I’m Mindy Peterson, and this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. I have been teaching piano lessons for 30 years (I WAS still in high school when I started!); and the question I’ve consistently been asked the most is, “When is the best age to begin piano lessons?”
I’m going to answer this question today, but first I want to specify what I’ll be considering “piano lessons” – I’ll be talking about traditional, private piano lessons. This is the most common form of piano lessons, it’s what I’ve taught most, and it’s most commonly what people are referring to when they ask this question. Traditional piano lessons are one-on-one with the instructor and student, in person, with the student learning to read and play music. What we’re NOT talking about are group lessons or specialized methods like Suzuki. We ARE talking specifically about PIANO lessons because that is my area of expertise; however, for the most part, this information will translate to other instruments as well.
So… private piano lessons! Usually the person asking this question is a parent of a young child. And the first thing I usually talk with them about are what I call Signs of Readiness.
There are five signs of readiness that I look for in determining if a young child is ready for lessons:
- The first one: Is the student interested in learning to play the piano? If they’re not, and it’s the parent who wants the kid to take lessons, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea; there are plenty of things we expose our kids to for their benefit, even if they don’t want it at the time (school and homework being a couple of those things!). But if they DO have a strong interest in piano lessons, that is a positive sign of readiness.
- Does the child have a long-enough attention span to sit and focus and pay attention for a 30-minute lesson every week, plus practice at home each day for around 15 minutes? Again, if they DON’T, that doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t take lessons. Lessons could be a great way for them to gradually increase their ability to focus and concentrate, and develop good coping skills for dealing with their restlessness. Like maybe they learn how to tell when they just need to get up from the piano bench and do 10 jumping jacks! We’re just taking the pulse of each of these 5 signs of readiness to see what the overall indicators are. If they ARE able to sit and focus for a 30-minute lessons, that’s another positive indicator.
- Is the student familiar with numbers (esp. 1-5) and letters (esp. A-G/the musical alphabet)?
- How developed is the child’s small-muscle coordination (are they able to write letters, numbers, write their name, use a scissors, etc?)? If they are, they will have less frustration to deal with as they try to get their hands and fingers to do what their brain is telling them to do in the process of learning to play the piano.
- This fifth sign is really more of a parental sign of readiness – Is the parent willing to be involved in the process? A young child will need a parent (or grandparent or other adult) to sit with them for most or all of their at-home practice time (at least 15 min/day, 5 days/week) until they are old enough to read and follow written instructions. The adult will need monitor practice time in terms of making sure it happens, is a positive experience, and that assignments are completed. Is a parent available and willing to do this?
So those are the indicators I look at when determining whether a child may be ready for lessons. I’ve had parents tell me, Oh yeah – all those signs of readiness are there! Well, that’s kind of a no-brainer then. If some signs are there and some aren’t, we talk it through and see which direction the overall balance is tipping.
That’s the long answer. The short answer to this question: I find the sweet spot for most kids to be 1st -2nd grade. At this age, they are young enough that learning the “language” of music can be very intuitive for them (and they get to reap the benefits of music training from a young age!), yet old enough to have the attention span and small-muscle control to enjoy the process without too much frustration. Some kids are ready in Kindergarten (that is the earliest that I begin teaching students).
Side note: Research shows that making music in childhood benefits the brain for decades, even if you do not continue to play music. Nina Kraus is a scientist and researcher at Northwestern University; she’s been a guest a couple times on this podcast, most recently in the most recent episode, talking about her brand new book, Of Sound Mind. In this book, she writes, “Older adults with as few as three years’ experience playing an instrument many decades before exhibited signs of a ‘younger’ brain… Playing music is a good investment that pays off in young childhood and even decades later. Once the brain has learned to make strong connections between sound and meaning, the brain continues to reinforce this skill automatically.” (I’ll include a link in the show notes to this episode with Nina; if you listen by October 28, you’ll have a chance to win a free copy of her brand new book.)
For kiddos who aren’t quite ready for private lessons, there are a lot of great early-childhood music programs out there. I won’t be getting into those today, since that’s another topic for another day, but in the meantime, you can do a search for “early-childhood music programs near me” to get an idea of what’s available in your area. Most of these will be group classes with lots of physical activity, and usually it’s intended that the parent or caregiver attend WITH the child.
And I have to throw in here, too – check out what your library offers! I took my kids every week to our library’s Story Time – it was fantastic – shoutout to the Eden Prairie branch of the Hennepin County Public Library system. Even though it was called Story Time, it always included a song, too, usually with some kind of egg shakers or maracas and movement to the music. It’s a fun, free, low commitment way to introduce kids to music and moving to music & rhythm; and instill in them an enjoyment of music; and get to know some fun artists – our library’s Story Time is how I discovered Laurie Berkner. Her music saved my sanity during those pre-school parenting days and became the sound track of my kids’ childhood! I actually interviewed her in Ep. 45 around the time my oldest child was graduating from high school! I’ll put a link in the show notes.
I do want to mention that the middle school and high years are not too late to begin music lessons. Teenagers have cognitive skills and physical skills that allow them to progress more quickly than younger children. They can read, they understand fractions, their hands are bigger, and their small muscle coordination is better. They can learn to read music much more quickly than younger children. If they have decided on their own that they want to study music, they will be very motivated.
What if you are older, or really and truly “old”(!), and you have never taken part in any music making? If you’ve listened to this podcast for long or follow me at all on social media, you’ll know that there are incredible benefits to music lessons in old age. It’s never too late; our brains can continue to be changed and shaped for the better our entire lives. There’s a saying I love: When is the best time to plant a tree? 20 years ago. When is the 2nd best time to plant a tree? Right now.
I hope this answers some questions about the best time to start music lessons. If you know of someone who may benefit from this episode, please share it with them! Just hit the Share option in your podcast app. If you don’t see it right away, tap the 3-dots icon, and that will probably make it appear.
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As always, all links from today’s show – and a transcript of this episode – can be found in the show notes at mpetersonmusic.com/podcast; this is Ep. 113. While you’re there, I’d love to hear from you! You can reach me on email (firstname.lastname@example.org), Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn. All links are on that webpage, as well as in the episode details right in your podcast app. Thanks so much for joining me today. Until next time, may your life be enhanced with music.