7 Rules for Helping Young Beginners Learn to Play Piano (or any Musical Instrument)

Hello, parents and teachers! In this article, I'll share my 7 rules on how to successfully help young children learn to play piano (or any other musical instrument).

In each rule, I'll give a pretty thorough explanation on one specific point so that by the end, you'll understand it from an important new perspective: the child's.

When a rule is expressed in the negative (for example, saying what NOT to do), it will always be followed with what TO DO instead.

Finally, at the heart of each rule, there's an important Core Principle which I'll make sure to emphasize so that the spirit of the rule is clear enough to apply elsewhere.

Ready to start? Let's dive in!

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Rule #1. Don't Touch the Keys!

The principle behind Rule #1 is "The brain that does the THINKING does the LEARNING." (Write this one down!)

When a child is trying to play a song, there's a long chain of events that must happen to play a single note, and adults process the chain much faster than kids... So much faster that we're left with enough extra time to get bored waiting. In our desire for stimulation, and in a general spirit of "helpfulness," we decide to "help" the student by jumping on to their keyboard and playing it for them. 

This is often disguised as "showing them what to play..." but that's not a sustainable long-term model (unless you want to sit there forever and do all the thinking for them). Moreover, our brains are fundamentally wired to save energy. It's a survival thing. So if we teach our kids that they don't have to do the thinking, and all they have to do is take a little time, and maybe look at us with some adorable, helpless eyes, you'll come to the rescue and save them from the terrible burden of learning!!! Right?! Wrong!!!

"Being saved from the burden of learning" is, indeed, the perspective some children have some of the time. But there are others, and they're all negative...

  • Sometimes the simple of act of playing the notes for the child simply feels defeating, especially if it happens often. The inner-voice of the child might say something like "Why am I even here if you're just going to play it for me every time?"
  • Or, sometimes the child feels belittled. Since adults always play faster and with greater ease than the child, by comparison, the child feels inadequate. Kids can tell the difference between their performance and yours, but they can't understand all the neuroscience behind WHY you're faster and WHY they're slower, or WHY it's easy for you, but hard for them. If you just don't touch the keys at all, it doesn't raise the question in the first place!
  • Sometimes, playing the notes for the child feels like spoiling the ending of a good movie. Part of the enjoyment of a movie (and a new song) is getting to the ending, but also, experiencing it as it unfolds every step of the way. Imagine if you're watching a movie, and every time something suspenseful was about to happen, someone in the room just BLURTED OUT what was about to happen. And when the next scene starts, they say what's going to happen in THAT scene, too. It's kind of like THAT when someone steps in and plays the song for them! 
  • And, there are a lot of types of joy people get from playing a musical instrument, but the most basic of them is just... playing it! Pianos have a lot of keys, so it's kind of like a giant 88 button video game controller. But when someone else shows up and starts playing the thing you're working on, it's almost like taking the controller out of your hand and finishing the next part of the game without you. In other words, when you play it for them, it can feel to some kids like you're playing INSTEAD of them. It's a real theft of their sense of personal control, and robs their sense of achievement. "And since YOU did it sooooooo well, people should be clapping for YOU instead of ME!"

See how many layers of risk there are in this one little thing? It's not so "little" after all!

"Okay okay Mr. Zach, I get it... But what SHOULD I do instead?!"

Here's what: At most, you can POINT at the spot on the instrument they're supposed to play! BUT, you should only do this a couple of times, then start using Rule #2.


Rule #2. Don't Answer Questions; Ask Them!

If they say "What's that note?", don't just point it out... Instead, ask "What do YOU think it is?" Maybe they'll say a letter name... or maybe they'll try to play a certain key. Either way, you learn more about their question by asking them to take their best guess, and they do more thinking while also being instantly redirected to their own question. Over time, they'll ask less, and think more, because they also learn that your first response is going to be to show what THEY think!

