Today, I had the pleasure of running my fingers on the smooth keys of my old grand piano again. My heart ached. I spent all my childhood playing the piano and all my teenage years in music schools.
You may have noticed a strong cultural preference of Asian parents forcing their kids to learn piano at a very young age. My background is Chinese, and this is true in my case.
My grandmother was a music teacher, so my family was heavily influenced by piano and musical instruments. Inevitably, I was born with a musical path laid out for me. Sadly, I was taught the wrong way, and I ended my musical life as soon as I could.
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I moved from China to New Zealand at the age of 11. The drastic change of culture and the way of teaching had impacted my musical life very differently. So you will get an insight into what it’s like to learn piano from two very different cultural environments in this post.
I don’t mean to sound negative or discourage you or your child from learning piano here at all. I’m simply sharing the story of my life so you can take my lessons and apply them to your own life.
For 15 years, I had a love-hate relationship with piano. I’m no longer a pianist, and here is the story of my life as an ex-pianist / composer and why I don’t teach my 4-year-old daughter piano.
I hope you can find something useful in this post and don’t forget to share, like and comment!
How I started learning the piano as a child
I started learning the piano at the age of 4 with my grandmother. Vaguely, I remembered learning keyboard first because the keys on the keyboards were softer for my little fingers to press.
It wasn’t long before my grandmother decided that I grew out of her expertise, and she introduced me to a colleague of hers. She recommended that if I wanted to advance in piano later in life, I needed to stop with the keyboard before my fingers got used to the strengths and techniques required for a keyboard. Otherwise, it would have been a hard transition to shift from keyboard to piano later.
© Photos by Kida
At first, I had to practise piano 15 minutes a day, but that quickly increased to 30 minutes a day.
What is the best age to learn piano
If you want your child to be a professional piano player or achieve high grades in music later in life, it’s not uncommon for kids to start private piano lessons from the age of 4 in today’s competitive environment.
However, if you just want to explore musical possibilities for your child and reap the benefits of learning an instrument, then start introducing music and instruments at an early age. Start casual music lessons when your child expresses interest in a particular instrument from the age of 4. Pursue further when they can listen and sit down for a prolonged period of time, usually from the age of 7.
My earliest lessons from playing the piano
Without my childhood videos, my earliest memories of playing the piano were learning to play Für Elise by Beethoven at the age of 7. I remembered how hard the piece was and thinking it was impossible to memorise and play Für Elise at the time.
My grandmother used to sit by me, encouraging me and supervise my practises each day. She taught me no matter how hard a piece of music seemed, as long as I focused on getting that one bar right, I will conquer the piece and turn the impossible possible.
If you ask me the benefits of learning an instrument. I would say one of the most beneficial skills that will be useful later in life is learning to be patient and persistent more than a normal human being’s threshold.
As you can imagine, the day that I played Für Elise was one of my proudest days. I went to school the next day and showed off my piano skills in front of my class. That was my first ever performance in front of a group audience. I was scared. I stumbled, made mistakes and didn’t even finish playing the piece.
Because of that failure, my Dad felt so ashamed, and I remembered feeling so guilty. I felt so bad that I brought shame upon my family I thought to myself, I will never perform again. I resented being under the spotlight and going on stage ever since.
How I became resentful to piano as a child
Soon after, my grandmother’s colleague recommended me to start taking piano lessons seriously. I began taking private lessons with a well-known piano teacher from the Conservatory of Music in China. She was very harsh and extremely strict.
My hand was small, I was only able to cover 7 keys at the time. I remembered the pain from my muscle strain practising jumping octaves (8 keys). Because of the stretch and the strengths required to master jumping octaves, the muscles along my pinky fingers (abductor digiti minimi muscles) never had enough time to heal, and were always in pain.
Every day after school, I dreaded practising piano. I just wanted to play outside with my cousins, but I knew I had to fulfil my duty of an hour-long piano playing. I watched the clock tick minute by minute, twiddled my thumbs and listened to the conversation and laughter from all around. I was physically sitting in front of the piano, but my mind was long gone.
How NOT to teach your child piano
My weekly piano lessons were never pleasant, my piano teacher never smiled, and for as long as I can remember, there was never a nice thing to say about my practices. Another wrong note, another wrong expression, another stiff performance… so and so were so much better than me. Look at her, she was so good and perfect.
All these years, I still remember her face and her name – the girl that was better than me in every way. Clearly, being compared to had a significant impact on my self-esteem and the way I felt about piano.
Parents, don’t compare your child to others. This is one sure way to discourage your child and kill any little interest they may have in music.
© Photos by Kida
Back in China, if you achieved high grades in a extracurricular activity such as music or art, you will receive bonus points at graduation, which will boost your chances of getting into a better school.
So we had a goal of reaching ABRSM Grade 7 (Royal Schools of Music) before my primary school graduation. Apart from the increased hours of practices, the amount of stress and resentment towards piano also increased for me.
