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Music Lessons for Children – How Young is Too Young?
I started playing a musical instrument late in life – in 4th grade, at the age of 9 – when my public school offered lessons. I chose the violin and loved it. My teachers recognized my ability and supported my decision to become a professional. But when I got to the conservatory, what a shock! Most of the other students had started years younger, in kindergarten or earlier. I had to train 5 to 7 hours a day to reach those ‘virtuosos’.
Today, a growing body of research confirms what I felt: There are neurological benefits to musical training from an early age, when the brain is forming. Research also links childhood music lessons to higher grades, test scores and self-esteem. And starting young means kids have a better chance of becoming successful musicians if that’s where their interests lead.
But not too young! Along with being a musician, I am a mother of three children (including two teenagers who are pre-professional musicians and a 6-year-old cellist); and I am a principal and teacher at a school that has taught music to hundreds of young people of all ages. Here’s what practical experience has taught me about introducing happy and successful children to the world of music.
1. ENRICH THE BABIES. Teaching a child under 3 an instrument is an exercise in frustration. Instead, bring them to listen to live music. Provide simple toy instruments, such as keyboards – children love to press buttons. If you’ve ever played an instrument, dust it off and start playing again, in front of them.
2. THERE IS A MAGIC NUMBER. It’s about half past three. For many children, this is the age when they can begin to focus enough for instrument lessons – especially if the instrument is piano.
3. CAN YOUR PRESCHOOLER BE FOCUSED? If the child can focus on a task such as a puzzle or shape divider for 20 minutes, that child is probably ready. (If he doesn’t stay still for more than 20 seconds, don’t despair—he’ll get there later!)
4. START WITH PIANO LESSONS. Although violins are made in baby sizes, they are extremely difficult for most youngsters under 4 ½. Piano is much better. The child can sit comfortably. There is a palette in front of them – black and white keys They can focus on listening for high and low tones – basic ear training. And it’s fun from the start: Press the key and it sounds great!
5. BE SOCIAL. The best classes for this age are like a big playgroup, with the instrument as the focus. Children can’t wait to see their friends. If there are no classes like this in your area, consider finding a preschool or two to join your child’s beginning lessons.
6. DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Get at least three referrals from other parents. You and your child must meet the teacher in advance and visit the facility (either the music school or the instructor’s home.)
7. ASK FOR RECITALS. Most preschoolers love to perform for family and friends. Children get dressed; they buy a special outfit; they even get new shoes! During or after the recital, there should be a reception (we call it a “party!”) The children will run around, eat cookies and carrots, accept congratulations and have a good time!
8. CONTINUATION OF REWARDS. Children are very goal oriented, so give lots of rewards, stickers and small toys. When your child gets nervous, you can say, “If you can play these three measures, you’ll get a sticker.” It works like a miracle!
9. DO YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES? While the lessons require the child to focus for 30 to 45 minutes, set the bar lower for practice at home. If she can only get through five minutes, that’s great. It will go longer as it grows. Consistency is far more important than duration.
10. CREATE A ROUTINE. Choose a regular place and time of day for practice.
11. BREAK THE ROUTINE. Some nights, I create a stuffed animal audience for my 6-year-old. On the “back” night, she does the measures in reverse. Sometimes she serenades me in the kitchen while I cook. The weirder the better.
12. DO NOT BUY THE INSTRUMENT. If you have a choice, rent or borrow. Reducing your investment will help you achieve the right and calm attitude. When parents buy a new instrument for a beginner class, it’s practically a guarantee that the child will fail. They think they’ve made this big investment, so their child had better follow suit. It’s a lot of pressure.
13. BE POSITIVE. Always look on the bright side. Praise them for their efforts and for their improvement. Your approval motivates them to stick with it.
14. GIVE IT FIVE WEEKS. After five sessions, parents and children understand exactly what is required. It’s time to ask yourself:
– Did my child learn something?
– Will he or she practice for at least a few minutes a day?
– He did The do you do well Can The handle the investment of time and energy?
If you answered ‘yes’ to at least two of these questions, continue with your music lessons. Most of our preschoolers move on to private lessons. Or, if they are old enough (minimum 4 ½) some switch to a stringed instrument. Piano lessons help tremendously when faced with the added complexity of holding and playing a violin, cello or guitar.
But even if your child isn’t ready to move on, you haven’t wasted your investment. Everything they learned in those first five weeks will still be there when they’re mature enough to continue making music, whether it’s in 3 months or 3 years.
© 2008, Susan Pascale, All rights reserved.
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