by Catherine Shefski
If your house is anything like mine, getting your child to sit down to practice piano is no easy task. Playing the piano should be fun. I know many teachers will disagree and say that practicing requires diligence and discipline. With twenty years of piano study behind me, I do know about discipline and the dedication. However, when we are talking about young children, we must keep in mind that we are laying the groundwork for a lifetime of music enjoyment.
We’ve all heard our children singing while they play, humming to themselves, or chanting nursery rhymes. They seem to be so naturally musical. As parents, we get excited and quickly enroll our children in piano lessons. Unfortunately for many of us, our child’s enthusiasm begins to fizzle out and soon we are both dreading the daily practice session. This causes problems for the teacher during the lesson, frustration for the child, and eventually, the end of the piano lessons.
Knowing how music can help steer us to greater life success and happiness, it is important that our children are comfortable with music making, and not pressured to focus only on the completion of the teacher’s weekly assignment.
Learning theorist, Jean Piaget, in his book Origins of Intelligence in Children (New York: Norton, 1963) discusses the growth and development of his three children and concludes that children pass through several stages of cognitive development. We as parents and piano teachers of young children should take note that most children between the ages of 2 to 7 are in what Piaget refers to as the “Preoperational stage.” In this stage, music students learn best through imitation and active participation rather than through being told information. They also have difficulty using correct terminology for the concepts of high and low pitch, loud and soft dynamics, and even note naming.
We’ve all heard our children singing while they play, humming to themselves, or chanting nursery rhymes. They seem to be so naturally musical. As parents, we get excited and quickly enroll our children in singing classes or piano lessons. Unfortunately for many of us, our child’s enthusiasm begins to fizzle out and soon we are both dreading the daily practice session. This causes problems for the teacher during the lesson, frustration for the child, and eventually, the end of the piano lessons.
According to Piaget, it is not until the child reaches the “concrete operational stage” around ages 7-11 that they can perform many of the abstract operations of which they were incapable at ages 2 to 7.
Therefore, it is necessary that piano study for young children be filled with opportunities to “do music.” Children should learn about duration of sounds by singing, drawing and moving rather than labeling whole, half and quarter notes. Once the child has a solid foundation from singing, playing and moving, they will easily shift to the abstract thinking required for note labeling and rhythmic relationships, but only when they are developmentally “ready.”
As parents and teachers, we should encourage our children to “do music” by playing music and helping them to become focused listeners through movement, singing, or drawing. Musical examples for young children should be kept short, one minute or less. It is best to find pieces in which a single musical element predominates.
One method to engage children in listening it to have them create a “listening map” by moving a finger in the air to represent the musical gestures, and then transferring this to paper. By creating a visual image of the music, the child will learn what to expect in a piece of music. A listening map can be as simple as a long line with lots of curves, a sharp turn, and then several short hops.
Piano improvisation is another skill that should be developed from an early age. Children can create a mood, tell a musical story, or give their piece a descriptive title. Or they can simply play and listen to themselves.
For a child to fully develop an appreciation of music making, it is important for the teacher to spend time looking at each individual student and tailoring the lesson to suit the child’s level of cognitive development. By paying attention to the clues, and by giving young pupils more opportunities to “do music” rather than simply following the book – parents, teachers, and students will have fun while laying the foundation for a lifelong love of music.
About the author: Catherine Shefski is a pianist, teacher, and parent of three musical kids. She teaches a course online for parents who want to learn how to teach their children beginner piano at home. This four-week course will give you the tools you need to take your preschooler through the first year of piano lessons.Visit her on the web at http://www.piano-mentor.com .