Discovering the right hobby for a child can be a musical journey in itself. For many, the piano is more than a beautiful instrument; it’s a path to creativity, growth, and personal development. Learning piano as a child opens doors to a world where melody and imagination intertwine, providing an enriching experience that transcends age and background.
Today, I found myself at the grand piano that filled my childhood with melody. As my fingers danced on its familiar keys, my heart was filled with a complex harmony of joy and sorrow. The sensation was tinged with nostalgia, as memories of my childhood and teenage years spent in music schools flooded back.
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In many Asian cultures, learning piano at a young age is more of a tradition than a hobby. Coming from a Chinese background, this was certainly my experience. The influence of my grandmother, a music teacher herself, meant that my path was set to the rhythm of piano keys and musical notes. It seemed I was destined for a musical path. However, this path was taught the wrong way, as I eventually found myself stepping away from the musical life I once embraced.
My life took a significant turn when I moved from China to New Zealand at the age of 11. The contrast between these two cultures, as different as the notes on a scale, shaped my musical journey in ways both subtle and profound.
Today, as a millennial mother of two, I’ve chosen not to push my 4-year-old daughter towards the piano. Instead, I want her to discover music at her own rhythm, in a way that speaks to her heart.
In this post, I’ll share insights into what it’s like to learn piano as a child across two distinct cultural landscapes, a melody that’s as unique as it is universal. I’ll also explain why I believe in letting my young children explore music on their terms, finding joy and inspiration in their own sweet time.
What is the Best Age to Learn Piano?
The ideal age for starting piano lessons can vary, depending on the goals and interests of the child and family. It’s a question that resonates with many parents, especially those passionate about travel, music, and embracing a simple lifestyle.
If you’re aiming for professional piano playing or pursuing high grades in music later in life, beginning private piano lessons as early as age 4 or even earlier is becoming increasingly common in today’s competitive world.
On the other hand, if the goal is simply to explore the world of music, introduce joy, creativity, and the benefits of learning an instrument, a more relaxed approach is perfectly fine. Engage your child with music and instruments at an early age, but consider waiting until they express a genuine interest in a particular instrument. Casual lessons can provide a gentle introduction, with more focused instruction generally suitable from age 7, when children are often better able to concentrate and enjoy longer practice sessions.
10 Golden Rules for Nurturing a Love of Music in Your Child
Navigating the complex world of music education can be a daunting task for parents. Whether it’s learning piano as a child or exploring other instruments, fostering a genuine passion for music requires a balanced approach. Here are 10 guiding principles to help cultivate a positive musical experience for your child:
- Never force your child to learn and practise an instrument.
- Don’t compare your child to other children.
- Encourage your child’s practices with positive words.
- Make music learning a fun experience, not a painful one.
- Allow room for mistakes; don’t be a perfectionist.
- Be prepared to sacrifice your own time to accompany your child’s practices on a daily basis.
- Expose your child to as many instruments as you can.
- Pay attention to the specific instrument or area of music that your child shows interest in.
- Use lots of praise and show your child how proud you are.
- Practise to reach a goal, not for a set time.
These principles stand as the foundation for a meaningful musical journey. They reflect the importance of understanding, empathy, and flexibility in shaping a child’s musical education. Whether pursuing grades, playing for pleasure, or exploring diverse musical paths, these guidelines will ensure that the melody of learning continues to inspire and enrich your child’s life.
Learning Piano as a Child in Asia vs the West
Learning Piano in Asia
In the intricate world of musical education, Asia has long been a bastion of classical training, fostering a blend of discipline, tradition, and pursuit of excellence. Learning piano as a child here is not merely an extracurricular activity; it’s a structured path, often imbued with cultural significance and familial expectations.
In many Asian cultures, the piano is regarded as more than just an instrument. It symbolises grace, sophistication, and an opportunity to excel. Parents often see the piano as a tool to instil discipline and focus, qualities that are highly prized and transferable to academic pursuits.
