Pedagogical Guidelines Based on Age and Achievement

Age Group

Children in specific age groups are often at the same stage of development, so generalities based on age can be valuable guides for teachers. These generalizations are usually independent of achievement level, however, since they are linked to social, motor, and intellectual growth.

With any age student, I suggest your approach be one of a helper rather than someone who knows all the answers. You'll get better cooperation, better dedication to home assignments, and higher interest if you and your student work together to reach the student's goals.

Be alert for any impediments you spot. An unusually short attention span or reading difficulty is often seen first by a music teacher. Vision difficulties and hearing deficits are other disorders that are readily apparent during music study. Notify the parents promptly so they may seek professional counsel.

I have found that the one-teacher/one-student is the best type of music learning situation because the program can be tailored specifically for each student's interests, abilities, and preferred learning method. Nevertheless, certain students may need specialized techniques, notably learning disabled students and bright students.


(Ages 3-4)

One of the primary tasks of any teacher with a child this age is to establish a sense of competence in the child. The teacher, music or otherwise, should help begin the transition from a family-centered world to one which is society-centered. Music study probably will be one of the child's first experiences in which a parent is not the knowledgeable authority figure. A calm, welcoming atmosphere is vital to these little ones; they must feel safe both with you and with the idea of piano study.

Children this age delight in whimsy. Use this as a jumping- off place for creativity. Writing songs just for them - - and letting them pick the titles - - is one way to tickle their funnybones. Making drills into games is another; playing "Go Fish" with music cards is much more fun than drilling with flash cards.

Babies learn about their world primarily through tactile routes. These youngsters are not far away from that. Encourage exploration at the instrument, both tactile and aural. Here are some questions and activities you might try.

Students this age should begin to explore the piano's potential for communication. There is no need to wait until the student has "real literature" under his fingers. During the first three or four months of study, for example, you might wish to expand on the previous suggestion that the student experiment in expressing ideas and emotions by assigning the illustration of an idea or an event as part of the take-home assignment.

Point out how loud and soft can add expressiveness. Introduce several pianistic devices - - tone clusters and glissandos are two good ones - - to give students a wider vocabulary.

From the start, the student can view the piano as something he can use to communicate. This personal attachment to the piano is different from his ability to reproduce someone else's pieces and is the foundation for improvisation, composition, and interpretive artistry.

Set standards appropriate to the student's physical and mental capabilities. For example, you may have to forego legato touch until several months of study have passed because the needed motor control is not yet fully developed. Instead, be satisfied with evidence that the student is reading music notation and enjoying his piano experience.

Don't expect perfection in order to "pass off" a piece. A reasonable accuracy of notes and counting (70%-90%) is sufficient at this age. Pieces at this level are not meant to be concert works, anyway. They are principally practice transforming notation into pitch and learning how to make the instrument produce a given sound.

A child of this age is *never* ready for eighth-notes. Confine note values to quarter-notes and greater. Songs for this age group should be short (four to eight measures) so it is possible to traverse them in a week. Two-week songs are acceptable occasionally (no more than one repeat song per lesson approximately every other week). Three weeks is the absolute limit on a song for a young beginner.

If the pieces take longer than two weeks to master, they are too difficult, too long, or both.

Memory playing for recitals may be mentioned - - "You can play without your book if you want to" - - but never required. Children with the gift to memorize will play from memory naturally, without urging from you.

Early Elementary

(Ages 5-8)

Particularly for the kindergartners, the process of finding a comfortable place away from the family in is still going on. Gentleness, guided exploration, lack of censure for mistakes, as well as non-judgmental acceptance of original ideas, are very important for children this age.

Humor continues to delight these students, although it is somewhat more sophisticated now that they have been exposed to more of the general culture. A student who complains, "Not another minuet!" probably will be perfectly willing to study the piece if he renames it. (How about calling it "Frog Tongues" or "Messy Closet"?)

The sensory investigations and the expressive pursuits suggested in the previous section also are appropriate for this age group.

Children in these grades may wish to begin composing short melodies (four to eight measures).

Do not be concerned that these pieces are not what you would term melodic. This doesn't matter to the children; these songs are their creations. And the random nature of these compositions offers valuable practice in reading notation because after they compose these songs, they must play them!

As the student is fairly well versed in the idea of symbolic notation from schoolwork (reading, writing, math), you can expect a greater ability and ease in manipulating music notation. Thus performance standards can be raised for this age; a 75%- 90% accuracy range is appropriate. (I do not recommend bringing every piece to recital perfection for any student.)

Again, mention memory playing as an option and encourage students to "try it." Never require it.

Late Elementary

(Ages 9-11)

Many of these children are definitely pre-teens, most often the girls, while others are still immature. For those who are ready, treat them as you would a teen (see below). Those not yet ready for teen approaches will respond to most of the techniques for the early elementary student (see above).