See how this is the same principle as #1? "The brain that does the thinking does the learning!" If they aren't sure what key to press, they'll usually look at you for help. (That's a good thing! See #5 for more details on that...) And WE feel GOOD when we can help, right?! Wrong! We feel good the first few times... maybe even the first few DOZEN times... but somewhere between "dozens" and "hundreds," we get weary... or annoyed, or frustrated!

Using this approach consistently will eventually reshape the entire form of the discussion. They'll come to you with something like "I think this is supposed to be like this, but something doesn't seem right..." Then you'll be working together for solutions. And usually by this point, when they have real questions they can't answer, you might find yourself a little puzzled, too! Even then, stay on the sidelines with questions-only and try to keep them leading the problem-solution effort!

After all, what we REALLY want is to use music as a way to help our kids become better, more independent thinkers, and that means being confronted with NEW types of PROBLEMS that require NEW types of SOLUTIONS. Every time you give away the solution, you take away the opportunity for them to grow and refine a new intellectual-emotional tool they can apply to the rest of their lives. Asking questions gets their brain doing the thinking - and gets OUR brains operating on a higher level where we see beyond "Answering the Question" and begin instead "Developing the Questioner."

Rule #3. Don't Touch Their Hands!

I know in #2, we kind of envisioned the future when our kids are a little older and more sophisticated in their approach to questions and answers, so let's jump back to today when there's a much more real and present temptation: grabbing their hands and pushing their fingers into the keys. You probably know what I'm going to say by now.... DON'T! 

Not touching their hands is a lot like #1, not playing the keys for them, except in this case, the student becomes something like a physical puppet for YOU to play the song THROUGH. It's slightly more acceptable when you're a family member, for example, and all the more tempting because you're much more used to "handling" them when something isn't right. I get it. It's a very natural approach. But (can you can almost hear me saying it again?), the brain that does the thinking does the learning. You could move their hands onto the keys even while they're asleep and they'd "play the song," and learn just about as much...

If you want to get into it, there's a whole set of neural circuitry involved in the simple action of putting the right finger on the right key. They have to know what letter they're supposed to be playing, which means they might have to read the right spot on the page or listen more carefully to the instruction if spoken. Then, they have to find the right key on the keyboard, and choose whether to use their left or right hand, and then choose which finger on that hand to use. And, the arm has to be high enough in the air, and over the right place on the keyboard, and that means the body has to be sitting up enough, which means the bottom (butt) has to be in the right place on the seat, and that means their brain has to be engaged in completing the task in the first place. (Often, THAT'S the one that's missing!) So when THEY have to move their finger onto the right key, and instead you just grab their hand and put it there for them, they now have the additional burden of analyzing why the person who is 3-5x bigger than them (like a giant!) just moved their body around to a new point in space, as well as trying to figure out what they should have been doing and how to do it. See why it complicates the matter, and doesn't get them doing any steps in the string of actions required to be successful? 

Long story short, don't touch their hands. (Fun side-note: since I've always been in the habit of being hands-off, it made the transition to teaching only online especially natural for me!)

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Rule #4. Think "Small Bites"

By now, you're probably ready for this one to come back somehow to "the brain that does the thinking, does the learning..." Well, not exactly. Now we're going to compare a learning episode to a meal.

Remember how small your kids bites were when they started eating solid food? Teaching young beginners needs to be like that... because just a little too much, and they could choke, mentally or emotionally.

When we see a song, the natural inclination is... to play the song, start to finish. But that's like putting a whole meal in front of a child and forcing bite-after-bite without any breaks. We need time to mentally "chew" and then "swallow" before taking the next bite. For the songs in my book and courses for young beginners (grades K-5), that usually means only 1-2 measures at a time, or 4-8 notes at a time... MAX. The younger they are, the smaller that number is, so for Preschoolers and Kindergarteners, it's DEFINITELY 1 measure at a time, or 4 notes max, and for first and second graders, usually 1 measure or 4 notes at a time, but sometimes 2 measures or 8 notes. 3rd-5th grades is the safe zone for 2 measures and 8 notes, but even then, it increases the likelihood of little errors in the notes and rhythms.

