Are you ready to put your child in lessons?

The question over when to start your child in piano lessons really comes down to parent readiness, not child readiness.

So, how do you know if YOU are ready to put your child in piano lessons? Over the 70+ combined years of experience we have working with children, we’ve gathered 10 issues typically encountered by parents that brought their children here for lessons:

1) Are you ready to work with your child, at the piano, 5 days per week? Some people seem to think they can have their child practiced 3 days per week and the cumulative time put in will eventually pay off. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Learn to play the piano requires a MINIMUM of 5-days PER WEEK practice, but the actual time at the piano varies somewhere between 25 minutes and 40 minutes per day. At PKA, we consider parents full partners in the child’s piano education and parents must closely supervise their child’s homework assignments (practice sessions) as well as stay to observe the entire private piano lesson. Can you commit to this now?

The reason is, if you cannot arrange to practice with your child 5 days per week, your child will not make sufficient progress to sustain long-term interest in piano. Some parents say they don’t care how slowly their child goes, just that they remain in lessons. However, this doesn’t work either. Children who are chronically under-practiced experience something called ontological anxiety which is the psychologist term for bad feelings which arise due to underachievement. Eventually both the child and the parent attribute failure is due to lack of TALENT and conclude they are not ‘cut out’ for piano. Either this happens or the parent will decide the teacher is to blame. Either way, this outcome turns out so badly that we no longer work with families who routinely fail to meet practice requirements.

2) Are you willing to play a music CD for your child about 15-20 minutes per day? Again, we need you to make sure the daily listening gets done. All you have to do is put a CD in a CD player and let it play. Daily listening is at the core of our program. Your child will not be able to learn or make sufficient progress without it. Can you withstand hearing children’s pieces played routinely. Sometimes parents tell me that the child is tired of hearing the pieces when in fact, the parent is actually tired of it. They don’t see the utility of following our listening protocols. If you feel you cannot stand to hear this pieces, don’t have time to play them, etc., then your not ready.

3) Can you set aside two Saturdays per month for group classes that last 60 minutes each, if you know the dates and times several months in advance? This is the social experience that is absolutely critical for your child to want to stay in lessons. I cannot go into why children need social experiences in piano here, but I encourage you to understand it. Do you think your child would do sports if they were the only ones participating with their coach? Hardly! Children who do not attend group will ultimately fail in our program. That is why here at PKA, regular group class attendance is mandatory.

4) PKA is a comprehensive program that helps children learn through conceptual understanding of music fundamentals. Laying the proper “groundwork” takes time. Sometimes, this means all outward appearances, the child is moving more slowly in comparison to other programs out there. ome parents compare their lessons here to a friend or neighbor’s experience with their older children in lessons. If we were to “cut corners” and use what we call “kill-n-drill” techniques, your child will appear to be moving faster, but at great cost in learning and bypassing the true needs of the child. Eventually the child reaches a point at which they can go no further (ceiling effect). Can you continue to work with us if it appears your child is moving too slowly in comparison to other kids. In other words, can you trust us to make program curriculum choices to work within the needs of your child? Remember, are governed national standards in piano education and no consistent grading or level system exists; hence, there is no basis for comparison among programs. Also there are many variables at play which are beyond anyone’s control (e.g. brain developmental issues). Our expectation is that you work with us to make necessary changes as they are needed to support the needs of your child.

5) Can you commit in terms of purchasing a quality instrument for your child? We recommend use of digital pianos (not keyboards!), particularly those made by Yamaha (no we are not partners with them, but we use their products exclusively). Acceptable alternatives are full upright or mid-sized grand acoustic pianos, but you must have them tuned at least 3 times a year! Hardly anyone does this and we cannot convince most people why the expense of tuning is necessary. Some parents say, “I’m afraid to purchase an instrument right now because I don’t know whether my child will do well at piano.” This is a point of view problem with indecision coming from the anticipatory feeling that things are likely going to fail or self-fulfilling prophecy. If you feel this way, you should be asking yourself, “why do I think my child is destined to fail? Why am I not thinking my child is destined to succeed?” Success in piano ultimately rests upon having the right start. Having an inferior instrument will greatly undermine your child and curtail success in piano. Every now and then we get asked, “do I need a piano to take piano lessons?” Most people know the answer to that one! The bottom line is that if you cannot afford purchasing a quality instrument right now, it is best to wait.

