Ideas for teaching Piano to very young children

Most of these Q and A sessions so far have been around topics related to classroom music. However we know that a lot of people on our mailing list aren’t classroom teachers.. they are private studio teachers, teaching instruments like piano, guitar and wind instruments.

That is why today’s session is a little bit different, and its designed to help those teaching private studio lessons, such as piano.

Today’s question comes from Lisa, in Orlando, and she says:

“I need tips for teaching very young beginners (5 and 6 year olds) piano. They have very limited attention spans and it is difficult to keep them interested. All one student wants to do is play during his lesson. I use games in my teaching, but they don’t want to settle down and play the piano for the remainder of the lesson. Sometimes I have to threaten to call on of the student’s parents so he will cooperate.”

Check out our thoughts on this topic in this video, then contribute to the discussion in the comments box below:

Some useful resources related to this topic:

27 Comments

  • By Nicky Leigh Reply

    Teaching young children can be exhausting. I try not to have 2 lessons with young children next to each other on my timetable- I find that if I approach each lesson with enthusiasm and excitement, the chikdren pick up on it and the lesson is much more effective. This becomes more difficult if you don’t have ‘recovery’ time between the very young pupils!!

  • By Sue Reply

    Oh dear, I’ve just watched this video and recognized the photo of the blond lady teaching the little girl. – that’s the shot next to the caption, “Hi Mary Did you enjoy that game we played last week”. I saw that photo about a year ago on the website of a Dubai music school called the Buddy Institute and the photo’s still on their website – Check out the link http://www.buddysinstitute.com/teachers/

    Now I’m just wondering who is borrowing from whom for their advertising……

    • By kevin Reply

      Sue, so sorry to disappoint you – but there is no great conspiracy or anyone ‘stealing images’ or anything like that. Its a stock photo, most likely purchased from a stock site like istockphoto.com. We purchased the right to use it, and presumably so did that other site you saw it on. That will happen sometimes with stock images!

      Now….. Please send us your input on the discussion – we would love to hear your opinion on the topic of the session!

  • By Emily Reply

    For very young students I use ‘Piano Play’ by John Colwell is fantastic. It it more a combination of singing, listening and piano. I also break it up with games and/or theory. I find ‘music theory made easy for little children’ great for the young ones as well. At a young age, they need lots of different short activities!

  • By Bobbi Reply

    Very helpful topic, thank you! My solution is teaching Musikgarten, a curriculum designed for young student piano groups, to keep the whole lesson fun and joyful. My question is how to help immature fingers that bend backwards at the joint on the keyboard.

  • By Susan hooper Reply

    Dogs and birds series is very good for small kids
    I find concerts and performances very motivating .i get my 5&6yr olds to choose a favourite piece and write into it band parts which they can choose a couple of friends to play .a chance to show off to the friends often produces some very focused study then I combine all the band pieces together to illustrate a book eg were going on a bear hunt we bring in narrators dancers and children on percussion and instrumental sound effects ,dress up ,invite parents and we have a very easy show and some really motivated small kids. I’ve taught all my 7 kids instruments from age 4 and I have to say rewards for practice make sense to me and worked well with all my kids who are all brilliant musicians now I find a tiny bit of compulsory but rewarded practice produces loads of voluntary work too

  • By Jacqui Reply

    PIANO PLAY by John Colwill is celebrating 10 years in publication. John is surveying teachers who use his method. It is fantastic to read Emily is using it. Please could any one out there using PIANO PLAY and following Janice Tuck’s website, email [email protected] to kindly complete a short survey. PIANO PLAY is a very successful and enjoyable piano method for teaching young children. It engages the young child in activities both at the piano and away, singing, playing, listening and most importantly having FUN!

  • By LadyD Reply

    Great ideas, thank you! My lessons are arranged in segments also. In addition to piano playing and theory worksheets, I play games with my students. As a special bonus, sometimes students play music computer games on my website and especially on the iPad. We stand up and use rhythm sticks for note value practice, along with music tracks to listen to. Making a video of the student’s best performance builds their confidence and shows their progress, too. Oh my, so much to do in a half hour lesson. What fun!

  • By Whit Reply

    I think you are so right when you suggest plan in increments of 2-3 minutes! I teach preschool music in addition to piano. What I have found is that I need to have an arsenal of different things literally within reach. Though I do have age based lesson plans for each week, sometimes they just won’t work on any given day. Instead of sticking to my plan, I just switch games or worksheets or flash cards. I always plan way more than we can possibly do and keep all these materials where I can instantly grab them and keep the lesson moving!

    To help with this, I bought a plastic bin at the dollar store and each month I change out board games, flash cards, and other materials. Everything needed is right there in that one bin which is right by the piano. No hunting and we have new stuff every month!

    My kids love colored dry erase markers–I bought a big pack with the colors of the rainbow. So, I print lots of different worksheets, put them in page protectors, and keep a stack plus a cup full of markers on top of the piano. The student gets to erase the worksheet after we’ve finished. Sounds silly, but they love to erase the sheets! And, I change these worksheets out by the month so we always have something new.

