When she was little, Hannah Barteck had the same bedtime routine as every other in kid in America, but with a twist: Every night, she’d brush her teeth, wash her face, put on her pajamas — and then plunk herself down at the piano to practice.
It’s a habit she now recommends to her own piano students, and it’s surprisingly effective. “It’s helpful to work practice time into a pre-existing routine, and bedtime is great because after school, they may have homework, or maybe they want to play outside because it’s going to get dark soon,” she says. “But if you make it that last thing, there aren’t a lot of distractions.” (Besides, what kid doesn’t want another excuse to put off going to bed?)
As a parent, sometimes it’s hard to know how to help our kids make the most of the activities and lessons we so enthusiastically sign them up for, and simple tips like this can make a big difference. So we asked a few piano teachers for their advice and insights for parents who are introducing their kids to the piano for the first time.
Wait until they can read
“Before a child can actually read words, it’s harder to teach them to read music,” says Linda Filcek, a piano teacher in Mattawan, Michigan. “So I encourage parents to wait until their child is a reader before they start piano lessons.”
For most kids, that’s first or second grade. You can start them sooner, Filcek adds, but you’ll get “more bang for your buck” if you wait, because by six or seven years old, their hands are bigger and their fine motor skills are more developed, too.
If your younger child is begging for lessons, though, it’s ok to start sooner, says Barteck, who teaches piano in Cincinnati, Ohio. But “the teacher needs to understand that a four-year-old isn’t going to sit at the bench for half an hour.” When Barteck teaches very young kids, she offers a twenty-minute lesson and gets the kids up and moving, clapping and stomping out quarter notes with their feet.
Shop around for the right teacher
Finding the right teacher can play a huge role in your child’s success, so it’s worth taking the time to find one with a personality and style that works for your kid. Ask other parents for recommendations. Call up a local music store and ask which teacher would be the best match for your child’s age, experience and personality. Set up lessons with a teacher for a few weeks, sit in on the lessons, and see how it goes.
“You don’t have to say, ‘We’re trying YOU out,’ but just say, ‘We’re giving lessons a try, and we’d like to try a month of lessons to see how it goes,’” Barteck says.
Also, don’t assume anything based on the teacher’s resume. That acclaimed pianist with intimidating music degrees may be surprisingly terrific with young children; the sweet old lady from church might not have as much patience for little kids as you think. Give them both a try and see.
Be supportive, but stay out of the way
“If your kid is the kind where you hear a couple of plinks and then total silence and you have to yell up the hall — ‘Keep practicing! Turn off the TV!’ — find a way to be in the room while they’re practicing,” says Barteck.
Bring a book in, fold laundry or read something on your phone, “so that you’re not staring at them, but you’re there.”
“Students, especially beginners, need to feel listened to,” says Scott Besser, a piano teacher in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. “Students whose parents lend an interested ear or are physically present in the room are more likely to progress with greater success” than those whose parents are simply nagging them daily to practice.
As for lessons, it’s probably ok for parents sit in—as long as they stay quiet.
“Seven out of ten times, it’s a great idea to sit in on your kid’s lesson because you’re going to hear what they should be working on,” Barteck says. Don’t go in if it causes your child more stress, however, or if you find you’re becoming a distraction.
Keep your expectations in check
As for recital day, realise that it’s not just a performance, it’s also a learning experience. “Recitals are actually my best teaching tool,” says Filcek. “My students will really practice for a recital, and really get a song down.”
Parents can help their children defuse nerves by holding “living room concerts” at home, where the child practices walking in, introducing herself, and performing the recital piece for the family just as she will in the performance.
As a parent, it’s important to remember that no teacher is going to have your child playing “Piano Man” after the first three lessons—and that’s ok. “Parents need to understand the time commitment needed—that it will be a little while and a lot of work before your kid will be able to sit down and play whatever they want,” says Kelsey Reed, a piano teacher in Seattle.
The result will be worth it, but like any new skill, it’s going to take time.