When is the Right Age to Start Piano?

When is the Right Age to Start Learning Piano?

These days there is a big emphasis on being a genius.

A young genius.

Everything is much more amazing when young kids do it.

A five year old playing piano at Carnegie Hall? (Which, since he’s from Vancouver, lots of people are talking about him here.)

A little girl singing with Niki Minaj?

Before we all get jealous:

It could be a dream or a nightmare.

Their careers have pretty much been decided for them, for better or worse.

Let’s look at deciding on the right age to start piano.

What’s bad about starting young?

When you look at the five year old boy and his dancing fingers, you’ll know he’s put in a fair bit of practice for Carnegie Hall.

Six hours a day? Twelve? If he’s been playing for two years and he puts in ten hours a day, that’s about a fourth of his life in piano.

At age 5, that’s a huge chunk. He doesn’t have the experience in life to be able to play certain pieces properly.

To get that experience, you just have to go out and live. Knowing the right places to pause and slow down in music isn’t enough– it feels empty, like you’re mimicking something that isn’t there.

The kid doesn’t even know how to get nervous (which is kind of cute).

It’s a trade-off. You are always going to be missing out on other things when you do something.

When young kids spend hours at the piano, they are missing out on other types of growing. Like how to talk to people and make friends.

I wouldn’t be surprised if young “prodigies” grow up to be insociable recluses. When all the other kids are getting the facts of life, like how to talk to people and how to make friends and be socially acceptable, the “prodigies” are doing whatever they’re doing by themselves, in the practice room.

When you are that age, you are constantly forming and reforming things in your head. You are thinking, “Is it okay to do this?” “What will happen when I do this?”

You have to decide if it’s a good trade-off: hours of disciplined music, or discovering the world?

Starting young– how young is too young?

You might know that I am good in business and I can figure out people’s problems quickly.

One violin teacher had great credentials and she wanted to improve her business. Her income improved by 97% when she figured out one thing: her clients, the parents, wanted their kids to get into Harvard, with their music lessons. That’s it.

She restructured her marketing so it appealed to mothers who wanted their kids to get into Harvard. Business went up.

That teacher taught elementary school aged kids– whose parents have already decided on Harvard for them.

I am saying this because everyone has different goals and it is important to know what your goals are and what your students’ goals are. You will approach their teaching differently.

There isn’t a “wrong” age to teach, but look at which age group you are most comfortable teaching.

I know a studio that offers piano group classes for kids aged 2 – 3. (Are they even potty trained?) Nevertheless, it caters to a specific group of parents.

When I think of 2 year olds, I think of babies. My teaching style is “serious” as in, if you’re learning piano then you might as well do it properly. In fact, I will make sure that you are doing it as well as you can if you are with me.

I make sure my students have proper technique and it’s important to have fun. I am good at solving people’s problems and helping them play smarter. Like, one student said she learned more with me, in one session, than in the past two years.

So I couldn’t teach 2 year olds because I would be drained. We’d do the same things over and over again (which they need anyways), but I’d have to invent ten different ways of doing the same things to keep it interesting.

I’d be obsessed with making it fun and I’d be asking “Is this fun?” every five seconds because I want them to like piano intrinsically. Then I’d get stressed out because I’m not having fun doing everything ten times and designing new ways to do it.

I can already imagine my voice getting tired; with anyone younger than preschool age, there’s a natural tendency to talk in a higher voice. And they don’t understand if you talk too quickly, so you have to talk slowly and repeat everything. It would drain me. (I did try it when I started teaching.)

Finding the right age

Parents have high hopes for their kids, but forcing people to do things for hours just doesn’t work.

It is okay to start piano young. Just don’t expect hours of practice everyday.

Although I am not a parent, one of my mentors says that “parents just want to know that their kids are okay.” I think it is true.

Kids will be okay if you let them grow.

Sitting their butts down for hours on the bench will not make them into balanced people.

It does not have to be a complete trade-off. Young kids can still start music, just don’t force them to sit down for hours and hours. Play is valuable; don’t give them work so soon.

