Teaching Piano To Preschoolers

Thursday, August 18, 2016 by Libby Wiebel | teaching

(Originally published at www.libbywiebel.com)


I'm really not an expert on this topic. I have, however, learned a lot through trial and error, and this year and last my studio has gotten a huge infusion of Pre-K children whose parents have asked for private piano instruction. And so, people who know this have asked me for advice on teaching their preschool students. This is meant to be a survey of my thoughts on it and a list of things that have worked for me. Truthfully, a long time ago, I'd have said that no child should start piano before first grade. But then when I was building my studio in Northern Virginia, I got requests for lessons for kindergarten students. So I decided to try. And now, kindergarten is one of my favorite demographics to teach (especially since the Faber's released their My First Piano Adventure series-- fantastic for kindergarteners)!


(At this point I should mention that I'm going to list a number of different methods and resources in this post. I'm not being paid to mention any of them. I'm just listing the things that I like and use.)


How I Got Into Preschool Piano


My journey into teaching preschool piano, though, was a little more indirect. I started looking into teaching group music classes for preschool because I wanted to utilize more of my daytime hours -- unless you have homeschool students or teach on the weekends, most student lessons won't begin till 3pm at the earliest, and around here many of the kids can't start before 4 or 4:15. I do teach till 8:30pm some nights, but even then, I needed some more revenue and filling those daytime hours was the way to do it. There are a bunch of preschool music programs out there -- Kindermusik and Music Together are the two that kind of saturate the market around here (Northern Virginia). These are good programs, but I was looking for something different. After investigating a whole bunch of programs, I decided to get certified to teach KiddyKeys. KiddyKeys is a music and movement program for the preschool set, but what makes it unique is how it prepares students age 2 1/2 to 5 for formal piano lessons. I liked the way they ran their business, I liked the fact that very few others in my region were teaching it, and I liked the child-friendly way music concepts were taught. 


I went through my certification, but I found that it was difficult for me to establish regular, ongoing KiddyKeys classes. I think it's largely got to do with the culture of Northern Virginia. Many preschool programs are full-day and have their own music classes. Many daycare centers contract with Kindermusik and have those programs in the schools. Also, a number of preschools are eliminating their extra-curricular after-school classes due to financial, insurance, or liability reasons. I simply had a hard time finding a place or time to do the classes that was convenient to the parents. But in my advertising efforts, I started to receive inquiries about teaching preschoolers privately. I decided to give it a shot. And in the last year, I've gotten website and word-of-mouth referrals that have gotten me a good handful of preschool kids each week.


Do Preschoolers Really Need Piano Lessons?


I'm a member of a number of online piano teaching forums where teachers from all over the world talk about teaching, share their studio problems, share their favorite resources, and debate all kinds of teaching-related issues. One debate that rolls around a few times a year is about whether we should teach preschoolers privately at all. It's a multi-sided debate.


One side says, "No, absolutely not. Preschoolers belong in group general music classes where they sing and move their bodies to rhythms and establish good aural skills and an appreciation for music."


One side says, "Suzuki piano is really the only appropriate method for children that young."


One side says, "Preschoolers should definitely be able to take private lessons if they are interested and ready."


I know there are other sides, too, because I fall somewhere in the middle of all of that. My thoughts on these three points:

  1. I am a believer in group music classes for young children. Heck, I'm even certified to teach one (KiddyKeys)! I think there are a lot of benefits to be gained from group learning with kids around the same age. Even for kids taking private lessons, I still recommend some kind of group class. Children are inherently musical and they learn in many different ways and through lots of repetition. I see only positives for participating in programs like Kindermusik, Music Together, Musikgarten, KiddyKeys, and others. I still hope to eventually get some regular group KiddyKeys classes going.
  2. Suzuki is a well-established and well-respected method of teaching piano. True Suzuki teaching (as I understand it) requires special training and involvesa lot of parental involvement and commitment right from the start. The general principle is that young children learn so well by ear that we should harness that skill and teach by rote, developing excellent musicality and technique well before teaching children how to read music. Often, group classes are required on top of private lessons. Parents are expected to guide their children's practice. The program works very well if it is taught correctly. I, myself, am not a Suzuki teacher. I will occasionally use the Suzuki books because I like some of the literature. But I do not have the training to teach in this style.
  3. I believe that some preschoolers are definitely ready for an interested in playing the piano. So why should we deprive these children of lessons? Is it necessary to start at age 4 to become an amazing pianist? No. But if it's an activity that brings the child enjoyment, then by all means, teach the preschooler piano.


