It is widely recognized today that early music education is of great benefit, manifesting in a variety of ways over one’s lifetime.
First off, learning the highly structured musical language (learning how to read notes) and its theoretical structure (being able to play two hands simultaneously while reading sheet music) develops logic and problem-solving skills on a neural level. Science proves that one of the most complex processes in the human brain occurs while playing the piano. Trillions of neurons are firing to coordinate fingers, eyes, perception, spatial awareness, and micro muscle movements to accomplish the simplest of piano playing tasks. Consider: a melody is a linear entity, consisting of sequentially occurring notes that move horizontally in time. Harmony is a vertical entity, usually supporting more than one note of the melody before it changes, thus creating verticality. This vertical simultaneity occurs on every note and has to be perceived and understood by our brain to move to the next note. This is essentially a matrix where each note played by the two hands has linear and vertical functions. The brain has to determine how many notes of the melody are there per one note in the accompaniment.
Let’s add to it that to play piano the right hand operates in treble clef and the left hand in bass clef (western music’s canonized convenience to keep the notation within the five stave lines and avoid excessive ledger lines).
So, by glancing at the score of, say, Fur Elise (world’ most famous ‘beginner’ piece by Beethoven) your brain has to process the following: identify the key, read the right hand in the treble clef and left hand in bass clef, identify where it would be on the keyboard and place your hands accordingly, calculate the speed of music in time (tempo) and determine where melody and accompaniment (left hand) intersect, align them at the right time and notice the irregularities such as rests; determine the volume at which you will play the music (dynamics) and calculate the dynamic range as it relates to the velocity of depressing the keys with your fingers. All that happens in a nano-second before your hands simply begin to flutter over the ivories and everyone goes “ahhhhh, isn’t that beautiful! What talent!”
Now imagine going through those complicated neural processes daily from an early age – no wonder almost all MD Ph.D. medical doctors and half the Wall Street are ‘amateur’ pianists and have taken the piano ‘cause their parents made them’.
Why you should start with a piano
The benefits of learning to play piano early on in one’s life are self-evident.
But why not violin? You might ask…
Any musical instrument is better than none. Just saying it upfront, for the record. Many take up a couple and see, which one is a better fit for the child. However, there are certain aspects of playing piano that go beyond what other instruments can deliver.
To begin with – refer to the first paragraph. The two-hand coordination on the keyboard in the mirror image from the middle C (right-hand reads up and left down) is an amazing micro coordination development tool. Only playing piano can develop that. As people grow up and age, learning that becomes more and more difficult, to some – even unattainable. Conversely, a young child learns it the better the earlier they are exposed to it, and it becomes second nature to them. That skill alone is invaluable for future surgeons, jewelers, pilots, drone operators…
Almost all other instruments separate two hands into two completely different tasks (one holding down strings and the other moving the bow for all string instruments, for example) which have their challenges but are fundamentally different from analogous mirror coordination required to play piano.
All the other instruments are only capable of playing one single line – which is horizontality, hence the vertical simultaneity no longer exists for the brain to tackle. There is also only one clef to read and only linearly.
Essentially, it is much easier for the brain to process and for the body to learn any other instrument. Consequently – it is that much less of a brain exercise and eventual cognitive benefit for the totality of brain function.
And, lest we forget, piano simply needs to be sat by and played, no need for ferrying around clumsy cases and music stands (famous stories of violinists leaving their priceless instruments in Taxi cabs). Often overlooked but very important element of playing any other musical instrument is the need to hire a pianist to accompany every lesson, performance, and event (compound that cost over a lifetime and you can buy a couple of the top-tear concert grand pianos to be sure). This cost of first borne by you, the parents, and later on is a lifetime expenditure of the player.
And, finally – who doesn’t love to have a pianist around? Socially it is an invaluable asset which will open many doors and is sure to yield all sort of unexpected benefits.
