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The 6 Stages of Piano Students: Why and When Piano Students Quit Lessons

August 19, 2011

As a private piano teacher, I have taught students young and old, from ages 3 and up.  The longer I taught, the more I began to see a pattern of the stages that piano students go through.  I saw my young students start out extremely enthusiastic about their music study, then lose interest, then go through a zig-zag of motivation, gain interest again, then quit.  For a small majority of students, they would continue piano studies until they graduated high school, but this was rare.  Student drop out rates were an issue.  Hence, I began thinking and researching about the issue of piano student drop out rates, and why and when piano students decide to quit lessons.

In this article, I will discuss my findings on:

  • the 6 stages of piano study
  • the average drop out age of piano students (i.e., at what age piano students typically quit lessons)
  • why piano students quit lessons


The 6 stages of piano study

Stage 1 (ages 4-6): “Listen to me play, everybody!”
In this pre-piano stage, children love to make sounds on the piano just for the sake of being able to make sounds themselves.  The concept of music is fascinating and they enjoy being able to be in control and produce sounds out of an instrument with their own hands.  Children typically learn through peer group interaction and like being in groups, hence their motto: “listen to me play, everybody!”

Stage 2 (ages 7-8): “Not now, later.”
Once piano students enter the beginner and late beginner stages, they find that playing the piano actually takes practice.  This is different than before, when playing the piano was fun and like playing a game.  All of a sudden, motivation levels have dropped because now piano actually takes work.  Note reading is difficult and each lesson is getting progressively harder.  The student gets discouraged.  The lesson time is often spent with the teacher practicing with the student what they were supposed to practice at home.

Stage 3 (ages 9-10): “Look mom – with my eyes closed!”
Students have gotten past the difficult stage of note reading and music concepts begin to make sense.  For some reason, something has “clicked” in the students’ minds and they figured out note reading through ‘every good boy does fine’ or other means.  Usually at this stage the student’s goal is to play as fast as possible or play pieces memorized with their eyes closed, in attempts to show off to family and friends.  At this age, students enjoy flashcards as a means of learning, showy pieces, and tunes they recognize.  Regular practice time can still remain a challenge due to distractions at home (i.e., video games, television, internet, friends, etc.).

Stage 4 (age 11): “Why can’t I have good music – like rock or pop?”
At this age, the adolescent child begins many changes, and it can be quite difficult to continue with piano lessons.  Their world is moving out of the family structure and into a world of peer association and approval.  Students are in the early intermediate stage and teachers often begin introducing students to easy pieces from the classical era (i.e., Minuets, Sonatinas, etc.).  This type of music is so far out of line of what the student enjoys to listen to on a daily basis.  The student wonders why they can’t play “cooler” music like the Harry Potter theme song or the rock song they heard on the radio.  The student gets discouraged, do not care much for their progress at the piano, and playing the piano is no longer cool.

Stage 5 (ages 12-14): “I want to quit.”
After Stage 4, students often have resentment towards learning the piano.  It takes away from the student’s free time, it is hard work to learn the music concepts, and requires a lot of practice that the child does not have diligence for.  The teacher has expressed some frustration toward the child and the parent is placing pressure on the student to keep practicing, furthering the child’s resentment towards music lessons.  The student is not playing music he or she likes anyway, and figures the easiest thing to is to quit lessons.  Unless the parent continues to force the child to go to lessons, many students quit at this age.  Parent involvement and support is very important at this stage to ensure that the student continues learning.  Even if the parent just has the student merely “show up” to the weekly lessons until the student passes the growing pain hurdles, that is better than the student quitting on his or her own terms.  This is the stage that adults who once learned piano often look back on later and regret that they quit.

Stage 6 (ages 15-16): (If you get past the growing pain hurdles) “No more kid stuff.”
After a rough patch of frustration by the student, parents, and teacher, the student will begin to gain an appreciation for classical music in the advanced repertoire.  Students will begin to feel satisfied from their ability to play difficult pieces, and the teacher will begin guiding the student on artistry and interpretation aspects of music pieces.  The students are approaching adulthood and begin to take on responsibility without reminders.  Usually they are taking piano lessons because they want to.  The student and teacher begin to develop a strong bond of mutual respect and students can become very close to their piano teachers.

