What is the ideal age for a child to start learning an instrument? The answer is: it depends.
No matter what the instrument your child needs to be mature enough to be able to focus on formal learning—the age of reason, so to speak—even if it’s just for a relatively short period of time. For piano and string instruments, the general consensus seems to be that you can start formal lessons around age five, or even earlier, in a Suzuki program, although some teachers would still wait until age eight or the third grade. For other instruments, waiting a bit longer will actually give your child a better chance of success. The A music school, for example, doesn’t start students on guitar, bass guitar, or drums until they’re age eight, and many teachers recommend waiting until ages nine, ten, or eleven to start lessons on other instruments. According to Dianna Gomez, who is band director at Presidio Middle School and has taught at lower levels, fourth graders have an eighty percent chance of failure. She finds that fifth graders, on the other hand, have about an eighty percent chance of success.
A lot of it has to do with physical size. Often, smaller-scale stringed instruments are readily available for children, and while a small child will not have the reach of an adult, they can still play basic chords. But it takes a certain amount of arm and body length, wind power, and small-movement coordination to play other instruments. For example, a flute, clarinet, or trumpet might still be too big for a fourth-grade child. Joan Murray, founder of the Golden Gate Philharmonic and a public school orchestra director, points out that younger and smaller children simply cannot play a trombone.
When it comes to vocal lessons, most choral groups won’t accept applicants until they are at least five years old. Before then, they encourage parents to let children experiment with their voice and singing and discovering the sounds they can and can’t make, and help them learn things like how to hold a pitch and even start learning how to sight-read music. Once a part of the group, they need to be able to keep pace with the rehearsal. One thing all vocal coaches agree on is to take care not to strain or push a child’s voice. It’s very easy to damage a voice at an early age.
No matter at what age your child starts, experts agree that finding a teacher or program that also stresses learning music theory at the same time helps speed progress. Even before your child begins formal lessons, you should also expose your child to all types of music, from classical concerts to church choirs; Murray suggests sitting up front, where children can actually see the orchestra or band. She also suggests listening to recordings and helping children learn which instrument makes each sound. Local music groups often have concerts tailored for kids, so search them out. Above all, encourage children to move and sing along with the music they hear.
Marianne Lipanovich is a writer and editor based in Redwood City. A gardening expert, she is a lifelong music lover, having learned to read music before she learned to read.
Before you choose a teacher for your child, you have to know what you want from them. For example, what kind of music would you like your child to learn? Since different musical practices emphasize different things, you might want a teacher who is comfortable with more than one style of music. That way your child would be exposed to a variety of music at a point when his/ her tastes are forming. John McCarthy, director of the Preparatory Division of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music advises you to match a teacher to your child's developmental level:
- For young beginners, choose a teacher who enjoys a relationship with kids and families.
- For a talented, ambitious teen, choose a teacher who will challenge the student
- For the serious pre-professional, a teacher should be able to talk about deep musical values
An interview process can help you discover these sorts of qualities and more. Questions you should ask include those about the teacher’s own musical training and teaching experience. A college degree in music is desirable, and experience with teaching the age level of your child is critical. Practical issues are important as well: What are the fees and make-up policy? Where do the lessons take place (some teachers will come to your home)? It is a good idea to get referrals from other families as well.
Often times, introducing social aspects into musical training can drastically increase chances of success. To these ends, ask the teacher if they organize group workshops, performance opportunities, or perhaps ensembles. There is more to playing music than just mastering the technique of the instrument. Is the teacher providing knowledge of reading music, music theory, and exposure to various musical styles and repertoire? What types of books or materials do they use? How do they set and communicate weekly goals with their students?
McCarthy also points out that a match between parenting style and teaching style is a good idea. He terms the “sculptor” style as more goal-oriented and involved in directing the child’s progress, while the “gardener” style is more philosophical, encouraging natural growth of the child. Ask yourself and the prospective teacher – which one are you?
In the end, the chemistry between the student and teacher is essential. Arrange a paid, trial-lesson to see how they get along. Always respect the teacher as a professional even if they are not the right fit. There might be a time when it is appropriate to change teachers as needs and abilities develop.
Communication is the foundation for a successful relationship between teacher, student and family.
Lisa Petrie earned a D.M.A. in flute performance from SUNY, Stony Brook. She has been a communications professional in the arts and education for 10 years, including work in Switzerland and Holland, as well as the Bay Area.
