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How to Teach Young Children Piano

Updated on August 5, 2016
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When they are not old enough for formal lessons

If you have a young child who is constantly plunking away at the piano, you may have rushed her off to the nearest music school, only to realize that she is too young. Unless you have an enormously talented and mature child, most kids do best when they begin formal lessons between the ages of six or seven. So what can you do to foster important piano skills for your three, four, or five year old?

The skills below will not teach a child everything they need to know regarding the piano, but it will build a solid foundation of music that will benefit them enormously throughout their musical life. You as the parent, might just learn something new as well!

Once she has completed all these activities, you can invest in a lesson book at home. You will want to start with a primer book for young beginners. A full review of piano music books is available here.

Learning to play the piano is no small task. It is an assimilation of skills that use many senses at once, so patience is key. You must be able to read music notes, understand rhythm, have the finger strength to play both hands at once, plus use your ear! Many adults cannot do it!

Most people who start out with the piano think a four year old should be able to play Twinkle Twinkle after two weeks. Sure, anyone can teach a child to parrot someone else, you don't need a music teacher for that. That is learning how to mimic and memorize; that is not learning music. If you want to really give your child music lessons, you will have to start away from the piano. There is a whole world of music theory to learn. Once you arrange your expectations, you and your child can go on to have an enriching experience.

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Pre-reading activities

Let's begin with some activities that will help your child with the ability to read notes on a staff and the keys on the piano.

The Musical Alphabet
Your child must learn the musical alphabet. So here's how it works: You need seven flashcards for A B C D E F G. When your child can recognize each letter, it is time to teach them the forward and backward musical alphabet.

  1. Lay the cards out in order (A B C D E F G).
  2. Sing the ABC's pointing to each letter as you go.
  3. Instead of continuing on (HIJKL etc.), use the same tune to sing the musical alphabet backwards. G F E D C B A. Point as you go.
  4. Now turn over the G so it is facedown. Repeat the exercise and make a big deal when your child remembers the G.
  5. Next, turn over the F. Now she must remember the G and the F. This isn't so hard when she's singing it forwards, but backwards starts to get a little tricky.
  6. Keep going until she can sing the alphabet forwards and backwards without looking at the cards.

Why is this important?
When she begins reading music, she will have to count spacings between notes. She will be learning intervals as well. It is crucial that she can quickly recall the notes that come after and BEFORE one another.

Variations
Once she's mastered that, you can play games with the cards.

  • Give her a letter, and have her place down what letter comes before and after. Try to trip her up with the A and the G. Kids have to learn that the note that comes before A is G, since the musical alphabet repeats over and over. In the same way, A comes after G.
  • Have her write out the musical alphabet in thirds (or skips) like this: A C E G B D F
  • Then have her do it skipping two notes. Have her try it forwards and backwards.
  • Have her match each card to the note that it corresponds with on the piano.

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Learning piano notes
In order for a child to identify a note on the piano, she has to have some basic understanding of patterns. Teach her the two different types of black key groupings. There are three black notes together, then two, then three, etc. Once she can see that pattern and pick it out, you can teach her one note at a time. If you simply start at the first key and have her sing the alphabet over and over, she won't really learn what the note looks like.

  1. Start with C. Have her pick out middle C, paying attention to the fact that it is a white key that comes before the two black keys. Have her find each C on the keyboard.
  2. Then you can proceed to teaching her B, the note that comes right before C and after the three black keys.
  3. Then you teach D.
  4. Once she can identify BCD, the other notes will come a lot more quickly.

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The greatest music theory book ever!

Rhythm activities

These activities can help give your child the basic understanding of a beat. You will need to make a couple of flashcards first.

  • Quarter Note
  • Half Note
  • Dotted Half Note
  • Whole Note
  • Eighth Note

It's best if you have several of each kind of note. Since your child is young, it will be difficult to explain the concept of holding beats for a certain number of counts. That concept can be introduced later. Instead, you want to identify each note with a word that matches how long it takes to play that note. Michiko Yuro has an excellent curriculum and book that every music teacher (or parent for that matter) should own. These note names are taken directly from her work.

  • Quarter note = blue
  • Half note = two-oo
  • Dotted half note = Three-ee-ee
  • Whole note = Four-or-or-or
  • Eighth note = (you must make two eighth notes together) = Jel-lo

Line up these cards and practice saying the words with the note. Once she can do that, now it's time to add clapping. For each note, you only want to clap the number of beats it is.

  • Quarter note = 1 clap
  • Half note = 1 clap hold for the oo
  • Dotted half note = 1 clap hold for the ee-ee
  • Whole note = 1 clap hold for the or-or-or
  • Eighth note = 2 claps, one for the Jel and one for the O

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Technique activities

Strengthening fingers
First things first: A child must understand her right from her left. Once she can do that, it's time to name those fingers!

