What are the goals for a child’s first piano lesson?

Studio shot of boy playing the piano. Serious face of little composer

In terms of possibilities, a child’s first piano lesson is one of the most important days of their lives.

From the moment a child is born (and even before), he is responding to music. Music calms him, excites him, and gets him moving physically. As a toddler, he sees people playing the piano or keyboard and starts paying more attention to how they are making those wonderful sounds.

“Wow – I want to do that too!”

He shakes rattles and percussion instruments and loves creating these sounds and rhythms. Maybe he occasionally gets a chance to touch a keyboard or piano. (Ever notice how very young kids improvise without hesitation?) He imagines himself playing great music himself, just like he hears experienced musicians doing.

And then, when he’s five or six years old, his parents bring him to his first piano lesson. (Of course I could have said “her” first piano lesson too.)

In the context of what I’ve described above, what goals do the parents and teacher have for this all-important first lesson? The child wants have fun and to play all this incredible music he’s heard. The parent wants him to enjoy piano while learning the basics of how to play.

How does the teacher approach this first lesson?

It’s been my experience that if I can give the young student some experience of playing real music (fun, lively, beautiful, rhythmic) at this very first lesson, they do much better at piano for years. And isn’t that what they deserve, really? Even though they’re still young, they have experienced music in it’s full glory. Maybe with an intensity that we adults ourselves have forgotten. Whether they realize it or not, they’ve come to their first lesson with the desire to recreate the amazing sounds they’e heard others make. They want to do this themselves!

The challenge is that they can’t do this by themselves. At least not yet. They don’t know the basics, and they haven’t acquired the necessary technique, musical knowledge, or hand coordination to play piano in a mature way. A good piano teacher knows that the student will have to start at the very beginning and go step-by-step, for several years, until they can play the type of music they want to.

So a good piano teacher (and there are many out there) will explain this to the student, hopefully in a way that inspires them to practice diligently and methodically. And a many teachers do work hard to instill a love of piano in their students from the very first lesson.

But by only focusing on the gradual acquisition of skills, a huge opportunity is lost. Something extremely important is left unfulfilled: the child hasn’t experienced the joy for himself that he’s always dreamed about. He hasn’t played great music yet and doesn’t know if he ever will. (And indeed, many young students never do. They stop taking lessons before they reach that point.)

So what can a teacher do to give an AMAZING first piano lesson? One that will give the child a real, complete musical experience? The answer is simple: improvise duets with the child.

Sure; a five year-old can’t play it all on their own yet, but they can play rhythmically. In fact, they’ve been doing this for years, on shakers, rattles, pots, pans, tambourines, and maybe even musical instruments. So improvise a lively samba accompaniment and let the student play rhythmiscally on the white notes. They’ll love it, and probably play something that sounds pretty good. Or play a jazz bass line for some black-key melodic improv. Or play a tender classical-style accompaniment with Alberti bass and show the child how to improvise a lullaby, with just one finger moving up and down the scale. Every young student I’ve taught in my 30 years of experience can do this, from the very first lesson!

As piano teachers, we really owe it to our students to provide them with this type of experience in whatever way we can. All piano teachers come with different musical backgrounds, but I think we all can find a way to give our young students a taste of playing full, complete music, right from the very first lesson. And why not? It’s what they really want, and it will make piano much more enjoyable for them at every step of the way.

I’m sharing as much of my own love of music as I possibly can in my Piano for Kids online course. My goal is to provide kids with fun, creative piano lessons that teach them improvisation along with note-reading and the classics.

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