When to start lessons, and what to focus on when beginning piano at a very young age are questions we receive all the time from parents who have children interested in learning piano or keyboard.
From teaching music to young children for many decades and taking on the role of that piano teacher to our own children we have gained valuable insight that may be of use to others in the same boat.
The most crucial thing to remember is this: Young children learn best through their own exploration and play. This means we need to try and forget our own agenda and follow their lead when it comes to piano learning. This can be really tricky, especially for trained teachers!
So how do we do this?
OUR TIPS FOR TEACHING PIANO TO PRESCHOOLERS ARE:
- Access to a piano (of a proper size)
This is where it all starts. It needs to be set up in a way that children
can explore it in their own time, in their own way and without adult input. Let them discover the piano and realise how much they enjoy playing. Children are quick to sense if we try to help them too soon, and we
have seen students “put off” because of this. Have patience, let
them ask questions (or not!) and allow them to build their own curiosity.
- Put a sticker on Middle C
This way they always know where to find it. Play with finding ALL of the C’s on the piano and show them how to.
- There is no rush
Children need time to discover how the piano works. That there are high notes, low notes, chords and clashing notes. That some notes sound great together and other notes don’t work as well to their ears. They need time to figure out, for themselves, that if you start a little pattern on one particular note, the melody won’t sound the same if you start on another note.
- Adjust positioning gently and casually
In our experience, spending too long focusing on hand positioning and posture can backfire. It is really important that children learn these things, but it must be approached casually and gently rather than insisted upon in those early days. We suggest showing them that “spider hands” mean you can move faster – just like a fast spider! That a straight back means you can reach all of the notes – including the funny-sounding notes at the top or bottom of the piano! Keep it light and you are less likely to meet resistance.
- Create stories and games
Rather than starting with music, create stories together that the piano accompanies. We love making up stories about ferocious tigers chasing lovely little butterflies, with the angry tigers being the low notes and the butterflies being the high notes. Let the children play around and choose where each animal should be represented. We slide our fingers up and down to create snakes, play chromatic scales to create “spooky” sounds and form staccato chords for frogs and leaping rabbits. The key is keeping the process creative and fun.
- Read books
Again, the focus is on creativity and a simple pattern to copy. We love reading stories at the piano, and the child helps to choose where each part of the story could be represented on the piano. For example, we read Hairy Maclary and all of the animals have their own sound. Scarface Claw is a huge run from top to bottom (which always ends in hysterics). Every time the phrase “Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy” is repeated we repeat a melody that we have already created together previously.
- Listening Games
We don’t spend all the time sitting at the piano. I ask children as young as three to sit on the floor, or lie down, and listen to the music I play for them. We experiment with hearing minor scales (sad) major (happy) scales, chords and simple melodies. To extend interested students I show them how I can easily change a happy chord to a sad chord by changing the 3rd note! They are always fascinated by this.
- The Blues Scale
This may sound complex, but it isn’t at all. I always teach children the Blues Scale after the C Major Scale – or even before. My own children could all play the C Blues scales from age 3 (with some help from stickers if needed) so that they could experiment with improvising. I would play the 12 Bar blues and they would experiment and improvise on top. Children LOVE the Blues and they love this game. This allows them to practise their hand position in a fun way and build on their creativity. I want them to love the piano and the blues scale helps achieve this.
- Play the Black notes
Using the pentatonic scale by playing on the black notes of the piano. Means children can play songs that “sound good”. It is a great way to practise positioning, engage them in duets and show them how fun music can be.
- Let them work out songs for themselves at first
The very best musicians can play by ear as well as following music. Let them develop this skill early – right from day 1. Whenever we start a new song, the children are asked to figure out where the notes might go next. 4 year-olds are more than capable of figuring out nursery rhymes. Support them if they get frustrated, but only show them if they ask. Let them try and figure this out, even if they are finding it difficult at first. They can do it.