I started playing a musical instrument late in life, in fourth grade, at the ripe old age of 9, when my public school offered classes. I like 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 conservatory, what a surprise! Most of the other students had started years earlier, in kindergarten or earlier. I had to practice 5 to 7 hours a day to reach those ‘virtuous’.
Today, a growing body of research confirms what I felt: there are neurological benefits to musical training from a young age, when the brain is forming. Research also associates children’s music lessons with higher grades, test scores, and self-esteem. And starting young means kids have a better chance of becoming accomplished musicians, if that’s what interests 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 the director and teacher of a school that has taught music to hundreds of young people of all ages. This is what practical experience has taught me about how to launch children happily and successfully into the world of music.
1. ENRICHES BABIES. Teaching an instrument to a child under 3 years old is an exercise in frustration. Instead, take them to listen to live music. Give them simple toy instruments, like keyboards; kids love to push buttons. If you’ve ever played an instrument, dust it off and play again, in front of them.
2. THERE IS A MAGIC NUMBER. They are about 3 ½ . For many children, that’s the age when they can start to focus 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 be there later!)
4. START WITH PIANO LESSONS. Although violins are made in baby sizes, they are extremely difficult for most children under the age of 4 1/2. The piano is much better. The child can sit comfortably. There is a palette in front of them – black and white keys. They can concentrate on hearing high and low tones: basic ear training. And there’s bonus right from the start: hit the key and it sounds good!
5. MAKE IT SOCIAL. The best classes for this age are like a big playgroup, with the instrument as the center. The kids 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 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 (either a music school or the instructor’s home).
7. LOOK FOR DECLARATIONS. 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 around, eat cookies and carrots, accept congratulations and feel great.
8. KEEP THE REWARDS FLYING. Kids are very goal-oriented, so give out LOTS of prizes, stickers, and small toys. When your child gets restless, you can say, “If you can play these three bars, you get a sticker.” It works like a miracle!
9. DO YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES? Although the lessons require the child to concentrate for 30 to 45 minutes, set the bar lower for practice at home. If you can only spare five minutes, great. She will last longer as she gets older. Consistency is MUCH 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 a stuffed animal audience for my 6 year old. In the “backwards” night, he does the measurements backwards. He sometimes serenades me in the kitchen while I’m cooking. The crazier 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, relaxed attitude. When parents buy a new instrument for a beginner class, it’s practically a guarantee that the child will fail. They feel like they made this big investment, so their son had better move on. That’s too much pressure.
13. BE POSITIVE. Always see the positive side. Congratulate them for trying and for their improvement. Her approval motivates them to continue with her.
14. GIVE IT FIVE WEEKS. After five sessions, parents and children understand exactly what is required. That is the time to ask yourself:
– Did my son learn anything?
– Will he or she practice at least a few minutes a day?
-Made me It’s okay? They can me 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 preschool children go on to private classes. Or, if they’re 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 continue, you haven’t wasted your investment. Everything they learned in those first five weeks will 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.