  1. Thumbs are one.
  2. Pointers are two.
  3. Middle fingers are three.
  4. Ring fingers are four.
  5. Pinkies are five.

When a child sits down at the piano, more than likely she balls her hand up into a fist and does the point and shoot method with one finger. Explain to her that piano players must use all their fingers. Have her sit down and put one finger on each key.

Tell her to keep her hand round, as if there is an imaginary bubble underneath her hand that she doesn't want to pop. If she is very little, it will be difficult for her to use any finger other than her thumb or pointer to tap a song. Start with easy activities and work your way up.

With the right hand

  1. Have her play the C note with her thumb (without balling the rest of her hand into a fist).
  2. When she can do that, have her play C with her thumb and D with her pointer.
  3. Then add E with the middle finger.

With the left hand

  1. Have her play C note with her thumb.
  2. Have her play B note with her pointer.
  3. Have her play A note with her middle finger.

Once she can do that, have her practice playing the notes right in a row. Watch to see if she is able to pick up one note before she puts down the other. We don't want a smushy music pie!

Sometimes, playing the white notes is too difficult. If that is the case, have her practice on the black keys first. Once she has that down, then move to the white keys.

Eventually you can have her practice playing all five notes in a row. For the right hand, have her thumb on C and her pinky on G. That is called C position. For the left hand, have her pinky on C and her thumb on G. She should be able to play each note (hands separately) and sing the name of the note at the same time. Finally, have her try to do hands together.

Ear training activities

Learning high from low
Have her sit at the piano and explain the difference between a low note and a high note. Low notes sound like rumbling dinosaurs or loud tigers. High notes sound like squeak mice or singing birds. Have her play some low versus high notes. Show her how the middle notes sound like something in between.

  • Have her close her eyes.
  • You play a note and ask her to identify it with her ear only, high, middle, or low.

Teaching her the difference between the sounds of notes

  • Play a C. Then play other C's on the keyboard. Have her try to match the tone with her voice. Once she has the C tone ingrained, have her close her eyes.
  • Play a C on the piano and ask her if it's a C. If she gets it right, great!
  • Play a G. See if she can identify that it wasn't a C. If she can't, that's okay, go back to learning C.
  • With her eyes open, show her how the different letter name notes sound different.
  • It's important to distinguish the difference between tone and range. A C tone will still sound like C even if it's higher or lower than another C.

Don't be discouraged if she doesn't grasp this concept right away. It is difficult for older children to understand!

Patience

For some children, mastering these concepts will take no time at all. For others, it may be awhile before they are ready for the next step. Try to keep it fun and lighthearted. Remember, you want to instill a lifelong love of piano and music!

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About the author

Julie DeNeen is a freelance writer and mom to three beautiful children in Connecticut. She has a background in music, having taught piano to young children for the last nine years.

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    • profile image

      Cecile 5 months ago

      Thank you! Helpful and simply explained.

    • healthwealthmusic profile image

      Ruth R. Martin 4 years ago from Everywhere Online ~ Fingerlakes ~ Upstate New York

      What a great hub - we have two children, ages 4 & 6, who like to doodle on our keyboard. So far I have not done a lot to help them learn more than they've picked up on their own.... maybe I should?

    • profile image

      lk 4 years ago

      My kid is 4 years old, he has a difficulty differienciating between high/low and Piano/Forte? is there a way to explain it to him?

      thanks

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 4 years ago from Orange, Texas

      This brought back memories - I remember some of these things from when my piano teacher was teaching me! Great job and voted up.

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 4 years ago

      These are wonderful activities to try with my 3 year old son. He just loves music and I'm sure he'll have a blast with some of the "games."

      Voted up and useful!

    • profile image

      KDuBarry03 4 years ago

      Great information, Julie! Voted up and tweeted :)

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 4 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      Some great information and advice, Julie. My son loves music and he has a small keyboard, I bet this would work on that too! Gonna have to try this out. Thank you. :)

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

      Julie, I just replaced the words 'young children' and substituted the word 'Jools' whilst reading this and now I already feel happier and more confident about my 'plunking' (I refer to it as 'music' if I plunk 3 keys together). Excellent hub as always, well laid out, comprehensive and interesting :o) Voted up and what not!

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Strategies that will definitely work with younger kids, Julie. I had to teach older teens keyboard so with them, I did the keyboard pattern and chords right away. Nice to meet a fellow pianist!! Votes up, shared.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 4 years ago from New York, New York

      Once again you leave me amazed at your constant knowledge on this subject, Julie. The tips you laid out seem petty straight forward even someone like me that has no musical training whatsoever. Thanks for sharing and have also shared, voted up and tweeted too!!

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      Peter V 4 years ago from At the Beach in Florida

      Very good hub. When I was a child I started playing around 5-6. It was very beneficial to learn how to play an instrument and I think it is a great thing for kids to learn and practice. Well written, voted up!

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