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Welcoming young children into your studio

Welcoming young children into your studio

Interested in widening your student base to include young children? Recent research points to enhanced brain development, increased musical potential, and even a higher occurrence of absolute pitch in students who begin lessons at an early age. In his essay "The Musical Brain," researcher Donald A. Hodges writes that "musical training changes the brain and...the earlier musical instruction begins, the greater the changes." In fact, he says, "the greater preponderance of those with AP [absolute pitch] started their musical training before the age of four, supporting the notion that both genes and experience play a part in musicality."1 

In addition to these substantial developmental advantages, there are practical reasons to begin early music training. Young children are not normally preoccupied with the myriad scholastic, social, and sports activities that may impinge on regular practicing. Preschoolers are also easier to schedule during the day, and, in my studio, they often continue lessons longer than children who begin at a later age. In addition, parents of preschoolers are heavily involved in their young child's musical education right from the start, and they tend to continue their support throughout the years.

Accepting young students

Before accepting a student for private lessons, it is wise to conduct a face-to-face interview with the parent and young child. After all, the lion's share of responsibility for the student's happiness and progress will be on the parent's shoulders. During the interview, outline your studio policies and clarify the commitment involved. You may wish to mention the importance of parental involvement in lessons, daily practice, group classes, and recitals. Also explain the reasons that you include singing, movement, and home listening assignments in your curriculum. Emphasize that, for continuity, it is important that the parent who attends lessons also practices with the child, and be sure to provide general guidelines for daily practice. When a young child is present at the initial interview, the parent may not be able to stay long. You can always follow up with a telephone call to give additional information. 

At the interview, the teacher should be prepared to present a clear plan of study. Many parents have not had experience with preschool piano and may have doubts about the young child's ability to play, and parents who have had lessons themselves will probably be wondering how the teacher will be able to keep their three-year-old on the bench for thirty minutes. Explain that lessons can be as short as fifteen or twenty minutes, and that off-bench activities are a regular part of lessons and practice. To give the parent an idea of what the child will be learning, you can play some of the beginning pieces, briefly discuss and present materials, and show a short video clip of a preschooler performing at one of your recitals. 

Before beginning private lessons, it is a good idea to take an interest in the child's instrument and home practice setup. Like piano pedagogue Richard Chronister, you may wish to visit the student's home to make sure that the instrument and practice environment are conducive to regular and happy progress.2 While there, you can check that your student's bench and footrest are at the proper heights.

Determining readiness

Is the preschooler ready for lessons? How do you know? After the initial interview I invite the child and parent to observe another child's lesson for a few weeks. The young child typically is a master of vicarious learning and can become comfortable and motivated by watching other children and parents enjoy musical activities. I am prepared to start private lessons with the child when she is able to approach the instrument willingly, participate in an action song with parent and teacher, and observe another student's lesson for fifteen minutes while playing quietly. With young children you may also want to include a trial lesson period.

The basics

Your preschool studio should have an adjustable bench and footrest, a step in the washroom, covered outlets, and a box of quiet, safe toys. When scheduling, remember that, for many young children, morning is the ideal lesson and practice time. I also encourage parent and child to arrive fifteen minutes before the lesson begins so that they can learn by watching another student, and the extra time gives the child a chance to calm down and focus. It also provides the parent with a little buffer for unexpected delays (especially important when lessons are only fifteen minutes long). And, as families get to know each other, a sense of community develops in your studio.

Group, private, or both?

The ideal format for preschoolers usually is a combination of group and private lessons. You may decide to teach private lessons only and recommend that the child also attend a music and movement group in your community. Or you may decide to teach both private and group lessons yourself, with the advantage of gearing group class curriculum to what is being covered in the private lesson. Decide whether you would like to schedule group and private lessons at different times in the week or if you would prefer to hold weekly combined group and private lessons. One approach could consist of twenty minutes of group activities followed by short private sessions for each group member. Whatever schedule you choose, parents should be present at both private and group lessons.

The parent's role

In Helping Parents Practice, pedagogue and music teacher Edmund Sprunger states that parental lesson attendance both assists with home practice and protects the child from unreasonable parental expectations (such as remembering details and being responsible for relaying messages between teacher and parent).3 Although parental attendance is important, parents must be told that their primary role at the lesson is to observe quietly without interrupting the teacher or distracting the child. Parents should sit near the piano, but out of the child's sight. To keep the student's full attention, the teacher should talk to the child (not the parent) as much as possible. Assure parents that a few minutes at the end of every lesson will be reserved for them, and encourage them to occasionally come for lessons without the child so that you can work through repertoire and answer questions.

A mother and daughter work together in Diane Briscoe's studio.

Teaching ideas

The following procedures may prove helpful to the early childhood teacher: 

  • Teaching points should be broken into small parts. For example, preschoolers should first be taught how to get up on the bench and then instructed where to put their feet and hands. 
  • Young children generally benefit by learning some pieces by rote. They then can concentrate on hand and body posture and the development of memory skills, and making music fairly quickly is rewarding. A child who already knows a piece can develop aural skills by correlating what he plays on the piano to his mental picture of the sound of the piece.
  • Most preschoolers are capable of beginning basic reading. Singing the note with its name seems to help develop absolute pitch in some very young children. 
  • Ask for very short and simple weekly improvisations. For instance, "a spider crawling" could be one hand playing a few black keys. 
  • Include exercises to increase the child's attention span. Try counting up to the child's age while the student looks attentively at a toy placed on the keys. Children having trouble with focus can close their eyes while doing this activity. 
  • Do not force students to participate; they usually will join in after seeing other children enjoy music. Parents often will need to be reassured if students are not taking part in group activities. 
  • Preschoolers learn through games and play. Introduce simple games that do not take a lot of time to explain, such as rolling a die to determine the number of times the child will repeat the first few notes of a new piece. At home, the parent might incorporate the child's favorite play activities (such as building with blocks, drawing, or dressing up) into home practice. And keep in mind that it is sometimes easier for children if the home practice routine matches the lesson routine. 
  • Young children often have a vague notion of time. How would you feel if you came to class not knowing whether you would be there three minutes, three hours, or three days? You or the parent can make simple cards, each with a practice task on it decorated by the child. A number of cards are placed in the child's view, and, as each task is completed, a card is removed. When there are no more cards, the child knows that the practice or lesson is over. A wild card might invite the child to do something fun or have a small treat. 
  • Schedule short and happy lessons and practices, and try to end each session on a positive note before the child becomes tired or frustrated. Welcoming preschoolers and their parents into your studio can provide a healthy foundation for your business. Students tend to be more committed because of parental involvement, and they have the time to develop basic musicianship and playing skills before extracurricular activities become intense. Because these young students have had the advantage of the early training that may lead to enhanced brain development, I believe these children tend to have increased musical potential. And, with any luck, you will have the option of adding adult students, since some of the parents will become interested in taking lessons themselves. Teaching young children might require a little research and planning (and—in some cases—specialized training), but working with this age group can be quite rewarding and may yield longterm benefits for the child, parent, and educator.

1 Hodges, D. A. (2006). The Musical Brain. In G. E. McPherson (Ed.), The Child as Musician: A Handbook of Musical Development (pp. 60-62). New York: Oxford University Press, U.S.A. 

2 Darling, E. (Ed.). (2005) A Piano Teacher's Legacy: Selected Writings by Richard Chronister (pp. 115-16). Kingston, NJ: The Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy, Inc. 

3 Sprunger, E. (2005). Helping Parents Practice: Ideas for Making It Easier (pp. 40-45). St. Louis, MO: Yes Publishing.

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