When Is A Preschooler "Ready" For Lessons?


Is the child interested? Is the child asking for lessons? These are two of the biggest indicators that preschool lessons could work. I have one 4-year-old I'm currently teaching who I've known since he was a baby. I've taught his two older siblings for a number of years, and this fall, he BEGGED to start piano lessons. He'd seen his older siblings taking their lessons practically since he was born. He knew me from those lessons, and he had somewhat of an understanding of a lesson format and what practice looked like. Since he was SO EXCITED about it, we decided to go with it. He's thriving. We started in September and now, at the beginning of April, he's reading rhythms well and he's starting to read some notes on a staff. Most importantly, he's excited about his lessons. His interest is hugely important in driving his success.


Can the child focus and pay attention for periods of time? If the child can focus for as long as it takes to read them a storybook or as long as it takes to color a picture in a coloring book or as long as it takes to complete a short household task (putting away toys, helping in the kitchen, etc), then s/he probably has enough focus for a piano lesson. Lesson lengths can be made to fit the individual student's needs, and it's necessary to switch gears often with young students, but if they can focus for short intervals, they can probably focus during a lesson.


For "traditional" (i.e. not preschool) lessons, with "traditional" methods and materials, I feel that at a minimum, a child needs to be able to recognize and write letters of the alphabet and numbers 1-10. But many preschoolers don't have those skills yet. That's the thing with kids that young -- their brains are acquiring tons of new skills and information every day, but they all master those skills in a different order. I really came to understand this when my best friend's children were born. The oldest boy was an early talker. I recall his first birthday when he kept pointing at the party balloons and saying, "Boon! Boon!" His vocabulary grew rapidly, and he was speaking in full sentences before we knew it. Her second child didn't talk so early, but he was very physical. He rolled and then crawled and then walked much earlier than his brother ever did, but it took him much longer to develop his spoken language skills. Now, at 3 and 4, they are both where they should be developmentally, but they got there on different paths. No two 4-year-olds are going to have the exact same skill set. The teacher needs to be prepared to deal with that.


Methods I Use For Preschoolers


There are many methods for preschoolers that I don't mention here. This is a list of the ones I've found most useful for my students and my teaching style.


KiddyKeys

First of all, despite the fact that I haven't taught many KiddyKeys group classes, I must say that I use my KiddyKeys training and materials all of the time. As a KiddyKeys teacher, I have story books, worksheets, games, and manipulatives that are put to regular use in my private lessons. Yes, I hope to figure out a way to teach some group classes because, as I said above, I think this is a valuable experience for kids. But in the meantime, my KiddyKeys association is not going to waste.


WunderKeys

I like the WunderKeys curriculum for some children. Particularly if a child starts at age 3, I think WunderKeys is fantastic. It presents each short lesson in sort of a storybook fashion and then provides piano activities for the teacher and student to do relating to the short story they've heard. There is a single page for the child to complete with a parent during the week, but beyond that, not much at-home practice is required. I find, though, that my WunderKeys kids do end up independently playing at the piano during the week. And that's an important factor -- they are not learning true "songs" yet. They are exploring the piano, exploring the sounds it can make and how they can control those sounds. They are learning about patterns and about counting, and they starting to hone their fine-motor skills.


The three WunderKeys books don't introduce finger numbers. Instead, each finger is assigned a character (Thumbelina, Pointer Panda, Middleton Mouse, Ringo Raccoon, and Pinky Pig). The children learn the finger characters quickly, and then numbers are reserved for counting and not used for the dual purpose of counting and finger distinction which can really confuse some children. After finishing the three WunderKeys books, the kids are ready to being a more traditional piano method. WunderKeys does not require you become certified or trained to use the curriculum. You can purchase the books on Amazon, and if you sign up as a WunderKeys teacher, you get free access to all sorts of supplemental materials -- worksheets, duets to play with your student, songs for listening. 