Starting Early and the Role of Family
Children often begin piano lessons at a young age, sometimes as early as three or four. Family members, particularly parents and grandparents, play a significant role in this musical journey. They provide support, encouragement, and often sit in on practice sessions, ensuring daily dedication.
Structured Learning and Examinations
Learning piano in Asia typically follows a highly structured path. Students progress through a series of graded examinations, each one a milestone on the journey to musical proficiency. The achievement of passing these exams can be a source of pride for the whole family.
Performance Expectations and Cultural Pressure
Performing in recitals and competitions is an integral part of the learning process. While these performances offer a chance to shine, they also bring their own pressures. Expectations can be high, and the fear of disappointing family or losing face in the community can add emotional complexity to the learning experience.
The Role of Teachers
Teachers are held in high regard and are often seen as vital guides on the student’s musical journey. Their influence extends beyond mere technique, shaping character, and instilling values such as diligence, respect, and perseverance.
Learning Piano in the West
The path to learning piano as a child in Western cultures often strikes a different chord. While there are similarities in the pursuit of musical excellence, the approach tends to emphasise creativity, individuality, and personal connection to music.
Encouraging Exploration and Self-Expression
In Western teaching philosophies, there’s often a focus on nurturing the child’s unique voice and fostering a love for music. Lessons may be less rigid and more exploratory, allowing students to discover different genres and styles. This approach encourages children to find joy in playing, turning the piano into a platform for personal expression.
Flexibility in Learning and Assessments
While formal examinations and grading systems are available, they are often considered optional. The progression is typically more fluid, adapting to the child’s interests and abilities rather than adhering strictly to a set curriculum. This flexible path can make learning piano as a child a more personalised and enjoyable experience.
Emphasising Creativity and Collaboration
Western piano education often includes opportunities for collaboration, improvisation, and composition. Students are encouraged to be creative, experiment with sounds, and even write their own music. This fosters a sense of ownership and a deeper connection to the musical journey.
The Role of Teachers and Parents
Teachers in the West often act as facilitators rather than strict guides, nurturing the child’s musical interests and encouraging them to explore. Parents, too, are generally supportive but may be less involved in daily practice. This hands-off approach can foster independence and self-motivation.
Performance Opportunities and Personal Growth
Performing is still an essential part of learning piano, but it may be approached with a more relaxed attitude. Recitals are often seen as celebratory events rather than high-stakes assessments, creating an environment where children feel free to express themselves without undue pressure.
In short, learning piano as a child in the West offers a vibrant and varied experience, rich in opportunities for personal growth and artistic exploration. It’s a path that resonates with values such as creativity, independence, and the joy of making music. Whether you’re a family embracing the simple lifestyle or a millennial parent passionate about travel and exploration, the Western approach to piano education provides a melody that is both engaging and liberating, echoing the free spirit of individual expression and the universal love of music.
My Piano Journey as a Child in China
How it all began
I began learning the piano at the age of 4 with my grandmother. Vaguely, I remember starting on the keyboard first because the keys were softer for my little fingers to press.
It wasn’t long before my grandmother decided that I had outgrown her expertise, and she introduced me to a colleague of hers. She advised that if I wanted to advance in piano later in life, I needed to transition from the keyboard before my fingers became accustomed to the strengths and techniques required for it. Otherwise, shifting from keyboard to piano later would have been a difficult transition.
My initial practice sessions were modest, just 15 minutes a day. But as my abilities grew, so did my commitment. Soon, I was practising for 30 minutes each day, a small but significant step in my evolving relationship with the piano.
How I became resentful of piano as a child
Without the childhood videos, my earliest memories of playing the piano centre around learning to play Für Elise by Beethoven at the age of 7. I recall the complexity of the piece and thinking that memorising and playing Für Elise seemed impossible at the time.
