"DO YOU think my child is old enough for piano lessons, professor?"
How often music teachers have been called upon to answer that question. But how often, unfortunately, a mother, or a father, has been told: "Bring him back when he is six years old, and then he’ll be ready."
What the teacher really means is that he himself will then be ready, for the idea of taking on a much younger child as a student, say, at two years of age, would cause many a teacher (of piano, violin or whatever) to shrink back in horror. But the truth is that research combines with evidence to show that the best time to introduce music to a child is during the opening years of his life. A noted authority on child education says the following in his interesting book Kindergarten Is Too Late!:
"At last, however, the study of cerebral physiology on the one hand and infant psychology on the other has made it possible to show that the key to the development of intelligence is in the child’s experience of the first three years-that is, during the period of development of the brain cells. No child is thus born a genius, and none is born a fool. All depends on the stimulation of the brain cells during the crucial years."
"But surely a child that young cannot understand anything about music," objects the parent whose negative attitude is evoked by the smallness of her baby. To such parents the question might be put: "When does a child start to learn his native language? At five or six?" Perish the thought! From the moment of entry into the world, a child begins to hear speech sounds, and marvelous things begin to happen in his brain: cells begin to unite, circuits are formed; and most babies begin to do something before they are two years old that continues to cause amazement-they speak their native language.
If you are an adult reader, what do you think is easier, to learn to play a few simple pieces on the piano or to speak a foreign language fluently? To be sure, the latter is much more difficult, as can be attested to by the countless persons who have attempted a second language-not just the pronunciation of a few words but speaking with some degree of fluency. By age three most children do it with ease. True, their vocabulary may be limited, but they’re still fluent. If language can be conquered, why not music?
That little children between the ages of two and four can do remarkably well in music has been demonstrated innumerable times by the students of world-renowned violin instructor and scholar Dr. Suzuki. Little children are taken to his classes when they are two years old, and by age four leave audiences with open mouths as the children perform beautifully the works of Bach and Vivaldi.
How to Begin
The musical instruction of the infant student begins not so much with teaching him something in particular as with exposing him to music, especially to that which is tuneful. If the mother decides that she will provide such music for her infant son or daughter by singing daily to him, she ought to make sure that her pitch and intonation are good, for just as the baby will imitate that which is good, he will also imitate that which is bad. Even if the mother is musical, it may not always be convenient to play the piano or sing for the child, owing to many other chores that need her attention around the home.
What can be done? Provide recorded music for the baby, perhaps making use of a cassette-tape player. While positive results may not be forthcoming right away, the infant student will absorb and come to appreciate even music of considerable complexity. In the book quoted above, Kindergarten Is Too Late!, the author relates the following experience:
"This couple, themselves lovers of classical music, had their baby listen soon after birth to Bach’s Suite No. 2 for a few hours every day. In three months, the baby started to move his body in a lively fashion according to the rhythm. As the rhythm quickened toward the climax, the baby’s movements became rapid and more active, and when the music came to an end, he showed his displeasure. Often, when the baby was feeling cross or crying, his parents would put this music on and he would be soothed immediately."
So a parent should not be hasty in deciding what a baby can or cannot absorb and appreciate. His capacity for getting a grasp of things highly complex, such as language, is tremendous.
More Formal Training
Assuming the child is now about two years old, and is ready for more formal education in music, is it necessary to take him to a qualified music teacher or have one come to the house? It would seem to depend very much on the instrument chosen for study. Violin is an excellent instrument to introduce to little ones, but owing to the nature of that instrument, the way in which music is produced from it, the use of the bow, the positioning of the instrument under the chin, and so forth, it would be better to have a trained violin instructor right from the beginning.
Piano is, by comparison, much simpler. To sound any note, one simply presses a key down, and the tone heard, assuming that the piano has been properly tuned in advance, will always be correct, thus not endangering the "ear" of the student. Much more effort is required to do the same thing on violin, and unless a qualified teacher is on hand to correct notes that are being played slightly sharp or flat, considerable damage can be done to the child’s sense of pitch.
Incidentally, it is during these early years that a child can achieve "absolute pitch." The Harvard Dictionary of Music in its discussion of this expression points out that it is "the capacity of a person to identify a musical sound immediately by name, without reference to a previously sounded note of different pitch." This ability, though not indispensable, can be of service to a musician later in life.
