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Benefits of music lessons

Children nowadays are very fortunate to be offered many learning opportunities by their parents, and the many activities to choose from may include ballet, gymnastics, soccer, swimming, drama, drawing… so why choose music?

Many research articles have shown that music lessons offer a lot of benefits to students.  Besides just learning about notes and rhythms, music studies develop skills that can be applied to different areas of life.  Listed below are just some of the examples:

  • Concentration
  • Good study habits
  • Imagination, creativity
  • Self-expression
  • Patience
  • Perseverance
  • Responsibility
  • Self-discipline
  • Stress management
  • Handling criticism
  • Problems solving skills
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Coordination and fine motor skills
  • Self esteem
  • Poise
  • Memory

Great if you or your children are already taking music lessons!  If you haven’t started, consider the many different possibilities, such as piano, violin, saxophone, flute, guitar, drums, etc.  The options are endless and just waiting for you to explore!


What is an appropriate age to start piano lessons for children?

A general good age to start piano lessons for children is around 5, but there are a few important considerations besides age.  The child’s hand size should be large enough to span 5 keys on the piano keyboard.

  • The child should be able to read numbers and alphabets (A to G), which are the basic notations used in beginner piano books.
  • Beginner piano lessons are usually 30 minutes long, and most teachers will incorporate educational games so the child will not need to sit still for the whole lesson.  However, the child should have an attention span of at least 10-15 minutes to play on the piano during lessons and practices. 
  • The child should show a keen interest to learn to play the piano.

There are many published piano methods books suitable for different ages of beginners.  Your piano teacher should be able to select appropriate books for your child.



Is it too late to start piano lessons as a teenager or adult?

It is never too late to start!  Teenagers and adults are able to understand concepts quickly, and their motivation often enables them to learn at a much faster rate than children.  Their musical adventure also gives them great pleasure and enjoyment. 

There are many published piano method books suitable for teenagers and adults.  These also cover a variety of genres, including classical music, jazz music, popular styles, or improvisation, to accommodate different interests.  Talk to your piano teacher to find method books that would best suit yourself.


Do I need to have a piano at home when I’m taking lessons?

Yes!  Since piano lessons are only 30 or 60-min each week, practices on a piano outside of lessons are very important to reinforce the concepts learned, so that new materials can be taught at the next lesson.  Also, skills such as technique and reading takes time to develop and must be built from consistent practice.

A quality instrument is an important motivation for the musical studies of piano students.  Please refer to the following article about the appropriate kind of piano you should choose.


What kind of piano should I choose?

A good-quality acoustic piano is generally recommended, for proper technique development.  Other options may be considered depending on the student’s level.

Digital piano/keyboard – This is acceptable at the beginners’ level, and is an option for parents who want to evaluate their child’s interest for long-term studies before purchasing an acoustic piano.  Choose one with full-size keys that are weighted and touch sensitive, for proper technical development and playing at different dynamics.

Acoustic upright piano – There are different kinds of upright pianos, and a studio or full-sized upright piano with 48” height is required starting at the intermediate level of piano studies.  A good-quality upright piano can be used up to the advanced levels.

Acoustic grand piano – This is recommended for serious piano students at the advanced levels.  The main advantages over upright pianos are una corda pedals and sostenuto pedals that can be used in advanced repertoire.  However, take into consideration that a good-quality upright piano can sometimes be better than lower-quality grand pianos.

Before making this important decision, students and parents should take sufficient time to play and listen to different types and brands of pianos.  Consider both new or used pianos, and rent-to-own options available at some piano stores.  Also talk to your teacher or piano technicians for more details.


How should I care for and maintain my piano?

Careful consideration should be given to where an acoustic piano is placed, since its mechanisms and sound quality can be affected by changes in temperature and humidity.  It should be placed in a stable environment, away from heat sources, air conditioning, outside walls, or windows with direct sunlight.

Acoustic pianos should be tuned 1-2 times each year by a qualified technician.  It should also be tuned after moving and settling for 3-4 weeks in the new environment.