My grandmother was my constant support, sitting by me, supervising my daily practice, and encouraging me. She taught me that no matter how hard a piece of music seemed, as long as I focused on getting that one bar right, I would conquer the piece and turn the impossible into something possible.
When reflecting on the benefits of learning an instrument, I would say the most valuable skill I gained, which would be useful later in life, was learning to be patient and persistent beyond ordinary limits.
As you can imagine, the day that I played Für Elise was one of my proudest days. I went to school the next day and showed off my piano skills in front of my class. That was my first-ever performance in front of a group audience. I was scared. I stumbled, made mistakes, and didn’t even finish playing the piece.
Because of that failure, my Dad felt so ashamed, and I remember feeling so guilty. I felt so bad that I had brought shame upon my family that I thought to myself, I will never perform again. From that moment, I developed a resentment towards being under the spotlight, a feeling that has lingered with me ever since.
The strains and struggles
Soon after, my grandmother’s colleague recommended that we start taking piano lessons seriously. I began taking private lessons with a well-known piano teacher from the Conservatory of Music in China. She was very harsh and extremely strict.
My hand was small; I was only able to cover 7 keys at the time. I remember the pain from my muscle strain practising jumping octaves (8 keys). Because of the stretch and the strength required to master jumping octaves, the muscles along with my pinky fingers never had enough time to heal and were always in pain.
Every day after school, I dreaded practising the piano. I just wanted to play outside with my cousins, but I knew I had to fulfil my duty of an hour-long piano playing. I watched the clock tick minute by minute, twiddled my thumbs, and listened to the conversation and laughter from all around. I was physically sitting in front of the piano, but my mind was long gone.
The rigorous road to Grade 7
My weekly piano lessons were far from pleasant; my piano teacher seldom smiled, and as far back as I can remember, there was never a word of praise for my efforts. Another wrong note, another incorrect expression, another rigid performance… others were always deemed so much better than me. “Look at her; she’s so good and perfect,” my teacher would say.
These memories linger, especially of the girl who was hailed as being superior to me in every way. The comparisons clearly left a mark on my self-esteem and shaped my feelings towards the piano.
Parents, avoid comparing your child to others. This is one certain way to discourage your child and quash any budding interest they may have in music.
In China, high grades in extracurricular activities like music or art could earn you bonus points at graduation, increasing your chances of getting into a prestigious school. Thus, I was set the goal of reaching ABRSM Grade 7 (Royal Schools of Music) before completing primary school. With the increased practice hours came a mounting sense of stress and a growing resentment towards the piano.
Eventually, I passed my Grade 7 exam, but the accomplishment didn’t bring joy or pride. Relief was my only emotion.
Below is a video of one of my first on-stage performances—an end-of-year recital before my exam when I was 11. My nervousness is palpable. I was consumed with playing every note correctly, fearing the disapproval of my teacher and parents. The sole thought in my mind was to avoid any mistakes and finish the piece, longing for it all to be over.
The end of my piano journey in China
After this piano performance, I relocated to New Zealand with my mum, and I didn’t play the piano again until I was 16.
Although playing the piano never appealed to me in the slightest, I found a unique joy in music that transcended my lack of interest in the piano. I adored playing my favourite cartoon songs. Not only could I perform them on the piano, but I also had the ability to write them down on paper. Unfortunately, this particular interest of mine went unnoticed… until later on in New Zealand.
We’ll get into this a little later.
My Piano Journey as a Teen in the West
Piano learning experiences in the West
As recounted above, following my move to New Zealand, I didn’t play the piano again until I was 16. My mother, ever eager for me to achieve high grades in Music — more for pride than anything else, I believe — made me a promise.
She pledged that she would never force me to play the piano again if I could obtain an ATCL performance diploma from Trinity College London. Keen to end my relationship with the piano on a high note, and thinking it would be an impressive feat to flaunt at school, I agreed.
