Piano lessons

When my children were growing up, I felt that it was vital that they take piano lessons. I found great teachers for them and they are wonderful pianists.

Annelise piano recital

I recently watched my granddaughter perform in her first piano recital. What a thrill! She played her little tune like a pro! She was very proud of herself, too.

But being a great pianist wasn’t my ultimate goal.  Rather, it was that they develop a skill that would stay with them for the rest of their lives, one that would allow them to explore their creativity and expression.  Many children take piano lessons, but not all do so successfully. How can we change that dynamic so that piano lessons become a positive experience rather than a bad memory?

Are piano lessons worthwhile?

First we have to consider whether taking piano lessons is valuable for children. There are many activities vying for a child’s time, so it’s important to make wise decisions. Studying piano involves spending considerable time, money and effort, so if instruction in piano is going to be undertaken, the optimum benefit should be derived.

Whether kids should take piano lessons is definitely a question that comes up in most families and there are many considerations, including:

  • Are piano lessons really that valuable?
  • What do children really get out of them?
  • Is it worthwhile being able to playing the piano?
  • Is the expense worth it?
  • How do you find a good piano teacher?
  • What makes a good teacher?

Countless scientific studies have shown that children who take piano lessons increase their academic ability. Students who study piano get higher grades in school and have higher IQs.

Forbes.com reported a Canadian study where after nine months of weekly training in piano or voice, research showed young students’ IQs rose nearly three points more than their untrained peers. The author of the study, E. Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto at Mississauga, attributed the many different facets involved–such as memorizing, expressing emotion, and learning about musical intervals and chords–for the resulting increased IQs.

From a physical standpoint, taking piano lessons develops fine motor skills and overall increased dexterity. Learning piano demands intense concentration. Piano study helps children become well rounded, exposing them to cultures and history that they would never learn anywhere else. Additionally, piano lessons can develop self-esteem along with increased attention spans.

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All too often, though, piano lessons get a bad rap. TV sitcoms portray music education for children with scorn and ridicule, and perpetuate the idea of piano study as a form of child abuse and pure torture. Unfortunately, for many people, that is exactly what it was.

Think about it–the child comes home from the lesson and all during the week the parent demands that they practice, typically 30 minutes, maybe an hour. The child, of course, doesn’t want to. It’s hard, it’s boring and it’s lonely. The child feels picked on or guilty about not practicing. The parent is annoyed, worried and angry that they are wasting their money on the lessons. Soon, usually at the end of just one year of piano instruction, the lessons are abandoned and everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief.

This is a sad scenario indeed because it doesn’t have to be this way. Learning to play the piano and make music should be a joyful affair for everyone involved.

If you would like your children to have the wonderful experience of learning to make music and play the piano, here are some tips:

Find a great piano teacher.

Word of mouth testimonials are always the best way to find a great piano teacher, but this can be difficult if you’re not a part of the classical music world in your community. You want someone who is knowledgeable and experienced, and firm with their expectations, yet kind and caring.

piano lessons

Ask friends, neighbors and co-workers who they recommend. Call the music teachers and band directors in your local school district. Ask the music pastor, choir director and other musicians at your church.

You can also call local music stores or music colleges, but they will recommend the teachers on their staff, or students and teachers at the college, which doesn’t necessarily mean you will get a top teacher. Of course, it doesn’t rule it out, either.

When you’ve settled on one or maybe two teachers that have been highly recommended, contact each one and ask to set up an interview. This way you can meet without having to make a long-term commitment right off the bat. You’re able to visit their teaching studio, learn their teaching style and philosophy, find out the curriculum they use, and ask any questions you might have. The teacher will give you their studio policies and tuition requirements in written form so that you can review them in detail later on.

If you’re ready to sign up for lessons, let the teacher know so that you can be added to the schedule.

Attend the piano lessons with your child.

