example, she was very interested in learning the meaning of DC al Fine—ok, that’s interesting to her because it tells her how to play a piece, same goes for dynamics and tempo markings—but she DOESN’T really care about looking at a treble clef, and figuring out which note would be third interval up or down from “G”. I would love to hear about a theory method that is focused on real information, but very hands-on (is that an oxymoron—hands-on theory?). My daughter normally uses correct terminology when discussing music, so I don’t want anything dumbed-down or even cutesy—but just interesting and engaging and appropriate to her developmental and emotional age. Does such a thing exist? I haven’t looked at Music Mind Games, but I have heard a lot about it, so maybe that’s an option.

Melissa said: Sep 12, 2006
 151 posts

Hi Profcornelia,
I hope I’m not being too harsh here, but MY GOODNESS she is only 5!! And I get the feeling you too are rather apprehensive at all this education when her natural instinct is the true factor of learning music.
I use Theory Time but not until my students are in the fourth grade. I start on Book Four. I feel the other books prior to this are too immature even for a 5 year old and not appropriate as far as their developmental focus.
What I do teach is basic applied theory, in the latter part of Book 1. Half steps and whole steps. being abel to play a pentachord pattern (five-finger pattern) in all keys major and minor using the pattern of half steps and whole steps. There is also reading readiness that I do hands-on using a magnetic board and notes. Placing the notes on the correct line or space using a piece the student knows well such as Honeybee, or Little Playmates. I do not believe in teaching ANY theory formally until fourth grade age.
There is a wonderful book that you should read, written by Haruko Kataoka titled, Sensibility and Education. It says it all. You can buy it from Young Musicians. From what I have gathered from reading your posts I think you would enjoy this book and be in full agreement.
Isn’t there any way you can find a Suzuki Piano Teacher in your area?
I do know some Suzuki teachers use Music Mind Games. I personally do not think it is necessary and do not use it. Also, if you do look into a Suzuki piano teacher, not all are the same. Piano Basics teacher are a little more focused on the teachings of Haruko Kataoka, others use the Suzuki piano school in a more American (traditional?) way. I’m sure there are fantastic teachers in both camps as well as not too grand as well. So do your homework, if indeed you are looking for a Suzuki piano teacher for your 5 year old, which truly I feel would be an immense relief to what you are going through currently.

said: Sep 12, 2006
 122 posts

Check out This is by far the most physical ,hands on, young child friendly theory method I have ever done with my students. It’s great if you want to teach very young kids theory. I don’t use it all the time but do use some aspects of it. The kids love it because they can sit on the floor and spread all the cards and games out.

“When love is deep, much can be accomplished.”
-Shinichi Suzuki

said: Sep 13, 2006
 104 posts

Thank you for the additional feedback. Honeybee, I feel exactly as you do regarding my daughter’s age and the fact that there is NO need for theory workbooks at this age. Over the past couple weeks, I have simply reiterated that my little one won’t be doing ANYTHING in theory other than notespelling. Yet, at today’s lesson, when my daughter was playing her pentascales, arpeggios, and cadences (which she does very fluently in majors and minors) the teacher stopped her to discuss the order of the scales (basically a Circle of Fifths discussion) that had my daughter zoning out—and the thing is, she KNOWS the order of the scales, she doesn’t know WHY they are in that order, but it’s no trouble for her to remember she plays C, G, D, etc. Just remembers, doesn’t know WHY —does she need to know why? I believe we are giving my daughter TOO much informatoin on the one hand, and then on the other, the teacher has (seemingly) arbitrarily decided that minor pentascales are “too hard” and we won’t bother with those now? What’s hard about minor scales? My daughter cannot explain the way that she figures out major and minors, but she clearly can do it—the other day, she was playing a major scale when her sister walked into the room crying, and without missing a beat, my little one switched to the minor scale, and looked at me significantly—she knew exactly what she was doing.

