Music Lessons for Children – How Young is Too Young?

I began playing a musical instrument late in life – in 4th grade, at the ripe old age of 9 – when my public school offered classes. I chose violin, and loved it. My teachers recognized my ability, and supported my decision to become a professional. But when I reached conservatory, what a shock! Most of the other students had begun years younger, in kindergarten or earlier. I had to practice 5 to 7 hours a day to catch up to those ‘virtuosos.’

Today, a growing body of research confirms what I sensed: There are neurological benefits to musical training from an early age, when the brain is forming. Research also associates childhood music lessons with higher grades, test scores, and self-esteem. And starting young means children have a better chance at becoming accomplished musicians, if that’s where their interests take them.

But not TOO young! Along with being a musician, I am a mother of three (including two teenagers who are pre-professional musicians, and a 6-year-old budding cellist); and I am the director and a teacher at a school that has taught music to hundreds of youngsters of all ages. Here’s what practical experience has taught me about launching children happily and successfully into the world of music.

1. ENRICH THE BABIES. Teaching an instrument to a child under 3 is an exercise in frustration. Instead, bring them to hear live music. Give them simple toy instruments, like keyboards – kids love pressing buttons. If you ever played an instrument, dust it off and start playing again, in front of them.

2. THERE IS A MAGIC NUMBER. It’s about 3 ½ . For many children, that’s the age when they can begin to concentrate long enough for instrument lessons – especially if the instrument is a piano.

3. CAN YOUR PRESCHOOLER FOCUS? If the child can focus on a task like a puzzle or shape sorter for 20 minutes, that child is probably ready. (If he doesn’t sit 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 so much better. The child can sit comfortably. There’s a palette in front of them – black and white keys They can concentrate on listening for high and low tones – basic ear training. And there’s gratification from the beginning: Press the key and it sounds good!

5. MAKE IT SOCIAL. The best classes for this age are like a great 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 another preschooler or two to join your child’s beginning lessons.

6. DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Get at least three recommendations from other parents. You and your child should meet the teacher in advance, and tour the facility (whether it’s a music school, or the instructor’s house.)

7. SEEK RECITALS. Most preschoolers love to perform for family and friends. The children dress up; they shop for a special outfit; they even get new shoes! During or after the recital, there should be a reception (We call it a “party!”) The kids will run around, eat cookies and carrots, accept congratulations, and feel great!

8. KEEP THE REWARDS FLYING. Children are very goal-oriented, so hand out a LOT of rewards, stickers and small toys. When your child gets antsy, you can say, “If you can play these three measures, you get a sticker.” It works like a miracle!

9. GOT FIVE MINUTES? While lessons require a child to focus for 30 to 45 minutes, set the bar lower for home practice. If she can only put in five minutes, that’s great. She’ll go longer as she gets older. Consistency is FAR more important than duration.

10. CREATE A ROUTINE. Pick a regular place and time of day for practice.

11. BREAK THE ROUTINE. Some nights, I create an audience of stuffed animals for my 6-year-old. On “backwards” night, she does the measures in reverse. Sometimes she serenades me in the kitchen, while I cook. The wackier, the better.

12. DON’T BUY THE INSTRUMENT. If you have a choice, rent or borrow. Reducing your investment will help you achieve the right, laid-back attitude. When parents buy a new instrument for a beginning class, it’s practically a guarantee that the kid will fail. They feel they made this big investment, so their kid had better follow through. That’s too much pressure.

13. BE POSITIVE. Always see the bright side. Praise them for trying, 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’s required. That’s the time to ask yourself:

– Did my child learn something?

– Will he or she practice for at least a few minutes a day?

– Did I do ok? Can I handle the investment of time and energy?

If you answered ‘yes’ to at least two of these questions, keep going with music lessons. Most of our preschoolers do move on to private lessons. Or, if they’re old enough (4 ½ minimum) some switch to a stringed instrument. The piano lessons help enormously when they face the increased complexity of holding and playing a violin, cello or guitar.

But even if your child isn’t ready to continue, you have not wasted your investment. Everything they learned in those first five weeks as will still be there when they’re mature enough to continue making music, whether in 3 months or 3 years.

© 2008, Susan Pascale, All Rights Reserved.

Mildred K. Pearson

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