Have you ever been asked to teach music to a 3 or 4-year-old? Do you turn them down? It’s completely within your right to only teach older students. Some teachers just prefer to have students start at an older age, and that’s fine. Let me try to make a case for taking younger students, though.
If your studio is not yet full, you’re turning away income and perhaps discouraging a parent from getting lessons for their child until they are older. There are real benefits to early childhood music lessons that I don’t think should be ignored.
When Can Young Children Start?
A lot of piano teachers don’t like starting before 5. It’s not impossible to start the piano at 3 or even at 2. Lessons at this age just require a different approach. If you’ve ever seen some of the 4-year-old prodigies on YouTube, you’ll realize that someone knows how to teach this young. I don’t think it’s just because they are more “talented” either, for the most part, I believe it’s because they had a good teacher (usually a parent).
What about guitar lessons? Guitars come in different sizes, some of the smallest guitars work just fine for a 3-year-old, although apparently, it’s possible for a 3-year-old to play on a full sized guitar.
Violin teachers seem to be some of the most willing teachers to start children as young as 3. This is due, I think, in part to the Suzuki method. If you’re not familiar with the Suzuki method, it seems to be most commonly taught with string instruments and focuses primarily on learning by ear and by rote for a while before introducing reading music. Suzuki said that students could start as young as 3, and since reading isn’t introduced right away, lessons that young can be a little easier on the students.
Don’t Give Up
In my business, I often get calls for young students looking for a teacher. Instead of just scheduling the student with a teacher like I usually do, I always call the teacher first. A lot of teachers will not want to teach a student that young, but sometimes I’ll find someone who is willing to give it a try.
Almost every time the teacher will teach one lesson and then will let the parents know that the student is not ready for lessons. Is it possible that the teacher is the one not ready?
I totally get it. The first time I taught a 3-year-old I thought my head was going to explode. She didn’t listen or understand just about anything I said. She couldn’t recognize letters on a page, she couldn’t even count very fluently. I thought, “how in the world can I teach her to recognize musical notation?” The lesson was for a half hour, and it was a real struggle to get through even the first 10 minutes. I fought through it for a couple of months because I knew that most of the master pianists started at this age, so there must be something to it.
Finally, the mom said it herself, “We just don’t think she’s ready for lessons yet.” That was like a punch to the stomach. I felt as if I had failed as a teacher and now this little girl was going to miss out on the benefits of a musical education until she was likely around 7 (if she was ever going to start up again).
Change Your Teaching
You cannot teach a 3-year-old like you would a 5 or 6-year-old, you just can’t. Here are some things to think about when teaching a younger student.
Length of the Lesson
If at all possible, talk to the parents about the possibility of ending lessons early. Pushing through lessons just to get to the half-hour mark isn’t going to make the student any better. It may actually turn the young student off to music lessons in the future. If the student has one or more siblings, split the lesson time between each. An hour lesson can be split between the 8-year-old and the 3-year-old for example. The 3-year-old’s lesson comes first. When the 3-year-old is done, you move on to the 8-year-old. It’s ok if the lesson is only 10 or 15 minutes long. Give the rest of the time to the older sibling.
If there is no sibling, you could suggest the parent take lessons as well. The hour could be split between the parent and the young child. This is especially helpful because practice at home is very hard for a 3-year-old, so when a parent can be involved it makes all the difference. If the parent is taking lessons as well, they will be more equipped to help the student practice.
Do A Lot!
If you think you can just sit through one piece of music and drill the same thing over and over again, you’re going to get a very antsy student very quickly. Include improvising, reading, ear training, and rote pieces in your lessons. It’s ok to get up and move around. If you need to stomp around the room to teach rhythms, do it!
Keep Some Teaching The Same
One thing to be careful about is thinking that you can only “introduce” music to a 3-year-old. Some people believe that you can only have fun making sounds at the instrument while playing around with a very young student. I’m not saying this isn’t helpful, but we need to be aware that a 3-year-old does have the capacity to actually learn to play. They can read and play real music that young. You shouldn’t avoid teaching them to read just because they can’t read words yet. You just have to take a different approach.
The Market is Big!
There are a lot of 3 to 4-year-olds out there, and there are a lot of parents that would love to have them take lessons. There are a lot of music teachers out there, but there aren’t a lot who teach that young. It’s simple supply and demand. There is a big supply of students and limited demand. If you can satisfy the demand, you’ll be more likely to succeed.
If you’re having a problem filling your studio, adding students this young can be a great untapped marketing resource. Market yourself as a teacher to very young students. If you figure out how to teach that young, your studio will fill quickly with referrals.
The greatest part about starting students this young is they have amazing potential. It can be very rewarding to work with children as toddlers through there teenage years. You get to see every stage of their progression, and it will help you be a better teacher.
If you don’t think students should start lessons until they are 5-7 years old, I hear you. Lessons are very different for younger students. If you already have a full studio and don’t want the added pressure of wrangling in a three year old, then this article isn’t for you.
If you are looking for more students, though, and you want to widen your horizons as a teacher, then perhaps starting to work with a 3 or 4 year old may be a good direction to move in.
Regardless of which type teacher you are, we need to stop discouraging parents from starting their children this young. It’s a great time developmentally to learn an instrument, and it can give students a big head start.