My daughter now has nearly mastered the Suzuki Book 1 Hands Together up to Chant Arabe—she has a few rough spots in Long Long Ago (keeping the left hand going when she has the pause to get her right hand to the double “G”) and we might be at a wall now with the teacher—I don’t believe that I should be suggesting repertoire or “running the show” (what for do I need a teacher if I’m calling the shots—I’m paying her to call the shots) but what we run into , is the teacher saying “This is too hard,” or “This is too much of a stretch for her little hand, and we shouldn’t do it.” Or, worst of all, she points to a note, and demands that my daughter tell her the name of the note—today she wouldn’t even accept the correct note PLAYED she insisted that my daughter SAY it. Finally, our teacher has looked at the Suzuki piano book and determined that playing these pieces hands together would be damaging (she hates the two-octave spread in some pieces, and also the left hand part she believes will create tension —she told me a 5-yr.-old hand should not play the left hand part in, say, Little Playmates, Long Long Ago, etc.) But my daughter plays them hands together anyway. Are we at a stalemate?

I’m going to get the Sensibility book and also look into Music Mind games. What I really want (when I really reflect on it) is someone with the expertise and willingness to work with my daughter on different terms, which, if I force myself to think about it, will indeed require a switch. I am going to do some serious investigating and begin the interview process. Whenever I’ve looked for a teacher for my children, it’s been a months-long process that includes numerous phone calls, visits, interviews, etc. You teachers who are reading this are probably thinking I’m a nightmare parent to have in the studio, but I’m really not! I want to ask questions and be an active participant but I am not trying to teach music on my own. I have no illusions about my lack of qualifications in this area!

Melissa said: Sep 14, 2006
 151 posts

A nightmare parent!! Not at all. I wish you lived closer and could come to my studio. I would LOVE to teach your daughter piano, it would be so much FUN!!
How silly this teacher is, in regards to your daughter hurting herelf. And what two octave spans? Long Long Ago, third line, where you play the double G this is where the hand comes up off the keyboard and touches G then plays the two G’s, the hand then comes up off the keyboard and touches F with the fourth finger, then plays f-e-d-c. There is NO stretch. This piece I use as an excercise for coming up off the keyboard and landing on the correct note. This particular line is not all legato because of this.
It is late and I have to go, I will try and post more on this subject again, but in short, I think it is a good idea to look around for another teacher or it seems you will be constantly at odds.

said: Sep 15, 2006
 26 posts

After reading these posts earlier, I couldn’t get this topic out of my mind, so here I am again, with my two cents worth!

Profcornelia, it really does seem that your daughter’s teacher isn’t on the same wavelength as your daughter.

If we think back to Dr Suzuki’s philosophy, ie teaching music in the same way as we teach a child to speak, all the ‘problems’ make perfect sense.

For instance, your daughter is clearly developing many intuitive musical skills, something which the Suzuki approach does excellently. However, the teacher’s methods are in direct competition with these skills. This seems such a shame.

When we teach kids to speak, they develop a comprehensive ‘working knowledge’ of the rules of grammar long before they can articulate or explain them. We don’t insist a 4 year old knows what a pronoun, adverb, subject, noun, verb, etc is. It simply isn’t necessary when they are learning to speak and communicate. (Later on, of course, it does help to understand the ‘bigger picture’ of the English language.) Many music theory rules are the same.

I am also quite distressed to read that your teacher was actually inhibiting the reading process by insisting your daughter name the notes out loud rather than letting her read fluently ‘on’ the instrument. Imagine if we asked a child to spell first every word they read!! This would disrupt the flow of the reading process significantly, and would actually teach the mind a completely unnecessary step.

Some teachers can feel very threatened or annoyed by a young student who they think is too clever for their own good. Do you think this might explain some of your teacher’s negative attitudes? If so, I feel a switch to a good Suzuki teacher (who will enjoy and embrace your daughter’s skills and learning style) could only be a good thing.

Good luck!

PS I LOVE your story about your daughter switching from major to minor on hearing her sister crying!!!

Laura said: Sep 24, 2006
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

I absolutely agree—the Book 1 piano pieces are NOT too hard, even for small hands.

Where there are jumps (Long Long Ago right hand, Chant Arabe left hand, etc.), the whole point is to learn how to shift your hand position and “aim” for the correct notes each time. In Long Long Ago, that jump from D to double-Gs and way back up to F can be a huge challenge but I’ve never met a kid who doesn’t rise up to it, particularly if there’s money involved :) (practicing for pennies works wonders!)

