When to Start
So you want to enroll your child in music lessons — or maybe you’re not quite sure — but, either way, you have a few questions. What age is right to start lessons? What instruments are good for beginners? What if they want to quit? Whether it’s “Twinkle,Twinkle Little Star” or Beethoven’s Fifth that you hope to hear, some basic guidance will get you right in tune.
There is no magic age that’s right to start your child in music lessons. It’s different for every child and depends on a variety of different factors, including maturity, attention span, coordination, and motivation. Deena Woodward, a private piano teacher in Calvert County, recommends seven as the age to begin music lessons. Her reasoning is that at seven, children will have the attention span necessary for lessons and know the alphabet well enough to learn to read music, which starts as soon as the lessons do. Julie Fowler, whose two daughters take piano lessons from Woodward, started her daughters at age eight. She deemed them ready when they could read and began tinkering on the piano on their own. The Peabody program, a music program with locations in Towson, Downtown Baltimore and at Maryland Hall in Annapolis, offers general music classes beginning at two months of age; however, music lessons with a specific focus on an instrument do not begin until age five. They encourage children to be enrolled in general music classes prior to beginning lessons. “You’re allowing them to be exposed to music the same way they are to language.” says Kristen Sullivan, a teacher of early childhood music classes in the Peabody program. Just like in language, children will learn to imitate before learning to read music in this program. Sullivan describes it as “this is what it sounds like, now this is what it looks like.” Also a believer in the language metaphor, The Suzuki Music School of Maryland, located in Columbia, performs a readiness assessment for children looking to enter the program to gauge their maturity. Dr. Joan Spicknall, director of and teacher in the school, says, “They have to willing come here.” Four and five are common ages to begin the program, which includes both one-on-one classes and ensemble classes where children will play in a group. Beginning at age three is uncommon, but not unheard of. Reading music generally begins around six.
What to Play
Piano is a common starting instrument, as the size of the player is irrelevant and that no matter how you hit a key, it will play a note in tune. Stringed instruments, especially violin, are also common starter instruments, as they come in different sizes to fit their players.. Students typically start wind, brass and percussion instruments around age eight or nine — since those instruments typically don’t vary in size, kids need to grow to fit the instrument. At very young ages, picking an instrument is normally the parents’ decision, and if later the child wants to switch instruments, it’s definitely an option; however, Spicknall comments that often children simply pick up another instrument in addition to the original instrument. She also advises giving an instrument time before switching.
Next comes actually playing, both at lessons and at home. Depending on age and level, naturally practice time and lesson length will vary. Thirty minutes is a typical length for a beginner lesson and, as the student progresses, the lesson length can change to forty-five minutes or an hour. Practice time also changes as a student progresses. For very young beginners practice time can be just ten or fifteen minutes, progressing to thirty minutes as the child gets older. Some teachers will ask five days a week and others seven, but all would agree that it’s “not an amount of time, it’s the quality of the practice time,” as Sullivan puts it. Woodward explains how, rather than allotting an amount of time, she assigns a number of repetitions for each piece of music to be played. Spicknall also recommends practicing with your child when they are young.
So you’ve decided your child is the right age to start lessons, you’ve found an instrument and a teacher, enrolled them in lessons and you drive them to their lesson every week. Isn’t your job done? As it turns out, it’s not quite that simple. Enrolling your child in music lessons might turn out to be more of a commitment than you thought.. Spicknall points out that it’s more often the parents that cause kids to drop out of lessons than the kids themselves choosing to quit. “The parents have to be committed to music education.” She says. In Spicknall’s lessons you are expected to stay in the lessons with your child through middle school and are encouraged to take notes and ask questions in order to help your child practice at home. Sometimes, for very young children, you can learn to play a little to be of even more help. There’s no doubt that as a parent you play an instrumental (no pun intended) role in keeping your child interested, motivated and progressing in their music lessons. “If the parent isn’t excited about it, the student isn’t going to be excited about it.” Says Woodward, who, in an effort to keep parents and their children interested, often holds mini-performances as a chance for kids to show their parents what they have accomplished and to give them a goal to work towards. Along the same lines, Sullivan says that “really encouraging the progress and making [children] see that they can do it,” is important for parents to do. By encouraging your child, you’re keeping them motivated and interested and, by showing your commitment, you’re keeping them committed.
Time to Quit
But what happens if, even with your dedicated commitment to note taking, encouragement, mini-performances, and, of course, once a week chauffeuring, your child’s interest slacks? Whether they want to quit, don’t want to practice, or are just frustrated in general, what do you do? Sullivan recommends figuring out what element it is that’s making them lose interest. Are the lessons to long? Are they not seeing results from the practice time they put in? She recommends mixing up the problem element. Maybe practicing twice a day for half the time is better than one uninterrupted session; maybe the lessons are to long. A lack of motivation is often the problem, whether caused by frustration, boredom or slow progress. Ways to keep your child motivated are to offer incentives or have them learn popular music that they know and like. But the best way to keep a child motivated is to show her that she is making progress and that it is worth her time to keep practicing. Frustration is often the cause of a child’s loss of motivation. Fowler’s solution to this is a mandate: Her daughters must continue with piano lessons until they are out of middle school, after which it is their choice whether or not to continue. Her thinking is that by this time they are “over the hump” and are beginning to see more results from their practicing. One daughter is now in high school and has chosen to stick with it. Fowler commented that her younger daughter is in the more frustrating stages, but is motivated by her older sister’s progress and “sees that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” This ‘“light” seems to be key in motivating children to play. Showing them that their practicing is paying off and that they are accomplishing things, whether it’s through performances or stickers when they’ve mastered a piece, is the best way to keep them going. Spicknall commented that “the fun is in the accomplishment.” If the motivation just isn’t there and can’t be coaxed out, even with SpongeBob stickers on completed pieces, an option people often consider as an alternative to quitting is to take a break. In general breaks are advised against (as it’s hard to begin again); however, there are exceptions, and breaks aren’t something to be totally ruled out.
When and if you do decide to place your child in music lessons, realize that it’s more of a commitment than just an hour a week. Consider your child’s readiness for the commitment as well as your own. Every child is different and ready at different times. But don’t forget that your child — and you, for that matter — are never too old to begin lessons. There are many different programs and teachers available, so shop around a little and find one right for you. Choose an instrument realistic for your child and keep up the encouragement. Show them that they are making progress and they will keep at it. And don’t forget the SpongeBob stickers.
By Caroline Hays
Caroline Hays was the editorial intern for Chesapeake Family.