In my former life, I was a music teacher. I did my student teaching while I was pregnant with my oldest, and I taught private lessons from age 17 until after my second was born. Then I really felt it was time to spend more time with them and stop focusing on teaching other kids, so I quit. Sometimes I miss it, and now and then I toss around the idea of holding small music classes for friends’ kids, so that I could “get back into it” in a very part-time way, and enjoy sharing the music with my own kids, too.
I haven’t yet done it. It’s one more thing on the list, and I’m selfish and want my kids all to myself. 🙂 Plus I was one very strict music teacher (all of my students had to do music theory and aural skills and had to really understand music, in addition to learning their instruments) and I’m not quite ready to plunge my still-young kids into all that. Almost, though.
Which brings me to my main point today: when should you start music lessons? Or should you at all?
Should You Start Music Lessons?
I definitely believe that every child is capable of learning music, and learning to truly understand music. I worked with quite a few special needs children (it was a specialty of mine, although I did not do it exclusively) and that included children with cerebral palsy/muscle weakness, moderate autism, and others. Most of my students had some form of autism. And all of them learned to understand music just fine, some of them excellently. So to me, there’s no reason why any child “can’t.”
There are, however, reasons why children “shouldn’t.” These include:
- A lack of interest in music or music lessons (most important!!)
- Having little attention span/ability to sit still (maybe “not yet”)
- Lack of regard for personal items (might break the instrument, also “not yet”)
- Busy with many activities (music study takes time and shouldn’t be “just one more thing”)
- Unwilling or unable to follow directions
Reasons 2 and 3 are why I have not yet started my children. They do not take care of their things very well, and they don’t like to sit still. I don’t want to fight them and I don’t think any teacher would either.
That last one — my oldest is convinced she knows everything, and does not need anyone to teach her anything (she might have, ahem, gotten this from me…). It took her half the year in AWANA last year before she was convinced of the merits of following directions and memorizing her verses. When I do teach her an instrument, it will be very important to me that she follow instructions so that I don’t have to help her break bad habits later. All teachers feel this way, so if you know your child is likely to ignore instructions (whether defiantly or just because they are small children and get distracted easily), it may be better to wait.
The very first reason is most important, though. Do not sign up a child who does not want to be there. They will not get anything out of it. Music lessons (and most things) require a desire to participate, and music is very hands-on. You can’t force a child to experience it. Even if you desperately want your child to know music, don’t sign them up if they don’t want to do it. There are always general classes at a later age, when you can convince them of their need to know the basics — plus, some kids who aren’t motivated by a piano or a violin are very motivated by a guitar or drums, when they are big enough. Just wait, or just don’t.
When Should I Start Music Lessons?
Some of you are sitting there saying, “Blah blah, I hear you. But I have a child who is super into music! He’s been singing since he could talk, he listens to CDs all day long, he knows more lyrics than I do, he can carry a tune, and he’s been begging me for two years to get him into music lessons! What about us?”
That depends. A child like this — and many other children — meet the most basic criteria, and that is “interest.” The child must be interested in music study. (Not just music in general, but actual study.) If your child loves to listen to music but shows no desire to sing, play an instrument, or actively participate — probably not the right time.
In general, what are we looking for in a potential music student?
- Strong interest in learning an instrument
- Physical ability to handle that instrument (some are not made in sizes small enough for young children)
- Knows the alphabet
- Can count to 10
- Recognizes symbols/shapes
- Able to follow directions and focus on an activity for 5 – 10 minutes (at least)
I had young students who met all the criteria except the last, and we got nearly nothing done. I’d say, “Okay, let’s play a few notes!” and the child would go “Uh-huh, but,” and start telling me a story. Whether it was a lack of interest or the child’s inability to focus, s/he wasn’t learning anything. The ability to focus on one activity for at least five minutes is big.
Notice I did not put anything on the list about “carrying a tune” or “ability/aptitude.” These are very rare in young children and plenty of “average” children can learn to be quite good with training. I myself was only sort of recommended to begin music study in the fourth grade, and I went on to be a music teacher. Sometimes kids with natural ability are more difficult anyway because so much comes easily to them that when it does get difficult, they don’t want to try or practice. Only you know if your child is likely to fall into this category, though.
The basic skills, like recognizing shapes, the alphabet, and counting will help students in their early musical experiences. These do not really apply to “general music” type classes, like Kindermusic or Gymboree, but they do for private instrument study.
Most students will be “capable” of beginning music study around age 3 or so, but I have found that students tend to learn the most quickly and be the most motivated when they begin around age 7. They often do not advance as far as the students who started younger. As one of my music teacher friends says, “Those early years are frustrating…and they make little progress…but it’s worth it.” Depends on your family.
Piano and violin are the easiest instruments to start with, for young children. Older children (7 – 9 or so) may choose nearly anything.
What About Kindermusic?
Some parents like to start their kids in some form of music class from a very young age — infancy and toddlerhood.
My personal and professional opinion is that these classes are fine. They’re often fun for moms and babies to do together, and good to meet other moms and play with other babies. They are not, however, specifically beneficial. Children who play music games are not necessarily any better at formal music study than those who do not. There are no official benefits to these, anymore than there are benefits to “Baby Einstein” type DVDs.
So if you want to do a music class with your child, by all means, go ahead and enjoy. Just don’t think that these will give your child an edge in formal music study if that is your goal.
Finding a Teacher
If you’re a musician, should you teach your child yourself?
Depends on you and the child. I will be starting my own kids, because we have a relationship and a rapport and I think if they are willing to listen to anyone, they will listen to me. They are much more likely to follow my instructions than than those of an unfamiliar teacher — especially my oldest. If you feel like your children would be more willing to listen to someone else, that might be the right call for your family. Some children treat Mom or Dad as “fun time” and don’t want to take serious instruction from them, while they will do so from unrelated adults. So, it depends. Teaching them yourself is undeniably cheaper. 🙂 But you could always do a “lesson exchange” with a musical friend, if cost is a factor.
If you’re not musical, then you will want to find a teacher who is experienced in working with young children (or whatever your child’s age is). The teacher should ideally be warm and friendly and inviting to you and the child. You should be welcome in lessons, especially if your child is young. I allowed it to be up to the parents if they stayed or not. Some did, because their child was more comfortable. Some didn’t, because they felt their child would pay attention better if they were not present.
The teacher should be someone you feel comfortable talking to, and whom your child feels comfortable being with. The teacher should be organized and experienced, and select curricula that is appropriate to the child’s age and needs.
If you are not sure where to begin, you might find teachers this way:
- Ask friends whose children take lessons
- Ask around church
- Ask at any local music store (they may offer lessons in-house, or they will have lists of teachers to refer to)
- Look online or in the phone book for local music schools
- Ask at local colleges for music students who teach
- Ask on a local symphony’s website for teachers
You should have at least a couple of these options in your area. Don’t be afraid to interview the teacher, meet the teacher, or even take a trial lesson or a trial month, to see if that teacher is a good fit for your family. Change it up if you need to.
And you know, if you try it and a couple months down the road you feel like you’re spending all your time nagging your child to practice and it isn’t fun for either of you, quit. You can always go back to it later. Some children are just “not ready yet” even if they will go on to be excellent students in a year or two or three.