One Expert Tells All

When Is My Child Ready…for Music Lessons?

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How to encourage your budding musician—whether he’s interested in classical or rock!

We asked Scott Taylor, program director for the young people’s division at Lucy Moses School at Kaufman Music Center in New York City, what parents should know about music lessons—from what age to start lessons to if it’s ever OK to quit. Joanne Van Zuidam reports:

OK, let’s get started. First, is it really necessary to sign kids up for music lessons—specifically, lessons to learn how to play an instrument? Is that something all kids need?

No, it’s certainly not mandatory, but there has been a lot of research in recent years documenting the benefits of learning a musical instrument. Those benefits include improving memory function, developing fine motor skills, and building stronger neural connections between the right and left sides of the brain, which helps with problem-solving tasks. Music training also teaches life skills. Kids learn the importance of practice and patience; how to create a daily routine; how to maintain consistency; and, when they prepare for a recital, how to set goals, work toward those goals, and build confidence.

At what age can children begin music lessons?

While students may have music class in school, musical instruments might not be offered in kindergarten. In fact, that kind of formal instruction may not occur until second or third grade—the age at which kids may learn how to read music, but that varies by school district. Private lessons for instruments such as the piano or the guitar can start earlier, if a child is interested. The Suzuki program, for example, works really well for kids younger than five years old. It’s highly structured, very gradual, and very good at keeping students engaged during lessons. Kids learn to play their instrument at a very gradual pace. Suzuki was originally developed as a teaching method for the violin, but materials are now available for viola, cello, bass, piano, flute, harp, guitar, recorder, organ, and voice.

Are certain instruments easier to learn and therefore recommended for the youngest students?

Instrument choice mostly has to do with a child’s development. Instruments like the trumpet or clarinet require better lung capacity, which comes with age. The same is true with the saxophone, but that also requires physical strength because it’s quite a large instrument. Good beginning instruments include piano, violin, cello, guitar, and flute. The piano is easier to play, which is gratifying to beginner students, and it helps develop a strong sense of pitch. The others are the easiest string and wind instruments to learn the basics.

How do I help my child decide which instrument to play?

Do a little bit of research with your child to find out what gets him excited. Take him to children’s concerts and theater performances, watch kids’ holiday shows on television and online, listen to older siblings practice, and even glean inspiration from street musicians. The point is to make kids aware of sounds and connect the ones they like with an instrument they would like to learn.

My child wants to play the piano. That’s a huge expense for our family. Plus, it will take up a lot of space. Can I just buy a keyboard?

Practicing at home on a keyboard is fine in the beginning. It will help your child learn the notes. But if your child is enjoying lessons and wants to make a commitment to practice, a piano is best. The reason is that digital instruments don’t feel the same when playing. Piano keys respond differently to nuances in touch. They also sound different. Notes on a piano can be long, short, soft, loud, etc.—an effect you won’t find with an electronic keyboard. The same goes for drums. A drum kit is a huge investment financially and space-wise. A drum pad is great to learn how to tap out rhythms in the beginning, but a kit (or even just one drum to start) is best to help the percussionist advance. Of course, there are options other than buying your child a Steinway. If you have the space, you may be able to lease a piano, or you may find a neighbor, family member, or friend who would allow your child to visit regularly to practice. Also, some neighborhoods or apartment buildings have community centers with music rooms. Maybe the school itself will allow time for practice.

Does my child have to practice every day? If so, for how long and how should I be involved?

Practice is very important. It’s probably more important than the actual lesson itself. The lesson shows how to build certain techniques, and the teacher can monitor how the student does and correct accordingly. But then the student has to go home and develop these skills—and that’s where you come in, to provide firm reminders to practice. A good rule of thumb for practice is about half the amount of the time of the lesson. If a child’s lesson is 30 minutes, daily practice should last for about 15 minutes. That time, however, can be split up if it’s more convenient—a few minutes in the morning and a few at night. On days that are busier than others, any time spent practicing is better than none.

Under what circumstances should you allow your child to quit studying an instrument?

It’s important for a young musician to stick with her instrument of choice for a while. If she decides she doesn’t want to play an instrument anymore, especially if it’s the first time she encounters a challenge, allowing her to quit may send the wrong message. We suggest sticking it out for the year. That’s long enough to decide whether the challenge itself was the problem or the instrument she chose was just not a good fit. To encourage your child to keep at it, remind her that progress takes time. Skill doesn’t develop over a few weeks or months. It develops over years and years of study. That said, if your child is truly miserable or has limited talent, allow her to quit but maintain musical connections in other ways, such as having her join the school chorus, or the choir if your family attends a place of worship (the voice is a musical instrument if you think about it). If singing is not her style, take her to concerts. While she may not get the same benefits as she would when practicing an instrument, simply listening to music forces the brain to engage to process the different sounds.