The piano is one of the most lauded extracurricular activities CREDIT: Courtesy of the Young Pianist of the North International competition
In this series, Luxury offers guidance on introducing children to the extracurricular activities that really count
Why is it worth the investment?
Although most young children will play with a piano rather than play it properly, yours could be the exception. That was the case for Hui Li, who signed up her daughter, Lauren Zhang, for piano lessons after spotting the then almost four-year-old tapping tunes on the kitchen table while eating breakfast.
“After a few days I asked her if she’d like to try to learn to play the piano,” Li remembers. Thirteen years later, via a scholarship at Birmingham’s King Edward VI High School for Girls and a place at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Junior school, Zhang won the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year with a rendition of Prokofiev’s masterful Second Piano Concerto. “When your child falls in love with music and is playing the instrument, that’s a very special feeling,” says Professor John Thwaites, the RBC’s head of keyboard studies.
Then there are all the cognitive benefits. Myriad studies show learning the piano boosts academic performance. Assal Habibi, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Southern California, has found musical training helps children’s brains, strengthening networks that process sound, language and communication.
Musical scholarships are also a useful route into some of Britain’s top independent schools. Georges Sokol, who founded the Sokol Piano Academy, won a scholarship to Winchester College, which leads to a place reading music at the University of Oxford.
Lockdown, which meant lessons switched to Zoom or similar online platforms, came with pluses and minuses for burgeoning virtuosos. “Pupils had more time to practise during the lockdown but less access to physical lessons so they had to be more self-disciplined with their work,” says Sokol. “To teach, I set up two cameras - from a laptop and a smartphone - and I wore headphones to hear better. But for the most part, learning remotely was not as effective - mainly because the sound quality is poor, even with the fastest internet connection.”
Lauren Zhan CREDIT: Hui Li
Where is the best place for your child to learn?
Finding the best private teacher is vital for the best start. Marika Slater, who runs the Young Pianist of the North competition, says teachers need to demonstrate a successful track record with young pianists, “which is entirely different from teaching students”.
Thwaites suggests combing The Incorporated Society of Musicians’ website for registered teachers; some will visit your home. It is worth setting objectives in advance. “If you go for a tiger teacher who expects the kid to practise a lot and has competition success in mind, that’s not necessarily what you have in mind if your kid is lined up to be a medic or a lawyer,” says Thwaites.
Lessons will usually last one hour, although children under seven get 30 minutes, says Sokol, who employs 13 teachers at studios across London. Once a week will suffice to start, but Sokol recommends two or three lessons a week ahead of an important piano competition or exam.
Talented players can progress to a place at one of the junior departments attached to the eight music conservatoires dotted across the UK, from Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music. Some also have pre-junior schools, such as Trinity Laban in Greenwich, London.
There are also several specialist music schools, notably Wells Cathedral School, London’s Purcell School and Manchester’s Chetham’s School of Music. Summer programmes are another option, as the biennial Cadenza International Summer Music School in north London. “Appetite for next year’s Cadenza programme should be enormous because most summer schools were cancelled,” adds Thwaites.
What’s the best age to get serious?
Everyone agrees: the younger the better. Thwaites thinks somewhere between four and six years old, flagging eight as a motivational cut-off point. Sokol reckons any time up to age 10 is fine unless the aim is to reach a professional standard, in which case children should start by six.
By the time Zhang was four, she was regularly practising for 90 minutes a day. “It wasn’t easy getting her to the piano bench but it wasn’t easy getting her to leave either,” says Li. Zhang says she always knew hard work was vital. “There are always people better than you at the same age so I tried not to become complacent.”
Digital piano lessons CREDIT: Klaus Vedfelt /Getty
Slater recommends children aged six and above aiming for the top should have two hours of specialist tuition per week for 40 weeks per year. That’s old enough to handle lessons via Zoom, adds Sokol, who doesn’t have a minimum for online tuition.
The Purcell School for Young Musicians expects children in Year 6 to practise between three to six hours a day. And Sokol says anyone hoping to win a place somewhere like London’s Royal College of Music will need to play for at least five hours daily as a teenager.
What’s the experience like - for both parent and child?
Excelling at something like the piano can bolster a child’s confidence. “When Lauren was really shy, from around eight to 12-years-old, playing the piano made her open up,” says Li. But coordinating a busy schedule can take its toll on families. “Even now, when she has concerts, either I or her father needs to go with her.”
Where can I get the best kit?
Acoustic pianos are preferred over even the best digital substitutes, with a Yamaha U1 Upright, a useful starting option. Pass the Grade Five threshold, however, and Thwaits recommends investing in a Boudoir Grand Piano, which at between 5 and 7 feet is slightly smaller than a Concert Grand, tipping Steinway, Fazioli, Bluthner and Steingraeber as the most aspirational names.
What do the former prodigies say now?
Zhang has no regrets: “Even though things were - and are sometimes difficult - it is worth it to bring joy to others.”
How much does it cost?
New upright Yamaha U1s start at around £7,500 and Boudoir Grand Pianos can be anything from £30,000 upwards for top models.
Hourly lessons at London’s Sokol Piano Academy start at £95 although Georges Sokol charges £250 an hour - whether in person or via Zoom. Other private teachers charge between £28 and £40 per hour according to the Incorporated Society of Musicians’ 2019 survey of fees, with most teachers cutting their fees 10 per cent on average for remote lessons. Full fees at top music schools like Chetham’s or Purcell are around £32,000 a year.