Frequently Asked Questions
“What age should we start?” Although musical development begins in the womb and continues with every birdsong and distant foghorn, with singing and dancing and twirling in the living room, I believe that 7 or 8 years old is a great age to start formal piano lessons.
Children of this age are generally cognitively ready to correlate rhythm and sound with visual symbols, and physically ready to develop the fine motor skills and right side/left side coordination needed to play the instrument. Rule of thumb: a child who is reading at school is probably ready to start piano lessons.
That said - younger siblings who have been watching their big brother’s lessons and waiting their turn often start a bit earlier with great success. Older beginners often catch up to their age group rapidly, as they have cognitive advantage and great self motivation.
If your pre-schooler is successfully picking out tunes on the piano, it may not be too soon. If you just sent your youngest grandchild off to college, it may not be too late! Call for a readiness consultation.
“Do you make it fun?” Playing music is one of life’s great joys. Learning to play music is one of life’s great challenges. “Fun” is probably too small a box to contain this subject. But cheer and good humor are indispensible tools in the studio, where students are engaged in such a complex learning process. Equally as important – the studio must be a safe place to learn. Safe to be creative and expressive. Safe to try, fail and try again.
“Do they have to play in the recital?” No…although it’s a rare student who wants to be left out. They tend to view it like having a part in the play. Furthermore, this is one of our great teaching opportunities, because knowing how to present one’s self, in any arena, is an invaluable life skill. There is extra work to be done in preparing for performance.
Mastering the physical technique for each piece of music is essential in order to play with confidence, and we make use of all the best tools to gain the necessary facility. But harmonic and phrase analysis of the score is also essential. It informs the interpretation of the music. It provides the foundation for faster learning, reliable memorization and, ultimately, freedom of musical storytelling.
Then there is the often neglected issue of preparing the student for stage performance, with all its attendant energy and potential for anxiety (see Group Lessons, below).
“Why are Group Lessons so important?” During these monthly workshops, as the students play and discuss their works-in-progress in small groups of their peers, they are growing on several fronts.
In this setting they strengthen their listening skills. They experience the power of expressive playing from both perspectives - the musician’s and the listener’s - as we explore the interpretive possibilities in each piece of music. This is often the moment that a student finally discerns the difference between real and imagined sound production. They quickly become inspiring and supportive compatriots, as they discover the gift that the musician and the listener bring to each other.
The group lesson is such an outstanding way of motivating students and refining their repertoire that participation is a requirement prior to recitals or performances. Even the most veteran performers, appearing on the international stage, would not dare to play new repertoire in a concert setting without having first played it for colleagues and small local audiences. They know that new repertoire is guaranteed to have hidden problems that will surface in the first few presentations. Our pre-concert sessions will root out these bugs, identify solutions and target our practice - ahead of time - allowing us to enjoy a successful day at the recital.
Having prepared the music, we must now prepare the musician for that mind boggling sight – the audience! In order to harness all that adrenaline as they step forward onto center stage, they will need to have a few additional skills. A little stage direction goes a long way - how to dress, how to bow, how to pedal in dress shoes, what to do when you’re not playing, how to receive applause graciously, how to respect to your fellow musicians and your composers, etc. We will get comfortable with this issue prior to recital day, and have some fun with it, too.
“How long should she practice everyday” I know we’ve always been told that practice makes perfect, but it isn’t true. Practice makes Permanent. Nothing carves problems in stone, irons wrinkles into fabric and steals a child’s joy as surely as an egg timer sitting on the piano. Here are some practice principles that will be more helpful.
• Establish a routine. Choose a good time of day, when your child won’t be distracted by the TV or conflicted with other favorite activities. (In the morning before school? First thing after school? Right before homework? In the evening after the bath?) Experiment and see what works for your family.
• Set practice goals in terms of progress, not time. (“First I’ll read through the new part of my new Minuet. Now I need to practice the tricky fingering in my Etude. I’m going to memorize the next part of my Sonatina. How do my pinkies look? OK, wait…THOSE wrong notes sounded GREAT – I’m going to make up a song that starts like that.”)
• Err in favor of shorter practices, more often. For the young beginner, 25 minutes of practice, spread over the week (just 5 minutes a day, five days) will net TEN times the progress of 50 minutes, crammed into one day. Over time, as the music and skills expand, the practice time will naturally follow suit.
An integral part of every lesson will be in the form of practicum. Children aren’t born knowing how to work in this way. It is another one of the many skills that will develop at the piano, and serve them well in life.
“I believe that children are naturally creative. Why do they have to learn theory?” These two elements in a child’s musical development are not mutually exclusive. They are entirely interdependent. We wouldn’t deny our children their schoolroom lessons in reading, writing and grammar or bar access to the library in order to protect their natural voice for storytelling because we know that reading and studying the great works of literature is the cornerstone of their language arts education.
By the same token, playing and understanding the works of the masters is the foundation of music education. Bach, the Beatles, Beethoven, the Blues, Brahms, Boogie – all western music derives from common forms and structures. This subject may be more interesting to your child than you think, and the modern ways of teaching and applying it may not be as dusty as you remember. Whether interpreting the classics or improvising and composing music of their own, it is theory combined with technique that provides musicians with the tools to express themselves fluently and set their imagination free.
“Do you teach children with learning issues?” Yes…is there any other kind? Children walk in the door with an infinite array of gifts and challenges for learning. They may also be coping with various degrees of Dyslexia, Attention Deficit or the Autism spectrum. Motor skill development may be delayed. Home life may be experiencing difficult circumstances. These are the students who have always inspired/required generations of music teachers to create their most effective teaching tools which, together with a nurturing heart, help us to create a meaningful music lesson for each individual child.
“She hasn’t practiced. Should we cancel this week (or quit altogether)?” Missed lessons are the number one reason for lack of practice, and chronically missing lessons or forgetting books and materials has a profoundly discouraging effect on your child’s experience. The best remedy is to redouble efforts to attend every lesson - with books in hand! Remember, too, that every child’s interest level will naturally ebb and flow over the course of the years as they mature and grow, and we should be careful not to over-react during the off-again phases. If the time really comes for withdrawal or dismissal from lessons for any reason, rest assured that although the lessons may end, the knowledge and appreciation for music that your child has gained will remain for a lifetime.