Q: At what age should a student begin formal instruction in piano?
A: Although it depends somewhat on the individual student's level of skill and maturity, most students are ready around six or seven years of age. That's not to say that a student is incapable of learning music and piano at a much earlier age. Parents and siblings can get a younger child involved with music through listening, and started at the piano if the child seems ready, willing, and able. Nevertheless, in order to achieve the most from formal instruction, it is perhaps best to wait until the child as at a level where he or she can be attentive on a consistent basis.
Q: How can the student make the most of weekly piano instruction to achieve maximum results?
A: Students do best when a regular routine of practice is encouraged during the week. Although most parents leave practicing up to the student, many parents treat practicing like homework. That is, the student is required to practice, even if he or she "doesn't feel like it." This approach seems to work best as it teaches the student the value of discipline, which is a major reason to study a musical instrument to begin with. Some parents motivate their children with financial incentives, giving them a certain amount per hour of practice. This approach is also effective. Finally, teachers can motivate students by occasionally choosing pieces that students know or recognize. These complement the pieces that students study to achieve technical, musical, and artistic goals.
Q: How often should my child practice and how long should each practice session be?
A: A child studying piano should practice five or six days a week, Practice time depends on age and level of maturity and attention. Generally, students between the ages of six and nine should be encouraged to practice for fifteen to twenty minutes each day. For students between the ages of nine and twelve, a half hour is a good minimum. For students older than twelve, practice time can be increased gradually to an hour a day by age eighteen.
Q: Should a student learn to play by ear?
A: Not all students and parents realize the importance of learning to hear music accurately. Generally, parents are anxious for their children to "learn the notes" and use this as the sole criterion on which to base the student's musical progress. The fact that the child plays by ear or that he memorizes quickly and never looks at the music should not be disconcerting. On the contrary, these are the signs of good music development that form the basis of good music reading. In general, playing by ear is a basic and essential aspect of playing music and is often neglected in traditional piano instruction. A child's initial approach to music can be through the ear, with the printed music playing a secondary role. Difficulties arise when students are taught to read music at the expense of doing any playing by ear, or vice-versa. Accordingly, a balanced approach is the most appropriate.
Q: Is a student born with a "musical ear," or can the ear be trained to hear and reproduce music?
A: Learning music is not unlike the learning of a spoken language. In the case of a spoken language, a child first hears the sound of words, and imitates these sounds after hearing them repeated. In music, students often grow up hearing many musical phrases, melodies, rhythms, and chords. These experiences form the foundation for music instruction. When a student has difficulty hearing a melody or chord, it is not so much that he has a weak or "tin" ear. Rather, it is more a matter of not having a sufficient enough experience to know what to listen for and to recognize what is heard. As the student's level of experience increases, his internal cognitive awareness of musical relationships gives him a large “vocabulary” to use to compare what is heard with his experience. The remaining difficulty is to verbally identify and label what is recognized. This is an important aspect of learning music, but not as important as the basic experiences (both at and away from the instrument) that promote the student's awareness and understanding of music at an aural level.
Q: What can a piano teacher do for me?
A: Good piano instruction goes beyond teaching notes. Three essential areas of piano instruction are fingering, rhythm, and technique. Working out an optimum fingering demands an experienced instructor, and makes all the difference between ease of execution and technical difficulty. Teaching rhythm demands a variety of techniques, and takes a lot of energy and hard work for both the teacher and the student. Nevertheless, rhythm is by far the most important feature of music, regardless of style. Avoiding bad habits, which hinder technique and ease of playing, involve working with finger, hand, forearm, and arm position, as well as posture and other habits of movement. Having a good teacher will help you to play more efficiently, and avoid bad habits.