Toddler and Preschool Piano
Toddler and preschool piano students require the most care of all the age groups. It is so important for toddlers and preschoolers to think of the piano as a fun place to be. Banish curriculum from your agenda, and think instead of the child’s point of view.
Tasks are less important than how the child feels about their experience at the piano. Jobs like finding Middle C and playing a simple song with one finger are entirely reasonable goals for toddlers and preschoolers. Insisting on proper fingering may result in disaster.
Number The Keys
The quickest way to interest a child in the piano is to number the keys. Try a familiar song:
Follow The Child’s Instinct
Preschoolers can, with patience, handle using more than one finger. Younger toddlers will instinctively use their index finger, and you should accept that and go with the flow. Watch their faces. As long as they’re smiling, fingering doesn’t matter. The biggest factor in a toddler’s enjoyment of their piano experience is the teacher’s ability to control their expectations. Don’t expect fingering, and even if they do it, don’t expect it regularly.
Learn to accept whatever crude fingering method they instinctively offer, and then gently build upon that. They inevitably offer the dominant index finger, and you should applaud that. And then build on it.
When I teach toddlers, my eyes are always on the child’s face and fingers. The fingers tell me what they understand. Their faces tell me how they feel, and everything depends on this when teaching toddlers the piano.
Preschoolers are just getting used to numbers and letters. They are more likely to understand what a task is than the younger toddlers. Toddlers have yet to put together the idea of completing a group of actions. For example, playing a song all the way through. Many teachers have found that having preschoolers identify numbers via the piano keyboard is a fun activity. It builds confidence with numbers and the keyboard. Piano also helps build important motor and cognitive skills. For example, left and right are concepts that are essential in life as well as the piano.
Piano Teaches Basic Concepts
The piano keyboard is a fun way to demonstrate ideas like up and down, and left and right, soft and loud, black and white, step and skip. An endless variety of cognitive games can be played with the left/right concept. The keyboard brings these ideas to life and engages the child quickly.
Speaking Versus Playing
Many children can play any numbered piano key you say to them, but have difficulty playing numbers (or any musical symbol) that they find on the page. Toddlers may have trouble with this, whereas older preschool kids may have no problem (or at least less problems) with musical symbols.
Piano By Number builds the abstract skills necessary to comfortably decipher symbols. It promotes children’s sense of security in successfully deciphering musical symbols, no matter how young.
Reinforce Counting Skills
Seeing the first twelve numbers, 1-12, spread out on a piano helps children to imagine numbers as a sequential ordering device. You’d be surprised how many toddlers are not sure if 4 is a higher number than 3. Reading sheet music is beyond most children of this age.
A Reading Music Game
The Mr. Notey Game: I pretend that my head is a “note” ( a circle) and that my forearm is a “line” and proceed to go into an elaborate set of hand signals in which the kids are able to get the idea that a “note” is on a “line” or a “space.” Kids this age ask for this game every week.
Probably the biggest secret of teaching music to children this age is to allow kids to be kids while they learn. If you do this, and it requires unbelievable patience and creativity, they will reward you with constant effort, and humor. The younger the child, the less I expect. If they only learn that the piano is a fun place to be, you’ve had a major victory as a teacher.
Kindergarten kids are very ready for games of any kind. They begin to have the skills necessary to put several hand movements together into a group of movements. Children of this age still are most comfortable with numbers, but will tolerate more games preparing the way for reading sheet music. But you must make games out of everything, like “Mr. Notey,” (above.)
Click on FUN AND GAMES or see below to see some of the piano games that children of this age will enjoy. I'd recommend stepping away from sheet music as soon as you see their eyes start to show exhaustion, perhaps 5 minutes at most.
Reading Music Is Mentally Exhausting
Sheet music is fascinating but very tiring for kids this age. Better to expose them 5 minutes at a time than risk exhausting them and making them feel like failures. With this age, you may be able to teach them chords (three piano keys played with the left hand) but usually I allow them to play 2 note chords (two piano keys with the left hand) until it becomes obvious that 2 note chords are too easy.
