Can 5 Year Olds Handle a 30 minute Lesson?
First of all, thanks to Nelson for this question. It is a great question and one I do get often so I thought I would write about my experiences with keeping my student’s attention.
Over 60% of the kids that I teach are aged between 5 and 8. At the school that I’m at on Thursdays, I have them all day between the hours of 8 am and 3 pm. Some have shared lessons and some are private. The time that the lesson is scheduled during the day can have an impact on their focus. I used to teach a group of 15 kids of this age at an after-school care facility starting at 4 pm. The lesson went for an hour and it could be hard going, especially for the young ones. Having run a guitar club with hour long lessons for young kids previously, I knew that they needed a break and a snack, but because it was a big facility with lots of other activities going on, I was instructed that the kids need to be contained for the full hour. It could be hard work. They were done with concentrating for the day and after school is when they need to play.
The school where I teach allow the kids to have frequent breaks. They even have a ‘brain food’ snack break at 9.30, a whole hour before their actual recess time where they eat even more. The school recognises that if the body is nourished, then so is the mind. As a result, when I take the kids for their guitar lesson, they can focus well for their half hour lesson during school hours.
Now having said that, there is another of my students, *Max who is 6 and comes to me at home at 4.30 pm. He is an absolute champion and has no problem with his focus. His mother is in the room too (which is great) so she knows what needs to be practiced at home.
I teach using a range of activities during their lesson and do a fair bit of revision. Variety helps keep the kids interested and focussed and revision helps reinforce material learnt previously. Just because you’ve told a student how to play and recognise an E, F and G in one piece doesn’t mean that they will remember them in the next piece. You don’t need to be constantly moving forward, moving sideways is ok too.
Activities I use in my lessons to help keep my student's attention typically include;
Playing pieces based on finger dexterity exercises
I am fortunate that the book that I use makes use of pieces that focus on graded finger movements from very easy to quite challenging. I start with one hand at a time to ensure it doesn’t get too complicated and so that my young students don’t get overwhelmed or frustrated.
Learning how to understand how written music works
Children first learn to discriminate aurally between a high and a low sound. I point out that the reason a note sounds high is that it is written high on the stave. They then learn where the high and low open strings are on the guitar. As my young students start to use their fretting hand, we find that higher notes are also achieved by stopping the string closer to the bridge. Further investigation reveals that these notes are in alphabetical order as are the written notes of the stave.
Playing a song using some one finger chord shapes
There are one finger songs in the book that I use and are based on the imitation concept. The student can observe the teacher playing a bar or so, and then play that same bar themselves. They have plenty of time to observe and prepare their hands for the next chord shape. If you’re after something a little more challenging, there are plenty of songs that can be modified to suit easy one finger chord shapes. At the moment I’m using ‘Just the Way You Are’ by Bruno Mars and ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ by the Black Eyed Peas. These songs both use C, G and Em.
Children often need to see a reason for doing what they are doing. If that reason is to play a phrase or series of notes faster than one of their peers, then that will engage their sense of competition. Reaching or exceeding a speed challenge set by one of their peers is a nice little short-term goal that contributes to their long-term development.
Often before you can take two steps forward you may need to go one step back occasionally. Children don’t need to be continually learning new material. Quite often they are happy revisiting their old pieces especially if they are not inclined to do a lot of practice at home. I use flash cards based on single notes. The student must figure out the note name and where it can be found on the guitar. I also use flashcards based on the thematic material of past lessons. This material has words associated with it and acts as a memory trigger. Often the student will read the words, identify the song it comes from and immediately is able to play the phrase.
Using a bottle, water, and some breath, I draw parallels with a trumpet and guitar. Blowing across the top of an open bottle produces a sound. The pitch of the sound increases as the bottle is filled with water. The conclusion we reach, is that the length of the vibrating medium, whether it is a string or column of air, contributes to the pitch of the note.
In a nutshell, 5-year-olds can handle a half hour lesson. You don’t have to entertain them, just be aware of the challenges that they face being so young and teach accordingly. Any early childhood teacher will tell you that young children must see their lesson as being interesting, important and pleasurable, so having the right teaching tools is a must. Getting them to practise at home is another issue so I make sure that the kids complete their goals within the lesson time.
To see how I keep my five-year-old student’s attention during lessons check out some of my videos at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCp4ztrAKREroTwST5Isy0ng
*Max is not the real name of my 6 year old student.
Author: Bryce Leader
Bryce is a teacher trained conservatorium graduate who has been teaching guitar since 1978.