7) Can you understand, on some level, that preschool children are not capable of playing Classical Piano unless they are forced to practice in developmentally unhealthy ways? Being in psychology and performing arts we are well aware of the abuses conferred on little children. We believe the current trend of child exploitation in the arts; adults putting children into situation of having to practice for many hours per day to make a early career on the concert stage. In music, this is commonly justified by the child having a ‘career’ from it, but this rarely happens. Many of these “prodigy” children grow to resent having lost their childhood by having this decision for career thrust upon them and elect to stop performing altogether. Here at PKA, the children play children’s pieces designed to meet their current needs and realistic expectations.

8) Are you ready for the times that your child will say he or she hates piano? You have to know that any child will say they hate anything if they don’t want to do it right then. Piano won’t be different than other things your child does. Your child complains. Kids complain. Adults complain. The key is to know whether the child truly dislikes what they are complaining about, or just complaining. We work tirelessly with you to make sure your child is not complaining because he has taken a dislike to all piano playing. However, you need to be ready for these times. All kids do it at one time or another.

9) Can you accept that there are no levels (grade levels, standardized testing, etc.) in music instruction?  Standardized grade levels like you see in the school system simply do not exist in music. The public school system has constructed standardized grade levels to make education criteria similar across the entire country. It emerged from hundreds of thousands of hours conducted in both applied and basic research. Developers spend 3 to 5 years making sure the test assesses what it is supposed to assess (test validity), and does so every time (test reliability). Moreover, data is collected from all age groups in every region of the country. Thus, the assessment conducted by the school system tells you something valid about your child: in comparison to other children, for example, that your child is in the 88th percentile for reading. However, none of this is true for the field of music teaching. A child scoring highly on an evaluation has no meaning (no validity) and no consistency over time (no reliability). So any attempt at comparison between children in different music programs is like comparing apples and oranges. Despite all this, you will often hear things like “my child is in level 7, what level is your child at?” and parents will ask us this question now and then. People assume direct correlation between level and playing ability when in fact no correlation exists. Furthermore, we see no correlation between playing level and technique and those at high playing level often have poor technique. Finally, we see those at high playing level who have little understanding the music itself (theory is the “grammar” of music). So the level itself cannot and should not be used as a criterion since it does not reflect true playing ability, proper technique habits, and knowledge of music.

10) Are you OK with your child not being taught to “memorize notes?” Most music instruction is about rote memorization of music notes. The entire instructional set is built on learning better note reading skills, with each child having a book to for learning pieces, a theory book and some use a note speller. The idea is that the child will learn to turn their notes into music via the instruction they receive + their own curiosity. Most DO NOT. We are keenly aware of the instructional practice ‘out there,’ and we know that this process turns more people off to music instruction more quickly than any one thing. Note reading is boring, a-musical, and often produces children who, after years of study, won’t go near a piano in adulthood. If you come here and teach your child at home by rote, it will result in the same thing. If you do not trust our ability to teach your child to read AND play by ear, then you will have trouble here. Some parents do sign up for lessons here and immediately want their child to start note reading; others want to show their child the notes rather than give the child the time he or she needs to be taught to pick them out with the help of their teacher. These parents put themselves on an arbitrary time clock that is far too short and their child easily falls short of time limit for advancement. Remember, at PKA, piano is taught conceptually, not by rote, for good reason: success in lessons depends upon conceptual understanding that doesn’t come from rote learning.

About Mark Zinn

Mark received his Artist Diploma and Master of Music degree in piano performance at Northern Illinois University, studying with Donald Walker. Mark also worked with Daniel Pollack in pursuit of his Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance at the University of Southern California. In addition to his studies in piano, Mark went on to pursue coursework in psychology and he underwent Doctoral level training and research at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Mark's research interests include using Low Resolution Brain Electromagnetic Tomography (LORETA) to investigate cognitive function in tasks involved in music making and skilled movement. Mark is also currently part of a research team at Stanford University Medical Center, which focuses on cognitive functional impairment as a result of chronic infectious diseases. Today, Mark owns and operates the Attainment Center for Neuroeducation, which uses applied neuroscience in specialized programs for the enhancement of learning and cognition in young children.


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