"Life is like a piano. White keys are happy moments and black keys are sad moments. Both keys are played together to give us the sweet music called Life." -Suzy Kassem
In Australia, the Australian Attitudes to Music Research Summary found out that whilst Australians love music, our playing levels aren't anywhere near those of the UK, US or Europe. Their studies show that in 2007, 35% of households contained a person who plays a musical instrument and that the two most popular instruments are the acoustic guitar and piano - at roughly 32% of current players each.
Most new learners are fairly young - the study showed that 37% of players are between 5 and 17 years of age, and another 24% are between 18 and 34 years old, with almost 70% of players taking up an instrument before they reach secondary school.
So why take up the piano? Perhaps you dream of one day becoming a great classical pianist or want the discipline a regular musical practice provides. Or maybe you find the piano soothing or simply want to play your favourite pop songs for family singalongs!
If you're in the market for piano lessons and how the Australian music education system works, this is the article for you. Read on as we guide you on how to choose a music school for you or your child.
Piano Playing at a Community Music School
Government-funded music education is a cornerstone of music education in Europe and the UK, with an estimated 5,000 schools - that's for every 28,000 people! In these places, the government subsidizes at least half of the lesson costs, making quality music education accessible to people from many different backgrounds.
However, there are sadly very few community music schools in Australia itself - music lessons are usually offered through school music departments, and may vary in quality and price depending on whether they are part of a private or public school.
In contrast, Australia has around 25-30 community music schools that receive government subsidies, including the outreach programs of university conservatoriums. These are almost all concentrated in regional parts of New South Wales and receive funding from the NSW state government.
So what can you expect from a community music school?
These places offer lessons, sometimes at subsidized rates, to people living in the local community. The teachers are highly qualified professionals and there are often instrumental ensembles, jazz bands, orchestras run at the school for you to join, and music camps during school holiday periods.
You generally won't have to audition to get in, but places in community schools can be limited.
Learning The Piano at Academies and Private Music Schools
All capital cities and most larger regional centres will have some kind of private music academy. These can vary in price, quality and their teaching methods, so make sure you ask lots of questions before you sign up!
Whether you're learning the clarinet, saxophone, flute, violin or jazz piano, there will almost certainly be a private school near you offering lessons with a qualified teacher. You may also be able to join a music ensemble outside your one-on-one classes, or supplementary group lessons in music theory.
Generally, however, prices are higher than at a community music school as there are no government subsidies. On the other hand, be sure to ask about any scholarships available that you may be eligible for.
Some private music schools strictly follow alternative teaching methods, such as:
- The Yamaha Method: this method has less focus on reading musical scores, and instead students are encouraged to compose and improvise along with other melodies. This places a strong emphasis on developing listening skills and creativity as students train their musical ear.
- The Suzuki Method: as with the Yamaha method, there is less focus on reading sheet music and a strong focus on ear training. This method relies heavily on the memorization of rhythms and students sing melodies to memorise their pieces. Students generally start at a young age.
- The Dalcroze Method: this method helps students develop their musicality through rhythmic movements, improvisation and ear-training.
How To Sign Up At A Piano School
If you are a new student signing up to a music school, there are usually two big intakes during the year - once in January and another in July. If you are a returning student, you'll usually need to re-enrol then and pay your term fees.
Certain schools have limited spaces and more applicants than they can take! So admission will depend on the spaces available. You may wish to get ahead by signing up in November for a start in the new year. If no spaces are available, don't worry, you'll generally be put on a waiting list, and if a new teacher becomes available or existing students drop out, you'll be given a place.
Depending on the kind of music school, you may also need to pass an audition and interview to be admitted. This is generally the case for prestigious music schools in the capital cities that are associated with university conservatoriums.
They will also ensure that you have adequate access to a piano or keyboard at home so you can keep up with practice expectations. Sometimes music schools offer practice rooms to students who wish to practice before or after their lessons.
Before you sign up to lessons at a piano, make sure you've reflected on a few essential questions:
- What are your general musical goals? Are you simply learning to play the piano for fun, or do you have dreams of performing with a live orchestra? Do you want to learn the piano so you can write your own music or play chords as you sing?