Eventually, I did pass my Grade 7 exam. Ironically, I don’t recall being happy or proud about it, but rather relieved.
Here is a video of one of my first on-stage performances – an end-of-year recital before my exam. I was 11. Can you tell? I was so nervous, focusing on playing every note right so my teacher and my parents wouldn’t scold me. There was only one thought on my mind: don’t play a wrong note, finish the piece so this can be all over.
That, was not music.
The end of my piano learning journey in China
Until the age of 11, I never liked playing the piano one bit.
However, there was one thing I really enjoyed about music. I loved playing my favourite cartoon songs. Not only I was able to play them on the piano, but I was also able to write them down on paper. But no one noticed that particular interest of mine.
We’ll come back to that note a little later in this post.
After that piano performance, I moved to New Zealand with my mum. And I didn’t touch a piano until I was 16.
Before we continue the story of my life as a musician, let’s conclude the first half of my piano learning journey on a positive note by turning my bad learning experiences into lessons.
10 Highly effective ways to teach your child music
1. Never force your child to learn and practise an instrument.
2. Don’t compare your child to other children.
3. Encourage your child’s practices with positive words.
4. Make music learning a fun experience, not a painful experience.
5. Allow room for mistakes, don’t be a perfectionist.
6. Be prepared to sacrifice your own time to accompany your child’s practices on a daily basis.
7. Expose your child to as many instruments as you can.
8. Pay attention to the specific instrument or area of music that your child shows interest in.
9. Use lots of praises and show your child how proud you are.
10. Practice to reach a goal, not a set time.
Learning piano in a western country
As mentioned above, since moving to New Zealand, I didn’t touch a piano until I was 16. My mother always wanted me to obtain high grades in Music, more for pride than anything else I’d say.
She promised she’ll never force me to play the piano again if I can obtain an ATCL performance diploma from Trinity College London. I wanted to end my affair with piano on a positive note, and I thought it was something cool to show off at school at the time, so I agreed.
We found a Chinese teacher here in New Zealand. He was from the same Conservatory of Music as I had learned from before. After a few piano lessons with him, he concluded that my essential piano techniques were good, but I wasn’t a good student.
He encouraged mum and me to quit because it was impossible for me to achieve ATCL in a little over a year. If students don’t pass piano exams, the teachers’ reputations will be affected and therefore harder for them to gain future students. That was why my -then- piano teacher begged us to move on and find another teacher.
I was greatly discouraged by his disapproval, but by then, life had thrown enough challenges at me that I was rebellious and determined enough to persist.
© Photos by Kida
The piano teacher that changed my life
We decided to give western piano teachers a chance and searched around for the best piano teachers in the area, and we found Mr Baker.
We expressed our goal of achieving ATCL to Mr Baker, and he too, let out a long sigh and told us not to hold our breaths as it was highly unlikely to pass an exam far beyond my capability in such a short time.
He wasn’t supportive of my mother’s parenting style and had told her that her expectations were too high. However, he promised to give his best.
Parents, a great teacher isn’t necessarily a great instrument player himself. But he must have a positive attitude and be great at teaching.
And so, I started learning piano again from Mr Baker. Because I was still holding grudges from the previous teacher, I decided to pick 3 of the hardest pieces to play for the ATCL exam.
As soon as I saw the music sheets of Beethoven Sonata No. 12 Op. 26, I regretted choosing it. The notes on the music sheets looked like crawling ants, and it was 20 minutes long!
At first, Mr Baker sat me down lesson after lesson teaching me music theories. I’m sure we all know how expensive piano lessons are. So mum and I weren’t very impressed listening to the stories and biographies of Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel and so on at such a cost.
During that time, Mr Baker stressed that I shouldn’t be overly concerned about playing a wrong note. Instead, try focusing on the flow of music and expressing myself freely. It was also Mr Baker who found my strengths in composition during my theory lessons. (We’re getting to the point!)
Months before the ATCL exam, it was apparent that I wasn’t going to pass with my level of piano skills. However, Mr Baker’s teaching style had overturned what I had learned in China throughout my childhood entirely.
Slowly but surely, I started liking music and enjoyed playing the piano for the first time in my life.
© Photos by Kida
During one memorable piano lesson, Mr Baker exclaimed in surprise that I finally ‘clicked’. He wasn’t able to pinpoint what had changed in my piano playing, but something had changed.
He said there was a unique authenticity in my pieces that the judges of Trinity College London would either love or hate. It was worth a gamble. Suddenly, I had hopes of passing the seemingly impossible ATCL exam.
I no longer resented practising the piano at home. In the few months leading up to the exam, I practised 6-8 hours a day in solitude.
Here are the recordings of my exam pieces during one of my piano lessons.
Then the day came. I went into the exam room with confidence and determination. The examiner recorded the entire ATCL examination and sent the recordings to London for the judges to evaluate.
Believe it or not, I made mistakes in my exam. I heard my examiner wrong and played a scale in the wrong key. I stumbled and made errors in my piano pieces. But I didn’t pause or panic. I focused on expressing myself, visualising myself in the music composers’ lives.