Most teachers agree that the home environment is critical for young musicians. "It affects motivation, effort, persistence, and achievement,” says John McCarthy, director of the Preparatory Division at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. How can you make your home music friendly?
The simple act of playing music together is a fundamental first step, but when it comes time for true practicing, Doris Fukawa, executive director of Berkeley’s Crowden Music Center, recommends a graded approach based on age. For families with young children, simply singing and playing music is sufficient. “Anything with a good melody and moderate beat is great,” she says. As for instruments, Fukawa says a piano is terrific; a guitar is okay with proper handling, but stay away from anything amplified. Older children taking lessons should have a consistent practice time, which Fukawa says can be as little as 10 minutes in the morning and 20-30 minutes after school.
"A music-friendly home will have a quiet space that is always free during the planned practice time,” McCarthy notes. Stephen Shapiro, executive director of the Community Music Center of San Francisco, cautions, “Don’t make practicing a chore, or a battleground. Make it fun if possible, and part of the daily routine.” Shapiro further emphasizes that parents should “make sure the student’s music and instrument are in good working order, and help her get to the lesson on time.”
“Make sure the rest of the house is reasonably quiet when the student is practicing,” Shapiro advises. McCarthy adds, “A healthy emotional climate is fundamental. This is more important that considerations of privacy, the quality of the instrument, etc. Parents who are authoritarian are actually more likely to inhibit their child’s practice and performance.”
Finally, the sheer act of listening enhances the home musical environment. Both Shapiro and Fukawa stress the importance of frequent listening and going to concerts together, classical or otherwise. Eventually, parents can sense the direction of their child’s musical interest and go from there. Fukawa notes, “My son Sasha is playing piano, and has snuck in learning how to play a part of the ‘Star Wars theme,’ which he enjoys playing for his friends. When the ‘habit’ takes, then families/teachers can increase the rigor. Knowing how your children thrive and learn is also part of the equation.”
Joseph Sargent holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University and teaches at the University of San Francisco.
Is there anyone who does not enjoy some form of music? From our mother’s first lullabies, and accompanying us through holidays, celebrations, sports events, and rituals, music has added beauty, grace, vitality and expression to our lives.
Music can be enjoyed alone and with others. It can be a space for solitary meditation. It can provide an opportunity to connect with various like-minded groups of people, from garage band pals to “Sing-Along-Messiah” casts of thousands. It is a portal to our self-expression and an opportunity to appreciate others in new ways. The music experience can be active performing or passive listening. As the poet Sidney Lanier wrote, “Music is love in search of a word.”
In addition to the pure joy of music listening or participation, music study helps us in other real and substantial ways. The National Association for Music Education groups the benefits of music education into four categories:
Success in Society
Every human culture uses music to carry forward its ideas and ideals. Music study provides children with an internal glimpse of other cultures and teaches them to be empathetic towards the people of these cultures. Performing helps us to conquer fear and to take risks. The U.S. Department of Education stated "Many colleges view participation in the arts and music as a valuable experience that broadens students’ understanding and appreciation of the world around them. It is also widely recognized that the arts contribute significantly to children’s intellectual development." The arts in general create jobs, boost tourism, spur growth in related businesses (hotels, restaurants, printing, etc.) and improve the overall quality of life for our cities and towns.
Success in School
Skills learned through the discipline of music transfer to study, communication, and cognitive skills useful in every part of a child’s school curriculum. The discipline of music study—particularly through participation in ensembles—helps students learn to work effectively in the school environment without resorting to violent or inappropriate behavior. Recent studies show that students who study the arts achieve higher grades in high school and are more successful on standardized tests such as the SAT.
Success in Developing Intelligence
Early musical training helps develop brain areas involved in language and reasoning. There is also a causal link between music and spatial intelligence (the ability to perceive the world accurately and to form mental pictures of things). Music students learn to think creatively and to solve problems in imaginative ways.
Success in Life
Music study develops skills that are necessary in the workplace, such as teamwork and discipline. It focuses on “doing,” as opposed to observing, and teaches students how to perform, literally, anywhere in the world. Music students learn craftsmanship and what constitutes good, as opposed to mediocre, work. Former President, Bill Clinton, who enjoyed playing jazz on the tenor saxophone, came first-hand to this conclusion, ”Music is about communication, creativity, and cooperation, and, by studying music in school, students have the opportunity to build on these skills, enrich their lives, and experience the world from a new perspective.”