Best age to start learning piano
The earlier the child starts to play the piano the more effective all the benefits will be. It does not mean that you are committing your child’s life to a career in music at all. Just think about all the reflexes they will learn before fully understanding the difficulty of it. The child’s mind is unaware of the concept of ‘un-accomplishable tasks’, which makes early learning so effective and easy. Alas, as we grow up the world tells us of all the insurmountable difficulties that exist and our innate faith in our abilities diminishes. The early ‘second nature’ principle is widely observable in ballet, gymnastics, figure skating, math, and coding. Those who start at age 3-4 have a shot at Olympic Gold, Royal Ballet, or inventing the next big thing in the tech sector. Therefore the best age to start your young child at the piano is as early as 3 – it has all the pros and none of the cons.
Selecting your piano teacher
Unlike learning piano as an adult – young children require hands-on in-person instruction. For the physical basics of piano playing to be correct and rooted in young students’ unique hands and abilities (EVERY child is different as are we all) a skilled piano teacher, who specializes in work with young children is required. Vetting that piano teacher is an important responsibility as it will essentially determine the success/failure of piano lessons, skills learned, and benefits of the whole musical journey altogether. Things to avoid: self-professed specialists and friend’s suggestions. Today it is very easy to research online and discover all you need to know whether the teacher is right for your child.
Look for someone with good educational credentials, a proven track record of working with young students, and positive feedback from third parties. Most such teachers have websites, YouTube channels, IG, and other social media accounts where their students and their parents interact and comment on the experience of learning piano. If you do have friends in the professional classical music business – then ask them for recommendations and run your options by them.
Online piano learning can only yield results with students who already know how to play piano moderately well, have the full ability to read music and committing it to memory correctly on their own, are motivated, and have the discipline to practice properly between piano lessons. That usually comes at age 12 and above provided the child started at 3-4.
The first piano lessons that occur during the first 5-6 years of piano learning require the presence of a teacher who observes, corrects, and teaches young pianists how to practice. It is all about learning to learn at this stage and your own pace. Younger kids require a lot of attention from the teacher to develop correct motor skills, track progress, adopt appropriate practice methods and make sure that each new skill is retained and built upon. The physicality of playing piano is of paramount importance. Incorrect posture, for example, is something that many students develop in the early years of piano lessons and is frequently a result of failure to properly follow instructions of the teacher. This is where parent’s supervision comes into play. For children beginners, the integral part of making progress are adults making sure that when they practice on their own they follow instructions correctly.
Importance of piano bench height
The height of the piano bench needs special attention as children of the young age of 3-6 have to be elevated to be at the right angle in relationship to the keyboard. If your piano bench has a raising mechanism it may be sufficient, but in many cases, it doesn’t go high enough. Then thick books or similar items can be used to elevate further. When a child begins to learn piano they should be also learning the proper way to sit at the instrument to make progress.
It is true of children, older students as well as adults that lessons should be fun and engaging to be effective. Therefore repertory choice is a key factor in ensuring successful piano lessons. When a student begins to learn piano they, of course, want to play demanding music from the first piano lessons. At this point, the right combination of encouragement of popular songs and required music for technical development is necessary so that the child shows progress. There is a lot of music available specifically designed for first piano lessons to be fun and effective. Such songs utilize nursery rhymes, cartoons, and popular imagery to engage kids with specific skills at the piano.
Good piano playing requires regular practice with the presence of mind. Kids, older students, and adults all have different attention spans so practice sessions should be approached with those differences in mind. Beginners have to absorb a lot of new information and learn skills that are challenging at first – so patience and strategy are the order of the day. It is better to split practice sessions into smaller segments that address a specific new skill, such as playing scales, learning chords, connecting with fingers legato, or playing staccato. With the right approach, it can be fun and effective, giving student confidence in what they are learning, which is necessary for consistent improvement.
Practice that is attentive and clear-headed for 15-20 minutes every day is better than 2 hours once a week, as one’s mind wanders during long practice sessions. Progress tracking allows for a gradual increase in effective practice time while the reward of learning fun and desirable music is a great motivator. Adults and older students have the analytical ability to understand that necessary investment of time and effort into a new skill such as learning to play piano, while younger children have to be constantly excited by what they are doing and learning to stay focused.