Then, one miracle morning in 2005, Mr Baker woke me up from my deep sleep and brought me the good news that I had passed my piano exam. In fact, I didn’t just pass. I passed with a Merit. (The grades were divided into 4 tiers: Failed, Pass, Merit and Excellence)
© Photos by Kida
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How I found out piano didn’t suit me
During the same high school years, my music class offered students with musical advantages to learn second instruments for free. I picked up cello and violin.
My love for cello grew very quickly. I loved the deep rich sounds of the cello, and I loved the vibrations on the strings. I looked forward to practising at home after school and excelled in cello far quicker than I did in piano. I had plans to go for Grade 7 if it wasn’t for my discretionary entrance to university.
© Photos by Kida
Shortly after, I got into the school symphonia playing cello. Interestingly, I didn’t dread going up on stage anymore. Being surrounded by fellow musicians and the fact that I wasn’t a soloist under the spotlight, I felt at ease.
One of the fondest memories in my life had to be our school performance at Sydney Opera House. This performance later changed my life when I fell in love with Sydney and moved across the Tasman a few years later.
It was clear that string instruments were more suited for me. Unfortunately, I was never exposed to any instruments other than piano in my early days.
Perhaps if I pursued cello from a young age, my music career would have worked out differently.
How I found my real musical talent
It was back in high school days again, a music teacher who was also a well-known New Zealand composer validated my composition talent. He gave me a 10/10 on a school project that I didn’t pay much attention to.
Whether it was out of encouragement or he really liked my work, it didn’t matter because that music teacher gave me the confidence I needed to apply for a discretionary entrance to study Music Composition at the School of Music, University of Auckland. I was accepted.
During the 3 years of university, I watched many of my classmates from Composition and Performance being transferred down to Music Theory. I never understood why I wasn’t selected to be transferred as I was never an A student.
After gaining a deeper understanding of music many years later, I realised it was to do with my music writing style. I had a broken family and a rebellious teenage life that I poured all of my emotions into my music. Some teachers loved my unconventional creations but some disapproved. Nonetheless, I graduated with a Bachelor of Music.
I fulfilled my mother’s requests and got her two certificates of her dreams. I was finally ready to say goodbye to music, for good.
Don’t kill your child’s music passion
As a teenager, I was also one in a billion who was obsessed with popular music. I loved singing covers of pop songs, but I was shy. No matter how hard I worked, my family had never praised my singing. So I wanted to pursue further and found myself a voice teacher.
© Photos by Kida
On my first lesson, I played Christina Aguilera’s CD to my singing teacher and told her I wanted a voice like that. Her response was… a voice like Christina’s only belonged to people of the western race. Asians could never have a big voice due to our thin vocal cords.
Soon after, many Asian singers earned their fame through their big voices.
It turned out that my singing teacher was classically trained as a female opera singer. It wasn’t because Asians were physically different but because she wasn’t the right teacher for me. My family didn’t support me in popular music so I gave up on my dreams eventually.
Sure, I may not be the next Christina Aguilera, but I never even got the chance to try before my dreams were crushed.
Parents, if your child expresses interest in a certain area of music. Even if it’s not something you like, try to be supportive. Because at the end of the day, it is their life and their dreams.
So what is music really?
Music, is a way of expressing our emotions, our feelings and our stories. It isn’t a piece of certificate to obtain or something to show off at school. A piece of music is not just do re mi fa so, or ppp ff and it certainly doesn’t make you a great pianist to simply follow what’s written on a piece of paper and play those notes perfectly like a machine.
A great piece of music must be expressed through a performer’s own personal growth infused with his own interpretation of the masterpiece. Only then, the magic of music can flow through the body of that performer and passed down to his fingertips.
Why I don’t let my 4-year-old daughter learn piano
Dad often suggested that I should play music pieces that the public recognises and familiar with. Did you know? The pieces that are known to the public are usually not that hard to play. They don’t require decades of learning the piano and acquiring master finger skills.
So if your goal as a parent is to improve your child’s motor skills, sharpen brain development, have excellent memories and teach patience and discipline, then you don’t need to teach your child music in a strict and harsh way.
Let your child learn at his own pace and enjoy the process. Avoid measuring your child’s success with grades and certificates.
Many pianists don’t necessarily have the perfect hand positions or techniques, but they play the most beautiful music. They didn’t learn piano from the age of 4 but loved playing the piano and made a name for themselves after a couple of years in the field.
Learning piano is a tough journey both for the child and the parents. It is a journey where you must prepare to invest your all and not turn back during hard times. So a passion for music is almost an essential prerequisite to any instrument learning.
As for my family, my daughter didn’t show signs of exceptional musical talent, nor did she show interests in learning the piano. So, I don’t want to put her through what I had been through in life.
That being said, if one day she discovers an interest in music, I will gladly guide her and support her journey in music and hopefully, she will find more success in life than me.
© Photos by Kida
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