My brother is an accomplished musician. I vividly remember his dedication to classical piano and guitar when we were both children—even though he got little encouragement and no music lessons outside of school. I always felt that was wrong. A talent like his should have been nurtured. So when my son asked to play the violin at the age of five, I immediately rented him a scaled-down instrument, signed him up for lessons, and even tried to learn myself so I could help him practice. While I learned to play a few tunes, he begged to quit from almost the first lesson. I made him keep at it for a few months before we gave up. Two years later he still adamantly refuses to have anything to do with music. Were my parents right?
Is it Best to Let a Kid Struggle for His Art?
“It sounds to me like you did everything right,” says Mike Blakeslee, Deputy Executive Director of the National Association for Music Education.“Sometimes parents push a kid toward music or a particular instrument but you let him ask first. Is it possible that the style of instruction he got wasn’t a good fit?”
Yes, that’s possible. His teacher did a pretty good job of making the process boring—especially for someone his age. She came highly recommended though, so I stuck with her.
What's the Right Age to Start?
Maybe I just started him too young? “The right age to start a child is a judgment call each parent has to make for each child,” agrees Blakeslee. The child has to be able to sit still and pay attention through a 30-minute lesson. The age at which each child achieves that varies but usually occurs between ages four and six. And there are some size restrictions too. Some instruments can’t be scaled down enough for a child’s small body. A kid needs to be about ten to play the guitar for example.
Some music programs—such as The Suzuki Method—teach children as young as two but they usually just play games, march about with the instrument, get comfortable holding it, and generally toy with the idea—all important stuff.
How to Approach Music Lessons?
One approach is to first buy an instrument and let the child play with it before signing up for lessons. “You can compare playing an instrument to, say, playing basketball,” answers Blakeslee. “A kid can shoot at the hoop over and over again and—even without instruction—learn a great deal. That’s because muscle memory is an important part of the sport—just as with playing an instrument. Still the way you hold the instrument and your posture are extremely important. Muscles can learn bad habits quickly without instruction. I think finding a teacher to get him excited about playing would be a better idea.”
Blakeslee suggests finding a teacher who offers a trial lesson to see if the child and teaching style are a good fit. Most instructors are professional enough to understand if you decide their style won’t work for your child. Finding the right teacher can be a difficult process. Even a highly recommended teacher might be wrong for some children.
“Managing a child’s expectations is also an important part of getting past the early, drudgery stages of learning an instrument,” says Blakeslee. Kids imagine that they will pick up the instrument and instantly play beautiful music in front of a devoted following. When the noise they make causes their own parents to flee the scene, they want to give up. It’s important to let them know ahead of time what to expect. And while heaping on false praise will only make you an unreliable source, there is usually some small progress a child makes each time she plays. Find something you can honestly praise so she feels good about how she is doing.
Watch Kids Perform
Blakeslee suggests that bringing a child to see other kids perform will help your future Yo Yo Ma see music as something her peers are also doing and give her an idea of what real kids sound like when they play. Watching Yehudi Menuin is probably intimidating even for an accomplished violinist, but watching a five-year-old murder Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star yet get applause can do wonders for helping a youngster set realistic expectations.