Let them experiment; like, if you give them a pot, will they start banging on it? There’s no harm in trying.

The world is still new and there’s lots to see.

Now I want to hear from you:

When did you start piano? Is it worth it to try to cultivate “child prodigies”?

Leave a comment below to join the conversation.

And as always, if you know someone who will find this useful, go ahead and send it to them.

10 Comments

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  • John July 5, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    I enjoyed reading your article and I agree with most of your points..although having been around many professionals in the field and teachers who enable those prodigies, there are arguments on both sides.

    For one, I do think that although a young child can play a Chopin waltz so well to make the rest of us older people jealous when we can’t get the first measure, there can only be just the notes but no music. Sometimes fast fingers and a kid whose feet can’t touch the floor is all that it takes for an audience to be memorized. And yet, there are probably a few musicians that can sense that it’s not a complete work, with certain nuances not there. Basically, as amazing as the young ones are, they still need time to grow, musically (and physically.. literally!).

    I think it is sometimes ok to cultivate prodigies, but I don’t think parading them around is the best. Unless they fully understand why they are doing it ( and don’t have stage moms or dads living off their child) then it’s totally fine. Prodigies must be aware that their careers could end in a flash if they aren’t careful and don’t burn out if they start performing and touring too early. And I just saw a youTube video documenting a British concert pianist wanna-be kid, who, while being able to play with orchestras, shows him practicing away, alone, while all other kids his age are outside playing on the playground. Is that what he really wants!? That wouldn’t be the best scenario, as he has his whole life to progress and only has one childhood…

    (with all due respect)Another glaring example I joke with my vocalist friends is Jackie Evancho. Yes, she was on TV on Americas got Talent and just on the Jully 4th PBS special..but just for her to be so little and try to sound like an adult. We all wonder what will happen when she reaches puberty and her voice changes! But apparently she is selling CDs and it’s working for her. The novelty can wear off, and not to be mean, but I don’t think it’s natural to do something like that..it almost is scary (and some people even wondered if that was really the voice coming out of that small body!)

    Another thing is practicing. I tell my students and parents that ask the annoying question “how many hours should my child practice (to get good, on average, etc)..and I respond with, “Its not how long you practice, but HOW you practice”. So, they can accomplish a lot more in 15 minutes with set goals and doing what they wanted to do, than spend 3 hours doing who knows what. Also, practicing is not going through things over and over with bad habits, but practicing is working on what you don’t know, and finding ways to fix it and repeat the correct habits.

    Anyway, I started formal lessons at 8,but before that my older sister let me play duets with her and showed me where to put my hands. Some have told me that my age was too late for me to have a concert career. (maybe 4,5 or 6??) I choose not to listen to them, as great artists like Horowitz kept performing as a concert pianist in his late elderly years, so does it really matter when he started? So the naysayers can keep their negative views and it’s never too late (as I tell my adult students)…but as to my earlier point, the kids have to understand what they are doing to communicate it effectively.

    I know these are my opinions; I am just responding to the article and not everyone has to agree…Thanks, Grace!

    • Grace Miles July 9, 2013 at 7:42 pm

      Most young kids only manage to get the technique. Because people connect with genuine emotion, we’re instantly dazzled when young kids get both technique and musicality.

      Most young kids don’t know what it means to be intensely happy… or sad… because they don’t have anything to compare it to. They haven’t experienced the full spectrum of human emotion yet, much less inject it into their art.

      Usually, only adults can summon these things on a whim, which is why it feels like such an “adult” thing when it does happen, like when Jackie Evancho sings.

      It is important to be happy. Young kids like playing with their friends. And it’s important to do so because that’s how people get social skills. Maybe practicing music makes them happy too. But they have to decide that for themselves (i.e. no rigorous training at a young age).

      Moving on and branching off to other great things isn’t a bad thing. Maybe when Jackie Evancho grows up, her voice will be gravelly and she can be a jazz singer. The point is, you’re not losing something when you move on; you’re gaining new things and opening yourself up.

