Why should beginning musicians start with piano lessons?

A lot of people contact me for their young students (or for themselves) about piano lessons, because they heard it’s the “one they should start with.”  Guess what?! That’s not just an urban legend, that’s actually true!  But why?  “And when,” they usually want to know, “can I switch to the instrument I really want to play?”

So first, why is piano the instrument students should start with?

Physical Reasons

  • Coordination – The piano requires coordination in a different way than other instruments. First both hands are working independently!  Well, other instruments require that, too right?  For example, a violin requires a fingering hand and a bow hand, but both hands are reading the same line of music and working together to perform that one line.  Playing the piano requires your brain to read two different “languages” for each hand (bass clef for left hand, usually and treble clef for right hand and add to that different rhythms for each hand).  And both hands then have to “speak” their languages together and in sync to create one thought.
  • Sometimes the instrument you really want to play is not physically possible yet if you are a younger beginner. Other instruments may require fingerings and hand positions that are physically too far of a stretch for a small child.  Also, many wind instruments require too much breath; sometimes beyond the capacity of a small child.  Thus the reasoning behind school band and orchestra programs starting somewhere around fourth or fifth grade and beyond.

Music Knowledge – Getting the Big Picture

  • The piano is the best visual representation of all music theory concepts. Students can very easily see half steps, whole steps, chord building, scale patterns, etc. on the keyboard that is right in front of them.  All other instruments are visually much harder to see.
  • Understanding harmony and how it works is important for any musician and best seen on the piano. With the piano and your two hands, you can create all the parts of the chord or contrapuntal line all in one place.  Other instruments are, for the most part, solo line instruments and just a piece of the larger puzzle.  Guitar comes close, but even it is harder to visually see as that instrument is against your body as you play it and not just right in front of you.
  • Sense of pitch gained from early piano study will help students succeed at other instruments. The piano is very simple, you push the key, and you get the right pitch.  Other instruments require tuning efforts on the part of the musician (enough air to be in tune, the right adjustment to fingerings, etc.).  So, starting with piano will help students develop their musical ear.  This will enable them to make tuning adjustments quicker and easier on any other instrument.

How much piano study is enough?  When can I switch to the instrument I really wanted to play?

 It depends.  Don’t you hate those answers?  But here are some guidelines.

  1. Have I gained all the benefits listed above?
  2. Do I have a good grasp on both treble and bass clef reading?
  3. Am I able to play both hands at the same time with a high level of success and mastery (for my level)?
  4. Am I physically able to hold and maneuver my choice instrument? If you’re 7 years old and want to play upright bass, maybe not yet.

If you can answer yes to these four questions, then you are probably ready to pursue something else.  What can be even more beneficial is to continue to study piano while beginning another instrument.  But if time doesn’t permit and/or you want to give piano a break, it’s okay at this point. 

How long will it take to answer all four of these guideline questions?  This is different for every student, but could be anywhere from 1 – 3 years.  Factors that will contribute to this time-line are:

  1. Consistency of practice from the student which will directly affect how quickly progress is made with piano study.
  2. Being physically ready for their instrument of choice.

Some good instruments for smaller beginners are violin, viola, guitar, and flute.  The string instruments listed come in a variety of sizes that can accommodate smaller hands and arm length.  And flute head joint attachments can be used to help make the instrument fingers more “reachable.”  There may be other good ones, but these are the most popular choices for little hands.

I hope this helps anyone on the fence about starting with piano and/or anyone not sure when is the right time to switch instruments.  When in doubt, play something and practice diligently!