Many teachers are starting to take on their first preschool piano students. Some are successful, some aren’t, and most just don’t know if they are!
What counts as good progress when we’re teaching 3-5 year old piano students?
It’s important to get our own goals right so that we can feel good about our students’ progress and also so we can educate parents and let them know what to expect.
Goals for the First Year of Preschool Piano
It can be hard to estimate progress with any piano student, and it’s especially tricky at this early age.
However, over the years of teaching many preschool piano students, I’ve come to land on some key priorities for what I want them to be able to do after the first year.
- Can confidently name and navigate the piano keys
- Has a basic understanding of the grand staff and can identify and draw 5 landmark notes
- Can aurally identify: same/different, short/long, high/low and loud/soft and the pentatonic scale in solfa
- Understands and can identify note values: quaver, crotchet, dotted crotchet, minim, dotted minim and semibreve (eighth note, quarter note, dotted quarter note, half note, dotted half note and whole note)
- Can hold a comfortable round hand shape with mostly strong fingertips and sit with good posture at the piano
That’s just a quick run-down. Let’s unpack each of those and see what they really mean, and why they’re important.
By the end of the first year of lessons (30-40 actual lessons) I want my little preschool piano student to know the piano keys extremely well.
That might seem like a teeny tiny goal for a whole year if you’ve never taught preschoolers before. But this is something that can come back to bite you later if you’re not careful.
So let’s be clear. What “tests” (and by tests I of course mean games 😉 ) should the preschooler pass in the area of keyboard geography by the end of the year?
- Name any key on the piano instantly when we point to it.
- Quickly find a key we specify with any particular finger from either hand.
- Be able to tell us what key is next/before a given key name away from the piano. E.g. What note is a step down from D?
They will probably be able to do most of this after the first semester with me. But I’ve learned my lesson through my years of teaching and make sure to continue to check up on these core skills for the whole of the first year.
I don’t want my preschool piano student to be reading fluently hands together on the staff after their first year.
That’s not because that’s impossible. It’s because if you prioritise that goal, you’re going to throw pretty much all the other core skills out of the window.
Remember: it’s about priorities.
What I do want them to have is a basic understanding of the staff including:
- The treble and bass clefs and what they’re for
- How up/down on the staff corresponds to left/right on the piano
- The difference between line notes and space notes
- The difference between steps and skips
- The first 5 landmark notes (in my studio that’s bass C, bass F, middle C, treble G and treble C)
If they know these basic facts they’re off to a good start with the staff and it’s beginning to make sense to them as a system. This understanding is far more important to me than individual note names.
Two of the biggest long-term benefits in my opinion of starting music lessons at a young age are developing good rhythmic and aural skills.
During the first year, I want my students to learn to identify by ear:
- Same vs different
- Short vs long
- Loud vs soft
- High vs low
Most of those won’t be a problem for a preschool piano student to get within the first month or two, with the exception of high vs low. That one can take quite a bit of practice for some kiddos.
The next aural skill I start developing with my preschool students is the solfa pentascale. We start working towards this with just do, re, mi and from there we add so and finally la.
(The Kodály purists among you will be immediately admonishing me for not starting with so-mi. However, I do stand by my decision to start with do, re and mi because it is more easily applicable to the keys (starting with the 3 black keys) and beginning piano pieces.)
That’s a debate for another day though. I recommend you check out my article on Solfa for Piano Teachers…for Beginners if you want more guidance on including solfa in your teaching.
I mentioned above that good rhythmic skills are one of the top benefits I see for students starting lessons at this age.
If you’ve ever had a student that just did not get rhythm, you know how tough that can be to overcome. When we put rhythm at the forefront of preschool piano lessons it means this fundamental skill is never an issue for them. It’s just natural.
You may have been a little surprised at some of the note values I included in the list for the first year such as:
- Quavers (eighth notes)
- Dotted crotchets (dotted quarter notes)
The thing is, there’s nothing actually difficult about these notes and how they sound in music.
The difficult part, and I think the reason they’re left for later on in most method books, is understanding the maths. So if we don’t mention half a beat or 1 and a half beats or exactly what the dot does…we can give our students the experience of these notes much earlier on.
By the end of the first year, my preschool piano student will be able to clap and vocalise patterns using these note values and also to identify one bar patterns of them aurally given a range of options.
And my preschool students love working on rhythm because it means banging drums and boomwhackers and running around the room!
This is the hot-button issue when preschool piano teaching comes up, which is why I’ve left it for last.
Technique doesn’t have to be a struggle if you’re teaching all those other skills and concepts in an interactive way. There’s much more to my beginning piano lessons (with every age) than just sitting still and playing five-finger songs.
Technique is only a problem if you attempt to sit a kiddo at the piano with their fingers spread out over 5 keys right from the get-go.
With that said, there is some extra work you need to do with your preschool piano student when it comes to technique.
- You need to spend longer on finger numbers and the association with the movement of each individual finger.
- You need to reinforce correct sitting position, bench height and footstool height many times, at home and in lessons.
- You should a long time in non-legato work before introducing legato (but this is a great idea for students at any age to reduce collapsing finger joints in the long-run)
That’s about it for technique.
In fact, technique probably takes the least amount of lesson time of any of these first goals – it’s all about small exercises and regular course-corrections.
Sequencing Learning for Preschool Piano Students
I’ve had young beginners on my brain for the past while (even more than usual) as I’ve been preparing to launch my Tiny Finger Takeoff course.
This course takes teachers through 40 weeks of preschool activities and games that they can teach alongside a method book or other work. The plans are carefully sequenced to include the four important areas I’ve mentioned here and they come from my years of experience with this age group.
The Tiny Finger Takeoff is exclusively available to Vibrant Music Teaching members. Learn more and become a member today here to get immediate access.
What would be your first year goals for a preschool piano student?
I’d love to hear where we agree and where we differ. I’m always up for some healthy debate!