If the mother, then, takes the time to receive a few piano lessons in order to get well established in her mind the sequence of notes from "do" to "do" (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si [or ti], do), as well as a few pointers on the proper position of the hands when playing, there is no reason why she cannot impart lovingly some formal instruction to her child at this initial stage. So, let’s go over to the piano where mother is seated with baby on her lap.
You notice there is no music, and there shall not be any for some time. Did you learn to speak by having your mother sit down with you and go over the parts of speech and sentence structure? Hardly. You learned by imitation, and this is how the baby will learn to play the piano. Mother plays little groups of notes slowly, singing the syllables simultaneously (only if she intones properly): do-re-mi, do-mi-sol, do-do-fa, do-fa-mi, and so forth. She allows the baby to imitate as best he can. He bangs on the keyboard with his fists. Mother continues patiently, and pretty soon the 10 minutes allotted for this session have passed.
But while the mother may be finished, baby may be trying to walk on the keyboard! Don’t despair. There will doubtless be other surprises of a positive nature in subsequent days. Remember, the training must continue without letup.
Keep Interest Stimulated
Of absolute importance in the beginning is to keep a little one’s interest and attention stimulated. Babies seem to develop faster and speak sooner when there are other children around, talking a lot and playing. So it is with music. If it happens that there are other children in the family who play the piano, the baby should be allowed to sit in on the older child’s lesson (teacher permitting) so long as he is not disrupting the class. At first he may show no interest, but in time his attention may be gained considerably. Of course, where various members in a family are musical, some type of ensemble (playing music as a group) may be possible, with some singing, others playing instruments, and so forth.
You may notice that the baby-perhaps not at first-will try to copy the others, opening his mouth in an attempt to sing. This tendency should be encouraged, for such early participation in an ensemble helps a child to get a strong sense of rhythm and an understanding of how to blend musically with others.
What About Older Children?
Certainly the fact that a child is beyond three years of age doesn’t mean that it is too late to train him in music, or any other subject. Many fine musicians did not receive any musical training until quite late in their childhood. Indeed, the late Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian began to study music when he was 19 years old.
What must be kept in mind with older children is the need of simplicity and the creation of a fun atmosphere during the class. Many overanxious teachers are desperate from the first class to show little ones what notes are on lines (of the musical staff) and those in spaces. This method is generally disastrous. It is too academic and doesn’t get down to the business of playing music right away; and this is what the child student wants.
An experience had by a piano teacher some years ago seems to bear this out: The teacher had spent the better part of a 45-minute class (too long for most children of tender years) trying to impress on the child’s mind and memory that the note "B" is located on the third line of the treble-clef staff, but to no avail. Finally, with patience and long-suffering on the verge of disappearance, he led his student into the kitchen and pointed out a box of cookies on the third shelf of a wall cupboard. They then returned to the piano to review other notes, lines and spaces. The six-year-old remembered nothing. Suddenly the teacher asked: "Where is the box of cookies in the cupboard?" Without hesitation, the little fellow replied: "On the third shelf." Now the teacher had his interest at last!
Most children don’t want to get bogged down in details. They want to speak as Mommy speaks, play the piano or sing as Mommy sings, or do it the way big brother or sister does it. And they will remember only that which interests them!
So music classes must be made of the stuff that captures the attention and holds it. Love, not aggressiveness, must be displayed by the teacher. Little songs that employ two or three different notes and some type of catchy rhythm are what children seem to enjoy most. And a spirit of "follow the leader" should permeate the class session. Find out what the child likes to play, and work along those lines. Be imaginative, because children certainly are. To establish a set method for children is not realistic; it doesn’t take into consideration that they vary greatly as to temperament and taste.
The teacher, whether the parent or someone else, must get to know the personality of a young student. When he plays the piano, does he show greater interest in rhythm than in a melody line? Does he attempt to play several notes simultaneously, thereby manifesting an interest in harmony? The teacher must discern such inclinations if he is to succeed with very young children.
A Word of Caution
Although it is commendable that a parent wants to be involved as much as possible in the early education of her child a mother (or a father) must recognize her limitations when it comes to such matters as musical instruction. While it is not difficult to play those little groups of notes mentioned earlier or to demonstrate the proper position of the hands when playing, the child is, sooner than you think, ready for something more advanced. It is time, perhaps, to find a good teacher. To continue further, with possible erroneous presentation of matters more technical, may do lasting damage to the beginning student. Be modest, then, and admit your limitations.