For this, my mantra for beginners is "It's better to be BORED than FRUSTRATED" because the "bored" brain step-ups to the optimal challenge level better than the frustrated brain steps-back.

Rule #5. Match THEIR Pace

Remember my mantra from #4: "It's better to be bored than frustrated?" That goes for YOU, too! Part of why we LIKE to go FAST is because going slower feels boring to US. But teaching isn't about US: it's about the student's experience! That means putting aside our own desire for immediate gratification, and instead learning to enjoy the sense of gratification we get from seeing our student's incremental growth and greater and greater success over a looooong period of time. (I'm talking weeks, months, and years...)

More than any other reason, that's why I have to arrange my beginner classes by age group more than any other factor. Too big of an age range, and the pace that feels right to young beginners feels like a bore to older beginners - and vice-verse.

But we already know that going slower is helpful for kids... don't we? Well, let's go deeper. Start with this: As adults, our natural pace for most things is socialized to function well for adults... like the number of words per second we speak... and physical movements like how fast you grab a pencil or how fast you reach for a book and turn the page... and voluntary and involuntary gestures like how quickly you respond with a smile, or how fast you show that you're listening to the child's question and analyzing it... In other words, it's not just our words, but our whole mode of operation that's fine-tuned to communicate usually with our peers!

For young kids, if you slow down your pace 25-50% of your normal operating speed, you'll begin to lock into the wavelength or the frequency of their life... and when you find the right pace, you start to see the world a little differently, like walking in their shoes, or seeing the world through their eyes in a small way.

Side-note #1: I think Mister Rogers might have been someone who was so in-tune with the pace of young kids that it carried over into his interactions with adults. Watch how slowly he moves and talks, even in this famous ad-lib testimony to the Senate Budget Committee to save the funding for public broadcast television:

Side-note #2: This child-like pace is also the basis for the comedy of Will Ferrel's grown-up child in "Elf."

When you slow down and find your kid's pace, they REALLY notice! In their eyes, it's like you earn this special status in their mind as being a rare kind of grown-up who they see has somehow stepped into "their land." (Like when Elf is talking to the little girl at the dentist office...)

And it doesn't take that long to get the hang of, either, because we were all once children ourselves... so learning the pace of children is more of a process of rediscovering something dormant but innate. It's an emotional and intellectual stretch that opens up a whole new world of possibilities for interaction and, overall, a much better connection between ourselves and our kids. Personally, I think it's a WONDERFUL thing to be able to step into "kid land." And most of what it takes is just... slowing... down.

I think it takes the most talented teachers to work with the youngest students. That's probably why Yoda teaches the younglings... The subject matter is the simplest, yes, but the pupils are the most precarious. That why getting great results from young children is truly remarkable.

If you've made it to this point, you're probably leaps ahead of most in understanding. Good job so far! Hopefully by now you can feel the cognitive neuroscience surrounding these basic principles for teaching young kids... For me, it's been life-changing.

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Rule #6. Fix ONE Thing at a Time

Our brains like a lot of different things. Variety is one of them. Being "right" is another. Put those two together, and it's an EPIC formula for teaching.... that is, and epic formula for DISASTER!!!

The reality is, beginners are "wrong" about almost everything, so to catch "all" of their mistakes and relay them back to the student is an exercise in testing emotional fragility more than it's an exercise in teaching well. In fact, the act of teaching is more like the process of good habit formation in that it only comes slowly and with lots of repetition, until the brain has accepted that the most efficient way to achieve the outcome is the manner in which it will now be done... I suppose that's theoretically "possible" after just a few minutes... but in my experience, it begins to take root after several DAYS, and can be said to be successfully integrated after several WEEKS. 

