There's no doubt that lessons at such an age should be fun and the teacher be able to change direction at short notice if needs be. I think it's preferable that the child has some spatial awareness - knows right from left, up from down, high from low; that they can read with someone helping them at least and that basics of counting are in place. Even though they have little fingers, with these skills there is much to learn about music at the piano and to begin developing a good technique through fun and games. The famous Suzuki method uses the principles of
- step-by-step progress
- parental involvement
Even if we do not class ourselves as Suzuki teachers, we can instil such values. Neither should the age of the pupil lower the standards we seek to achieve in pianism and musicianship. It might take longer to develop some skills, but there's no reason why a five or six year-old cannot understand notation. They love singing clapping games, lack inhibition, have vivid imaginations and often have the desire to 'show off' - what's not there to tap into?
The very young learn most effectively through play and personal experience - I know this from my own experience in primary teaching. Any topic can become a game, it's just that the teacher might have to work harder to maintain interest, the younger the pupil is. Short amounts of time on different topics is something I find works well - a bit of note finding, some call and response, writing a few notes for example, can form part of a half-hour lesson as well as learning a piece. I try to connect the child's interests to the lesson. For example, making up crazy mnemonics for lines and spaces - the dafter the better as long as they remember it! We know that children learn language and experimentation long before reading and writing. They can still learn about posture, hand position, names of notes, keyboard geography and how to produce sound qualities such as strong, low 'elephant' noises and gentle, high, 'twinkling stars'...
Rhythm comes before pitch and so it can be made into a physical activity - marching, bouncing a ball, tapping into the air or on the piano lid. Clapping games with note values that are matched with words for their rhythmic syllables - frog , tadpole, butterfly, caterpillar etc. I find putting note values onto flashcards with the syllables written underneath works very well for composition too. Let them have a go at drawing notes too early on - they will fill the page at first with just a few but they will be motivated nonetheless. I bought a really good game of dominoes for note and rest values, but you could make your own... I would then progress to talking about note pitch names and writing them under some crotchets/minims etc on cards. Say and play games come naturally before introducing notes on lines and spaces. Flashcards are invaluable once the stave is introduced; so is a game of musical 'Snap'. Of course, some children will be ready for a tutor book quite early on - my favourite series is Joanne MacGregor's Pianoworld. Children love the colourful characters and opportunities to write as well as make up musical stories. I also think the three books progress from one level to another at a suitable pace and enough opportunities to repeat concepts.
Of course, the relationship between teacher, pupil and parents is vital at this young age. Parents who are willing to sit down with their child for five/ten minutes a day, listen to them and discuss with them what they are doing and why, will see him or her progress quickly. Practice habits will develop with guidance from parents. Diplomatic discussions about parental roles may be necessary occasionally - keeping a young pupil interested will not come from pushing them too far, too soon. Children have to want to play and practise for themselves.
So, the piano teacher's responsibility is huge with the very young, but so are the rewards. Our first experiences of something tend to shape our future perceptions of it. Teach, demonstrate and guide, yes, but above all, for the 'littlies' on our books, we should enthuse, entertain and share a love for the piano.