- How much time can you dedicate to practice? The piano requires time and attention - music lessons can fast become a waste of money if you don't carve out time in your schedule to practice what you've learnt. Only months of regular practice will have you playing fluidly and comfortably.
- What is your motivation? Do you have a certain genre of music you love to play? Are you hoping to play 'Happy Birthday' for a friend's party, or play at a relative's wedding? You'll be more motivated if you have a specific goal in mind.
Be prepared to invest lots of time and effort into your piano. If you want to see progress, set aside some time in your daily routine for practice. Nearly every teacher will tell you that 15 minutes per day of practice will have you progressing faster than a two-hour practice session once a week.
What Can You Expect From Your Piano Lessons?
Depending on your age and level, beginners generally start with lessons that last between 20 and 45 minutes, taking place once a week. An adult beginner may easily focus for an hour, but younger students generally start with 20-30 minute lessons.
More advanced students may move to lessons that are an hour or more or take lessons every two weeks.
Some music schools may also offer an hour or two of weekly group music theory classes, and allow you to sign up to the school orchestra, choir or jazz band. Each of these may require another hour of commitment per week, plus time for performances.
The student-teacher relationship is vital to the success of your piano lessons! This will make or break student motivation and therefore student progress. A good teacher will help you relax and get the best out of you at the piano, blending intuition with a solid understanding of piano pedagogy to adapt to your needs, challenge and inspire you. On the other hand, a grouchy or ill-suited teacher may leave you feeling anxious or confused at their explanations and resistant to practice.
Go with the teacher you are assigned, but if you don't feel you 'click' within the first few lessons, don't be afraid to ask to be assigned to a different teacher. Better to switch teachers than lose your passion with a teacher who simply isn't for you!
How Much Will Piano Lessons Cost At A Music School?
As we mentioned earlier, although they may be financially more accessible, community music schools are relatively rare in Australia.
Private music academies may offer scholarships or bursaries for students who would struggle to pay their regular fees, so if this is you, make sure you ask what is available!
Unfortunately, this all means that students from lower-income households won't have access to learning the piano. On the other hand, there are charity groups, such as The Song Room, that help increase access to music education for disadvantaged children.
Prices vary dramatically based on many different factors. First, there is the level of the student and the experience of the teacher. If you are a beginner, you may be offered a younger teacher with lower fees, whereas if you have been playing for years and require masterclasses with a professional pianist, this will naturally cost more. The location of the school (whether it is in an inner-city affluent suburb or a rural area) and the prestige of the school will also influence the final price.
Fees are usually fixed, and you are normally expected to pay for a term of music lessons. Terms are between 8 and 12 weeks long and follow the school calendar. Other music schools offer a monthly price or offer discounts for students who pay for a whole year's worth of lessons in advance.
That being said, many music schools will offer payment plans for low-income students and families.
Who Can Sign Up For Piano Classes At A Music School?
Most piano players start learning during early childhood. Some music schools offer specific toddler's music classes to students as young as 3 years of age, or even parent and baby music classes to infants. These are a great way to get your very young child playing around with different sounds and creating a positive association with music early on in their development.
Some parents rush to sign their child up for on-one-on piano lessons as soon as they turn 3 or 4. This isn't usually recommended unless the child is unusually attentive for their age and needs a challenge. Most piano schools and teachers will recommend 5 or 6 as a good starting age for young pianists, depending on their attention span.
This is because the child needs to be able to focus for the duration of the lesson to get the maximum benefit, and be big enough to reach the keys!
Children are often given priority for music lesson slots at schools, but learning the piano isn't just for children - there are plenty of programs targeted towards adults as well! If you're an adult, the best age to start is right now - as long as you have a keyboard at home and can commit to a minimum of 15 minutes a day of practice, you can enjoy the wonderful benefits of learning the piano for relaxation and pleasure.
If you're looking to save money and learn in a relaxed, group environment, many schools offer piano lessons to small groups of 3 or 4 players.
So, have we convinced you to explore piano lessons at a community music school or private music academy?
Or maybe your sights are set a little higher. Check out our guide for those shooting stars who dream of becoming a professional pianist.
Or perhaps you're a keen autodidact with little cash to splash on lessons. If that's the case - go here to discover how you can teach yourself the piano.