How can parents help their child’s musical studies? (Part 1)

The role of parents in their child’s musical studies is probably more important than most of us may think, especially when the child is young.  Here are some ways that parents can support their child:

  • Always be supportive and encouraging.
  • Frequently show interest in their work; for example, ask them to play for you, or to tell you what they have been learning in the lessons.
  • Recognize and show appreciation for their efforts, such as keeping up with practices.
  • For specific achievements, praise them enthusiastically and give rewards; for example, buy them their favorite sheet music.
  • Bring them to various musical events for inspiration; these can include piano concerts, symphonies, musicals, operas, etc.
  • Help them to be ready for their lesson so that they can get the most out of it; for example, give them snacks so that they would not be too hungry at the lesson, or let them have a break before the lesson so that they would not be too tired.
  • Communicate with the teacher, to know of their progress and ways to support them.

This will be continued in a subsequent article.


How can parents help their child’s musical studies? (Part 2)

Following the previous article, here are some more ways that parents can support their child’s musical studies:

  • Provide a comfortable practice space that is quiet, with adequate lighting, and free from distractions such as TV, siblings, pets.
  • Provide a suitable instrument for practice; refer to a previous article for details.
  • Help them set up a regular practice schedule and give them reminders.  For young children, setting up a habit to practice at the same time each day, such as after dinner, is usually helpful.
  • Arrange their other activities, so that they can set aside time to practice.
  • For younger children, help them during practices; for example, help them to read their lesson notebook, to find the pieces, and to follow the instructions.
  • Be involved in their practices; for example, sing the lyrics while they play.  For parents with musical background, play piano duets with them if available from their books.

There are plenty of ways that parents can support their child’s musical studies.  Be creative and find ways to best fit the child’s interests and temperament!


How much should I practice?

Practice is very important in your musical studies – in fact, your progress depends more on your 6 days of practices at home than the one day of lesson at which you work with your teacher each week.

Piano students are expected to practice at least 5 days each week, with approximate durations as follows:

  • Beginners – 15 min
  • Grade 1 to 2 – 30 min
  • Grade 3 to 6 – 45 min to 1 hour
  • Grade 7 to 10 – 1 to 1.5 hours

Aim to finish all the work that your teacher assigned, rather than just checking the clock, as the quality of your practice is much more important than quantity.  Effective practice schedule and habits are discussed below.


Setting up good practice schedules and habits

Most students have busy schedules and have only limited time to practice.  Here are some suggestions to using practice time effectively:

  • Set a long-term goal for yourself, for example, taking an exam in a year, performing for family and friends in 6 months.
  • Break the long-term goal into several short-term goals; make these specific and set a realistic timeline to reach each goal.  For example, aim to learn an entire piece or play a set of technical tests up to tempo in a month.
  • Choose a time of the day when you are alert and can focus to practice, for example, after dinner, but not right after soccer.
  • Set up a practice schedule according to the chosen time, and commit to it.
  • Eliminate distractions (e.g. turn off TV, cell phone), to ensure total concentration during practice.

For young children, establishing a habit of regular practice is especially important to prepare them for continued piano studies in the teenage years. 

For advanced students, taking breaks during long practicing sessions (e.g. 2 hours) is helpful to allow relaxation in the body and the mind for better focus.

More on piano practicing tips will follow in another article.


Piano Practicing Tips (Part 1)

The old saying of “practice makes perfect” holds true only when your practice habits are perfect.  Here are some tips for effective practicing:

  • Set a goal for each practice session, e.g. learn a small section fluently.
  • Start with warm-up exercises (e.g. scales, chords, Hanon exercises) and initially play these slowly to relax muscles and to prevent injury.  Piano playing is a physical exercise, so warm up just like athletes do before they run a race.
  • For new pieces or sections, aim to learn it accurately & musically from the start.
  • Do not waste time playing through the entire pieces; focus on the difficult parts.
  • Practice slowly, especially for new or difficult sections – the value of slow practice cannot be over-emphasized, as it allows us time to think and to consistently incorporate all the musical details (e.g. fingerings, rhythms, articulations) and leads to faster progress than if we rush through the piece.
  • Isolate technically challenging materials to practice in small units (e.g. 2-4 measures), then connect these to the sections before & after.
  • Think before each repetition, as mindless repetitions will just reinforce your mistakes.  As Liszt said, “think ten times and play once.”