We sought out a Chinese teacher in New Zealand, who had been trained at the same Conservatory of Music I had attended earlier. After a few lessons with him, he concluded that while my fundamental piano techniques were sound, I was not an ideal student.
He urged my mum and me to quit, convinced that it would be impossible for me to achieve the ATCL within a year or so. He expressed concern that if students failed their piano exams, the teachers’ reputations could suffer, making it more difficult for them to attract future students. This was why my then-piano teacher pleaded with us to move on and find another instructor.
His disapproval was disheartening, to say the least, but by that stage, life had presented me with enough challenges that I had become both rebellious and resolute enough to persist. His words, though cutting, only fuelled my determination to succeed.
The piano teacher that changed my life
We decided to explore the approach of Western piano teachers and searched for the best in our area. This led us to Mr Baker.
Upon expressing our goal of achieving ATCL, Mr Baker let out a long sigh. He warned us not to be overly optimistic, as passing an exam so far beyond my current capability in such a short time was highly unlikely.
While he wasn’t supportive of my mother’s parenting style and believed her expectations were too high, he did promise to give his best effort. His words were a mix of realism and commitment, acknowledging the challenge while offering a guiding hand on this ambitious musical journey.
Parents: A great teacher may not necessarily be brilliant instrument players themselves, but they must possess a positive attitude and excel in teaching.
And so, my musical journey took a new turn with Mr Baker. Still holding grudges from my experiences with my previous teacher, I set myself a bold challenge. I chose three of the hardest pieces to play for the ATCL exam. This decision was not just about proving my skills; it was a statement of my renewed passion and determination.
As soon as I set eyes on the music sheets for Beethoven’s Sonata No. 12 Op. 26, I regretted my choice. The notes on the page resembled crawling ants, and the piece was 20 minutes long!
Initially, Mr Baker’s lessons were filled with music theory, and we spent considerable time discussing the stories and biographies of composers like Beethoven, Chopin, and Ravel. Given the cost of piano lessons, my mum and I were initially less than thrilled about this approach.
However, Mr Baker emphasised a crucial point: I shouldn’t be overly concerned about playing a wrong note. Instead, he encouraged me to focus on the flow of the music and to express myself freely. It was during these theory lessons that Mr Baker discovered my strengths in composition. (We’re getting there…)
As the ATCL exam loomed, it became clear that I wasn’t going to pass with my current level of piano skills. However, Mr Baker’s teaching style completely transformed my understanding of music, overturning the rigid methods I’d learned in China during my childhood.
Slowly but surely, I began to appreciate music and, for the first time in my life, I genuinely enjoyed playing the piano. His guidance and encouragement not only helped me develop my skills but reignited my passion for music, making the piano keys resonate not just with sound but with joy and self-expression.
During a memorable piano lesson, Mr Baker suddenly exclaimed that something had finally ‘clicked’ in my playing. He couldn’t quite pinpoint what had changed, but there was no denying that something had indeed transformed.
He noticed a unique authenticity in my pieces, something he believed the judges of Trinity College London might either adore or dislike. It was a risk, but it felt worth taking. For the first time in a while, I felt hope about passing the seemingly insurmountable ATCL exam.
My resentment towards practising the piano melted away. In the few months leading up to the exam, I dedicated myself to 6-8 hours of daily practice, immersed in solitude and the beauty of music.
Below, you’ll find the recordings of my exam pieces, captured during one of those transformative piano lessons.
Then the day arrived. I entered the exam room filled with confidence and determination, ready to take on the ATCL examination. The entire process was recorded, with the recordings sent to London for evaluation by the judges.
Despite my preparation, I made mistakes during the exam. I misunderstood my examiner and played a scale in the wrong key. Errors crept into my piano pieces, yet I didn’t pause or panic. Instead, I focused on expressing myself, immersing my mind in the composers’ lives and the world they created through their music.
