Why does learning to play the piano feel so dang hard?

Raise your hand if you regret quitting piano lessons as a child or teen?

On average, less than 50% of students who start piano lessons will complete more than ONE year of private lessons. 

We know that music lessons can offer so many extraordinary benefits, so why do 50% of students quit after just one year of lessons? 

Because learning to play the piano feels REALLY hard! 

From a brain science perspective, learning to play an instrument is extremely difficult. Have you ever considered the amount of brain-body coordination that is happening while playing the piano?

Let me give you an idea of what is happening in a child’s body and brain during a typical piano lesson:

  • Posture. Sit up tall, but relax your shoulders. Hands and wrists lifted, fingers curved, and arms parallel to the floor. That’s a lot to think about!
  • Technical gesture. Coordination of the hands and fingers to create a certain touch and weight into the keys: heavy, light, press firmly, release quickly, long notes, short notes. 
  • Differentiate between the right and left hand. This is really difficult for young children. 
  • Finger independence. Ask each finger to move and work independently. Developing finger strength is challenging physical work, especially for the ring and pinky fingers (which we rarely use independently in everyday life). 
  • Follow the music from left to right. This is a new concept for beginning readers. 
  • Learn to read and notate a new language – the language of music – which has its own alphabet, set of symbols, and “rules”. 
  • Connect the symbols of music notation to specific keys on the piano keyboard. This is a high level concept. 
  • Understand and become fluent in the musical alphabet, which moves forwards and backwards and can begin on any letter. So weird!
  • Read and execute musical symbols – pitch, rhythmic value, fingerings, tempo (speed) markings, dynamic (volume) markings, and expression lines – all at once. 
  • Connect the concept that the keyboard is horizontal, but pitch is vertical. High notes are found on the keyboard, up and to the right. Low notes are found on the keyboard, down and to the left. Also, weird! 
  • Connect the ear to what is seen in the music and how it sounds on the piano. Also connect what is heard with how it makes you feel and respond appropriately. 
  • Coordinate both hands, and when the pedal is required, the foot as well, while reading and decoding all of the elements of the printed music. The brain is really working here! 
  • Oh yes…and be creative, imaginative and expressive too!

All of this. ALL AT THE SAME TIME. 

What we are asking the body and brain to do in a piano lesson is nothing short of remarkable! The amazing thing is, our bodies and brains can do it with patience and  practice and grace

This is why research has shown that music can dramatically improve academic performance. The brain science is incredible. 

The outcome of piano lessons is far greater than just “learning to play the piano.” Here are just a few of the skills that a child develops beyond the foundations of music.

    Music lessons help children develop resilience and frustration tolerance in challenging situations. Children learn to accept the feelings of vulnerability and discomfort that often come when learning something new or difficult. A mastery mindset is developed when we break down challenging tasks into small, attainable skills. These small skills build one on top of the other to develop resilience and tolerance for feelings of frustration. 
    Mastery of difficult skills brings confidence and enjoyment. It’s REALLY rewarding to accomplish something challenging! Children learn to process big feelings and make the struggle of learning music meaningful. This process will lead to confidence in tackling other difficult tasks or skills. 
    There is a sense of pride when we accomplish something difficult and meaningful. When a child begins to understand that challenging work takes time to master, and that slow and steady progress is an amazing thing, they become dedicated to the process – not just the outcome. In a world of instant gratification, delayed gratification is HARD. Children will begin to trust themselves and their skills through sustained and consistent effort. This skill will serve them well for their entire lives! Children need to learn at a young age that they can do hard things with patience, practice, and grace!

The role of both the artist-educator and parent  is extremely vital in the music learning process. A child needs to feel encouraged, supported, and safe to embrace the struggle of learning a difficult (and extremely REWARDING) skill. 

The Role of the Artist-Educator
A teacher’s understanding of child development has a profound impact on the child’s ability to embrace and accept the struggle of learning to play an instrument. Our bodies and brains are complex systems needing patience and time to process and coordinate. Children need and want to understand the complexity of the work they are doing and celebrate the small successes and gradual progress. The artist-educator creates a safe and supportive environment for their students to learn and grow, instilling a love of music and the beauty that develops from consistent effort. Encouraging self-efficacy and incorporating play in the music lessons environment is key to keeping a child engaged and excited to learn. 

To accomplish these goals, at Donais Studios we: 

  1. Help our  students develop a self-guided practice routine.
  2. Teach our  students how to break down challenging tasks into specific skills to be mastered. Focusing on one task or skill at a time.
  3. Encourage our students to use their music to communicate with creativity, self-expression, and  imagination. 
  4. Provide performance opportunities to give back, have fun, and develop confidence.  

The Role of the Parent
Here are a few ways that parents can help at home.

  1. Help create a consistent practice routine at home. 
  2. Be patient and allow your child to embrace the struggle. Learning a new instrument is hard work! Acknowledge this. 
  3. Be encouraging and remind your child of the complex work that their brain and body are doing.
  4. Celebrate each success and new skill development. 
  5. Don’t expect your beginner student to play high level music right away. It will take time and patience. I often hear, ‘’If my child could just learn                          song from the radio, they will be motivated to practice”. Remember, the music on the radio is performed by professionals! It will take time to get there – but you will! 
  6. Give your child TIME to process the music they are attempting before jumping in to “help”.  If you see their “wheels turning” give them some time and space to process. The brain is doing complex work and the body takes time to coordinate. 
  7. Encourage playfulness at the piano. 

Together, we can help our children and students accomplish amazing things. Music study is extremely rewarding and beautiful in so many ways. Once we acknowledge the complex work that the body is doing, we can help our kids embrace the struggle, and find joy in the process of making music. Our bodies and brains can do remarkable things. Give your child a high five today – they are working hard and accomplishing great things. Let’s celebrate ALL of their progress – big and small.  

Summer lesson registration is now open. Come work with us this summer and discover The Artist Within. It’s worth the hard work. Build your confidence, skills, resilience and intrinsic motivation this summer.


Andrea “doing hard things” Donais

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