Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Teach Younger Children and Expand Your Client Base

teaching young kids music

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.

Conclusion

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Marc

    This is interesting and something to think about. I have taught that young and I thought some lessons went well but at least half or more were pretty much a waste of time. At that age it just seemed like if they showed up tired because they didn’t sleep well, had a playdate with a friend they were excited about later in the day, or any other of the many distractions small kids have, they were nearly impossible to teach.

    I really like your idea about changing lesson times on the fly though, I hadn’t thought about that. I’m not sure how parents would feel about paying for a half hour and only getting 10 minutes out of it, they may insist on getting a discount those days which means every lesson might cost something different which makes it less attractive. Still, it might be worth it to have that flexibility. It’s rough to get a 5 year old that didn’t sleep well and absolutely does not want to be there, and then try to make a half hour out of it

  2. Brian

    Hey Marc, thanks for the comment. Yes it can be hard to convince a parent to pay for a half hour when you only gave a 10 minute lesson. I think the best idea is to then split some time between more than one student. Splitting an hour between an older sibling or even the parent is a good way to manage that.

    At first I found the same issues with students not paying attention. The more I experimented with different method books, games, and other techniques I realized it’s just important to learn that a 3 and 6 year old need to be taught in a very different way. I’m still learning, but I think they’re learning quite well now. Most students don’t have a problem with a full half hour anymore. I have a 3 year old I’m teaching now that does 45 minutes almost every lesson. She’s no prodigy or anything, but the lessons are varied enough for her that she seems to do fine most of the time.

  3. Marc

    Hey Brian, you’re absolutely right. Kids learn differently and it takes a different style to keep them engaged. I have started using games, iPad apps, etc. to help the process be more fun which helps. Sooner or later though it seems like practice at home and hard work is necessary to go past a basic level, and that is when a lot of children that young can start to resist. I don’t blame them, when I was 5 it was all about video games and cartoons, I can’t imagine anyone being able to convince me to practice guitar instead. One thing I have noticed though is the parents really have a lot to do with a child’s success. Of all the kids I’ve taught that excelled on the instrument, every one of them had parents that were involved in the lessons and encouraged practice at home, it goes a very long way.
    Anyway great blog I enjoyed it!

  4. Brian

    Definitely, the parents really have to be involved, especially at a very young age. I don’t know how anyone can expect a 3 to even 7 year old to sit by themselves for any amount of time and actually focus and practice correctly daily.

    That’s such a huge ask. It it so rare to find a student like that. My students that have done the best always have had parents that were involved in helping them during the week.

  5. Jenna Nydam

    Thankfully, there is a wonderful resource by Andrea and Trevor Dow of Teach Piano Today. It’s called WunderKeys, and it is a one-on-one piano method (not group lessons) geared to preschoolers, ages 3 – 5! It is wonderful.

  6. Andrew Ingkavet

    If I may toot my own horn, I have specialized in starting students at the preschool age group with great success. I teach others how to do this with a curriculum & method called The Musicolor Method™.

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