Piano Safari

I'm really loving Piano Safari for some of my 4-year-olds. Piano Safari is a unique method in that it combines rote learning and improvisation with intervallic reading, giving the children a great reading foundation while allowing them to play songs that would beyond their reach if they were to have to read them. I'm actually using Piano Safari right now with children ages 4-10, and they're all doing well. I adjust my standards for how well I expect a 4-year-old to learn a rote piece versus a 10-year-old. And with the young children, I take my time going through all of the pre-reading chapters to make sure they really understand their finger numbers and the letter names of the keys. I use a lot of supplemental materials, too (listed below), but Piano Safari is the base method.


One of my favorite things about Piano Safari are the reading flashcards that correlate with the method. Each flashcard has a right-hand pattern to play, a left-hand pattern to play, and a rhythm to tap or clap. The flashes are short and sweet, and there is a different set of cards (demarcated by color) for each section of the Piano Safari books. The kids like the cards because they feel like they are accomplishing something very quickly and fairly easily. The parents like the cards because they only take a few minutes to do. I like the cards because of their versatility. Sometimes I will have the child pick three cards at random and that's how we start the lesson. Sometimes I place four or five cards all around the room and the child has to go and find one (getting them off the bench and getting a few wiggles out) and then bring it to the piano to play it. And most kids are excited to graduate to a new color of cards when we move to a new point in the lesson book. 


My First Piano Adventure

I love many things about My First Piano Adventure. The pictures, the accompanying CDs, the combination of fine motor activities, gross motor activities, and writing, aural, and reading skills... It's really a solid method, as we've come to expect from pedagogues Randall and Nancy Faber. I've found, though, that not all 4-year-olds can handle it. I'm not sure what it is, but while it's one of my go-to methods for kindergartners (as well as Piano Safari), it hasn't worked as well for me for the younger ones. That said, for a few of them, it's been brilliant. And even if I don't use the full series for a preschooler, I like to incorporate some of the activities for four-year-olds, particularly the technique and aural activities in Book A -- Stone On The Mountain, Monster Bus Driver, Sittin' on a Fence Post, Mitsy's Cat Back

Resources I Use For Preschoolers

Susan Paradis has a wealth of materials on her website not  only for preschoolers but older children as well. For my preschool students, I especially like:

Susan's materials are free, though if you're able, it's nice to drop her a small payment via the link on her website for all the hard work she does!

Eik Siang Mar at Fun and Learn Music has some great theory materials for the little ones. I really like to use "the purple book" (Music Theory for Little Ones – Book One) and "the orange book" (Music Theory – A Fun Way to Learn – Book Two). There are a ton of free worksheets (at all levels) available at the site, too, but I really like the books. They are laid out very logically and give each topic a lot of repetition. Plus, there are activity pages with STICKERS! The kids love the sticker pages! There is also an iPad app available called SproutBeat that contains all of the worksheets from the website. I find with the little ones, though, they don't do as well with a stylus on the iPad. (I use SproutBeat all the time with my older students.)

I love my floor keyboard. I use it all the time. It's great for getting the kids off the bench, and with preschoolers, it's essential to move around. Just today I had one of my 4-year-olds crawling up and down marking the CDE combinations on the floor keyboard with poker chips. Anything you would have have children try and identify on the actual piano keyboard you can do on the floor, and sometimes the size of the floor keyboard lets them see the patterns better. One of my floor keyboards came with my KiddyKeys materials. My other one is from the Kjos/TCW Kreative Keyboard Kit. (The Kreative Keyboard Kit is also chock full of games, ideas, and activities that are great with students of all ages.)

When my preschoolers get to a certain level, I like to introduce a couple of the Whirligig Games. Playing board/card games with the kids not only gives them another way to learn music terms, symbols, and concepts, but it also gives them the interactive experience of taking turns and even winning and losing gracefully. I really like Legato Late (Primer Level A&B). It's a bingo-like game that's all about identifying music symbols. Even though there are a few symbols that the kids haven't seen in their music, it's still OK to teach the musical names and let the students match their appearance to what they see on the card. When the kids get to a point of identifying skips and steps, I also like to use Space Place (Primer Level). The kids love the outer space theme (and I love that according to the game, Pluto is still a planet!).

