The truth about piano lessons: Opinion

I taught beginner piano lessons for several years. Sometimes parents would attend their child's lesson, and I would see their distressed faces, the thought bubbles above their heads asking...

What is even happening in this lesson? It just sounds like banging! It's moving so slowly... Why aren't they playing real songs yet? Why are they squirming so much? Is this normal?

The "results" of beginner piano lessons may not always be obvious, but trust me, your child is getting so much more from their piano lessons than you can see (or hear!).

Learning to play an instrument, from a brain science perspective, is extraordinarily difficult. Why? Because the ENTIRE experience is inherently a struggle.

What we're really asking

We ask young children in beginner piano lessons to do all of the below:

  • Read music from left to right (for kids who are still learning to read books, this isn't intuitive).
  • Know the difference between their left and right hand (which takes major effort in the beginning).
  • Grasp that the symbol on the page represents a key on the piano (this is a complex and sophisticated concept).
  • Remember that "high" and "low" and "up" and "down" on the piano are represented horizontally (not vertically!).
  • Learn the "piano alphabet" so fluently that they can start on keys that aren't A, and travel backward down the piano.
  • Not only play the right notes but use the right fingers to do so (as each finger has an assigned number).
  • Are notes played "quiet," "medium-quiet" or "loud?"
  • Is it quarter notes, half notes, or whole notes?
  • Is there a repeat sign?

And we ask them to do all of this AT THE SAME TIME!

sruilk/Shutterstock

Building a foundation

Then we ask them to sit there with a straight back, legs not yet touching the floor, hands resting gently on the keys and spaced out (despite not having the strength to comfortably do this) and maintain focus long enough to play a whole song.

And that's just in the first year! No wonder so many kids quit piano lessons or decide they aren't good at it.

We know that playing an instrument is like putting mega-vitamins into a child's brain but the teacher's understanding of child development has a profound impact on the vitamins' potency.

From my perspective, the early years should be less about drills and 'progress' than about helping the child feel safe to struggle.

Many of us experienced childhood trauma with teachers who made us feel stupid and inadequate. Perhaps you still shudder when you think back to a recital, or maybe you decided early on that you just weren't musical. We typically decide in childhood how musically talented we think we are or are not, and these attitudes tend to stick for life.

For this reason, the relationship between the teacher and the student in beginner lessons is EVERYTHING. The child must feel safe, supported and encouraged. Bottom line. Period. This isn't about false praise. It's about helping kids truly understand why they should be proud of themselves.

From my perspective, the early years should be less about drills and "progress" than about helping the child feel safe to struggle. This is the foundation that everything else is built on. It's what makes the difference between a child thinking, "I suck" versus "It's OK that it's hard."

Pranav Kukreja/Shutterstock

The big lessons

So, beyond music foundations, what else can a child learn from piano lessons?

1. Frustration tolerance

Frustration and vulnerability are feelings that come with learning any challenging, new skill (which, by the way, are two feelings most adults avoid like the plague!). For a six-year-old to take this on is VERY impressive, but we easily lose sight of this because our focus is on the outcome rather than the process.

If a child can learn to tolerate feeling frustrated and exposed when learning something new, and simultaneously observe themselves gradually improving as a result of sticking with it, they will naturally transfer this experience to any other challenging skill they want to master throughout their life.

In a one-on-one lesson, teachers can coach students through this process, increasing their understanding of what is happening in their brains, and why feeling uncomfortable when they learn is a good thing.

2. Effort + time = growth

The top request I would get from kids is that they wanted "to turn the page." They wanted to move on to the next song because they wanted something novel and exciting, but their books are created sequentially, with every song slightly more challenging than the one before it.

Submitted by Kailea Switzer

This means teachers need to help students stick with it until they achieve mastery and can experience the shift from "struggle" to "genuine enjoyment of playing."

Piano lessons help kids know, on an experiential level, what slow but measurable progress feels like.

Teachers can help kids process what they are feeling, and make meaning of their challenges. They can increase the student's awareness of their "struggle process" (because how they approach piano lessons is likely how they approach all challenges in their life).

If a child can observe themselves working hard to master something that initially was extremely difficult and feel an intrinsic sense of pride as a result, they will learn why stretching and continually challenging themselves is worth it.

Patience is key

The magic thing is that developing these two skills inevitably leads to desired "piano playing" outcomes, but patience is key. Trust that what is happening for your child internally is more valuable than the "results" you may see in the early years (assuming, of course, your child is in the hands of a skilled teacher).

Thankfully, there are many excellent piano teachers out there (I feel so grateful to the ones I had growing up), but the most powerful influence on my willingness to stick with the piano was the example my dad set. I watched him practise his guitar almost every day, working to learn new songs and eventually figuring them out.

As the new school year begins and your ears cringe a little listening to your kids bang away on the piano, remember all that is happening in their brains, and that it truly is really hard.

It taught me that effort is normal and necessary if you want to achieve hard things. I believe this is one of the most powerful things parents can do — model your willingness to learn a new skill (something that is difficult for you and requires practice, perseverance, vulnerability, and frustration tolerance), and it will teach your kids that it's OK to be a learner and to not always know.

As the new school year begins and your ears cringe a little listening to your kids bang away on the piano, remember all that is happening in their brains, and that it truly is really hard. Let them know it's OK that it's challenging, that you see the effort they are putting in, and that you think they should be really proud of themselves.

And as my grandmother would say, "Remember that the only place where success comes ahead of work is in the dictionary!"

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

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