Where there are no jumps but it might seem too much of a stretch, these are areas where the hand must learn to pivot or shift sideways, letting go of the notes that have already been played, rather than actually try to stretch the whole thing under one hand movement. This helps to maintain freedom of movement (i.e. tension-free) in the hands. Good examples of this are any left-hand broken chords spanning a 6th or 7th (e.g. Allegretto 1).

The only time I can think of small hands having problems is in solid chords that span a 6th. (Little Playmates and Allegro come to mind.) However, I’ve never actually had a beginner student who can’t reach a 6th, so when they find they need to stretch their hands to out to make the chord, I use the opportunity to make sure their finger position/action is still good (i.e. fingers not flattened out, good rise on fingertip, wrist/arm still loose)—it actually helps strengthen their fingers, to be able to play correctly without the added benefit of extra leverage.

With the left hand for Little Playmates—what’s extra hard about that? It’s a great opportunity to reinforce (since hopefully it’s already been introduced in some form!) proper finger technique in the left hand. What part of the left hand does the teacher think a 5-yr old left hand can’t play? If it’s the eighth-note runs—if the right hand can play them, so can the left. If it’s the solid chords—well, those can be done too. CEG chord has already been done in Mary Had a Little Lamb. The BFG is more of a stretch but not impossible, although I have had students use a split thumb on F and G since it was impossible for them to reach the B and F with fingers 5 and 2 (same with Allegro with the F#CD chord).

said: Sep 30, 2006
 104 posts

These are all excellent points, and I have tried to articulate some of these same things to the teacher but with little or no success. She is a very strict teacher (and in many respects I admire that about her) but there is also a language barrier here and I sometimes wonder if that is part of the problem.

Regarding the two-ocatave stretch I mentioned earlier—I misspoke because what I meant was that the teacher has specifically told me she doesn’t like the “spread” of having the right hand placed on treble C and the left on Bass C—as you know, most other method books have the piano student begin from a Middle C orientation and I don’t know what’s “best” about the Middle C orientation (except that I suppose it is easier to learn to read music from that starting point). My daughter doesn’t seem to find this position any more difficult than “C position” or middle C position. She plays in G position or any position, it seems all as one to her.

In Little Playmates, the teacher initially rejected the solid BFG chord as too much of a stretch—so when my daughter first played it for her, the teacher asked her to play only the FG and omit the B, but it sounded wrong to my daughter and she eventually played it with all three notes. It doesn’t look like a stretch at all—she has a good-sized hand for five years old. I hadn’t heard of a split finger on FG—that’s a completely new idea for me, and it would be interesting to hear what the teacher would think of that.

After some practice on the jumps in Long Long Ago, my daughter has grown quite adept at it. She has always liked to make up her own fingerings, and the Suzuki book pieces are the first ones where she actually is beginning to show understanding about WHY we have to do the fingerings as they are written instead of twisting our fingers around to do “whatever.” In the easier method books, she is being told that she “has” to follow the fingerings, but frankly it doesn’t seem to make sense to her. But with the Suzuki Piano, the pieces get challenging and the fingerings are actually necessary a lot sooner.

I continue to struggle with this whole thorny theory/technique issue. But I am researching alternatives. And I was very curious about how Suzuki piano teachers approach theory—it sounds like nobody here would have a five-year-old doing any written theory and that theory discussions would be limited.

Thank you for all of your insightful feedback!

said: Oct 2, 2006
 103 posts

I have one thought regarding your daughter knowing the order of the scales and your teacher going into the details of the circle of fifths.

Now I was not there, so I can’t be sure as to your teachers motivation. However, I just thought I’d let you know that when I show my students how the circle of fifths works, I do it because I think it will interest them to know that there is a pattern to it and it’s not all random notes. Now I have never shown this to a five year old, it is usually my 9-11yr. olds that get excited about this. But it is possible that your teacher was thinking it would interest your child as she sounds quite bright!

May not be, but just thought. Hope everything turns out for you in this situation.

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