When children are simply dumped off at the piano teacher’s house, then picked up 30 minutes later, the parent can’t know what has happened in the lesson, what the teacher wants them to work on and how they should do it. Even if there is a written lesson assignment, there are many verbal instructions and nuances during the lesson that can only be known if the parent is actually at the lesson.

piano practice

A good piano teacher will want a parent to be at the lesson to take notes or just observe. The teacher also has the opportunity to make comments and suggestions to the parent regarding how the material should be practiced throughout the week. When the parent and child go home, they can act as a team for practicing the material that was assigned at the lesson.

The parent should take careful notes about each part of the assignment for the upcoming week, including what to practice, how many times it should be played, how it should be played (slowly at first, etc.), what type of movement with the fingers, hands and arms the children should do, etc.

Being at the lesson gives the parent an opportunity to ask questions that the child might not think to bring up or not know how to articulate. Parents can ask for clarification of instructions that the child may seem confused about. That’s a lot easier than trying to ask the teacher later in the week when the next lesson is just a few days away.

The parent can discuss the lesson with their child on a knowledgeable basis if they have actually been at the lesson, too. The child won’t be able to say “nothing” or “I don’t know” when asked what they learned.

Film the piano lessons.

With the teacher’s permission, consider taping or filming the lesson. This is an excellent way to review during the week and greatly reduces the child forgetting what the teacher told them.

film piano lessons

Almost everyone has a smart phone with a camera in it these days, so filming the lesson is easy to do. You don’t have to watch or listen to the whole lesson every day, but reviewing a part of it every day, even just 10 minutes, is invaluable.

Watching or listening to the lesson on the way home is a great idea, too. Time in the car doesn’t have to be wasted if you review the lesson. Some teachers create CDs of scales, intervals, chords and other ear training material for their students, and car time is the perfect chance to listen to them.

Watching the lesson gives your child a different perspective, too. Becoming a watcher instead of a participant separates the child from the lesson so that he/she takes on an objective viewpoint and can more accurately critique himself/herself.

Practice with your child.

At home, most parents point their children toward the piano, demand that they practice for a half hour, then retreat to the den, basement or deck to watch TV. Consequently, the child feels like they’re being punished and left alone, and become bored and unwilling to practice their assignment. This leads to arguments and frustration, no progress being made in learning the piano, and the parents questioning their decision to take piano lessons in the first place.

piano lesson practice

The solution is simple, but requires time and patience from the parent. Practice with your child. Put the child on the piano bench, then pull up a chair next to the piano and go over each part of the lesson assignment with your child. Go through the written notes from the lesson and practice each element of it.

Don’t worry if you aren’t a pianist yourself. You can learn right along with your child at the lesson, at least enough to practice with them throughout the next week.

Check out this video where a little girl is learning how to play the piano with her father, who is also her teacher. Does she look like she is having fun? Absolutely!

Note that by watching through this less-than-10-minute video just once, anyone could help their child learn to play piano and be successful with piano lessons.

Sit to the child’s right and you can play a couple of octaves higher than the child. For beginners who are playing just single line melodies, play along with the child an octave higher.

When the child advances to playing pieces with both hands, try this method of practicing together:

  1. Play right hand line together, parent two octaves higher
  2. Child plays right hand, parent plays left hand
  3. Play left hand line together, parent one or two octaves lower
  4. Child plays left hand, parent plays right hand
  5. Child plays both hands together

Your child will love the attention you are paying to him or her. This is a great bonding time between the child and parent. It shows the child how important you feel that learning the piano is, too, and that you aren’t just abandoning him/her to do something else that’s “fun.”

You’ll find that this will take just 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the age of your child. If the child has another assignment away from the piano keyboard, such as note name flash cards, you can do this at the end of the practice session. This typically takes just 3-5 minutes.

After practicing is over, head to the kitchen for a snack, a walk with the dog or a game of catch in the yard. This will be so much more beneficial to both you and your child than watching a TV show or playing a video game.

When your child is old enough that he/she doesn’t need you to practice with him, still take an interest in the practice sessions. Make sure that the piano is in a location without a lot of other distractions, especially a blaring TV. While the child is practicing, feel free to offer a few comments, such as “I love that piece” or “You’re getting so good at that.” You could even applaud and yell “bravo!”

