Music Lessons For Kids: How Young Is Too Young?

I started playing a musical instrument at an advanced age, in fourth grade, at the age of 9, when my public school offered classes. I chose the violin and I loved it. My teachers recognized my ability and supported my decision to become a professional. But when I got to the greenhouse, what a surprise! Most of the other students had started younger years, in kindergarten or earlier. I had to practice 5-7 hours a day to catch up with those ‘virtuosos’.

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

But not TOO young! In addition to being a musician, I am the mother of three children (including two teenagers who are pre-professional musicians and a 6-year-old budding cellist); and I am a director and teacher in a school that has taught music to hundreds of young people of all ages. This is what practical experience has taught me about launching happy and successful children into the world of music.

1. ENRICH THE BABIES. Teaching an instrument to a child under the age of 3 is an exercise in frustration. Instead, bring them to listen to live music. Give them simple toy instruments, like keyboards; kids love pushing 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. They are about 3 ½. For many children, that is the age when they can begin to focus long enough for instrument lessons, especially if the instrument is a piano.

3. CAN YOUR PRESCHOOL CHILD FOCUS? If your child can focus on a task like a puzzle or shape sorter for 20 minutes, he is probably done. (If you don’t stay still for more than 20 seconds, don’t despair, you’ll be there later!)

4. START WITH PIANO LESSONS. Although violins are made in baby sizes, they are extremely difficult for most children under 4½ years of age. The piano is so much better. The child can sit comfortably. There is a palette in front of them – black and white keys. They can concentrate on listening to the high and low tones – basic ear training. And there’s gratification right from the start: Hit the key and it sounds good!

5. SOCIAL DO IT. The best classes for this age are like a big playgroup, with the instrument as the focus. Children are eager to see their friends. If there aren’t any classes like this in your area, consider finding another preschool or two to join your child’s initial 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 (be it a music school or the instructor’s home).

7. LOOK FOR RECIPES. Most preschoolers love to perform for family and friends. The children dress up; 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!”) Children will run, eat cookies and carrots, accept congratulations, and feel great.

8. KEEP THE REWARDS FLYING. Kids are very goal-oriented, so hand out LOTS of rewards, stickers, and small toys. When your child gets anxious, you can say, “If he can play these three bars, he’ll get a sticker.” It works like a miracle!

9. DO YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES? While the lessons require your child to focus for 30 to 45 minutes, set the bar lower for practice at home. If you can only spare five minutes, that’s great. She will go longer as she gets older. Consistency is MUCH more important than duration.

10. CREATE A ROUTINE. Choose a usual place and time of day to practice.

11. BREAK THE ROUTINE. Some nights, I create an audience of stuffed animals for my 6-year-old son. At night “backwards”, he makes the measurements backwards. Sometimes he serenades me in the kitchen while I cook. The crazier the better.

12. DO NOT PURCHASE THE INSTRUMENT. If you can choose, rent or borrow. Reducing your investment will help you achieve the right, relaxed attitude. When parents buy a new instrument for a beginning class, it is practically a guarantee that the child will fail. They feel like they made this great investment, so your child had better move on. That is too much pressure.

13. BE POSITIVE. Always look on the bright side. Congratulate them for trying and improving. Your approval motivates them to keep going.

14. GIVE IT FIVE WEEKS. After five sessions, parents and children understand exactly what is required. This is the time to ask yourself:

– Did my son learn anything?

– Will you practice at least a few minutes a day?

– Made I Do well? can I manage the investment of time and energy?

If you answered “yes” to at least two of these questions, continue with the music lessons. Most of our preschoolers go to private lessons. Or, if they are old enough (4 ½ minimum), some switch to a stringed instrument. Piano lessons help tremendously when faced with the increasing 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 are mature enough to continue making music, be it in 3 months or 3 years.

© 2008, Susan Pascale, All rights reserved.

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