Kids and Music Lessons: When, What, Why

Kids & Music LessonsWe surround our children with music in utero, then come musical mobiles and music toys, later on maracas and other toy instruments. Eventually, the time comes for them to play an instrument. When do you start? What instrument should you start with? Many questions come up, so in this post I’d like to answer some of them.

When should you start music lessons?

Ellie Greenberg, musician and creator of ABC Do-Re-ME!, a popular NYC-based mommy-and-me music class, suggests not starting too early:

“The best age for a child to start playing an instrument is 6 years old. If a child starts too young, they might not appreciate it and look at it as a chore. Wait until they are older or express interest in playing an instrument.”

Rosemary Woodbury (www.woodburypiano.com), a piano teacher for over 20 years, believes it’s personal:

“From my experience children are ready for lessons as young as 4 years old though many are not ready until 5 or even 6 years old.  It just depends on the student’s interest and maturity and the parent’s positive involvement and participation can help a child be ready earlier.”

Ellie agrees it’s never too late – and you can be a great example by learning a new instrument yourself. “By taking lessons together, you are getting quality time together and setting an example for your child”, she says.

Chris Catalano, CEO of School of Rock, believes kids should start earlier, in preschool. School of Rock is the leader in performance-based music education for children ages 2 – 18 along with adult programs. Music programs are designed to create a supportive environment where music students of all skill levels are comfortable yet challenged at every turn. Chris thinks preschool is the ideal age for children to expand his or her musical horizons and abilities. “School of Rock believes the “window of opportunity” for developing a musical sensibility within children is from birth to nine years old. During this time, the mental structures and mechanisms associated with processing and understanding music are in the prime stages of development, making it vital to expose children in this age range to music.” He thinks kids should be introduced to music from birth, start group lessons at 3 years old and pick up an instrument between 5 and 10.

“By the early adolescent years, the child will have gained a large assortment of skills associated with their instrument of choice. At this time, the goal of lessons can easily transition from gaining musical experience to improving performance ability”, says Catalano.

Having completed 10 years of musical education, I believe the ability to count and read is very helpful when reading sheet music and playing an instrument. Patience, so necessary for practice, is also something that develops a little later in life. So I think 6 or 7 years old is the ideal age to start learning to play an instrument.

Why Music Lessons?

Music is all around us but why do kids need to actively explore it? Chris Catalano says research shows that kids who are actively involved in music do better in reading and math when they start school, are better able to focus, better with others and have higher self-esteem.

“Music education at a young age helps children develop inner speech and self-control, learning to interpret signals and cues, parental bonding, memory and recall, self-expression and creativity.”

Which instrument to pick?

Most experts suggest simply asking your child. You may be surprised he/she would know exactly which instrument looks (or rather sounds) most appealing. Ellie Greenberg, founder of ABC Do-Re-ME!, says you should let your kids experiment with different instruments: “Don’t go buy a grand piano because your 4 year old decided she wants to play piano. Buy a small affordable keyboard and let her play with it and explore it.”

Dr. Joel Clifft, Director of Keyboard Studies at Azusa Pacific University and Adjunct Professor at The University of Southern California is often asked by parents which instrument to start with. He says the piano is foundational to all musical understanding:

“Although the piano and the guitar both work with chords, the visual nature of the piano makes it the ideal instrument for training the musical mind. No matter which instrument they choose later in life, the piano will help them to understand the language and architecture of music.”

No matter which instrument you decide on, Rosemary Woodbury says you should focus on the classical approach: “to get the most out of piano lessons, children should be taught real, not simplified, classical music from the start.  Studies have shown great brain benefits from classical music versus little kiddie songs.  It is important to teach technique, music reading, notation, ear training, theory, history and most importantly musicality.”

Private or group lessons?

Dr. Clifft sees the value of group lessons in engaging kids with music. However, he says “Private lessons are necessary for any serious pursuit of a musical education. The advantage of personal attention far outweighs the cheap price of group lessons.”

Rachel Yonan, director of the new Eastern University Preparatory School of Music, agrees that private lessons are the best way of learning an instrument, as teachers can focus exclusively on the individual student’s needs:

“It’s so important that a child learn not only proper technique, but also basic music theory and harmony. In this way they truly understand music, and thus enjoy it more!”

School of Rock’s Chris Catalano believes there is room for traditional lessons to learn the basics. He thinks, however, that learning works best where there is collaboration with others: “Playing in a group setting speeds learning and creates “seasoned” musicians. Through a performance-based approach to music education, students are more inspired to learn, motivated to excel and confident across the board. Not only do children learn to be great musicians, but they establish a strong work ethic, learn teamwork, and gain confidence that they can take with them throughout their lives.” Chris says this kind of group setting helps performers move beyond the printed page to musical awareness and understanding:

“By performing with peers, children will be able to experience a more rewarding and meaningful relationship with fellow musicians. Music programs that offer group-lessons place an emphasis on community, and focus on how they place kids together to create the most inclusive experience for all.”

Rosemary Woodbury says she’s taught both privately and in group settings and there are advantages to both – see which one makes the most sense to you. “There is a camaraderie in the group setting and it can be fun for children to be in class with their friends.  One other advantage of group lessons is that they usually cost substantially less than private.  The down side of group lessons is that students do not get as much of the crucial one-on-one time that they need and they do not progress as efficiently as they do from private lessons.  Students who struggle with piano not only need the one-on-one, they  need lessons customized to fit the best way that they learn (visually, verbally, physically.).  Students who take to piano quickly need private lessons customized so that they will not be held back by a set lesson program.”

Can you learn online or with an app?

Rosemary Woodbury says the apps and computer based piano lessons that she has seen are more gimmicky than educational – “kind of like trying to learn fine art using coloring books”. However, I think there is a large variety of apps that enhance the understanding of music and learning of various instruments. Here are a few:

  • Dr. Clifft recently created an app called Music Theory Pro that turns reading music into a game. “If they know the notes on the treble clef, kids can compete with each other for high scores. There are also some basic ear training games that my own kids love to play. This works best as a supplement to private lessons but it provides a great way for kids to enjoy practicing, and enjoying practice is the biggest key to success in music.” I couldn’t agree more – practice is the only way to improve technique and the passion and individuality you bring to playing the instrument as you get more comfortable with it.
  • Tonara, the iPad app that is changing digital sheet music for the better, provides kids with a visual learning tool to help them learn sheet music and better their music skills. Tonara follows in real-time the music being played on sheet music and can even turn the page for the musician. Also, musicians can send their recording to their instructors and get feedback on their performance. See more in this video:
  • JoyTunes, the creator of popular new musical iPhone and iPad app – Piano Dust Buster 2.0, has released an info-graphic detailing interesting practice habits of aspiring Mozart’s worldwide. From the most common age, the average practice length and most played songs, the info-graphic provides insight to encourage users to perfect their musical ability. What’s more, Piano Dust Buster 2.0 coincides with the discovered results that 43% of piano teachers enhance lessons with a tablet or smartphone.

music learning infographic

How do you maintain their interest in music?

Ellie Greenberg, creator of ABC Do-Re-ME! has two suggestions:

*         Don’t push. The fact that you love piano or violin or you always wanted your child to play a certain instrument, doesn’t mean your child will.
*         Stay calm.  It is normal for a child to decide they don’t want to play an instrument or they want to stop playing. Be patient and try to find out why your child is not interested in playing. No matter what – don’t force your child! By forcing him, you will make him resent the instrument. You can suggest taking a break or maybe trying another instrument.

Most importantly, music lessons should not be dull or tedious but rather bring joy and passion for the music they’ll keep for life.

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