I write this section as an ex-professional composer who was a BBC Young Composer and got a First in Music from Cambridge. I met my husband on the music course.
Before starting to learn an instrument!
We feel the strongest musical foundation you can give a child is to start by letting them listen to loads and loads of live music. So we sang all the time to our children! Not half-singing, but our nicest singing, a huge variety of songs in all different styles from nursery rhymes to R&B to spirituals to Schubert.
We made use of the live music around us: the church choir, local music concerts for young children, music groups, library rhyme time and the choir that meets in our house. Daddy and Mummy both sometimes sneak off to play the piano, so I think they connected the instrument with therapeutic pleasure quite early on.
The next thing we try to teach the children is rhythm. We start by clapping along to songs and dancing to songs. Later we see if they can copy a rhythm. When they can reproduce a rhythm accurately, I feel they are ready to start learning piano properly.
Which instrument and which style of music?
I hear loads of people say "music brings people together". Sure, it brings people of the same tribe together. My impression is that music is a great divider, a way of planting a flag on yourself.
Be aware that if your child becomes good at an instrument, they may well be strongly steered to becoming an established member of the tribe whose music most uses that instrument. One example: a Christian who plays the organ will probably join a high church whereas one that plays the drum kit really well may be more likely to end up in a charismatic church, purely because of early instrumental choice. Someone who learns piano and keyboard can get involved in jazz, classical, pop, soul etc. whereas someone who plays the oboe is going to be stuck in the baroque.
I recommend piano, guitar or drums (get a kit with headphones) + orchestral percussion (once you've mastered the snare drum and kit, orchestral percussion is pretty easy). Second recommendation would be bass guitar or trumpet. Harp is nice if you can transport it and have an available instrument (it's in high demand at weddings, funerals, churches, corporate events, Celtic folk music - who doesn't like a harp?). Joining a choir or local jazz band is a great way to learn group performance and social cue reading skills.
If you have a musical instrument you can teach yourself, even better.
We've chosen singing and piano as a default. I'm pondering whether to offer our eldest guitar or not - we are already doing too much!
Playing the Piano
Our piano is always open and available to bash, whatever the age. We'd often sit with our babies and let them have a good thump.
With our first and second child we started learning to play when they requested to learn. Each time, we made a Faustian bargain with them:
Child: Mum, can I play the piano?
Mum: I'd be delighted if you want to play the piano. It's been really useful to Mummy and Daddy in our lives [true!]. But playing the piano takes daily practice. Are you sure you're ready start practice yet?
Child: I am!
Mum: So is piano something you want to start doing like your other subjects each day?
Mum: Fantastic. Do you want to do your first lesson now?
I take this conversation as a contract allowing me to make them practice every weekday for all term time to come until they quit. Mua ha ha. They are allowed to quit whenever they like, although if they did ask to quit, I would ask them to see it through until the end of the term.
My eldest quit violin after a year. It was an important family moment as it marked the first time our eldest had requested to quit something, and she learnt she could trust us to stop something when it was too much. Piano has been a much more pleasant experience and my gut feeling is that the kids are going to keep going for a long time into the future.
Our eldest is doing really well at piano. At the age of 6 she could play the famous bit of Fur Elise beautifully, crisply and with musicality. Her sight-reading and aural skills are good. She has a good understanding of harmonisation and frequently harmonises her own tunes as a downtime activity.
Our second is on Me and My Piano, Book 1, and is just starting to do work on his left hand.
Practicing the Piano
Our practice normally begins with some kind of scale or technique work to get the fingers moving. This might be playing C-D-E-F-G-F-E-D-C with a good posture and hand position, scales, arpeggios, playing chords with both hands in root position, first inversion, and second inversion, broken chords or working through studies in A Dozen a Day. I am strict about playing in time and count the beat for most activities. I am also strict about having a good hand position. Personally, I developed RSI from playing the oboe, so I think waiting until a child is ready to play with a good body position is worthwhile.
Some days we will do some aural games, like guess the note (Mummy gets tested too!), playing popular songs by ear, harmonising, picking notes out from chords, clapping rhythms etc.
We normally finish by working on our piece. I am too lazy to study more than one piece at a time. Whenever we have tried, our practice ends up lasting more than 40 minutes, at which point everyone is cranky, including Mummy.
