Frequently Asked Questions
Q: At what age should one start piano lessons?
A: Children can begin lessons between 5-7 years old, depending on their maturity and ability to concentrate. Teenagers and adults should start whenever they like; since they progress through fundamentals much faster than children, they shouldn't be afraid of starting "too late." No matter what age, the most important thing is to practice every day. Please see "How much should a student practice the piano?"
Q: Should I buy a piano or a keyboard?
A: All students need a full-sized instrument (88 keys) so they can get used to moving around all the keys from the beginning. If you can afford it, a piano is much better than a keyboard for several reasons: most keyboards (unless they are very expensive) don't approach the sensation of a real piano's weighted keys and touch control. It is also important to teach the student to listen carefully to the quality of sound they are producing, and nothing can replace the vibrating strings of a real piano. A piano also requires more expenses, such as moving costs and tuning every 6-8 months, but if you can afford it, a piano is absolutely worth the extra cost. If your child is starting lessons and you aren't sure if you want to make such a big commitment yet, it might be worth it to buy a keyboard and see if your child wants to continue with lessons. Alternatively, you could invest that money directly into a piano, if you are confident that your child will take lessons for at least several years.
Q: Are my hands (or my child's) the right size/shape for playing the piano?
A: There is no correct size or shape for piano hands. Frédéric Chopin had long, narrow fingers, and Anton Rubinstein had short, pudgy fingers and hands that looked more like paws. Although having large hands might be helpful for wide spans on the keyboard, there are many subtle tricks to get around this for those with smaller hands. Just remember, Vladimir Ashkenazy (one of the greatest pianists of the 20th and 21st centuries) has small hands and plays all the enormous, difficult works of the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Q: Which method books do you use?
A: For most students I recommend The Music Tree by Francis Clarke. It uses an interval-based approach to reading notes on the grand staff: using three main "landmark notes" (Middle C, Treble G, and Bass F), students find and play the interval (distance) between the landmark and the following note. This rapidly increases music literacy skills and is beneficial for sight-reading. The interval approach works better than mnemonics such as "All Cows Eat Grass" and "Every Good Boy Does Fine" because students sometimes have trouble remembering the phrases and they spend too much time counting the lines and spaces to find the right letter. Though mnemonics might help as a supplement, learning to read intervals first provides the strongest foundation as a student becomes acquainted with the keyboard. The Music Tree gradually introduces elements of music theory, such as key signatures, time signatures, accidentals, and additional performance instructions, such as dynamics and articulation. For adults I recommend Keyboard Musician by Francis Clarke and Roger Grove. It is from the same authors of The Music Tree, so its curriculum is structured similarly but introduced at a much faster pace.
Q: How much should a student practice the piano?
A: Students are encouraged to practice at least 5 days a week. Beginning students should practice 20 minutes a day in one sitting or divide the time into two 10-minute sessions; parents of younger students are encouraged to help them practice. More advanced students should practice 1-2 hours a day. Maintaining a consistent practice schedule and practicing at the same time each day works best. Students will only improve if they work on their assignments from their lessons during this practice time. Improvising and composing can also be fun, creative activities, but they should be done after the lesson assignment is complete.
Q: How can I encourage my child's piano studies?
A: Students should listen to piano music as often as they can; for instance, they can attend recitals/concerts and listen to CDs of piano music around the home or in the car. The more you listen to and expose yourself to piano music, the more you will understand it and enjoy its depth of expression. Often you need to listen to a piece 3-5 times before it truly makes an impression on you and you remember the main melodies. Please ask for suggestions if you aren’t sure where to start. A parent’s appreciation of music and positive encouragement of their child’s musical work will reap endless benefits; you can listen to music together and talk about specific elements you like and dislike.