Preschool Piano - What We Are Learning

Preschool piano lessons are a wonderful opportunity for young children, not only to start learning how to play an instrument, but also to reinforce coordination, early math skills, contrasts and listening skills etc. I know there's a lot of curiosity about what a preschooler can actually accomplish at the piano, so in today's post, we're taking a closer look at all that we learn in preschool piano lessons, and how that learning carries forward. Since I use the Wunderkeys method for Preschoolers, this post focuses on how that method progresses through essential skills. I'm including an infographic from the Wunderkeys method authors, but also expanding on that with my own observations.

Aural Skills 
In book one of the preschool method, students learn aural contrasts like high/low, long/short, and moving higher/moving lower. As we move into book two this expands into counting sounds and recognizing aural patterns. In book three, preschool students start to listen for relative note values of quarter, half and whole notes, and continue working on recognizing directional movement and patterns. These early aural skills give young students a musical fluency and vocabulary as they head into primer levels, and early ear training teaches them that music is about the sounds we hear, not just about pushing the keys.

Motor Skills 
In book one we start with isolating each finger on demand, and play games and songs that begin to build the coordination necessary for piano playing. In book two we improve on this finger coordination and begin to play pattern-based melodies. And in book 3 we continue these pattern based melodies, and start alternating between hands as we learn the 'stem up'/'stem down' note reading. This gradual progression of motor coordination is effective because it is accessible for these young students, and they can be successful playing the piano from the beginning. In typical primer level students, crossing the center line to switch hands is one of the places we almost always see pausing in the music, and students who have the benefit of preschool piano lessons have a much easier time passing a melody back and forth in this way. Additionally, having the foundation of finger isolation skills is a huge help when they start to encounter note reading in primer methods, because they don't have to put a lot of extra attention to what their fingers are actually doing, and can focus on the new note reading skills. 

Early Math Skills 
Book 1 begins with simple counting games and activities, giving students practice in one-to-one correlation. One of the things we practice counting are sounds, and since sounds are intangible and you can't touch them to count, we get some practice in abstract reasoning. We also start some very simple pattern recognition, which is essential for success in both music and math. In book 2 we continue to work on patterns, counting, and we practice writing the numerals 1-10. In book 3 as we practice note values, we start counting beats, an even more intangible thing than sounds, but with the experience from book 1, students are able to tap or feel the beat while counting how long a note lasts. This sets students up for success in the primer method because they already have an understanding of beats, and because they get this understanding so early on, they have a very strong sense of rhythm. I've observed that students who go through the preschool method need far fewer reminders about rhythm than their peers who start after preschool at the same level, and they are also very quick to spot patterns in the music which leads to greater musical fluency.

Keyboard Navigation
The preschool method takes place entirely on the black keys, starting with finding patterns of 2 & 3 black keys, and eventually placing fingers in certain positions on those black keys to play the pattern-based melodies. Because they are not having to find a certain small set of white keys to play their pieces, preschool students build a sense of confidence moving around the whole keyboard. Having this learnt early on before we start note reading, means that when their note reading starts to expand beyond position based playing, they are less likely to be intimidated by that kind of movement around the keyboard.

Symbol to Sound Connections 
This is similar to that abstract reasoning I mentioned in the math skills, but there's a specific musical application of understanding that a symbol on the page corresponds to a sound on the keyboard. When we sight read at higher levels, we want to be able to 'hear' the melody in our heads, or audiate, and to do this we have to understand the relationship between the notes on the page and the sounds they represent. Preschool students start by understanding that one symbol equals one note played, and eventually move to an understanding of directional movement and pattern recognition. When students begin to connect the pattern they see to an aural pattern, it becomes very automatic for them to build on this when they progress to higher levels, and again helps increase musical fluency.

Play-based Learning
And the final, perhaps most important, factor in successful preschool music education is understanding that developmentally children this age learn and retain new understanding best through play and discovery. The Wunderkeys method includes games and off-the-bench activities in every lesson as well as for home practice that teach all the essential early music concepts discussed above. All preparatory exercises for their songs are couched in play, and all the songs they play are duets with the teacher to encourage engagement and a sense of fun. And beyond what's included in the books, I often encourage creativity and discovery in lessons, letting students improvise their own melodies along with me, or help me finish one of our duets with a little creative exploration on the black keys.

This studio has now been offering preschool piano lessons consistently for about 5 years, and I have been so impressed by how competent these little students are when they graduate to primer and standard leveled books. The evidence supports that this early childhood opportunity, while often difficult to recognize progress from traditional standards, is very effective at equipping young students for future success at the piano as well as growing both their self-esteem and cognitive reasoning abilities.  

If you have a preschooler who is showing interest in piano, or would like to learn more about availability, drop me a note at the contact page