Posted Aug 5, 2016 by Brian Jenkins - 2 Comments

Teaching Piano to a 3 Year Old

Teaching Piano to a 3 Year Old

What age should a child start piano lessons? There are varying thoughts on the subject. Many teachers feel very strongly that a student must know their numbers, letters, and how to read first. These teachers usually feel comfortable teaching a student as young as 5. Of course this varies by teacher, but you’ll be able to find many teachers that will start a student at that age.

When a child is younger than 5, however, there are many different obstacles that come into play. It doesn’t have to be this way though. Students can start at 3. Lessons do need to be adjusted, and expectations changed, but if handled correctly a 3 year old can get amazing results from their piano lessons.

Attention Span

If you have children of any age, you’ve likely noticed that children, and adults too for the matter, pay attention to what they want to pay attention to.

My three year old will often play pretend by herself for an hour or more. She can sit and watch a 90 minute movie no problem. As soon as we give her dinner to eat, though, she’ll be all over the place. She wants to play, and if left on her own, she wouldn’t likely ever finish a meal.

We have to make sure there are no distractions, so our rule is “no toys at the table.” We make sure she doesn’t leave her seat until she asks to be excused. Even with these provisions, we still need to constantly remind her to “take a bite.” She’ll make up stories, make funny sounds and funny faces, and basically do anything other than eat.

Eventually she’ll finish whatever we feed her, but it can take quite a while because she is just not paying attention to the task at hand. If you saw her eating, you would assume that this little girl just doesn’t have a good attention span! She’s three, so hey, what can you expect, right?

But wait. She can focus on a movie for more than an hour, so what’s the deal?

Children and adults alike have a short attention span when they have to focus on things that don’t interest them, or that is difficult. Kids just tend to have a shorter attention span in these cases than adults do.

Length of Attention

Practicing piano is an activity that tends to be difficult. It likely won’t keep the attention of most children the way a movie can. It’s important then to have an idea as to how long children at this age can pay attention.

There are many different ways that child psychologists calculate attention span of children. Some say that the attention span of a child is 3 to 5 minutes per year of a child’s age. A three year old could then concentrate for at least 6 minutes. Others say a child’s attention span is their age + 1. In this case, a three year old would have an attention span of 4 minutes. Some say it could be even shorter.

Some studies have even shown that adults have, at most, a 20 minute attention span.

Teaching My Three Year Old

I’ve taught 3 year old students before, but this was the first time I would teach one every day. Being able to teach my daughter every day has given me much more experience with this age group than I had with the years before that I taught three year olds once a week.

I started teaching my daughter piano when she turned three, and it has been a learning process for both of us. Typically I would explain concepts, and I wouldn’t move on until I got confirmation that she understood me. We would repeat sections of music over and over. The problem is in one sitting she was just not getting it.

At first we were going to have a 30 minute lesson whether she wanted to or not. What ended up happening was I would get frustrated because she wasn’t paying attention. But I would muscle through the half hour because that’s what we needed to do. By the end of the half hour she was mad, I was mad, and it was just not a good experience.

I had to start doing something differently or I was going to turn her off to piano. I decided simply that the lesson would be as long as she could pay attention to. Sometimes that meant the lessons were 5 minutes or even less. At first I felt like she wasn’t learning anything, but as we continued I noticed she was definitely retaining what we were learning from day to day.

How Long to Teach the Lesson

Teachers are typically paid by the lesson length. Most often a teacher won’t teach a lesson that is less than 30 minutes. The difficulty here is that for the first few months a 3 year old student may be better served by shorter lessons. If the student is done at 10 minutes, she’s done. There’s no need to force a half hour lesson at that point. Forcing a longer lesson that the student isn’t prepared for, can only lead dreading lessons, and hating the piano. This is the worst outcome possible.

What you will likely find, is that after a few weeks of lessons the student will start to find it more interesting. They’ll be able to understand what you’re talking about better, and they’ll want to apply what they have been learning. All of this will help them pay attention longer.

I still don’t time the lessons with my daughter. I teach her for as long as she can reasonably go. Lately my 3 year old daughter has been out lasting me. I usually get tired after about 45 minutes and end the lesson. We typically have lessons before she goes to bed, and I’m tired! It’s pretty remarkable though that our lessons went from being 5 minutes long to as long as 45 minutes.

It may seem like a waste of money, but for the first few months of lessons, it maybe be best to just pay a teacher for a half hour lesson, even though the lesson only lasts 10 minutes.

It’s important that the teacher still gets paid for the full half hour because they had to set aside that time to teach the student. What ends up inevitably happening, though, is that the parent decides the student is just not old enough, and they quit. They quit before the student can find it interesting!

How Often To Take Lessons

Practicing on their own will be next to impossible for a three year old. They’ll need a parent or teacher to be there with them during all practice sessions. If it’s in the parents budget, lessons as often as possible should be encouraged. If it’s not possible, the parents should take an active role in making sure the three year old has decent practice time daily.

Smaller Capacity Short Term Memory

One thing that is very important to keep in mind with younger children is that their short term memory capacity is smaller than that of adults. Normally adults can fit about 7-9 items in their short term memory. Those items are temporarily stored for anywhere from 10-30 seconds. We can then repeat that information in order for it to have a better chance of moving over to our long term memory. If you are learning a new measure of music, you should play enough for your short term memory to store it, and then repeat it until it is learned.

If you’re teaching a three year old, things change. Whereas an adult may be able to take in a measure or two of music into their short term memory, a three year old is different. They can only hold between 2 and 3 things in their short term memory. This is an extremely important distinction to understand when teaching. You can’t expect children of this age to understand and digest as much information as an adult can in on sitting.

What to Teach

The key to keeping a 3 year old’s attention is variety. Lessons can’t be boring. You can’t work on one piece of music for half an hour. This is where a lot of teachers lose the student’s attention. Instead of working on one thing, we should be working on many things with students this young. Each one should take no longer than 3-4 minutes. Why? Because that’s the student’s attention span for difficult things. Once the student begins to learn and enjoy the lessons, each section of the lesson can increase in duration.

Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself every lesson. You may feel like the student isn’t learning, but if they have daily reinforcement of these things, you’ll be surprised by their progress.

Rhythm Practice

When practicing rhythm, explain things in very simple terms. A three year old may not even be able to recognize numbers or letters yet, but most three year olds can count to 10. Explain what a quarter note is and that it gets 1 “beat”. Of course they won’t know what a beat is yet. That’s OK. You just need to define it. Try giving the student a dictionary definition, and their eyes will glaze over. So you’ll need to show them.

Have them clap out a rhythm with you. Start with four quarter notes. Don’t count the measure out like this:

(The numbers below the notes are beats not fingering.)

4 Quarter Notes and Their Beats

Do you see how this might be confusing? You just told them each note is 1 “beat”, but then you counted to 4. Instead try counting like this:

Counting Each Beat

Now the student is getting closer to understanding. But they’ll need another note duration to more fully understand. Show them a half note and say it gets 2 beats. Clap together a rhythm like the one below, while counting out loud. Don’t forget to make sure the child is counting too!

Quarter Notes and Half Note

The last step is to get them to actually play this rhythm on the piano. At this point, it doesn’t matter which note they play, have them play any note just make sure it’s the correct rhythm. Let the child pick the note they want to play. It will help them feel like they have some control over the lesson. After a couple of tries they should have a good idea how it works. Now you’re done with rhythm practice. The whole process shouldn’t have taken more than a few minutes.

Don’t worry if the child didn’t really get it yet. Teach it exactly the same the next week. Review everything. After 2 or 3 lessons, the child will normally understand what you’re teaching.

Use Correct Vocabulary

Make sure you avoid dumbing down musical vocabulary. Kids are smart. Even though “quarter note” or “forte” sound like big words, with constant repetition the child will understand. Avoid the temptation to call a quarter note a short note, and a half note a long note. If you do that, what do you call an eighth note and a whole note? What if the student goes to a new teacher? There’s no good argument for dumbing down musical vocabulary. Just teach everything, big words and all. They’ll get it.

Work on New Music

There should always be some new music that the student is working on. Usually the student’s brain is pretty fresh at the beginning, so the most difficult and attention taxing part of the lessons, working on new music, should be close to the beginning of the lesson. You may put a rhythm game, or something short and fun before working on new music though. Because don’t forget your first priority is to get the student to love the lessons, so their attention span will increase.

Work on Old Music

Once the student has some pieces under their belt, you should spend at least a few minutes every day playing through them. One reason this is helpful is because those old pieces weren’t really perfected. Sometimes teachers move on too fast to other music in an attempt to keep a student happy with the lessons. This is good and bad. The thought is well placed because it’s more important to keep the student taking lessons in the long run, but the problem is that the student never masters anything. This is one reason why working on old pieces is important. It gives the student a chance to really master each piece.

Playing through old music should happen right after working on the new piece. It will boost the student’s self-esteem.

Learn By Rote

A three year old has the motor control and dexterity to learn music much more difficult than we give them credit for. Learning to read music can actually hold a student back from what they are actually capable of.

There’s a reason why people learn to play piano from YouTube videos. It’s actually pretty easy. A lot of the time they are learning by rote. This means they are watching someone else play a piece and then copying it on their piano. The student isn’t learning how to read this way, but it is actually very helpful in it’s own right. Especially for young children.

Excitement to Learn

Learning by rote excites children. It can get frustrating to work weeks on one piece of music, only for it to be boring. Students that learn by rote can start playing hands together, accidentals, and faster passages much sooner than students who read exclusively. Not only is the music harder, but it’s memorized.

Have you ever seen a young child go to the piano and play some simple piece? Chopsticks perhaps? If they never had lessons before, they probably learned it by rote. It was fun, and they play it every chance they get.

It’s even more important for a three year old to get excited about it. So they should always be learning something by rote.

Focus on Technique

With all the concern for reading music, some teachers tend to sacrifice teaching students to play with correct technique. By technique, I mean sitting correctly with naturally curved fingers, and everything else that you would expect a good pianist to know about posture and hand position. If you’ve ever taught a student with bad hand position and piano technique you’ll find it really difficult to overcome. With my daughter it was interesting. She also didn’t play correctly when we started. I was able to focus in on these problems when I was teaching her the pieces by rote. Amazingly she fixed it right there. Somehow it was simple for her. She never developed any bad habits so it was a simple fix.

If I had not taught her to play by rote, I may have skipped over this because there was so much else to for her to concentrate on.

What Pieces to Use

Right now I’m experimenting with piano safari, and I really like it so far. I haven’t used it quite enough to write a comprehensive review of it, but I am definitely planning on it in the future, so look out for that. Piano Safari is a method book that combines learning by rote with the teaching of reading music.

Introduction to More Advanced Written Music

Did you know you can combine rote playing and reading music? While you’re teaching the student music by rote, make sure you have the written music on the piano. Refer back to it often as you teach the piece. They’ll start to see sharps and flats, the full grand staff, new rhythms, and much more. As they see these music constructs written and they attach what they see with what they are playing, they’ll understand these concepts better when they actually read them in their future lessons.

Improvise

One of the funnest things to do with students of any age is to improvise with them. Remember, keeping lessons fun is important. Typically I’ll give the student simple rules like they may only play three notes, like C, D, and E. After a while we’ll add the entire five finger pattern. I will play a simple chord progression under their improvised melody.

As the student progresses and feels more comfortable you can give more advice like, “When you play something that sounds good, play it again!” This introduces motives to their improvisation. Often students will play all notes sequentially when they improvise. Encourage the student to work with different intervals by saying, “sometimes you can skip notes!” Remember, in all that you do, realize that the first time you say something they may not get it. The more consistent your are, the more likely they are to understand and progress.

Don’t Give Up

Maybe you’ve tried to teach a 3 year old before, and it just didn’t work out. Maybe you weren’t taking quite the right approach, or maybe the parents weren’t. I’ll see often that students this age will start, but almost without fail after the first or maybe second lesson, the parent or teacher will just quit. They may say, “Let’s wait a few years.”

It’s sad really. It just comes from a place of misunderstanding on how lessons for students this young should work. If you work through it, the student will come out with a massive head start. Remember, learning music young is so much more valuable because of the increased learning capability at that young age. Don’t waste a couple years because you didn’t want to work on it.

Learning Notes with My Daughter

When I began teaching my daughter I tried to teach her the names of the notes, and where they are on the keyboard. She knows the alphabet, so I thought she could find all the notes if I showed her where “A” was on the piano. It took a couple of days of drilling to help her remember where A was on the piano, but she did eventually get it. Now, I thought, the rest would be easy. I told her just to sing the alphabet while moving from one note to the next.

At first I moved her hand for her as she sang the alphabet song. Each time she would play a note she would forget where in the song she was. The note she was playing was not the note she was singing. So instead we just hovered over the note without playing them. That seemed to work.

But now it was her turn to find the notes on her own without my help. She randomly started skipping notes while singing the song. What?! I was seriously confused how she didn’t get it. It didn’t make any sense. That’s what I learned though. Even though in my mind this was perfectly simple, for her it wasn’t making any sense.

The first day I drilled this for too long. She started getting frustrated, but there’s no way she was as frustrated as I was. She didn’t get it. I had to rethink how to teach this. Maybe we could just memorize all the notes like we did with A? But I wanted her to understand the relationship between notes as well.

The next day I didn’t have a good answer, so we tried doing it again. I explained it the same, and we drilled it like we did the day before. It still wasn’t clicking. We did it the next day and the next day. By day 5 she got it.

It was perfect. Something clicked. I asked her where C was and she would go to A, sing the alphabet song until she found C. She was great. Soon after she stopped singing the song out loud. Then soon after that she just found the notes without help of the song.

What would have happened if I gave up that first day? In my mind it seemed insane that she couldn’t get it. It was so simple! Maybe she was just too young?

With a little persistence she figured it out. Don’t give up.

Conclusion

I understand not all students are created equally. My daughter isn’t the only 3 year old I’ve ever taught. I get to experiment more often on her because I get to teach her every day, but these methods have worked on other students as well. Does this mean every 3 year old can learn to play piano? No, that’s not what I’m saying. All children are not the same, some may have developmental disabilities or other issues that make lessons too difficult.

What I am asking, though, is for teachers and parents alike to give children at this age a chance. Some of the best pianists in the world started when they were three, let’s try to give this opportunity to more children.

Have you taught a student as young as three before? Is your three year old taking lessons? Let us know how it’s going in the comments.