I don’t insist that children play with both hands at this point, that is, chords with left hand and melody (numbers) with the right hand. It is enough that they can make their way through a few moments of a song that I show them, always carefully chosen to allow them to master a simple-enough task.
A child this age should begin to easily have knowledge of the first three chords known as C, F and G. Any child can do this with enough focused, fun repetition. If a child does begin to read sheet music, be careful to gain complete mastery of the notes of the right hand, say the first 5 keys above Middle C, before attempting to introduce the left hand. It is my feeling that merely introducing the idea of “lines and spaces” (sheet music) is more than a victory at this stage. The reason for this is that sheet music is much more of an abstraction than numbers for children of this age.
Children gravitate to what is most comfortable for them, and you can bet at this age that it will be “piano by numbers,” because it is less abstract than sheet music. “Lines and spaces” functions in the same way. It limits the variables to two, instead of the multiple dimensions sheet music demands. Children who are allowed the room to succeed at Piano by Number no matter how glacial their pace, are perfect candidates for reading sheet music, because they are properly prepared.
Elementary School And First Grade
First graders seem magically wired to try the piano! All the physical perceptions necessary are in place; numbers are no problem, playing with two hands is no problem. But if a child has difficulty with playing two hands simultaneously, do not insist. Most kids this age have great difficulty with two handed maneuvers. It is enough to expose them to the idea that two hands are involved, eventually simultaneously.
With piano by number and chords under their belt, first graders are ready to conquer the right hand of sheet music, and engage in a serious study of chords. At this age, kids are emotionally ready to play the game called “happy and sad” wherein the teacher plays chords and has the child try to guess their (the chords) emotional or dramatic quality, happy or sad. Kids never tire of trying to listen and assess the emotional quality of the chord. Earlier than this age, many children seem to have difficulty grasping the idea of a sound (the piano chord) having a certain quality (happy or sad.)
At this point, it also becomes possible to introduce “finger games,” that is, games that teach a child to move beyond using the index finger. I always allow kids to start with the index finger, if that’s what comfortable. It may take a long time to get a child to use all ten fingers properly. But it is worth waiting for, especially if, in the meantime, you are teaching them other valuable things. Believe it or not, kids will let you know when they are ready to use all five fingers.
Reading Music For Kids
Recommended books: I Can Read Music
I’ll tell you the simple formula for success at reading music. It has three stages:
1. Teach the notes and the numbers. Get the kids to decipher the commands and play the correct keys as best they can, with whatever finger comes to their mind.
2. Introduce the idea of five fingers, slowly, as a game, as a joke. I always say, when they play with only their index finger, “Oh, you were born with only one finger on each hand! Wait! I see other fingers under there, all curled up!” Try that 50 times and they will start using more fingers all by themselves, I guarantee it.
3. Rhythm is best left to last. The only thing I do at this point is to play rhythm games. I never, ever insist on rhythm in a piece of printed music, numbers or sheet. Don’t even think of rhythm in the usual sense for first graders. Better to try simple rhythm games like “fours” that give children the idea of regularity, of pattern, of repetition.
To start the process of learning fingering, I begin with a game called “threesies,” in which they play, starting from Middle C; 123, 234, 345 456, etc using the right hand thumb, index and third finger in ascending order. Kids love the complexity of this, but if it is too difficult after several tries, then try something else for a while.
More Useful Rules
1. Keep coming back to ideas, again and again. If they make a mistake, express comic surprise and move on.
2. Never acknowledge a child’s failure to grasp these ideas, just show comic surprise and move on. They’ll get the idea that mistakes are noted, but never punished.
Children at the piano have an uncanny knack of showing you an honest effort if the task is not incomprehensibly difficult. Break down complex motions into easily grasped bits.