      And if people get a musical foundation from piano at a young age, but move on to play other instruments later on (because of their experience in piano), that isn’t a bad thing. It’s something that happens, perhaps because they weren’t quite ready for the piano training and has been left with not-so-favourable opinions about piano. (You and Marla both mention moving on in your comments.)

      John, thanks for sharing your opinions. You’re right, it’s never too late. And you’ll never know what you could’ve made unless you decide to start!

  • Marla July 5, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    I teach in a music store and have no control over who or what age my students are. Frequently, I will get a 5 or 6 year old student, whose parent says, “______ loves to mess around with the keyboard/piano!” which makes me very skeptical of how long or how much that child has learned. Only twice in my 30 years of teaching has a child that age continued with music lessons and most of the time they quit piano and take up another instrument instead. I have discovered that children who have finished 3rd grade or are almost 9 years old are the perfect age to begin piano. They sit still better, they pay attention better, and they comprehend better than a younger child. To me, unless your child is like that 5 year old Carnegie Hall prodigy, parents should wait and see if their child really wants to learn piano or just play piano!

    • Grace Miles July 9, 2013 at 6:01 pm

      Marla, it’s interesting how you bring that up because pop culture assumes that the younger the better especially when it comes to the arts. While it’s good to be exposed to music and piano at a very young age, starting formal piano education at that age is mostly the parents’ dreams, not the kids’, and most kids (plus their parents) find it more disciplined than they are ready for.

      Most of the time, it’s good to ‘test the temperature’ and start by bringing home the instrument. Who knows? The kid can turn out to be a prodigy and start playing away, or show an interest (in which case it’ll be good to look into lessons), or plainly dislike it.

  • Monique September 23, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    I started playing piano and reading music about the same time I started reading words so I don’t remember actually ‘learning to read music’ I must have been about 5 I continued with lessons until 17 yrs old and completed my TEE music in highschool along with flute lessons and singing lessons. I have heard people say to me that they wish they had learned piano so they start their children at ages of 4 or 5 just because the parents didnt learn regardless of whether the child is musical or interested. 1 of my children is particularly musical at this stage but he’s only 4 so is no where near being mature enough now to start formal lessons but there’s no reason you can’t play around with rhythm etc at home.

  • Ollie April 22, 2014 at 11:25 am

    I started to “play” the piano when I was in my late thirties! I know I will never make it to Carnegie Hall but my journey in Music is to reclaim a lost part of my childhood and simply to experience the en-joy-ment music every day!

    • Grace Miles April 22, 2014 at 7:33 pm

      Everyone has different goals and motivations but all of them are 100% valid. Thanks for sharing!

  • Lisa July 23, 2015 at 11:21 pm

    I have a 3 year old gran-daughter who just picked up a toy piano and was very interested! I had 4 years of torturous piano lessons as a young adult, and don’t want to force her to learn. She is a very bright child, and I’m sure with the right approach, she could do well! The thing that AMAZED ME THE MOST was that she seemed to naturally hold her hands in the right position, and she used all of her fingers, on both hands, (not the same fingers) and continued to try to play! She also made up lyrics as she went! Is her ability, at barely 3, unusual…or am I just a…too proud Grandma? Thanks for your site!!!

    • Grace Lam July 24, 2015 at 12:44 pm

      It’s not unusual for kids to use all their fingers to play the keys; sometimes they’ve seen a pianist in action or they’re holding their hands in a way that just feels most natural (the same way people wrap their hand around a doorknob and twist–it has the affordance). It sounds like she has a musical inclination, though, so it would be worth pursuing with a good piano teacher.

      Have you looked into group music classes with kids her age, where the parent could be present? The goal would be to get familiar with the musical tones, so that she’d have a musical ear when she’s older. You could also try toddler piano lessons, but don’t get carried away with expectation for practice.

  • Shasha February 14, 2016 at 10:32 pm

    i took piano lessons when i was that age.and i dont know if this will help beecasui dont remember the name of the book,but it was pink (different colors for each level)and it was longer in width than height andit has a piano on the cover. sorry, that probablydidnt help. /: