Learn To Play

Who plays the piano?

Of course professional pianists first come to mind, or children taking lessons. The proven benefits of playing the piano are widely recognized by a large portion of the population, especially when it comes to children. More pianos are still purchased each year by parents whose children are taking lessons than for any other reason.

But the fastest growing group of aspiring pianists in the U.S. today is not children, but adults aged 25-75+ years. Many adults have taken piano lessons in their childhood years. Some felt that they were pushed too hard, or had too many other interests and discontinued their lessons. Piano methods were sometimes uninteresting and teachers too strict for many children decades ago.

Nonetheless, one of the most common phrases heard by piano retailers and teachers across the country is, “I wish my mother hadn’t let me quit.” But large numbers of adults have realized that it’s not too late, and piano instruction has concentrated on adult learning far more than ever before during the past two decades.

Piano instructional techniques and method books for both children and adults have taken a giant leap. Long tedious exercises have given way to music that beginners play and enjoy almost from the start! Beginning adults need not play children’s music any longer to get started.

Also, there has been a trend toward group instruction for beginning students of all ages. A group environment creates a positive and motivating social atmosphere. Students share the joys and challenges of learning with people who are at the same level as themselves.

Taking the first step

The physical, mental and spiritual benefits of playing the piano are beyond measure. What few people realize, however, is just how easy it can be to take the first step.

There is hardly any age that’s wrong for taking up the piano. Six or seven is the average age at which kids start, and some begin even earlier. But it’s never too late, either—adults are taking lessons in record numbers, and one eager piano student, Mr. Stillman Munger of Massachusetts, still attends his regular lessons at age 100.

If a child does have the interest and the opportunity to begin learning the piano, it’s obviously for the best. Developing minds can pick up new skills and patterns quickly, and the younger the pianist, the more years of enjoyment lie ahead.

In the 300 years since the piano made its debut, a variety of teaching methods have been established. Some are more formal than others, and each has its devoted practitioners. Finding one that suits you best is less important than simply getting involved. Just remember that neither you nor your child is ever locked into your first choice.

Explore the sections below to learn more about how people in various stages of life can get started on the piano.

You may also wish to visit The Music Teachers National Association for tips on finding the right music teacher, or a directory of music teachers nationwide.

Preschool Children

Even before young children are capable of tackling Mozart, they can derive a lot of fun and enrichment from the piano. The important thing is to introduce them to the instrument in a way that is suited to their level-one built around enjoyment and exploration. An approach to the piano that takes the fun out of it may halt a lifetime of music before it can get started.

No two children are alike. Pay attention to your child’s interest in music, attention span and eagerness to learn for indications of when the time is right. You can look for signs your child tends to sing a lot, or, if you have a piano, if he or she tries to play melodies by ear. Your child might gravitate toward people playing music, or focus on music on radio or TV. But in some cases, you can’t really tell until you give them the opportunity to try it. Just remember, you are not trying to create a concert artist in a little tux or formal dress. You’re giving a kid a new way to have fun.

And remember not to imprint your own ambitions, past or present, on a child who has his or her own story still to write. As a parent, you get to make the decisions for your preschool child—but those decisions should be based on the child’s needs, not yours.

When choosing a piano teacher for a young child, you should be as discerning as with any other important purchase. Interview candidates, and ask to observe their lessons. Ask to see the lesson plan for the first few months; even if you’re not a musician, you’ll be able to tell if it contains clear progress goals. Some kids may prefer individual instruction, while others may get more out of group lessons, so investigate both options. Find out what professional organizations the teacher is affiliated with. Finally, evaluate the teacher’s personality, and how well you think he or she will get along with your child. The rapport between student and teacher is an intangible factor, but it’s a vital one.

School-Age Children

Once a child starts school, there are more opportunities to get involved in piano playing—and a greater variety of other activities that compete for his or her time. Children at this age become involved in sports and other passions; they also start building more complex social lives.

For a kid who wants to continue on the piano after starting as a preschooler, or a kid who is interested in getting started, it’s important to find a balanced role for piano among his or her other pursuits.

These years in a child’s life offer two advantages when it comes to learning the piano. First, a child is better able to understand complex instructions and to associate goals with hard work than earlier in life. Once a child is exposed to a school environment, taking lessons on the piano doesn’t seem as “big a deal” compared to learning math or science. Secondly, being in a school give a child a greater chance—though these days, it isn’t a certainty—of having access to the instruments themselves. It’s wise to take advantage of these opportunities, especially if you don’t have a piano at home.

When a child moves from preschool to school age, there is also an increase in expectations—a sense that “play time is over” and it’s important to do things on time, get good grades and achieve goals. This is another area in which you as a parent should strive for balance. Do expect progress, but make the goals realistic.

Just as with private instructors, it’s important to evaluate the quality of the piano education to which you’re entrusting your school-age child—more so, perhaps, since public schools don’t have the private teacher’s market incentive to excel. You don’t have to be a musician yourself to do this. Ask whether the people teaching your child are certified, not only as teachers, but as music teachers. Ask whether the school’s music program adheres to a recognized state or national standard. Ask about class sizes, and the amount of one-on-one instruction your child can expect to receive.

That’s assuming, of course, that there is a piano program; if there isn’t one during the regular class day, your local school may offer after-school opportunities, such as with the NPF’s After-School Group Piano Program.

For children who show a love of the instrument, school age is likely to be the setting for the first performances in front of other people. This is a marvelous and rewarding experience, but it’s also attended by some anxiety, and can have as much to do with personal confidence as it does with musical talent. Give your child all the support you can, and keep good lines of communication with his or her teacher so you can be sensitive to what’s going on.

If your child does not show interest in the piano, now is still a good time to try. Your child is becoming more independent as he or she progresses through the grade levels, but you’re still the parent—and just like with new foods, it’s not inappropriate for you to insist that he or she give something a try before giving up on it. You and your child may both be pleasantly surprised!

Whether the piano is your idea or your child’s, however, remember to keep it in perspective. A child who’s forced to play the piano, or one whose lessons are scheduled without regard to social life and other activities, is likely to resent music. And as always, make sure the decisions surrounding your child’s piano playing have to do with his or her dreams, not yours.

Adults

Go ahead, say it out loud: It’s never too late to start.

That’s probably a great philosophy for life in general, but it applies especially well to the piano. Adults have the perspective to appreciate the beauty and benefits of this new pursuit, and the mental acuity to approach it in a structured way. About the only thing standing in most adults’ way is inertia—and there’s only one cure for that.

The teachers you can locate through MTNA aren’t just there for your kids. As BusinessWeek magazine reported recently, more and more adults are taking beginning piano lessons, and there’s likely a teacher in your area who welcomes grown-up pupils.

Whether you’re a professional—like the veterinarian who started lessons at age 44—or someone like 100-year-old Stillman Munger, identified by Falcetti Music in Springfield, MA and the Lowrey Organ Company as the nation’s oldest piano student—you’ll find that playing the piano not only adds beauty to your life, but subtracts stress.

Getting started can be as easy as checking the local yellow pages, or asking your child’s school music teacher. The search engine on the MTNA website is a great resource.

What’s more, the National Piano Foundation offers a series of videos for adult piano students. “The Possible Dream” parts I, II and III address the questions and needs of teacher and student alike with regard to adult instruction. Contact NPF for more information on obtaining these resources.