And then, on a miraculous morning in 2005, Mr Baker roused me from my deep sleep with exhilarating news: I had passed my piano exam. But I didn’t just pass; I achieved a Merit, a commendable grade in a system divided into four tiers: Fail, Pass, Merit, and Excellence.
That moment became a triumphant chapter in my journey of learning piano as a child. The experience taught me that success in music is not merely about playing without mistakes but about connecting with the essence of the composition, understanding the emotions, and sharing those feelings with listeners. The grades are a milestone, but the real victory lies in embracing the music’s soul, turning notes and keys into a language that speaks to the heart.
How I found out piano wasn’t for me and what is
During my high school years, the music class offered students with musical backgrounds the opportunity to learn second instruments at no additional cost. I seized the chance and picked up both the cello and violin.
It was the cello that quickly captured my heart. I was drawn to the deep, rich sounds it produced and the tactile thrill of the vibrations on the strings. I found myself eagerly looking forward to practising at home after school, and I progressed in the cello far more rapidly than I had with the piano. My passion and dedication were so strong that I had plans to pursue Grade 7, but those plans were set aside due to my discretionary entrance to university.
The experience with the cello was a stark contrast to my earlier struggles with the piano. It underscored the importance of allowing children to explore and connect with an instrument that truly resonates with them. Sometimes, it’s not about pushing them toward a predestined path but allowing them to find their own melody. It can lead to a more authentic and enjoyable musical journey, one that continues to inspire and enrich their lives.
Shortly thereafter, I joined the school’s Symphonia, playing the cello. Interestingly, the dread I previously felt about being on stage seemed to vanish. Surrounded by fellow musicians and freed from the pressure of being a soloist under the spotlight, I felt at ease.
Among my most cherished memories is our school performance at the Sydney Opera House. That extraordinary experience not only marked a high point in my musical journey but also had a profound impact on my life. It was then that I fell in love with Sydney, a love that would lead me to move across the Tasman just a few years later. This shift from a resentful relationship with music to one filled with joy and connection underscores the transformative power of shared musical experiences.
It became clear that string instruments might have been more suited to me. However, I was never exposed to any instruments other than the piano in my early days.
Perhaps if I had pursued the cello from a young age, my musical journey would have unfolded differently.
How I found my real musical talent
During my high school days, a music teacher, who was also a well-known New Zealand composer, acknowledged my composition talent. He awarded me a perfect 10/10 on a school project, even though I hadn’t devoted much attention to it.
Whether he was merely encouraging me or genuinely appreciated my work didn’t matter. What mattered was that this music teacher instilled in me the confidence I needed to apply for discretionary entrance to study Music Composition at the School of Music, University of Auckland. I was accepted.
During my three years at university, I observed many classmates from Composition and Performance being transferred to Music Theory as a subtle way of elimination. I never understood why I wasn’t selected for transfer, especially since I was never an A student.
With the passage of time and a deeper understanding of music, I came to realise that it had to do with my unique music writing style. Having experienced a broken family and a rebellious teenage life, I poured all of my emotions into my music. While some teachers admired my unconventional creations, others disapproved. Regardless, I graduated with a Bachelor of Music.
I fulfilled my mother’s dreams by obtaining the two certificates she had always desired for me. With those achievements in hand, I was finally ready to bid farewell to music, once and for all.
Another passion of mine that was discovered too late
As a teenager, I was one among a billion who was obsessed with popular music. I loved singing covers of pop songs, but my shyness held me back. No matter how hard I worked, my family never praised my singing. Therefore, I wanted to pursue it further and found myself a voice teacher.
During my first lesson, I played Christina Aguilera’s CD to my singing teacher and told her I wanted a voice like that. Her response was that a voice like Christina’s only belonged to people of the Western race; Asians could never have a big voice due to their thin vocal cords.
Soon after, many Asian singers earned fame through their big voices and belting became a trend in popular music.