It is also important that children learn to listen to what they are playing. Often the kinetic pleasure of being able to play fast and loud is enough for the child to be happy so they rush through their songs and don’t listen to what their playing sounds like. Both teachers and parents should remind young beginners to listen carefully to the sounds they are making and make sure everything sounds beautiful, as it should. If left unsupervised most kids derive great pleasure from the physical activity of playing piano but don’t pay attention to what it actually sounds like.
Group lessons can be wonderful motivators as students learn from each other while a healthy dose of competition motivates them to do better. However, for early beginners one-on-one piano lessons are necessary. The very first steps to learn piano are so specific to each child that group setting can be distracting and not concentrated on each student enough. Once beginners progress to being able to play a whole song from memory and give a performance with confidence the group setting can be useful as an add-on to the music education of children.
Group lessons also build social skills, which are of great importance. Kids tend to interact with each other and share their songs and new skills, so with a good instructor, such group lessons can be fun and helpful for faster progress. It is important to mention that group lessons should not replace one-on-one piano lessons. Learning to play piano is a complex task that requires the undivided attention of both the teacher and the student.
How often should a child take piano lessons?
Ideally, the most effective piano lessons frequency is twice a week. Since young children have short attention spans, shorter, 20-30 minute piano lessons are the best strategy. First piano lessons should be fun and informative and if the student is looking forward to the next one they will do better. Sometimes having 3 short piano lessons per week is most effective but other considerations such as cost and other activities make it a challenge. Generally, kids usually have piano lessons after school so it is important for them to be excited about it.
Once their keyboard skills reach a certain level they can benefit from the group lessons, that you may find at a music school. At that point, you can have either one or two one-on-one lessons and one group lesson per week. Look for the music school in your area and research what kind of group lessons are offered. Too large a group is not effective to learn to play from observing each other due to time-per-student constraints. Too small a group does not have group dynamics. The ideal group is 4-5 students per one-hour class.
Start your first piano lessons as early as possible. The best age is between 3 and 4, though this is a huge generalization. All children are different, develop differently and therefore parameters of best age don’t apply to everyone the same. As is the case with children learning languages early, music education benefits brain development and makes the physicality of piano playing a second nature.
Regular practice is the key to getting good at playing piano. It is best to practice shorter periods but frequently and consistently. First lessons have to be engaging, fun activity so kids are excited to have their piano lessons. This will motivate them to practice and follow instructions better. Choosing your teacher wisely and with due diligence is a key factor. Twice a week is the ideal frequency of piano lessons. One-on-one in-person instruction is the way to go for all beginners, especially children. As students progress and learn how to learn properly, hybrid teaching becomes a viable option. For children, it is important to sit at the right height in relationship to the instrument so piano bench modifications may be needed. Every child has different physicality so a unique approach is necessary to build a solid piano technique. Kids have to be taught to listen to what they play, not just to move their fingers all over the keyboard fast. Progress tracking from lesson to lesson is a measure of regular practice in between lessons.
Need a piano? Choices... choices
And finally, to learn to play an instrument you have to have one around. If you already do – perfect. But if you don’t, the selection of the right piano for you can be quite daunting, as there are so many options.
First, determine your piano budget and how much space you can dedicate to your piano. You also need to decide whether to go digital or opt for acoustic piano. Digital has the advantage of the silent option for anytime practicing (useful for kids who may practice and have their piano lessons after school) and obvious cost incentive, while the acoustic piano has all the beautiful properties of the natural piano sound with all the color and overtones created by the string vibrations and sound bouncing off the soundboard.
The choices are many but, generally, we recommend always going with an established legacy brand. After all, it is a sizable investment in your family’s quality of life – so it is important to acquire the best instrument you can afford. Going with the cheapest piano will cost you in maintenance and endless repairs. Cheap pianos tend to be constantly out of tune (poorly made pin block and budget strings contribute to that), cracked soundboards due to subpar wood and construction, etc. You don’t want to end up with a dud that you will have to replace in a couple of years. Moving a piano is expensive and it’s best to make such a purchase assuming you will keep it for at least 30-40 years.
You can learn all about digital pianos here.