Evaluating Young Students' Readiness for Piano Study

Recent medical findings have shown that the benefits of early music study are substantial. Scientists at University of California (Irvine) divided preschoolers into two groups: one which studied piano or singing and one which did not. At eight months, they found that those who studied music had markedly improved spatial reasoning. Researchers further speculated that music also strengthens the brain's circuits which are used for mathematics. What parent would not want a "head start" for his child in math?

Teachers of all persuasions have long known that study of a musical instrument increases small muscle dexterity and control. Evidence seems to indicate that even if the child subsequently stops music study, if he returns to the same instrument later in life the "circuitry" is still functional and will leap into action with just a little review.

Many teachers also point to the emotional and communicative nature of music and how this helps young children function more easily in the world.

A practical thing I particularly like about starting children young is that music becomes one of the prime focuses of their lives--before other activities to gobble up time and commitment, including the parents'.

The prime window to start music study, according to the researchers, is ages 3-5, with 3-4 being optimal. (The window extends to about 9-and-a-half, so all is not lost if children do not begin study until third or early fourth grade. It's just that it's better for the child to start much earlier.) Although there is a great deal of variation, I have found that most children this age to be ready for real piano lessons (as opposed to movement-to-music or music appreciation classes). These children will progress more slowly through the initial stages of learning--expect this and don't be alarmed that you are doing something wrong--but their learning will be no less complete than a child started later.

Many parents are looking for a teacher who can teach young children. If this is something you can do well, it is an excellent niche to occupy. Success with one little one often brings a number of referrals from parents with children the same age. A child's happiness with piano music spreads around pre-school as easily as the newest germ!

For success in piano study, a child must demonstrate mental, physical, and emotional readiness. In a general way, readiness is linked to chronological age, although there is a great deal of individual variation. As I mentioned, most children I encounter are ready at age 3 or 3-and-a-half. I have taught a child as young as 2-and-a-half, but this was an exceptional child in all ways, and I generally do not offer an in-studio interview to children below the age of 3.

Through specific questions, I screen young children for readiness during the parents' phone call asking to begin study, as interviewing a child who is not really ready greatly disappoints the child, as well as being a waste of the parents' and my time. If the preponderance of answers is positive, I schedule an interview. If most of the answers are negative, I explain that I don't think the child is developmentally ready yet and that beginning piano now won't be as effective as if we wait six months or so. If the parent is uncertain or unconvinced, I often schedule the interview and conduct my diagnostic "games" with the child so the parent can -see- what types of readiness are lacking.

Note: If you find yourself in this situation, I advise you not to hesitate to postpone study after the interview. Do not fear that the parent will find another teacher. You are the teacher of choice. The parent respects your opinion and will wait another 6 months for a second in-studio evaluation.

It's important that the parent know that you are not brushing him off on a whim. I invite the parent to call me back any time he thinks his child may now be ready, and I mark my calendar to call in six months if I haven't heard from the parent by then.

Speak to the child, too. Tell him how much enjoyed having him come visit you today and state that you hope he will be coming back in "a while."

Here are the criteria I use to screen young children for readiness.

Parental readiness is the other half of the equation. I pose these questions to the parent at the telephone stage. A yes answer to *all* of these questions is crucial to success for a young child, I feel, and if the parent cannot commit in this manner, I like to wait until the parent is also "ready"! Teaching a wee one is a delicate business as it is; without full parental/family support for the enterprise, it is extremely difficult for the child and for the teacher. It's best to wait to begin until the parent can provide the structure and support system.

Here are the very candid questions I put to the parents.

Teaching young beginners is as rewarding for the teacher as the benefits that accrue are to the child, and I encourage you to look into it if this area of pedagogy interests you.

copyright 1996, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me about reprint permission.

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