We practice a piece until it is played with every note correct, strictly in time. Then we "lift the lid"! Either Mummy plays the piece, pulling the tempo around a lot or otherwise making it quite different in a musical way. For a famous piece, we might listen to a YouTube recording. Then they have fun making the music musical!
My second requested to learn the piano before I thought he was ready. He was so enthusiastic that I basically invented some time-wasting activities, such as leap-frogging from note to note across the piano, e.g. "bounce across 5 different As little frog!". It turned out not to be a waste of time at all because he was really confident in his notes by the time we started actually playing.
Muscle Memory and Growth Mindset
In schools I have seen growth mindset-style sentences pinned to the walls. Perhaps the schools are doing it in earnest. I don't know.
If you are going to practice the piano every day with the aim to get better at playing (rather than simply for the pleasure of pressing the keys), you are going to run head-first into a growth mindset brick wall at some point which needs to be explicitly tackled.
You only get better at piano by making mistakes and correcting those mistakes. There is no way to improve without making mistakes. The better you get, the more mistakes you make when you practice.
We teach that you get good at piano by the number of good quality mistakes you make. A good quality mistake has 4 steps:
1. You make an honest mistake (not on purpose!)
2. You identify the mistake
3. You work on that mistake until it is corrected
4. You play it again correctly to consolidate
In Maths, a bright kid could be led to believe that never making a mistake is the sign of doing well. If they have been taught a method and keep executing the taught methods carefully, it's conceivable they could learn loads without making any mistakes. But piano doesn't work like that.
Piano is mostly muscle memory. You are training your body to do something a bit weird and unnatural at speed. Our bodies are designed to rapidly learn how to use new tools, like spear throwers or cars, so we have this amazing muscle memory capability, but you have to code it into your arm, like a computer. This basically involves you doing the required action slowly, perfectly, then faster and faster and faster until the action is automatic and at speed.
Once you understand piano is about muscle memory, mistakes are not such a big problem. And once you understand mistakes are part of your learning growth, you can tap into the mental joys of growth mindset. When you enjoy challenge, you take on bigger challenges and achieve more. Failure doesn't destroy you in the same way because you are proud of the attempt in the first place.
My daughter is a perfectionist and is still getting upset if she makes a mistake. One thing that really seems to work to get her out of that mindset is getting her to ballet dance around the room before she starts playing. Ballet dance movements are strong and graceful, the opposite of jerky, nervous moves. She does a ballet lift of the hand every time she lifts her hand to the piano. This has really helped her think and move differently.
Similarly, saying words over the top of her playing such as "strong, powerful, graceful" and "soaring like an Eagle over the mountains" seems to make a massive difference to her ability to play without being nervous of mistakes.
Know Your Limits
Learning to play the piano is essentially learning how to recode the way your body moves. When you become out of your depth, I really recommend getting some help. It doesn't have to be weekly. A monthly masterclass from a good pianist backed up by you practicing with your child on a regular basis might work well. I know lots of home educators recommend learning the piano from YouTube, but I have yet to personally meet a good pianist who never had any input physically from a decent musician while they were learning.
Some Piano Books I Like
Me and My Piano, Part 1
Piano Star 1, 2 and 3, ABRSM
A Dozen a Day series
Jazz Piano Pieces (Grade 1-5, ABRSM). Includes improvisation sections for each piece.
ABRSM Grade Pieces (you don't have to sit the exam to use the music!)
Easy Piano: Frozen
The Indispensable Beethoven Collection: 12 Famous Pieces, Schirmer
Disney and many other films and bands have easy piano books available for you to buy. Let your child choose!
Professional Music as a Goal
Music teachers have a habit of saying, "Wow! If you keep this up, you might have a chance of making it professionally!"
We don't say this habitually to children for subjects like Maths, Science, Geography, Computing etc. Being a professional instrumentalist is really not something I would choose as one of my top 50 choices for my own child's future career.
There are many merits to playing the piano without going professional, including providing a useful side income, being able to help out with weddings, funerals, religious services, carol concerts, children's shows etc., as well as the tools learnt from exercising growth mindset and muscle memory.
However, if your child's teacher is pushing them towards professional music as a benchmark of success, it might be worth talking to your child about the huge array of positive options in front of them that are not simply limited to musical fame. It is one of many wonderful options.
If your child gets really good at Music and starts to enter the scene, be aware of sexual exploitation and attacks on self-image.
Having said that, we know lots of very happy professional musicians. If it's your heart's desire, go for it!