    I’ve also printed the Jr Musicianship worksheets for the students binders. Sometimes I assign these as homework. But, sometimes I’ll say, “How about doing your homework right now with me?” They love this. We add little stickers to an incentive chart for each page completed. Their prize for completion of a chart is 1/2 lesson of games, 1/2 lesson of playing their favorite songs, or 2 weeks of no theory homework. So far this is working beautifully and I don’t have to buy prizes.

    As you suggest, I do save actual games until the end of a lesson. I’ve found that working in flashcards, worksheets, and rhythm activities while still on the bench are enough of a break in between pieces. I will say though that some students do better when we do all our “work” meaning piece playing first and then do the “fun” stuff. Every student is different.

    Facebook and the internet have led me to great sites like this one! I’ve always got something new for my students. Thank you for what you do!

  • By Janice Reply

    Thank you so much everyone for your fantastic feedback and contributions so far. There is a whole library of amazing tips and experience sitting right here in the comments section! It’s great to see so many teachers reaching out to other teachers and helping each other 🙂

  • By Jerri Headrick Reply

    One thing I have found that works well when a student that age is losing attention is to switch places and allow the student to be the teacher. They love that! I then ask the student to watch for the very things I am trying to teach- for instance, hand position, or right notes or holding out half notes etc. . . I tell the student to say “stop” when they hear a mistake or see a mistake from me and of course I play some of the very mistakes I have heard them play. They always say the “STOP!” with great gusto 🙂 and then I ask the “teacher” to show me how it should be done and amazingly they usually play it exactly right!

  • By Barbara Reply

    Be sure to get young students off the bench several times in the 30 mins. I have a sponge ball that I let the student throw at the wall. I tell them if they hit one area they will play their song forte (“loud” if they don’t know terms yet), if they hit a different area they play the song “piano” (or you could use slow/fast.) This way they get off the bench, do something physical, and come right back to the piano. If you let them do it several times, they’ve gotten lots of practice on that one song AND they had fun! Thanks to all for other suggestions:)

    • By Linda Walker Reply

      Barbara, your idea of using a ball thrown on the wall, is great!
      So many different ways to use it. Love it!
      Thanks for sharing!

  • By Cathy Reply

    Hi! Great comments – thanks to everyone, and to Janice and Kevin for opening up this topic. There is no question that taking students “as is” and working with their unique characteristics (not against them) is a winning strategy. This holds true for students of all ages, stages, and capabilities. With my littlest musicians, I recognize that naughtiness can be a sign of boredom, a cover for lack of understanding, or a rebellion against my role as the predominant leader of the activities. Sometimes, naughtiness is a test to see if I actually care about what I am saying and doing. Little children do like to please, so an honest question about how I like to be treated is usually extremely effective. I might put on a pretend cry and ask if this is how they treat mom or dad or the schoolteacher. I might even ask if mom or dad would want them to treat me a certain way. Children then recognize that they have a little power in the equation, the power to treat me nicely or not. (I’ve never had a child knowingly choose to be not nice.) During each lesson, I present activities where they have some choice and some opportunity to be leader. Playback and clapback are wonderful examples of exercises where the child can be put in charge for a moment. Children learn a bit about music generation from this, too. Thanks again and best regards!

  • By Gail Grundstrom Reply

    I use Musikgarten’s curriculum at the keyboard in group classes. It keeps them moving, incorporating the rhythm into their bodies and beings. There is a lot of singing also, disguised as games and breaking down of parts in flash cards to a practice cd. They don’t sit very long at the 75 minute lesson; parents are involved in the last 15 minutes with explanations and group musical activities.

  • By Michelle Reply

    For curving the fingers “ticking the keys” is a good image.Tickle your shoulder. You pull back on the joints to tickle which makes the joints bend in.

    • By Linda Walker Reply

      Hi Michelle,
      Your idea of “tickling the keys” in order to curve a child’s fingers
      is totally awesome. What a great idea. Thanks!

  • By Jeanie Reply

    Enjoyed your video! I teach 29 children in their homes, and 1 in my home studio. Because I am self-employed, I believe I have more freedom to spend some lesson time connecting with my students so that we can communicate better during the lesson. My 4 through 6 year old students definitely have a short attention span. I use the Piano Adventures curriculum because it has a lot of activities and reinforcement to draw from, and you can work through a piece fairly quickly. I also use incentives. I have a small chart hand-out that each student receives, and for every completed assignment , they put a star on their chart. 20 stars later, they get the Treasure Box. Not just little junky things, but school supplies, costume jewelry, puzzles, games, books…I make it worth the effort! For the record, I taught preschool for many years, so I’m certain that experience has helped alot with the young ones! One more thing: when I seem to be losing them, I suggest we improvise at the keyboard. I sometimes even record their little melodies in their assignment books, and encourage them to “compose”!