My preschoolers have also fun using the Compose Yourself cards and website. These cards give little measure-long snippets of music. You enter the codes from the cards in on the website and it will play them back with a cool orchestral backing track. They love that they actually get to make something with these cards. They love that they get to choose the cards and place them in order. They like to title their songs and love that we can even send an mp3 to their parents to hear.

A lot of the kids really like it when I bring my zither (lap harp) to the lessons. For most of them, it's pretty easy to learn to play, and if they're at a stage where they're learning rhythms, sometimes it's easier for them to first count the note values as they pluck the zither strings than it is to play them on the piano. I have a Music Maker brand lap harp, and I find it's sturdy, has a decent sound, and isn't too expensive. It comes with a bunch of cards with songs to play, but it also fits the many zither songbooks that teacher Debbie Center has created and sells on her World of Harmony site.


iPad Apps I Use For Preschoolers

There are all kinds of theories and arguments out there about how much "screen time" kids should have. All that aside, I think that the iPad can be a great teaching tool if used  properly and in moderation. These are some of my favorite apps for the 5 and under set:

  • Dexteria Junior -- This app is actually an occupational therapy app, but I love that it helps kids with fine motor skills. It contains three games -- "Squish the Squash," "Trace and Erase," and "Pinch the Pepper." Each game works on a different finger skill. I find "Trace and Erase" to be especially valuable, plus the kids love that after they've traced the lines on the screen with a finger and then traced them again with an "eraser," it snaps a photo of them with some crazy filter applied.
  • FingerFun -- this is another good one for working on finger dexterity. It puts large dots on the screen, and the child must press down all of the dots at the same time in order to reveal a picture. It starts off pretty easy with one or two dots, but it progresses to a point where the child needs to use two hands to touch all the dots, all the way up to 10 dots/10 fingers. And the kids like it because they get to choose the theme of the pictures that show up when they get the dots covered -- farm, flowers, zoo, or ocean. I like it because it gets them really using their fingers!
  • Music For Little Mozarts -- There are some good listening games here, and as the kids progress to staff reading, there are more games they're able to do.
  • Piano Learning Games -- I hear this one might not be available much longer which is a shame, because I think it's really good. There is a "running game" where the kids have to use two fingers alternating to drive a race car across the screen, a finger number game where they identify the finger numbers within a time limit, and one of the few really worthwhile games I've found where the kids are given a letter and have to find that key on a keyboard on the screen. 
  • Music Learning Lab -- This one is designed for preschool through about age 6 or 7. The kids go through a series of short lessons, mostly on aural skills. Each time they complete a lesson, they earn a trophy, a new short, silly, animated video to watch, and a new instrument to use in the composition section of the app. In the composition section, they add instruments and backing tracks to create a looped "song" that is then played along with an animation of the animals in the game playing the instruments on a stage.
  • Tune Train -- Here the kids are given a train and lots of little houses on the screen. They must trace a path for their train, and each house they stop at gives them a different note to add to their composition. They can then play their composition with backing tracks in a variety of styles.
  • Piano Maestro -- This is one of the most popular piano teaching apps out there, partly because it's so versatile and can be used with children and adults from beginner through intermediate. Basically, you play along on your piano while music scrolls on the screen. Your sound is picked up by the microphone on the iPad, and the more correct notes you play in rhythm, the more stars you earn. The more stars you earn and the more you play, the more levels you advance. I like that it helps the kids to play in rhythm. I also like that the kids can have accounts on their own iPads that are connected to mine, so I can see their progress throughout the week and give them "home challenge" assignments. The kids like the backing tracks, getting to make choices about the songs they play, and of course the stars and the advancing levels. For the little ones just learning the keys on the keyboard, I use the first couple of chapters of "The Journey," I slow the songs way down, and I turn on the feature that shows the note names. That way even a pre-reading student can play along. Joytunes, who makes the app, also added the Music For Little Mozarts series of books to the app, so you can choose songs from those books to play along to. While I'm not a big fan of Music For Little Mozarts as a series (there's nothing wrong with it -- it's pedagogically sound -- but I didn't mention it above because I just don't happen to like it much), I am a big fan of using some of the songs in Piano Maestro. They're set up in a way that pre-readers can accomplish them, and I like to show them that even if we slow it down for them to learn it, we can inch the tempo up and after a few tries, they're playing it at the intended speed.
  • Petronome -- It's never to early to start using a metronome, even if you just "play" with it and don't use it with songs yet. There are lots of good metronome apps out there, but the Petronome is especially fun because the child chooses an animal (dog, cat, etc), and the metronome ticks are replaced with the sound of that animal barking, meowing, or whatever. 