Hold a weekly piano recital at home.

You can do this any night of the week, but Friday or Saturday is fun. Have your recital before dinner, then feast on a great meal. Or, have your recital after supper for “after dinner” music, followed by a movie.

The child should play all of the assignments on their lesson notebook, as well as any other pieces, scales, etc., that they know and like.

Print out a program and distribute them just as if you were going to a concert. Put the child’s name, date and names of the pieces on the program and print out enough for each person in attendance to have one (Mom, Dad, siblings, grandparents, friends). These can be as simple or as fancy as you would like. Print them on fancy paper, decorate them with stickers, draw designs on them, you name it.

Have a brother or sister act as the usher and distribute the programs to the concert-goers. Siblings might really like getting involved in this manner.

Teach your child how to bow appropriately. Your teacher can help with this, too. Pianists typically bow about 45 degrees from the waist with their arms down at their sides, with the option of putting one hand on the end of the piano. Don’t do the “stomachache” bow with one hand on the abdomen and don’t bow too low to the ground.

When all of the audience members have been seated, have the child come out to the piano from another room where they have been waiting “backstage.”

As the child comes out, everyone in the audience applauds and the child bows. The child should check the bench for proper placement and height, then seat themselves on the bench.

Begin with the first piece on the program. When it’s finished, the child stands up and bows again; the audience applauds. Continue with each piece on the program. At the end of the recital, the child is congratulated on a wonderful performance.

The child and the audience then go to the kitchen or dining room for a post-recital reception of cookies, punch or anything you’d like to serve, or the evening meal. Make the reception fancy by bringing out the fine china and punch bowl or use paper cups and plates that the children have decorated. The point is to make it fun!

Consider competitions.

There always seems to be a big controversy around music competitions. However, whether they are destructive or beneficial depends on the intent and motivations of the teacher, parents and student. Competitions are a great goal to work toward. People typically work harder when they are put “on the spot” to perform. Competitions or “festivals” emphasize the learning aspect for young pianists.

piano competition

Remember that your child won’t be competing in an international competition that draws in world-class pianists from all corners of the globe. He/she won’t be performing alongside Horowitz or Van Cliburn. Instead, the competitions that your child’s teacher will make available will be local, or at most, statewide events involving other children.

A major benefit of competitions is the chance to receive feedback from other great piano teachers. A different teacher can communicate the same concept with different words and make additional suggestions to further the learning process. Students may hear the same thing week after week, but suddenly when in a new situation with a new teacher, a concept can become crystal clear.

Here are a few of the music organizations offering competitions and festivals for student pianists:

Whatever the result of the competition, the scores, and who wins or loses, it’s important that the student knows that he/she has been successful because of the great effort they put forth to participate in the competition. If the child didn’t get the score he was aiming for, or wasn’t declared the winner, let him know that you’re still proud of how hard he worked. There’s always next year. Reflect on how far she has come in her technical abilities with piano which she probably wouldn’t have achieved if she hadn’t been working toward that competition. Competitions should be a positive learning experience, not a source of discouragement.

What about online piano lessons?

Youtube is an amazing invention. It allows anyone, anywhere a way to learn almost anything at any time! That includes how to play the piano. So should you go to the expense and time commitment of taking piano lessons with a real live teacher when you can simply watch lessons on your computer and never have to leave your home?

online piano lessons

There are great teachers uploading fantastic videos to Youtube and you can learn a lot from them. Many teachers give Youtube listening assignments. It’s a great way to learn repertoire and discover how great pianists interpret music. Online lessons are a great supplement.

If the decision is between never learning piano versus learning through online piano lessons, then definitely, online lessons is the winner.

However, nothing can take the place of having a teacher right next to your child, talking directly to the child and focusing only on the child. Youtube and the internet can’t do that.

Taking piano lessons and being successful with them is indeed a big commitment, but the payoff is definitely worth it.