Assessment and Conclusion

As discussed above, the average age that students quit lessons is around ages 12 to 14 (stage 5 out of 6).  Students often quit at stage 5 because of their desire to seek peer attention and approval, their realization that learning the piano is hard work, and distractions from other activities, friends, and technology.

Note that Stage 5 is extremely close to the last and final phase of a child’s piano study.  I always found it a shame that students often quit at a time (unknown to them) that is right before their motivation level that is about to shoot through the roof.  If the student were to continue for an additional year or two, the graph above displays how their motivation level will become far higher than they have ever experienced in their lives.  This is why parent involvement is extremely important in Stage 5.  It is highly recommended that parents continue taking their child to lessons, even when the child resists and wishes to quit.  Parents should realize that this is just the growing pain hurdles of piano study, and once the student passes this stage, they will develop their own self-motivation to learn the piano.

Once the student reaches Stage 6, the child will likely continue with little further effort by the parent.  And as an adult, the student will thank the parent wholeheartedly later for pushing them to continue through the growing pains.


About the author

Theresa Chen runs two music education websites, Opus Music Education and Opus Music Worksheets. If you are interested in finding a music teacher in California, please check out Opus Music Education at  To download free music education worksheets, visit


What is the best age to start piano lessons?

August 9, 2011

When I tell people I am a piano teacher, one of the most common questions I get is “what is the ideal age for my child to start piano lessons?”  My initial answer is usually “it depends.”  I know, it’s not the most precise answer, but I will tell you why “it depends” and later conclude on my assessment on what I think is truly the best age to begin piano lessons.

How to know when a child is ready to start music lessons

Piano study can begin as early as 3 years old.  However, 3 years old is not the right age to start for every child.  The reason why it depends is because each child develops key motor and learning skills at different ages.  Also, a child’s musical readiness is based on a number of other factors besides just cognitive and motor skills.  Finding the right age to start is very important as it prevents the child from feeling burnt out or prematurely giving up on piano lessons because they feel it is too hard.

As a piano teacher, to help me assess if the child is ready to start lessons, I ask the parent to consider the following factors and questions.  The parent should be able to answer “yes” to all questions.

  • Interest – Does the child express interest in music?  Does he or she have a favorable response to the sound of music, or tried to make music on their own?
  • Fine motor skills and coordination – Can the child move each arm independently from the other?  Can the child lift each finger independently from the others?  Have the small muscles of the hand developed?
  • Attention span – Is the child able to sit still and concentrate on a task for at least ten minutes at a time?
  • Musical readiness – Can the child distinguish between high vs. low, same vs. different, and fast vs. slow?  Can the child clap in a steady beat?
  • Read alphabet – Is child able to read the letters of the alphabet, at least through G (as the musical alphabet is made up of A through G)?
  • Parent involvement – Does the child have a parent that is able to sit at the piano with the child at home to practice?  Is the parent willing to bring the child to lessons once a week and be actively engaged in his or her music learning?

Music readiness test

At the first trial lesson with a new child student, I, as the teacher, perform a “music readiness test” (point #4 listed above) on the child to assess if he or she is ready to start music lessons.  In the music readiness test, I will see if the child can distinguish the differences in these areas:

  • high vs. low
  • same vs. different
  • fast vs. slow
  • steady beat vs. non-steady beat

To do this test, I will start with very obvious differences.  For example, I will play the lowest key on the piano and then the highest key on the piano and ask “is the second sound higher or lower?”  Then I will make the notes closer and closer until I play two notes right next to each other, and see if they can still tell the difference.  It is not uncommon for young students to miss it when it is this close, but it’s okay.  This is just to assess how developed their ear and sense of sound is.  For the steady beat, I will play a simple march in a steady beat and ask the student to clap along in a steady beat.  Then I will suddenly stop playing and ask them to continue clapping in a steady beat on their own.

