At what age did you start learning the piano?
My lessons began aged 8 when one of the teachers at my school remarked to my parents that: ‘Sally sings loudly in assembly – maybe she should learn an instrument?’
Once lessons began I made quite swift progress through the grades arriving at Grade 8 when I was 14. This wasn’t due to any particular ‘gift’ on my part but rather a lovely teacher* that I wanted to please and a Mum who was quite strict about my practice.
it makes me wonder whether there is a right age to start learning the piano or whether it is about having the optimal conditions in place.
Over the summer I gobbled up a fascinating book called Gone by the violinist Min Kym. Kym shot to prominence when her Stradivarius violin was stolen from Caffé Nero at Euston Station in London. The book tells the story of her life leading up to this event and how she eventually learnt to deal with the loss.
On the first few pages she describes how she started to learn the violin. Her big sister was already learning the piano and Min Kym was taken along to sit in on lessons. Once it was decided that she would learn the violin 6-year old Kym created a pretend instrument to ‘play’ until her first lesson. Her first violin was a typical, tiny factory-made one and yet she knew that this was her instrument and that the violin was part of her. Astonishingly, within two months of lessons she had already reached Grade 4 standard.
I was reminded of this when I recently saw a Youtube video of a prodigious young pianist playing Bach aged just 5.
As impressive as this is (and it looks like fun!) I do wonder though where all this prodigiousness leads? Does it lead to a deep and long-lasting connection with music and the instrument? Certainly as you read on with Kym’s book you are starkly aware of the uncomfortable strategies that she used to deal with her ‘extra-ordinariness’.
Is starting to learn an instrument at an older age such a big disadvantage? I’m not sure it is. For example, I have two very good friends and colleagues who are amongst the top rank of musicians in the UK. Both of them started their respective instruments aged 13.
When I was in South Africa as part of my Churchill Fellowship I met many teenage musicians who had only been learning a few years. Here’s an excerpt from my Fellowship Report:
‘In South Africa the opportunity to learn an instrument is a hard-won privilege and, because of cost and the lack of funding for lessons, many students start formal instrumental lessons in their teens. Lesego Mosupyoe, a 19 year old pianist on the performance course at the University of Pretoria, began his piano studies at the age of 13. Similarly the members of the AmAcademy in Pretoria, who were all in their teens or early twenties, had started only a few years before. Their young viola player, had only been learning for a couple of years but had just won a prestigious music scholarship to a school. I believe this once again examples that with the experience and love of music-making in place, development comes effortlessly, as does enjoyment. Thabang Mkhatshwa, a 19 year old trombone player, told me that he had begun learning the instrument aged 15. His enthusiasm and motivation to learn now meant that he had outgrown all the local teachers and that to continue his studies he would need to travel to Cape Town but ideally he would like to come to London to study’.
THE ROLE OF SINGING
To finish let’s go back to the age that I started lessons at – eight. It turns out that in Russia and other previous Soviet Block countries, eight is the right age to start learning the piano. Not sooner and not later. However, in the run-up to eight the children have regular and progressive musicianship lessons. In other words they are singing and are involved in the progressive development of musical skills and concepts.
For the violinst Min Kym the sound of music sessms to have been her preferred language:
I had always lived in a world of sound. I can hardly remember a time when I could not read music. My mother claims she never taught mr, and I certainly don’t remember learning….Certainly the words of music became my favoured language, how I heard the world, interpreted it. A bicycle ring was an E flat. The squeak of a door, C major.
In South Africa music and singing seemed to be in the air with babies strapped on Mum’s back as they walked and sang to work. Formal lessons might have begun at 13 but there had been considerable informal exposure and engagement to musical sound before this.
One of my colleagues mentioned above sang in a famous boys’ choir in his primary school years and of course I appeared to like ‘singing loudly’!
So it seems highly likely that successful learning is more about the conditions that are in place before formal lessons begin.
LET’S GATHER SOME DATA
Currently, this is a topic without an ending. There’s still much to find out about this and I’d really like your help. I’ve created a very simple and quick on-line survey to find out how many beginner pianists you took on at the start of this academic year (2018).
or scan this QR code with your phone
I’m going to dig around into more research on the topic and will be back with a follow-up blog with the results and further thoughts. Stay curious…!
*Her name was Mrs Ethel May for those of you who are interested and she taught first in Coventry and then Kenilworth.
This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart, Co-Founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers