One of my most vivid childhood memories is running home after my weekly piano lesson so I could try out my newest piece by Bach or Mozart. I was in love with music, and learning to play the piano was exhilarating.
I’ll always be grateful to my parents for giving me the gift of music lessons. Playing the piano has brought me immeasurable delight, beauty, and comfort throughout my life.
Many adults I know have similar stories of the joy of learning an instrument, but some have different memories. These seem to fall into two camps: those who were forced into lessons and hated them, and those who never took lessons and have always regretted it.
What’s a Parent to Do?
We worry that if we start lessons too early, our child will be frustrated and turned off. But how do we know when a child is ready?
Unfortunately, there’s no right answer, or even an easy checklist. Some programs, like the Suzuki approach for violin, start children as young as 2 or 3. Some piano teachers, like Waldorf school educator Sarah Baldwin, insist “7 is a more appropriate age for most children to begin music lessons, for many of the same reasons that make 7 the ideal age for a child to begin formal learning at school.”
In fact, many teachers note that a 7-year-old may make more progress on an instrument in two months than a 5-year-old can make in two years. Yet, every child is different, and you need to consider the musical and emotional readiness of your own child.
Explore your reasons for wanting your child to take music lessons. Do you believe they will give your child an intellectual edge, or do you genuinely wish for your child to develop a love of music? Studying music may indeed provide an intellectual advantage, but that shouldn’t be the primary consideration.
Start Music Lessons or Wait?
Some broad guidelines may help you make the decision to start or to wait.
- First, does your child love music? Does she clap and dance when she hears it? Does he climb on the piano bench and experiment with playing the keys? These may be clues that your child would be motivated to undertake the work of music lessons—because they are work. Music lessons are not easy.
- Is your child emotionally mature enough to begin lessons? Music study requires patience and persistence, as well as the maturity to listen and pay attention to a teacher, accept corrections and criticism, and practice for 10 to 15 minutes every day. If your child isn’t ready for these things, it would be frustrating for her (and you) to enroll her in private music lessons.
- Consider academic skills. Children should be able to count beats and measures, and be familiar with the letter names A through G, the names of the musical notes (although some teachers have programs for younger children that don’t use notes).
- Once your child begins lessons, have reasonable expectations for progress. For instance, it’s unreasonable to expect a child under 7 to sit and practice for more than 15 minutes a day. A younger child may be more successful (and have a more positive experience) in group lessons. The Music Teachers National Association recommends that 5- to 6-year-olds enroll in programs that “introduce your child to the instrument, but also involve movement, rhythm activities, singing, and more.”
- If you decide your child isn’t ready for formal lessons, you can still do many things at home to interest your child in music and increase his readiness. Sing songs together—anywhere. Dance together to your favorite music. Best of all, expose your child to a variety of quality music—classical, folk, jazz, and the many varieties of world music. This doesn’t have to be costly. Explore the CD selection at your local library, tune into different radio stations, or find music online.
Finally, provide a rich musical environment at home and watch your child for signs that she may be interested and ready for formal instrumental lessons. Lessons can give your child one of life’s greatest joys—a deep and enduring appreciation of music.
Abigail Connors is an early childhood music specialist from Piscataway, NJ, and the author of Teaching Creativity: Supporting, Valuing, and Inspiring Young Children’s Creative Thinking (Whitmore Publishing, 2010).