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Music Lessons for Children – How Young is Too Young?
I started playing a musical instrument late in life – in 4th grade, at the ripe old age of 9 – when my public school offered lessons. I chose the violin and loved it. My teachers recognized my ability and supported my decision to become a professional. But when I got to the conservatory, what a shock! Most of the other students started years younger, in kindergarten or earlier. I had to practice 5 to 7 hours a day to catch up with those ‘virtuosos’.
Today, a growing body of research confirms what I felt: there are neurological benefits of musical training from an early age, when the brain is forming. Research also links childhood music lessons to higher grades, test scores and self-esteem. And starting at an early age means that children have a better chance of becoming successful musicians, if their interests lead them to do so.
But not too young! In addition to being a musician, I am a mother of three (including two teenagers who are pre-professional musicians, and a budding 6-year-old cellist); and I am the director and teacher of a school that has taught music to hundreds of young people of all ages. Here’s what practical experience has taught me about how to launch children happily and successfully into the world of music.
1. ENRICH THE BABIES. Learning an instrument for 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 to press buttons. If you’ve ever played an instrument, erase it and start playing again, in front of them.
2. THERE IS A MAGIC NUMBER. That’s about 3 ½. For many children, this is the age when they can begin to concentrate long enough for instrument lessons – especially if the instrument is piano.
3. CAN YOUR PRESCHOOLER FOCUS? If a child can focus on a task like a puzzle or sorting shapes 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 PIANO LESSONS. Although violins are made in baby sizes, they are extremely heavy for most youngsters under 4 ½. The piano is much better. The child can sit comfortably. In front of them is a palette – black and white keys. I can concentrate on hearing high and low tones – basic ear training. And there’s pleasure from the start: Press the button and it sounds good!
5. MAKE HER SOCIAL. The best classes for this age are like a large playgroup, with the instrument as the focus. The children can’t wait to see their friends. If there are no such classes in your area, consider finding another preschooler or two to join your child’s beginning class.
6. DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Get at least three referrals from other parents. You and your child should meet the teacher beforehand and tour the facility (whether it’s a music school or the instructor’s home).
7. LOOK FOR RECITALS. Most preschoolers love to perform for family and friends. Children dress up; they buy special clothes; they even get new shoes! There should be a reception during or after the recital (We call it a “party!”) The kids will be running around, eating cookies and carrots, receiving cards and feeling great!
8. LET THE REWARDS FLY. Children are very goal-oriented, so give out LOTS of prizes, stickers, and small toys. When your child gets nervous, you can say, “If you can play these three bars, you’ll get a sticker.” Works like a miracle!
9. HAVE FIVE MINUTES? While lessons require a child to focus for 30 to 45 minutes, set the bar lower for home practice. If he can put in just five minutes, that’s great. She will last longer as she gets older. Consistency is FAR more important than duration.
10. CREATE A ROUTINE. Choose a regular 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. On the “back” night, she does the reverse. Sometimes he serenades me in the kitchen, while I’m cooking. The wackier 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’s lesson, it’s practically a guarantee that the child will fail. They feel that they have made a big investment, so it is better for their child to continue it. That’s too much pressure.
13. BE POSITIVE. Always sees the bright side. Praise them for trying and making progress. Your approval motivates them to stick with it.
14. GIVE him five weeks. After five sessions, parents and children understand exactly what is needed. It’s time to ask yourself:
– Has my child learned anything?
– Will he or she exercise at least a few minutes a day?
– I did I do ok? It can I bear the investment of time and energy?
If you answered ‘yes’ to at least two of these questions, continue with music lessons. Most of our preschoolers move on to private lessons. Or, if they are old enough (4 ½ minimum) some switch to a stringed instrument. Piano lessons are very helpful when faced with the increased 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 are mature enough to continue playing music, whether in 3 months or 3 years.
© 2008, Susan Pascale, All rights reserved.
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