It turned out that my singing teacher was classically trained as a female opera singer. The issue wasn’t that Asians were physically different, but rather that she wasn’t the right teacher for me. My family didn’t support me in popular music, so I eventually gave up on my dreams.
Sure, I may not be the next Christina Aguilera, but I never even got the chance to try before my dreams were crushed.
Parents, if your child expresses interest in a certain area of music, even if it’s not something you like, try to be supportive. Because at the end of the day, it is their life and their dreams.
So what is music really?
Music is a way of expressing our emotions, feelings, and stories. It isn’t a certificate to obtain or something to flaunt at school. A piece of music is more than just ‘do re mi fa so’, or ‘ppp ff’, and it certainly doesn’t make you a great pianist simply to follow what’s written on a piece of paper and play those notes perfectly like a machine.
A great piece of music must be expressed through a performer’s own personal growth, infused with his or her interpretation of the masterpiece. Only then can the magic of music flow through the body of that performer and be passed down to their fingertips.
Why I’m not encouraging my 4-year-old daughter to learn piano
Dad often suggested that I should play music pieces that the public recognises and is familiar with. Did you know? The pieces that are known to the public are usually not that hard to play. They don’t require decades of learning the piano or acquiring masterful finger skills.
So if your goal as a parent is to improve your child’s motor skills, sharpen brain development, foster excellent memories, and teach patience and discipline, then you don’t need to teach your child music in a strict and harsh way.
Let your child learn at their own pace and enjoy the process. Avoid measuring your child’s success with grades and certificates. This approach nurtures a love for music, making the learning process an enjoyable adventure rather than a rigid obligation.
Many pianists don’t necessarily have perfect hand positions or techniques, yet they play the most beautiful music. They may not have learned piano from the age of 4, but their love for playing the piano helped them make a name for themselves after only a few years in the field.
Learning piano is a tough journey for both the child and the parents. It’s a path where you must be prepared to invest everything and not turn back during difficult times. As such, a passion for music is almost an essential prerequisite for learning any instrument.
In my family’s case, my daughter didn’t show signs of exceptional musical talent, nor did she express interest in learning the piano. Therefore, I don’t want to put her through what I experienced.
That said, if one day she discovers an interest in music, I will gladly guide and support her musical journey. Hopefully, she will find more success and joy in life than I did, forging her own unique path in the world of music.
Conclusion: Finding Your Tune
Learning piano as a child has been a transformative journey for me, one filled with both challenges and triumphs. This adventure has allowed me to glimpse into two contrasting worlds of music education – Asia and the West.
In my early years in China, the focus on precision, discipline, and attainment of grades created a structured yet rigid musical environment. The relentless pursuit of perfection often overshadowed the joy of playing, leading to a stressful experience. Comparisons and constant scrutiny underlined my every move on the keys, turning music into a task rather than a source of inspiration.
After moving to New Zealand, I was introduced to a different musical culture. The Western approach seemed more inclined towards self-expression, creativity, and individuality. Mistakes were not seen as failures but learning opportunities. Music was a means of communication, a way to convey emotions and tell a story.
These two experiences, though starkly different, shaped my understanding of music and my relationship with the piano. The Eastern methodology gave me a solid foundation and disciplined approach, while the Western perspective provided room for exploration and personal growth.
If I could offer any insight to parents around the world contemplating musical education for their children, it would be to strive for a balance. Allow the rigour and structure to build the necessary skills, but also give space for the child to find their voice, to experiment, and most importantly, to enjoy the process. Encourage them to connect with the music, not just the notes.
The tapestry of my musical journey, woven with threads from both East and West, is a testament to the complexity and richness of learning piano as a child. It’s a path that has not only shaped my abilities as a musician but has also influenced my outlook on life, patience, persistence, and the art of turning the impossible into the possible. Whether in Asia or the West, the ultimate goal should be to create a harmonious melody that resonates not only with the ears but with the heart and soul. It’s not just about playing music; it’s about living it.
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