These children's increased facility with abstraction and symbolic notation enables them to grasp the concepts of eighth- notes and to play with increasing accuracy.

Encourage children to play by memory for recitals, but do not require it.

Young Teen

(Ages 12-14)

For these students, measuring themselves by peer's standards is much more important than comparing themselves to their parents'. The goal is to establish oneself favorably in the eyes of the peers. Thus, there will be a great deal more desire for pieces which are flashy (the most favored ones *sound* harder than they are to play - - or *look* harder than they really are, such as those with cross-handing playing. Social music (jazz, blues, pop tunes, movie themes) will also rate rave reviews from students this age.

These students also profit from an introduction to fake-book-style playing. These skills make social music accessible more quickly.

Keep in constant touch with these students as regards their choices in social music. Ask frequently if there are "any songs you want to play."

Humor is always a good teaching tool, and teens respond to it, too. You need to find out what sort of humor they prefer and work it in, if at all possible (and appropriate). If you use current slang, make sure you know the meaning and proper context. (Nothing is more pathetic than a teacher attempting to "act cool"!)

Don't talk down to these students. Use adult vocabulary and syntax. More frequent abstractions and similes also are appropriate. Be alert for "blank looks" which signify the student didn't understand. ("Do you know what simile means?")

Students of these ages probably won't respond well to flashcards and other "childish" drill devices. (Computers are free of such a stigma, however.) Practice contests and prizes from the treasure chest probably will have no appeal at all. Rather than using a sticker to signify a piece is finished, use a check mark, other symbol, or the date. Select music which does not have juvenile titles or babyish cartoon illustrations. Students this age do not rebel against abstract titles such as" Waltz," "Rondeau", or "Album Leaf." In fact, many relish the fact that their music is more sophisticated than a child's, as evidenced by the "real" (adult) titles.

Teen beginners are rare animals because usually children's leisure pursuits are well settled by this age. If you begin a student in this age group, keep uppermost in mind that these pupils are *not* children. They have dignity and will spot a patronizing attitude or childish approach a mile away. Consider them adult beginners.

Teen beginners want music they can use. In particular, they will want music which "sounds good" early on (be sure to look at easy duet literature). Pop music will be of great interest to them, too. Such students will appreciate your finding suitable versions of current hits or helping them pick out melodies by ear. Early introduction to fake-book style can be very effective with this age group.

As always, memory playing should be encouraged but not required.

Older Teen

(Ages 15-18)

Treat these students as you do adults.

Achievement Level

Just as students may be characterized on the basis of age, they also may be described by their level of proficiency. The continuum in general use is beginner-intermediate-advanced.

The foundation for each level should be independence and control.

Beginning Students

These students need to establish a sense of competence as musicians. They must learn to trust their own instincts and be unafraid to question something that seems illogical, unreasonable, or unbelievable. They should be encouraged to explore, to express, and to create as well as to re-create (play printed music).

These students need a curriculum emphasizing the fundamentals of music reading and a wide variety of styles/genres in literature. Some of this material you may need to arrange yourself.

Ornamentation should be introduced at the beginner level. I recommend mordents and turns only.

Technique should focus first on physical control of the hands/arms (good posture and hand position, playing notes equally loud with weak fingers as with strong ones). Once rudimentary physical control is fairly well mastered, the student should direct attention to finger dexterity (legato and staccato articulation, accents, legato thirds, triads in blocked and arpeggiated form in root position, and so on), strength, and differentiation/balance between the hands. Technical exercises selected should suit the demands of the repertoire under study. Thus, for example, I advise that diatonic scales be withheld and the focus be on patterns the student will use (octaves, root position triads, parallel thirds, etc.).

Ear-training should be appropriate to the music being played. I question whether asking beginners to identify melodic and harmonic intervals by ear has real value for them at this stage of study. I believe ear-training for such students should be applied skills: is a subsequent pitch higher, lower, or the same; are notes close together or far apart; is this a purposeful dissonance vs. a mistake; the aural identification of octaves/not octaves and major/minor triads; clapping back rhythms; matching pitches when signing; etc.

Functional keyboard music theory should be emphasized: keyboard geography, construction of triads, identification of tonality, V-I cadences, I-V-I melodic patterns (often in the bass), repetition of measures/phrases/sections, enharmonic equivalents. These skills will be more readily applicable - - and thus retained - - than separate, unconnected pieces of knowledge (such as all key signatures, the circle of fifths, or finding inversions of melodic motifs).

Learning to use the metronome and to sight-read also should be included.

Social music at this level can focus on folk/ethnic music and on pieces linked to holidays. Tunes from popular movies, TV shows, and commercials may interest many of them, too.

Ensemble music probably should be restricted to duets, although if you have the ability and instruments, doubling the melody line on a flute, recorder, violin, guitar, etc. can be an illuminating experience for these musicians. Add percussion and double some of the voices in Renaissance and Medieval music; double the bass line in Baroque pieces. Duets are especially effective if another family member plays the piano and can join the student for these ensemble pieces.