Kathy Butera is Lecturer/Supervisor of the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. She was formerly Executive Director of Sherwood Conservatory of Music (now merged with Columbia) and has held management positions with the Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Chicago symphony orchestras.
Singing helps children develop their inner world.
Singing provides an emotional release for children. It develops their sense of security and provides a way to express feelings that they might not be able to verbalize. When children sing spontaneously and invent their own songs, it inspires imagination. And because it involves active music making, it counters the influence of our consumer-oriented culture.
Singing encourages language development.
The development of communication and language is at the heart of children’s’ learning. Singing encourages communication, and increases vocabulary. Songs have very clear articulation and develop awareness of rhyme and meter. Singing also provides children a way to explore their vocal range, and to find a natural, expressive speaking voice.
Singing provides the best foundation for children’s’ musical development.
When children sing songs by ear, they are building musical memory. Later, as children learn to read and write music, singing helps to develop the musical ear. Through singing, children learn to hear the pitch before singing it and understand its relation to those around it—a more musical (and challenging) process than learning fingerings for different notes, and a skill that is necessary for instrumentalists as well as singers.
Singing in choirs fosters musical artistry and develops a sense of community.
Singing in choirs is one of the best ways for children to develop as musicians. Choirs help to shape children’s aesthetic sensitivity. Through singing in parts, children learn to be independent musicians while learning to respond to others musically. They take pride in their accomplishment together—and form lasting relationships with other children.
Singing builds awareness of one’s own and other cultures.
Songs, like stories, have been passed down through generations and in all cultures. Because they embody the beliefs and musical values of a culture, songs provide one of the best means for children to understand and appreciate different cultures and eras. When songs are in a foreign language, children gain language skills and an interest in other languages and cultures.
“If we ourselves sing often, this provides a deep experience of happiness in music....we learn to know the pulsation, rhythm and shape of melody. The enjoyment given encourages the study of instruments and the listening to other pieces of music as well.” Zoltán Kodály
Anne Laskey, Director, Kodály Center for Music Education at Holy Names University, Oakland, CA
If your child is already begging you for a drum set or wants to start percussion lessons, here are several considerations to keep in mind.
How old should a child be to begin percussion lessons?
Young students should have some reading skills. Generally seven or eight year olds do well. Study after study shows that learning a musical instrument increases one's ability to read too.
Isn't playing drums a loud activity?
Yes it is. But you can practice on a practice pad instead of the drums. It is quieter and it can be argued that one's technique develops better (because there is no resonance and you can hear all of your mistakes). In the long run, playing on pads saves the ears of the drummer as well as the nerves of family members and neighbors.
How long does it take to hear progress?
You can get up and running (on a drumset for instance) in about 3-6 weeks with some basic rhythms and grooves. Naturally, the more you practice, the more you improve. It is not uncommon to see motivated students "jamming" with guitar and keyboard players in six months to a year.
Do I Need An Instrument?
At first you will only need an inexpensive practice pad and a pair of sticks. Eventually, though, you will need a stand-alone snare drum or a full drum set. If you are studying mallet percussion, you will be fine for a while if you already own a piano or keyboard. If you own neither, you will need a small xylophone (wooden bars) or a set of orchestra bells (metal bars). If you are studying hand percussion, you will need an instrument on which to play and practice, or an E-pad (a specialty practice pad for hand drums). The good news is that an instrument doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg (although it can!).
Should I practice 30 minutes a day?
Not necessarily, though we recommend you pick up the sticks everyday. Practicing everyday for any amount of time will do you more good in the long run, than watching the clock for 30 minutes. Practice in a room where you can't see a clock. Some days you'll practice for 15 minutes … other days you'll come out of the session 2 hours later!
Do I have to read music to play the drums?
No, but it sure saves time and money. Music is a language. Learning a language by rote can be done, but is repetitive, boring, without depth, and slow. Your teacher should explain the basics of reading music in your lessons.
The FAQ is generously excerpted from the FAQ posted by percussionist and teacher Cary Nasatir with the Nasatir School of Percussion. Visit his website for more information on equipment, pedagogy and taking lessons: http://www.nsopdrums.com