Piano Practicing Tips (Part 2)

Following the previous article, here are some more tips on effective practicing habits:

  • Follow a general practicing routine for efficiency, but occasionally shuffle the order for more engagement.
  • For difficult rhythms, count aloud and learn the rhythm by tapping first.
  • Practice with a metronome, to help maintain a steady tempo, especially in technical tests.  This can also be used to gradually increase tempo of pieces or sections.
  • For difficult accompaniment patterns, practice hands separately first.
  • For contrapuntal pieces such as Baroque fugues, practice the voices separately to build independence.
  • Record your practices and listen to them afterwards.  This will help you to identify areas to work on that you may not notice while playing.
  • Last but not least, follow your teacher’s suggestions on practice strategies; he/she is experienced and will guide you to the right direction.

Remember that your practice time is precious, so use your time wisely!


Should I take piano exams?

For many students, taking standardized exams from an accredited organization such as RCM (the Royal Conservatory of Music, Canada) is one of the best ways to measure progress.  Other than being a test, the examinations offer many advantages:

  • Sets a long-term goal for students and motivate them to practice throughout the year
  • Ensures well-rounded studies in all areas (balanced repertoire from various musical periods and composers, technique, sight reading, ear training, theory) to developed overall musicianship
  • Ensures steady progress and a solid foundation as students progress through the levels
  • Learns to deal with stress during examination preparation
  • Identifies strengths and weaknesses based on evaluation from examiners
  • exam-1Builds a sense of accomplishment from completing the exams and receiving certificates
  • Receives credits for high school graduation requirements (see article below)

Please refer to another article for exam preparation tips!


Can I get high school credits from RCM examinations?

Yes, completion of specific RCM examinations is recognized for credits toward high school graduation.  The requirements vary by province, and those for British Columbia are listed below: 

  • Credits for grade 10: Grade 6 Piano + Intermediate Rudiments
  • Credits for grade 11: Grade 7 Piano + Advanced Rudiments
  • Credits for grade 12: Grade 8 Piano + Advanced Rudiments

For more details, please talk to your school counselor and see the following link: RCM Examinations & High School Accreditation.


RCM piano exams overview

Many students set goals to take practical examinations at various times of the year.  The Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) offers piano examinations that develop well-balanced musicianship, including repertoire, technique, sight reading, ear training, and music theory.  Below is an overview of the program:

Overview of the levels:exam overview

  • Elementary levels: Preparatory A and B, Grades 1 and 2
  • Intermediate levels: Grades 3 to 6
  • Advanced levels: Grades 7 to 10
  • ARCT Levels: After completion of grade 10, students can choose to specialize in either piano performance or teaching.

Areas of the exams:

  • 3-4 memorized repertoire from different musical periods and of contrasting styles
  • 1-2 studies/etudes that develop specific technical skills
  • Technical requirements, including scales, chords, arpeggios
  • Sight reading, including clapping and playing of musical excerpts
  • Ear training, including rhythm clapback, melody playback, identification of intervals, chords, and cadences

Note that from level 5, there are specific theory co-requisite that should to be completed before candidates can receive certificates for their practical exams.  For more details, please refer to the RCM website or talk to your piano teacher.  Also refer to our other articles for exam preparation tips.


Piano examination tips – Part 1

Preparing for a piano exam takes considerate time and energy.  Here are some tips to help you through the preparation:

  • Choose repertoire carefully with your teacher. These should represent the major musical periods and be balanced in different musical styles (e.g. including fast and slow pieces).  While the pieces should reflect the student’s strengths and be pieces that he/she likes, they should have important learning goals to develop the student’s overall musicianship.
  • Learn all the required repertoire and studies at least a few months before the exam, to allow more time in understanding, polishing, and memorizing the pieces.
  • Work on all areas of the exam, i.e. technique, ear training, sight reading, as all of these complement your playing.
  • Record your pieces – the recorder will serve as an “audience” to prepare you to handle the stress and concentration needed when playing for others. Also, the recording will be a valuable tool for self-evaluation to improve your performances.
  • Arrange for opportunities to play for others, e.g. family, friends, or other students, to gain performance experience.
  • Approximately 2-3 weeks before the exam, play through the complete program at least once a day to get familiar with the process and to develop the focus needed for the actual exam. exam-2
  • Conduct mock exams with your teacher with written evaluation, to identify areas that need improvement and to be prepared to handle the stress at the actual exam.