What to Expect From Preschoolers


The biggest thing I've learned is that you have to expect the unexpected. I may come in to a lesson with a plan for the day, but depending on the child's mood, I may end up scrapping the lesson plan entirely and going with the flow. Sometimes a child won't want to play the piano at all during the piano lesson. On those days, we do worksheets, we listen to and clap along to music, we play my music board games, and we make a pact to actually play the piano the next week. Sometimes I take the bench away and let the child play standing up because it's the only way for them to get their wiggles out. Sometimes we just "improvise" at the piano (sometimes a "structured" improv, or occasionally making up a story and using the piano to tell it even if that means lots of damper pedal, glissandos, and banging at the keys). 


With a student who is, say 8, 9, or 10, you can sort of predict what kind of progress they will make in a year or in even a few months. With a preschooler, you can't predict that at all. Like I said above, they're all learning things at different rates. And my feeling is that at this age, it's more important for them to discover the piano and discover and experience music than it is for them to be able to play a recognizable song. Some kids will feel incredibly accomplished when they can play "Old MacDonald" on the black keys. Others won't care so much and may resist even doing it. In that case, we just wait. In a month we may try again and have great success. You can't predict anything.


You also can't expect that the child will get much practice in during the week. The amount of time a parent or caregiver spends time with the child at the piano, is a big determiner for their progress. You can't simply tell a 4-year-old to "go practice." You can barely tell them to "go potty" without following up to make sure that they've done it! They need guided practice, which means that a parent needs to sit with them. Even if it's only 10 minutes 3 times a week, it makes a big difference in the child's progress. Parents who aren't musicians themselves sometimes get nervous about the practice aspect. But the truth is that at the stage their children are at, most adults can just read the lesson book and figure out what to do. Also, it's very valuable for the child to "teach" the adult what they've learned. Some children will get very excited about showing Mommy something she doesn't know. Parents don't need to be musicians; they need to be engaged and interested and willing and able to set aside the time for short practices.


I really find that lessons go the best if I meet the child where they're at and then try to accomplish at least some of the tasks with them. But if the child takes a tangent and wants to explore the keyboard, I don't make a fuss about how we really need to concentrate on this song or that worksheet. They will get something out of counting the keys and playing them high to low. I always try and comment on what they're doing -- "How great that you're using both hands to play all of the keys!" or "I love seeing that you can count so high!" or "Did you notice that you played three different C's when you did that?" or "Those are some angry sounds you're making! Are you feeling angry today?" 


Depending on what type of preschool a child attends, you may find you have more success with different approaches. For instance, I find the kids who attend Montessori programs are very good at following directions. I find that kids in play-based preschools often want more creativity and control at the lesson. And these things obviously vary from child to child. 


I've taught preschoolers who won't change out of their bathing suits. I've taught preschoolers who come down in a princess costume and insist that I call them "Elsa" for the entire lesson. I've taught preschoolers who have cried at the piano, who have wet their pants at the piano, and who have been in such silly moods that we can't get much done at all. But I look at part of my job as nurturing the child as a whole, not just as a musician. As a reward for all of the things I've mentioned here, I find that preschoolers give extra long hugs, draw you fantastic pictures, and love it when you dance, play instruments, get silly, or get down on the floor with them.


Teaching this age group is not something I ever intended to do, but it's been rewarding. And, if you get a child hooked at the age of three or four, you may very well have that student for the next 5, 10, or 15 years.