If a child is able to distinguish most differences in the four areas mentioned above and pass the music readiness test, this may mean they are ready for music lessons.

Developmental milestones of 3 to 6 year olds

According to studies done by individuals at, there are general developmental milestones that a child should be able to achieve at each age (from 3 to 6 years old) in the following categories: gross motor skills, fine motor skills, language/thinking development, and social/emotional development.  Analyzing this can help a music teacher assess what skills are typically acquired at each age and at what point enough proficiency is gained to provide for effective music learning.  In particular, I found the following skills highlighted in bold helpful for beginning music students.  This chart shows that by age 6, a child will have developed the ability to move in time to a beat, use fingers independently, learn via language and logic, and be independent.  These are very important skills that can help prepare the students to play the piano.

Click here to download the full size pdf version: Developmental-Milestones-3-to-6-Year-Olds.pdf


Since each child develops their interest in music, attention span, and motor skills at their own pace, it can be difficult to generalize at what age a child develops enough abilities to start learning music.  However, as a general observation, I have found that by the age of 6, children will usually have acquired enough fine motor skills, attention span, and thinking development to begin effective music learning.  Again, this really depends on the child and their pace of cognitive and motor development.  Some children may have these skills by the age of 3, and some not until the age of 9.  If you are a parent, ask yourself the questions I posed earlier and see if you can say yes to all questions.  Also, ensure your child has acquired at least the key developmental skills highlighted in bold in the chart above.  Using these guidelines, both you and music teacher can jointly assess your child’s readiness to start music lessons.

About the author

Theresa Chen runs two music education websites, Opus Music Education and Opus Music Worksheets. If you are interested in finding a music teacher in California, please check out Opus Music Education at  To download free music education worksheets, visit

Do you need to go to school to be a music teacher?

July 30, 2011

Many people wonder if there are education requirements to becoming a music teacher.
There are various forms of musical training that a person can go through, from informal lessons to advanced academic degrees The following lists types of musical training in order from most basic to most formal:

  • Private music lessons – Private music lessons from an independent music teacher
  • Professional certificate – A certificate program that typically is received in less than two years from a community college or professional trade school
  • Associate of Arts – A two-year college degree in music
  • Bachelor of Music/Arts – A four-year college or university degree in music
  • Master of Music/Arts – Typically an additional two years of music studies at a college or university beyond a BM/BA
  • Doctorate of Musical Arts or PhD – An additional 2+ years of advanced music studies beyond a MM/MA.

Typically, to be a music teacher, the only education required is an advanced understanding of music (as informal as simply having taken private music lessons).  However, continued education in music can certainly help and advanced degrees can assist greatly when looking for a job at a music school or to attract potential clients such as parents who are looking for music teachers for their children.  Higher degrees can also maximize your salary.  Advanced degrees can definitely assist on a resume and impress potential clients.  At some music school employers, higher education can be a mandatory requirement, with a sliding scale for salary.

Many city community colleges offer programs in music.  Music degree programs can also be found at most colleges and universities.  In addition, another option is a professional music trade school, such as Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA.  All of thesse programs can give music students a foundation in musical knowledge (such as theory and history), instrument technique, and experience in music performing.  Certain universities have gained a reputation as consistently having graduates that are extremely talented and successful in their music careers (such as Juilliard or Curtis).

Since there many options, you may wish to discuss with other music teachers what kind of training they had.  You will probably find that there are are wide variety of training levels, and you can find good teachers from each category of music training.

No, a person is not required to go to school to be a music teacher.  There are many music teachers that teach music lessons without any advanced music degrees, as long as they have the required amount of knowledge and patience to be an effective music teacher.  However, it can certainly be beneficial to those who have continued education in music, since it can make it easier to find work, command higher pay, and some employers may even require you to have gone to school.  Good luck!

About the Author

Theresa Chen is the owner of a music school in Los Angeles called Opus Music Education.  If you are interested in becoming a music teacher in California, please check out Opus Music Education at

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