So, just like #4, good teaching requires us to "think in small bites." Here's how I like to do it efficiently: I'll observe the student playing, and start to make a mental list of the things that could be improved, then pick the ONE thing I think will make the BEST or MOST NOTICEABLE improvement to their overall performance. The caveat here is that I want it to be the ONE thing that THEY feel will make it a more noticeably better performance... But our role as teachers ISN'T to always make the student "perform better," which is why sometimes the ONE thing I choose is a suggestion that will make the song or section more FUN or more ENJOYABLE to practice or perform. That's where it's useful to know how it feels to play the song myself... and who my student is in the sense of knowing their underlying motivation for learning it in the first place. If it's to impress their friends or win a talent show or make a beautiful recording for Grandma, that's a very different set of possible suggestions than to achieve technical excellence or be accepted to the upcoming school of fine arts audition...

Regardless of the motive, the principle behind it is the same: Pick ONE thing at a time!

Rule #7. Give the Right Kind of Criticism & Praise

Hopefully by now we've learned a lot about how to get the student to do the playing on the instrument (so THEY do the learning), to ASK questions instead of answer them (so they do the THINKING and the learning), to NOT touch their hands (so they do the thinking and the learning), to think in small bites (so they have time to mentally and emotionally chew without choking), to go 25-50% slower to match ourselves to their pace, and to fix one thing at a time... And true to my own advice, did you notice that we covered each of these topics ONE thing at a time? (And did you notice how I just ASKED, instead of telling?!)

Well, now it's time for one final starter rule on how we verbally deliver criticism and praise to our kids. You might be thinking, "Wait Mr. Zach, that's TWO things!" No, actually, if you do it THIS way, it's ONE thing, called "encouragement." Here's why this is so important:

It's inextricably inherent to the teacher-student relationship that we spend our time improving on mistakes. That means that a great majority of our time is spent talking about things that went wrong, or could be better, or however you want to look at it. Basically, the learning experience is never all sunshine-and-roses, because if it IS, there's no learning happening; and if there's no learning happening, THAT'S NOT A LESSON! It's this aspect of the teacher-student relationship that makes so many parents SO uncomfortable with the idea of teaching their own children... and also why when they DO try, it so often turns sour... So, how do we prevent the relationship from turning sour, even though the nature of the job is to structure a long-term environment of discovering and solving what are, fundamentally, personal, internal, sometimes physical, sometimes intellectual, sometimes even emotional problems??? 

The answer is that we have to learn to use "encouraging vocabulary." For example, in the case of a failure, instead of "Oops, wrong!" learn to say instead "Oops, close!" Saying something was "close" both points out the error, while simultaneously acknowledging their effort and their proximity to success. We don't like to give up when we're "close" because our brain doesn't get as much satisfaction from stopping after some effort as it does from achieving the goal and closing that mental loop with a checkmark next to it that says "goal achieved!" 

So how does this play out in day to day practice? Most of the time, instead of saying "Wow, that was GREAT!" try "Wow, that was so much better than yesterday" or "last week" or "last month!" See how praising by comparison to their past self is the better kind of comparison to praise? I don't think I have to even say this, but for hypothetical's sake, imagine how internally destructive it could be to compare the success of one sibling to another, or even to a highly regarded peer from class, etc. That's because when it comes to EXTERNAL COMPARISON, NO ONE is a good comparison except your own former self.  In other words, everyone is "apples and oranges." Therefore, the only valid comparison to make, and the only one I think we should all truly care to nurture, is to their former self. 

So, what about in the case of GREAT SUCCESS? Should we acknowledge that? Well, yes, sure, BUT ONLY if it really is a true CULMINATION POINT. For example, if you're climbing Mount Everest, and you reach the summit, that's a real sort of "end point" to celebrate! But 99% of the time, we are at home, practicing, playing, learning, trying, and developing ourselves. So 99 out of 100 comments should be in the form of encouragement.

In short, the words we choose to use have powerful influence on our children's internal state. If you doubt that at all, imagine for a second the power of even one harsh insult, even said in jest. On the other hand, somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, is the power of ordinary praise. But on the highest end of powerful communication is a form of communicating with our kids that empowers them to not only do the thinking, but do develop an internal voice that is willing to try and keep trying, and even after succeeding, keep trying some more. 

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