Monday, October 1, 2012

Music for Preschoolers Part 2

In an earlier chat with Wan Juan, I learnt about introducing music into our homes. For part 2 of our chat, I presented with Wan Juan the "hard" questions where we dove into the “formal” introduction of music. What are the things to look out for and what would the child learn during these early years? How does one determine if your child has a natural flair for it?

Alicia What age do you think is a good age to start "formal" introduction by attending lessons?

WJ: Group music appreciation lessons, which essentially expose children to various musical concepts, can start as early as 1+ to 2 years old. Children are not expected to sit still throughout the lessons, and the concepts such as musical pitch, rhythm, note-recognition are done through games and songs, so most young children enjoy such lessons. Singing is a big part of such lessons and the sense of rhythm and pitch can be cultivated from young.


Individual instrumental lessons for piano, violin and other instruments would depend on the maturity and developmental age of the child, rather than actual age, but generally not younger than 4 years old. A slightly longer attention span is expected, and the child needs to be able to sit still and be able to understand and follow instructions. Some classes may involve writing activities, so the child needs to be able to hold a pencil and write on his own.

Alicia: In your personal opinion, what should a parent look out for when hiring a private music teacher / choosing a music school?

WJ: These would be some useful questions:

1. Does the teacher has chemistry with your child? Is she truly passionate about teaching and about helping your child grow both musically and as a person?

2. What is the teacher's teaching style and philosophy - I would think that this matters more than the qualifications of the teacher. Is the teacher overly exam-oriented and simply concerned with the passing on of musical knowledge or is she genuinely concerned with building a lifelong passion for music?


3. Is the teacher able to employ different methods, and include the use of teaching aids to provide different learning activities to suit the different age group and learning abilities of the class?

4. What is the level of experience? This is related with the previous point, as obviously a more experienced teacher would be more able to handle children with different learning styles, rather than employ a standard template for all the students.

5. What are her qualifications? I have intentionally placed this last, as I do not think this is the most important. The amount of knowledge may not necessarily translate to the ability to communicate and pass this on to the child. Hence I do not think that the teacher with the highest qualification would definitely be the best teacher. But as a teacher he or she should have at least the relevant knowledge (at least a diploma in Teaching or Performing e.g. DipABRSM, LTCL or LRSM)

Alicia: What should the sessions cover in terms of basic music sessions for a preschooler who is starting at maybe 4YO?


a) Rhythm development - This is normally done "indirectly" by asking students to tap along while singing or while the teaching is playing, simple games like guess the rhythm, clapping back and echoing the teacher.

b) Pitch development and awareness - singing of simple songs and tunes, usually with movement incorporated. Instead of lyrics, some teachers use solfege system (doh, ray, me etc). Both are effective.

c) Note reading/Score reading - this would begin with explanation of how the notation works in terms of lines and spaces, the musical alphabet consisting of A to G only; this is followed by how to locate the notes on the instrument.


d) Aural Training and listening skills - involves a combination of rhythm and pitch activities (singing, clapping etc), with the additional element of musical perception e.g. loudness and softness of the music, tempo and mood.

e) Musical knowledge - learning the duration and counts, note writing and recognition, different musical instruments etc. These can be through activities like flashcards or in theory/writing

f) Technique - for piano it would include proper sitting position, finger numbers, how to hold up the arm and curve fingers while playing

Alicia: Can one tell if a young child (e.g. 3 and below) has a natural flair in music? If so, how do we tell?

WJ: All children have a natural ability to respond to rhythm and pitch at a young age, so it is hard to tell until they reach a slightly older age, say 4 to 5 years old. We can then see how well this ability has developed and how fast the child takes to each type of activity, be it in rhythm, melody, notes reading etc.

He or she would also have a good musical instinct and can form her own perception of the music and may even make go beyond what is taught to her, like making up tunes, possess a perfect pitch etc. In reality, most children would be strong in certain areas but weak in others.


Alicia: I understand that you would recommend parents to start on group classes that teach children music appreciation to set the foundation. But when a child is older and it is time to select an instrument of choice, what can aid the parents in assisting the child to make the decision?

WJ: I think the child's choice overrides all the other factors, because firstly, the child must like the instrument, its tone and be comfortable with the method of tone production. For instance, some students prefer using their mouth (wind instruments) as opposed to fingers (piano).

The parents need to prepare the child on what is expected in terms of the technical requirements and what needs to be done during practice. This is not so much to scare them, but in reality, some children do get put off and lose the interest when the lessons get "serious" and when they realise there are certain "rules" to follow and not simply to play the way that they like.

E.g. for piano, the child must be able to sit still for practices, and be disciplined in terms of cultivating the correct posture. Lastly, the type of repertoire and the potential of the instrument need to also be considered, e.g. piano is more versatile in that it can be played as a solo classical, jazz or in bands, churches, or by accompanying other instruments. Other instruments like saxophones have more modern pieces but may be more restricted as it can only play the melody and would need to go with other instruments in bands. And for the guitar, there is a then a choice between the classical guitar and pop guitar.

Alicia: Once a child starts formal lessons, what can a parent do to support? What are the important things to note?

WJ: Firstly, the parent can help by make practice time at home enjoyable. Rather than leave the child to practice on her own, keep her company and give constructive comments and praises to acknowledge her efforts. Do some extension activities like listen to CDs of similar songs, watch performances on Youtube, tell stories about the orchestra, composers and their music. For pieces with descriptive titles, e.g. Walking, Running, In the Woods etc, find related music and movement or art activities that encourages her to move, compose songs or paint pictures based on the pieces.

Beyond practice, the bigger challenge is to sustain the long term interest and the love of music. Effort is needed to make music a part of your lives so that the child does not equate music to practice.

Find chances for the child to make music and perform for the family e.g special occasions, birthdays, Christmas etc Better yet, make it a daily routine for the whole family to gather to hear her play, e.g. a before or after dinner piece, bedtime song. This is to let her feel that her music is being appreciated.

Share her achievements and be there to follow her progress. Make recordings of her playing so that she can enjoy it herself. Keep a collection of her favourite pieces, or songs that she composed on her own. A journal or notebook is also a good idea for her to write (or draw) her own thoughts and feelings, and enhance creativity at the same time. E.g. If she learns about loud and soft sounds, pictures can be drawn, or if she is capable, compose a short tune with loud and soft sounds. Or she may want to write down how she feels about the new song she has learnt (it makes me feel sad, /reminds of the time I lost my favourite doll / this piece is difficult because I have to use my left hand pinkie finger often, so I need to work on it). Lastly, let her be exposed to the world of music, not only through CDs and listening, but also by attending concerts, musicals so that she gets to hear other people play..


Alicia: Is there any "what NOT to do"?

WJ: At the initial stage, please do not measure your child's progress by the number of songs your child is able to play. It is the quality and what he learns from each song that matters. A good foundation is important so it's better to make sure the concepts are properly understood before moving on.

Do not only step in when the teacher feedbacks that the child has slowed down or lagging behind. This is because by then it is too late as he may already formed a negative impression towards music and the lesson. It is important to be there with your child (not just physically) while she learns and progresses. This means, you share both the difficulties and achievements with her.

This then leads to home support. Home support is very important. Do not ask the child to practice while the rest of the family is enjoying other activities such as tv or computer. Make it a point to listen and enjoy your child's playing. Enjoy music as a whole family.

Wan Chuen is a mum of a 4 year old boy, Kaijie (KJ), who has been teaching piano for more than 10 years. She has a DipABRSM from the Association Board, a LTCL (Licentiate) in Instrumental Teaching and a AmusTCL from Trinity College.

Wan Juan can be contacted at   

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