Please see another article for tips on the day of your exam!


Piano examination tips – Part 2

Finally, the day of your examination arrives!  Even after months of faithful practicing, there are important tips that will help you on this day:

  • Dress tidily, as it’s an important occasion. However, avoid clothing with big sleeves or jewelry and watches that may get in the way of your playing; also, avoid high heels as these may affect your pedaling.
  • Wear gloves in the winter so your hands and fingers won’t get too cold before the exam.
  • Bring your exam program form, repertoire, and studies.
  • Before leaving home, warm up properly with some technical exercises and play through your pieces at a slow tempo.
  • Plan to arrive at the exam center at least 15-20 minutes earlier than your scheduled time.
  • Take deep breaths to help reduce stress.
  • Start with technical tests to get familiar of the piano, as the pianos used for exams are usually new and would feel different from the one at your home.
  • Continue with repertoire, beginning with the ones that you are most confident. Before starting each piece, pause for a few seconds and think about the tempo, style, and mood of the piece.
  • Focus as you play and continue as smoothly and musically as possible despite any possible slip.

It is an important milestone in your exam-3development as a pianist.  May you show the best of what you have practiced and prepared for on this day!


The importance of music theory

Besides being a requirement to obtaining your practical certificates and a co-requisite to your practical examinations, music theory is very important to your piano studies.  Below are just some of the benefits of theory studies:

  • theory-1Increases understanding of music, through knowledge of chords, rhythms, and musical forms
  • Leads to better interpretation of pieces, e.g. how the chord progressions relate to what the music is communicating
  • Leads to better memorization, through understanding of musical patterns, e.g. chords, harmonic progressions, melodic patterns, musical forms
  • Improves sight reading through the recognition of musical patterns, e.g. intervals, chords, cadences
  • Increases appreciation of different musical styles, through studies of music history, various musical periods and composers
  • Builds the foundation for harmonization, improvisation, and composition

The areas of music theory include rudiments, harmony, history, and analysis.  Students usually choose between private lessons that can be tailored to their learning pace and style, or group lessons for the motivation of studying with others.  Other than traditional theory workbooks, there are many resources available such as theory books correlated with beginner piano lesson books, and workbooks that combine music theory and ear training.  Students nowadays can also enjoy the various computer software and internet resources that offer theory exercises suitable for various ages and levels!


When should I start taking theory lessons?

Theoretical studies should be incorporated in the weekly piano lessons, at the elementary piano grades.  Starting from around grade 5, these should be taken in separate lessons from piano studies. 

There are specific theoretical subjects that must be completed to obtain Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) certificates for the practical examinations.  Theory co-requisites for the various levels of RCM examinations are listed below:

  • Basic Rudiments – Grade 5 Practical
  • Intermediate Rudiments – Grade 6 Practical
  • Advanced Rudiments – Grade 7 to 10 Practical
  • Basic Harmony & History 1 – Grade 9 Practical
  • Intermediate Harmony & History 2 – Grade 10 Practical

It is never too early to start taking theory lessons, as theoretical knowledge in all areas helps in understanding and memorization of repertoire, and leads to better performances.  The importance of theory will be discussed in another article.


The importance of technique

The importance of technique in piano studies cannot be overemphasized.  It builds a strong foundation that is essential for students to advance through the grades; however, it is an area often neglected by students and thus their progress would be hindered. technique

Daily practice of technique is important, using exercises such as scales, chords, and arpeggios; these can be played with various dynamics, articulations, and rhythm for variety in practice and technical development.  Technique can also be practiced through collections including Hanon, Czerny (various levels), and Burgmuller, that aim to develop skills such as finger strength and independence, tonal balance, articulations, etc.  Note that posture, a natural hand shape, relaxation and use of the wrists, arms, and shoulders are important in building technique and preventing tension and injury.
Besides dexterity and speed, technique is also about producing beautiful tones and various articulations at the piano.  This is important in the interpretation and performance of repertoire from different musical periods, such as contrasting touches in Baroque music, brilliant scale passages in Classical pieces, wide arpeggiated chords in Romantic pieces, and tonal color that is important in Impressionist music.  The ability to perform with these stylistic features is what makes students’ playing truly musical and enjoyable!


Why should I practice sight reading?

Because it is fun!  Although many students don’t find sight reading enjoyable and often neglect it in their daily practice, it is one of the most important skills that leads to good musicianship and enjoyment of music in the long term.  Here are just a few advantages of developing good sight reading:

  • Makes learning of new pieces much faster, which increases motivation as students are able to learn a greater number of repertoire in a shorter time
  • Enables students to learn pieces independently without help from the teacher
  • Increases satisfaction as students are able to pick up any piece of music (e.g. popular music) and to play it right away
  • More likely to continue to enjoy piano playing, even when not attending lessons anymore; good sight-readers are more likely to be life-long musicians
  • sight read-1Increases opportunities in accompanying and playing for a band or choir; as these positions require fast learning of a great amount of music

There are good reasons to practice your sight reading regularly!  Please refer to another article for ways to practice sight reading.


Practicing sight reading

Besides using traditional sight-reading books that correspond to different piano levels, there are many ways that students can practice sight reading:

  • Practice a variety of short pieces of easier levels for quick study sight read-2
  • Use popular pieces or jazz music of appropriate level for motivation
  • Play simple duets with the teacher or another student as sight-reading exercises; this makes practice more interesting and develops the habit of keeping up with rhythm
  • Accompany singers or another instrument (e.g. violin); this also develops the habit of keeping up with rhythm

Anyone can be a good sight reader with regular practice!  If this is an area that was not developed, carefully choose materials of appropriate level to build confidence and motivation, then gradually increase difficulty as progress is made.  Music theory also reinforces sight reading and should also be incorporated into the students’ studies.


Sight reading tips

Here are some sight-reading tips to help in your practice:

  • Study the piece before playing – check the key signature, time signature, and look for any repeating or difficult patterns in the melody and rhythm
  • Play some part of the music silently on the keys to get a feeling of the chords, patterns, and movements
  • Set a slow tempo based on a difficult part of the piece
  • Pre-count one measure, then start to play and maintain a steady tempo
  • Read ahead to the next few notes, while playing the current material from memory
  • Keep moving forward, and do not stop or hesitate despite of mistake
  • Follow the fingering as marked in the score, or use the most natural fingering without changing hand positions as much as possible
  • Play musically with expression and style, e.g. follow markings such as dynamics (p/f), rit., and listen to the phrases

These skills will become natural as you keep up with practices.  Enjoy your reading!


The importance of ear training

Any musician must have good listening skills!  Although some people are born with a good ear, listening skills can be developed.  Through regular ear training, many important musical skills are built:

  • Better piano playing by increased sensitivity to tonal coloring and tonal balance
  • More secure memorization from aural memory of repertoire ear training
  • The ability to detect errors in playing
  • Improved sight reading from expectation of chords and rhythms
  • Increased understanding of music, by the recognition of pulse, meter, chords, and musical patterns such as phrases and rhythms
  • The recognition and appreciation of different musical styles
  • The ability to play melodies by ear and to harmonize the tunes, e.g. popular music
  • The ability to accompany or to play in ensembles such as bands

Ear training should be incorporated into regular piano lessons, using ear training books that can be combined with theory studies, or computer software and internet resources.  Other than working on exercises, ear training would be much more interesting and better learned if applied to repertoire or to music in general; many students are motivated by the ability to play by ear popular music they hear from movies!


