Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Piano Lessons For Twos and Threes?

Photo by crimfants
In the last couple of months, I’ve had a few inquiries from parents who were seeking traditional piano lessons for children 2 and 3 years old. I thought I would post some of my thoughts here as a resource for other parents of very young children. 

First of all, kudos to these parents! They recognize the value of musical study and want to offer their children an early exposure to music instruction. I’m happy that they contacted me, even though I did not accept them as private piano students. Some teachers do accept students at this young age, and some are quite successful, but my personal preference is to start students at age 5 or 6. I do want to encourage these parents and to offer some information that will help them as they consider what path to follow.

In many cases, I think they may not know exactly what I mean when I say that I offer traditional piano study. They just know that their child enjoys music and they want to provide him/her with every advantage. Sometimes, when I suggest a program such as Musikgarten or Kindermusik, I get the impression that they consider those to be merely play experiences. On the contrary, I believe that these programs are excellent age-appropriate learning experiences, and are great at providing an early foundation for piano study. Here are some things to consider.

In my traditional piano lessons, the child receives focused, one-on-one instruction in how to read music notation and how to hone their pre-existing fine motor skills to produce sensitive, nuanced sounds. (Think using fingers to produce very soft sounds, soft sounds, medium soft sounds, medium loud sounds, loud sounds, and very loud sounds.) They are given assignments to work on independently at home, and these can include practicing piano pieces, learning vocabulary words, and doing written assignments in workbooks. We have fun, but this is a goal-oriented endeavor that requires a large degree of focused attention and self-regulation.  If you are looking for lessons for a two- to four-year-old child, my suggestion is that you consider either a group experience like Musikgarten, Kindermusik, Music Together, or Music For Young Children or pre-piano lessons with a teacher who specializes in music for very young children and has some training in that field. Why?

The physical challenges

Two year olds have tiny hands. Violin students can be accommodated with instruments sized for children, but most of us don’t have a scaled-down piano. (And no, a child-sized keyboard toy is NOT acceptable for piano lessons!) Most 2 and 3 year olds are not ready to use fingers independently as we do in piano playing. Often, even my 6 year olds struggle with finger independence. One of the things that prompts parents to seek piano instruction for 2 and 3 year olds has been the success of Suzuki violin with students at this age.  It’s important to realize, though, that a Suzuki violin class spends much time learning how to hold the instrument, how to hold and move the bow, and how to achieve a nice tone. Most of this involves large muscle coordination. In traditional piano lessons (as opposed to the programs like Musikgarten) we go straight to the fine motor skills. Students at this age who are enrolled in those early childhood music programs that I mentioned will benefit and really enjoy learning pre-piano concepts such as high vs. low, steady beat, etc. with a teacher trained to work with that age group who offers activities that promote large-muscle coordination as opposed to fine motor finesse. 

Emotional Challenges

Two and three year olds like to explore using their senses. This means touching everything. They cherish their newly-discovered autonomy, and “Me do it!” is their motto. Transitions from one activity to another can be very difficult. When they come into my home studio, they find a room filled with distractions – colorful books that they will want to pick up and page through, a metronome that ticks, and best of all, that big piano that they can make fun sounds on. It is often futile for me to direct them to what I want them to do when what they want to do is play endlessly with the metronome or explore the sounds on the piano. If the child is hungry or tired, he may not be able to focus at all, meaning that your tuition may be forfeited for that day. In most cases, this is not misbehaving - this is the normal behavior of a 3-year-old! I won't be able to reschedule or refund your lesson because your child was cranky and uncooperative. My opinion is that group experiences are your very best bet because they are more accommodating and just all around more appropriate developmentally.

Why Early Childhood Music Classes Are A Great Choice

Early childhood music classes, unlike traditional piano lessons, are not so much goal-oriented as play-oriented, because this is how very young children learn best. Don’t assume it’s merely entertainment. It’s “play with a purpose.” The children are definitely learning musical concepts – rhythmic fluidity, steady beat, high vs. low, loud vs. quiet, singing on pitch, the timbres of different instruments, different musical articulations such as smooth or bouncy, etc. The setting is usually a child-proofed room that is safe with minimal distractions and the group activity is the most compelling attraction. It makes a huge difference! Transitions from one activity to the next are planned carefully, and parents are instructed on how to handle upsets. Even if a child needs to sit out for a minute, the class can go on, and the child is still learning by being present and watching. You aren’t forfeiting your tuition because your three-year-old is acting like, well, a three-year-old. The teachers in the programs I’ve mentioned here have training in understanding the developmental challenges of toddlers and preschoolers as well as in how to support their musical growth. What may look to you like mere play is actually laying a fantastic foundation for future musical skill. 

Students in early childhood music classes are learning while having a really good time, making friends, and enjoying special one-on-one time with you in an atmosphere that is just right for them developmentally and doesn’t pressure them to be too accomplished too soon.  Parents nearly always pay less for the program than they would pay me for private tuition. I am always thrilled to sign on a piano student who has for several years been enrolled in one of these programs. It definitely enhances their ability to progress rapidly once they are ready for private instruction.

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