Mention memory playing but do not require it.

Those students who are interested can begin competitions and adjudicated examinations in the second year of study. I caution you, however, to examine everyone's motives carefully: yours, your student's, and his parents'. Competitions are not for every student. I'd also like to note that not all competitions are worthy of your students' time and efforts; examine the printed goals of each competition and select thoughtfully.

All beginners need specific instruction in how to practice. Structure children's lesson assignments to foster this. Parents of children need pointers, too, in how to work with their children at home. At this early stage, the family may need assistance integrating piano study into home life, choosing between an electronic keyboard and piano, or deciding whether to rent or buy a new or used piano.

Also begin teaching the child the rudiments of fingering.

Intermediate Students

Pupils at this level should continue to grow technically and musically. They should explore various musical styles in greater depth so that their opinion of composers, genres, and musical periods is based on first-hand knowledge rather than hearsay.

Technique should include diatonic and chromatic scales, triads in inversion, seventh chords and their inversions, ascending and descending I-III-V-I arpeggios, and continued refinement of finger, wrist, and forearm skills. Pedaling should be addressed at this time if not previously introduced.

Ear-training and music theory again should stress functional skills (tonal center, dissonance/resolution, ABA form, exposition/development/recapitulation/coda), although theory studies may veer more and more toward the intellectual (circle of fifths, key signatures and how scales are built, more complex cadences, I-IV-V as the "pillars of tonality" (a 12-bar blues is a marvelous illustration!), parallel and relative major/minor keys, transposition).

Metronome work and sight-reading (using scales and arpeggios) should be carried on, as well.

Even for those who do not express great interest, improvisation and playing fake-book-style should be at least a nominal segment of the curriculum. Folk/ethnic tunes and holiday music provide fodder for this type of study if the student professes no attraction to pop tunes.

Students at this level may have the technical, musical, and sight-reading facility to accompany a soloist or a ensemble, while many will prefer being a member of a trio (with strings or winds) or playing multi-piano works. Students who have ready access to a group - - such as a school chorus or church choir - - should be encourage to "try" accompaniment; select a piece which is one or two levels below the student's current level of achievement and coach the student specifically about watching the director (role-play this at the lesson), preparing for page turns, being sensitive about how loudly to play, etc.

Ornamentation for the intermediate student should include trills, trills with Nachschläge, and appoggiaturas/quick appoggiaturas/acciaccaturas (including the notation problems these raise). Discuss spurious ornaments such as "inverted mordents."

For students you think have potential for college music study, encourage memorization, even if it means their finding some "personal system" for committing the music to memory or allowing extra time to do so. Waiting until these students reach an advanced level before forcing them to come to grips with the college/conservatory requirement for memory playing does them a disservice.

Those students who are interested and exhilarated should continue in competitions.

Advanced Students

At this level, pupils should focus on artistry, thoughtful approaches to interpretation, challenging technical work, and detailed harmonic and formal analyses, as well as developing a balanced repertoire.

All remaining forms of ornamentation must be introduced: baroque turns from below (especially how they appear written out in the music of Mozart and Beethoven) and above, trills with turned beginnings from above and below, trills with turned endings below (along with alternate notations, such as Nachschläge) and above, and Schleiferen. Notation variants for the French baroque and the English virginalist school should be covered. (I suggest codifying all ornaments into chart form for quick reference. When playing the music of Couperin and Rameau, the unique ornamentation found in these works also should be integrated into the master chart.) Address the "Haydn ornament."

Those considering college study in music should be introduced to rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic dictation in their ear-training studies. Likewise, music theory training should encompass more esoteric topics, such as secondary dominants and augmented sixth chords along with more complex form and analysis work. All recital performances for these students must be done from memory. (Those not college-bound in music - - or a minor in music - - need not be forced to play from memory if they are more comfortable with the score.)

Sight-reading should be a normal part of the weekly assignment, but separate metronome study probably will not be necessary, as the student will be using the device as a practice aid as he sees fit or you recommend.

Advanced students should do some experimentation in concocting their own arrangements from a lead line (playing fake book style), using pop materials, folk/ethnic tunes, or holiday music, as their interest dictates. At least a mention of some standard shortcut notation symbols used in jazz and stage band arrangements (such as / for repeat the measure) will help the student avoid embarrassment if he stumbles upon the notation in a public situation and is expected to know what it means.

Advanced students frequently play in school jazz/rock groups and musical theater ensembles. Other endeavors might include accompanying school, church, or civic groups or soloists, and playing in small ensemble.

Those students who enjoy them should continue in competitions, especially if scholarship money is involved and college is in the near future. I again urge caution and thorough examination of everyone's motives and of the competitions' goals and approaches.

copyright 1966-2003, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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