Memorization techniques (part 1)

Memorization is not just a requirement for piano exams, competitions, and auditions.  It offers many benefits including more understanding of the music through analysis of the pieces, increased concentration and attention to details, and more focus and involvement in playing, resulting in a more musical and convincing performance.

Many students memorize their music by merely repetitions – playing enough times until remembering.  Memory-1This is not the correct way to memorize, as students depend on muscle memory that is especially unreliable when performing under pressure such as in exams.

Memorization can start at the first learning of a piece, with understanding of the sounds, chords and patterns.  Learning and memorizing can then continue concurrently to build security.  Besides the notes and rhythms, memorization should also include all musical details, such as articulations, dynamics, and pedaling.  For more approaches to memorization, please refer to Memorization techniques (part 2).


Memorization techniques (part 2)

There are four main approaches to memorizing music:

  1. Analytical memory: Analyze and understand the musical form, phrasing, keys, modulations, intervals, chords, cadences, and other patterns.
  2. Aural memory: Expect the sounds and listen to the intervals, chord progressions,
    cadences, etc; learn and play the melody and chords by ear, and be able to sing the melody from memory.
  3. Visual memory: Study the score away from the piano to form a mental image of the page; remember the hand positions and movements on the keyboard.
  4. Kinesthetic memory: Remember the fingering, movement of the hands and arms. Fingering should always be planned carefully and kept consistent in each practice, otherwise kinesthetic memory would be weakened. Memory-2

Although some of the above approaches are more easily applied to music of specific periods,
all of them should be used in each memorization as they complement each other to build security.

Please refer to Memorization techniques (part 3) for practice strategies.


Memorization techniques (part 3)

Below are memorization practice strategies that can be applied to a variety of repertoire:

  1. Divide the piece into a few sections for memorization (e.g. sections based on musical form). Practice to be able to start playing from any of these sections; these will serve as pick-up points in case of memory lapse during performance.
  2. Memorize the rest of the piece in small overlapping units (e.g. each phrase, 4-measure units) by practicing each part with accurate repetitions until memorized securely.Memory-3
  3. Memorize the various voices independently for Baroque or other contrapuntal pieces.
  4. Memorize the hands separately, or the accompaniment independently; this is
    especially important in Romantic pieces in which the accompaniment patterns are often complicated.
  5. Practice playing the piece at half of the intended tempo to allow time to think through the music; this is important in fast pieces to avoid relying only on muscle memory.
  6. Record your own performances to build concentration, and also arrange to play for family and friends to gain performance experience. These will help to build confidence and secure memorization.

Besides building valuable musical skills as mentioned in a previous article, memorization gives students the freedom to play their favorite pieces at anytime and anywhere, so it is an area that is worth spending time and effort!


Benefits of ensemble music

The involvement in ensemble music is a rewarding experience!  As piano learning and practice is usually an individual experience, playing in an ensemble offer many advantages:

  • Improved listening skills in collaborating and responding to others’ music
  • Higher rhythmic sense in matching rhythms with other musicians, and maintaining a steady pulse despite possible slips in playing
  • Higher musical sensitivity in producing phrasing and playing various styles
  • Increased motivation from the social interaction and joy of making music wither others 
  • Exposure to different instruments and sounds, and enjoyment of fuller musical sounds from multiple instruments
  • Ability to work and collaborate with others

As seen from above, ensemble music helps to build important musicianship and social skills.  The various formats of ensemble opportunities will be discussed in a following article.


Opportunities for ensemble music

There are many opportunities that students can be involved in ensemble music:

  • Play duets with your teacher, parent, or siblings – there are a lot of duets available in beginner method books, many of which offer CDs with orchestrated accompaniment for students to play along at home
  • Play duets with other students – these duets may be played by two students on one piano or on two separate pianos; your teacher can arrange for you to play with another student with adjacent lessons Orchestra Musicians at Performance
  • Accompany singers and choirs, or another instrument (e.g. violin)
  • Join a choir, a band (e.g. school band, jazz band, church band), or an orchestra (with or without piano)

Look for opportunities in schools, churches, community groups for ensemble experience, and be creative in finding your own ways to make music with others!