The answer to that is a very qualified YES! But……here’s the kicker:
What do you mean exactly, by ” learn the piano?” Do you mean:
- Can a 4 year old learn to play the piano with a simple song on the piano by ear? Well, yes they can. Some kids are naturally inclined to music sounds and have a natural sense of rhythm, and can be taught songs by rote.
- Can they be taught to learn to read music? On a very rudimentary level, PROBABLY. MAYBE.
- Can they begin a serious study of music and dedicated piano learning? Well, they can begin.
- Does it help or hinder serious piano learning? Well, read on.
Learning the Piano
Here’s the thing. Learning to read music for kids who do not yet know how to read a book has to start with lots of preschool level learning. Things like having alphabet names or finger numbers spelled out inside of big fat music notes that may not even be on a staff, but merely placing the kid’s hands on a starting point on the keyboard and teaching them to move their fingers to get higher or lower tones. It exposes them to the idea of reading on the staff, but it is a poor substitute for really reading actual music.
Is it helpful? Here are the benefits of preschool piano lessons:
- Exposes them to musical terms and sounds on a basic level (what is loud? what is quiet? what are sounds going higher? what are sounds going lower? What is your thumb? What is your number three finger? etc.)
- If they have a great teacher, it may start them on a lifetime love of piano learning and playing
- Great social interaction opportunities in group preschool music class with other children
- Gets their bodies moving off the piano bench for whole-body learning and music activities
- Helps them get used to playing in front of other people
- Gets them used to the long-term time commitment needed to learn piano well
- Lets them experience lots of playtime and experimenting time on the piano for fun
- Depending on the studio, it may expose them to different audio music genres like classical, pop, swing, jazz, rap, dance music, blues, folk etc.
Here are the reasons to delay learning until age 6:
In my piano teaching studio, I don’t accept students younger than first grade. There are a few reasons why.
- Their dexterity and finger muscle communication with their brains at a very young age is rudimentary at best. One of the first things we try to do as teachers is to get the body/brain connection going on an individual finger digit level so that when a player sees a note on the music they can get the exact finger needed to play that note. Tiny bodies just haven’t developed far enough to accomplish much in this area. They’re still learning how to use scissors and a pencil! Even seven year olds will need occasional physical contact by me or a parent/sibling helper to get that connection going well. Most parents will have to assist home learning and practicing until the child is age 7. That’s a big time commitment for parents to make! Group music or group piano lessons for preschoolers generally does not involve parental assistance, because not much practicing is really going on at home.
- Sitting still for a one half-hour lesson on a piano bench is a challenge for first graders, and nearly impossible for 4 year olds, who are basically barely out of the toddler ages. If your child is challenged to sit still in a chair for 30 minutes for a meal in a nice restaurant, they probably will struggle to pay attention and have a good time during a 30 minute piano lesson.
- Very young kids need learning tricks and cues that can be crutches that they grow dependent on. It’s like learning math by counting on your fingers. I’ve had students of all ages come to me for lessons when they’ve taken 1 to 3 years of lessons from other teachers and they are STILL completely stuck on using props and crutches and can’t read a single note of music!! I start lesson one reading notes on the staff no matter how old or young the student is. No crutches here! (But I don’t take kids younger than halfway through first grade either).
- We generally don’t play the piano unless we’re sitting still on a bench. It takes a unique teacher who enjoys preschool level music class teaching with the necessary whole body movement games, the stuffed animals and finger puppets and the cartoon-level songs and general silliness that engages young children. There are skilled young education teachers who specialize in keeping children emerging out of toddlerhood learning and happy. It is definitely NOT a serious study of piano. It’s an introduction and fun times around musical concepts.
- Virtually everything preschoolers learn about music and piano lessons in an entire year or two of lessons can be taught and perfected in the first few weeks of private piano instruction once they hit age 7.
- Once kids come to my studio, we do play the occasional game and laugh and have fun, but I expect them to get serious about lesson time and leave the necessity of off the bench activities and entertainment style learning behind that they may have experienced from preschool ‘lessons’ and get focused on learning to read steadily more complex music on the page and do controlled actions at the piano. After all, that is what playing the piano really and truly involves….incremental increase of ability ideally mixed with fun, exploration and joy of musical expression.
It takes years of effort to decipher written music and play piano
- Is the very early youth age of 4 a good time to start lessons? If you want them exposed to music concepts and basics and if you enjoy enrolling your children in activities, then it might be a good fit for your family. It may condition your child to want more ‘play’ time than lesson time once they get older, and they may complain that piano lessons are ‘not fun’ anymore because they require more focus and concerted learning rather than activities.
- If your family learning style is achievement-geared, then private lessons may be a good option. Plenty of parental involvement will be needed at home!
- If your family is experience-based learning, then group activity music lessons may fit well.
- If you are aiming for piano competence, but at the grade school age, then waiting until age 6 to 8 may be your best choice.
That being said, a rare child is ready and eager for the physical and mental challenges of individual piano learning at a very young age. Precocious or gifted children are rare, but not unheard of. After all, Mozart was composing complex piano and orchestral works by age 5! If private lessons are an option for your family, ask your local piano teacher for an evaluation meeting and see if their teaching style meshes well with your child.
So….it’s up to you to decide if group piano lessons are worth the expense for your family or if private lessons are a better fit. Perhaps waiting just a few years is even better.