  • By Maggie Lemken Reply

    I’m so happy to be privy to so many new ideas on teaching the little ones. I have a 5 year old that I have been teaching for about 4 months when she was 4. She loves to play the piano, and runs to it when she is home, so that’s no problem. She does however have a tendency to tie in to the finger numbers rather than the notes and their relativity to each other on the page. I’m trying to get her away from that using some theory pages, but would like any other suggestions. I also use a ruler to connect note to note to show the rise and fall of the series of notes which the child can connect with the up and down movement on the keys.
    If the child has lessons once a week, they get a small prize. If they have lessons twice a week, they get stickers on the 2nd lesson. I also take notice of younger siblings and have a smaller prize for them and encourage them to play something they create for one or two minutes at the end of the lesson if it’s ok with the parent. This sets you up for future lessons with other members of the family.

  • By Estelle Reply

    Thanks for bringing up this topic!

    I really agree with your comment above about the value of improvising. I have found that as well as getting pupils back ‘on track’ with concentrating again, it is great as yet another way in to help them see it is worth thinking about what the notes are called, about dynamics or in fact to teach about anything that you really hoped all along to be teaching them during that lesson!

    Also pass the parcel is great and the challenges between wrappers can be things like: find and play a high note, etc.
    Toys can also be part of the parcel passing circle and can be helped to do the challenges if there is only you and one child.

  • By Bella Reply

    Half a minute of “silent sitting” at the beginning of a lesson does wonders to settle a little one’s mind and improve their concentration and attention span. I close the piano lid, and ask them to close their eyes and take a few deep breaths to help settle their ‘monkey mind’ that is bopping all over the place so it can focus on learning piano.

  • By Patrick Reply

    One thing that a teacher needs to take into consideration with teaching children is to find out from the parent if the child wants to learn to play the instrument or the parent wants the child to learn. When the child takes real interest in learning piano their cooperation and attention span issues changes dramatically! I have had children of 5 years old who are very eager in learning to play because they love the piano and want to learn not the parent having to force them to!

  • By Holly G Reply

    The idea of ‘incentives’ is great; however, I would highly recommend avoiding extrinsic motivators like stickers or candy. Keep the incentives music related if possible. For example, your young student might really enjoy just playing around on the piano so save a fun improvisation as a reward. If we always give our students unmusical items as rewards, they may begin looking more forward to those rewards than the music making itself. Keep music at the center! 🙂

  • By Vonette Reply

    I teach students as young as 4. All of these ideas are great, and I use many of them! I also offer the option of shorter (20 minute) lessons for students aged 4-6. We must keep in mind that children are all different. Some kids that age can handle a 30 minute lesson, but with the prevalence of ADD and other hyperactivity issues among children, I think it is important to recognize that 30 minutes just isn’t appropriate for every child of this age. I would rather have a shorter lesson than have a child who feels that their piano lesson goes on forever and begins to dread coming to it.

    I also think it is especially important at this age to choose the right curriculum for each child rather than to be locked into always using the same one. Some curricula are better for a child who learns visually and needs lots of visual stimulation; some are better for the child who physically is not ready for a 5-finger position, etc. I try to match the lesson book to the child, and if it isn’t working, I am not afraid to switch them to another one. As others have suggested, have a list of activities ready to go and if the child isn’t responding to one move on to the next. Always have more planned than you have time for! Try to incorporate some activities away from the piano bench.

    I also have a parent sit in on the lesson when a child is this young for many reasons. The parent needs to help with the child’s practicing at this age, so they need to understand what the child is learning. Also, in our litigious society, it is not a good idea to be alone with someone else’s young child. Finally, when the parent is present, the problem of the child being unwilling to take direction is minimized, because most children respect the authority of the parent. Occasionally, a strong-willed child wants to test his or her boundaries with the teacher and see how much bad behavior they can get away with. If the parent is present, this will not happen.

    In response to the teacher who wondered how to keep her young students from learning to “Play by finger-number” only, this is a problem with certain curricula that focus exclusively on playing in positions (Middle C position, C position, G position, etc.) I prefer curricula that don’t use this method, but I do teach from those that do sometimes. In those cases, I teach the names of the notes early and start the student focusing on finding the correct note by name instead of by number. I often don’t correct them if they use the “wrong” finger because I don’t want them to focus on “finger 2 is D” but on “this note here in between the two blacks keys is D.” I supplement the curricula with songs that are not in the standard “positions.” I flashcard the notes and teach them to read by “steps” and “skips” once they are on the staff. Before the staff is introduced, I label notes with their letter names when possible and sometimes we even play a song like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without any music but the names of the notes: EDCD EEE. There’s a great method of teaching the names of the notes by story. The groups of two black keys are the “doghouse group” and the D key is the Dog in the Doghouse. The C key is the cat, sneaking up on the dog, etc. Google it for more info. Hope that helps!

    • By Donna Reply

      Hi! What specific curricula do you prefer for your youngest students?

  • By Lisa Reply

    Thank you Janice for the video and for all of the fine comments. I plan to use the ideas.

  • By Marie Reply

    Thankyou for these ideas ..very helpful.
    I have always used Piano play for every day by John Ferris Loth….it has lots of well known songs and not too much on each page. I have found it the best book so far for four to six year olds. Recently I heard about Gorin’s Tales of a musical journey on website by Shirley Kirsten where she is teaching a four year old.

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