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Musicians' Corner November 2015

Music Lessons: How Young is Too Young?

November 5, 2015

Young Children Making Music

The old adage of "you're never too old to learn something new" is true, especially when it comes to learning how to play an instrument. There are many adults who have taken up music later in life and have enjoyed the therapeutic, cognitive, and emotional benefits music provides. But, what about the other end of the spectrum? At what age should you enroll your child in music lessons? In other words, how young is too young? It's a tall question. There are several factors a parent needs to take into account before enrolling a young child for music lessons; age, maturity, cognitive ability, physical dexterity, and choice of instrument all must be carefully thought out to ensure a child receives the best musical experience possible. Pairing a child with an instrument they are too young or too small to play is a recipe for disaster and will ultimately lead to frustration for everyone involved. If you would like to introduce your young child to music but aren't sure if the time is right, the following tips are designed to help you make an informed decision that will hopefully foster your child's life-long love of music.

A typical day in the life of a lesson studio director...

Caller: Hi! I'd like to sign my daughter up for guitar lessons.
Lesson Studio Director: Certainly. We offer guitar lessons. How old is your daughter?
Caller: She's two.
Lesson Studio Director: Two?! As in two-years-old?
Caller: Yes. We bought her a toy guitar that lights up and she loves pushing the buttons and playing along with songs on the radio. I'd like to sign her up for a few lessons so she can enter a local talent contest!

Sigh... As outrageous as the above conversation appears, it's a frequent occurrence. Every day, well-intentioned, uninformed parents inquire about music lessons for children too young to benefit from them. Part of a lesson studio director's job is to educate parents and place students in an educational environment optimally suited to their age, ability level, and needs. In the above example, a young child who does not possess the manual dexterity to properly hold a pencil (or the fine motor skills necessary to write) is certainly incapable of mastering an instrument with a long neck, frets, and steel strings. As for the toddler's toy guitar? It's just that: a toy. Clearly, weekly structured half-hour music lessons aren't the wisest choice for a child this young. But, does that mean a parent should refrain from introducing a young child to music until he or she is older? Certainly not. There are options for parents with young children...namely Kindermusik.

Kindermusik is an early childhood  music education program designed for children from infancy through seven years of age. The program offers developmentally appropriate classes with integrated sequences of activities that promote multi-sensory learning. Through music and movement, young children engage in activities designed to boost learning in seven key areas: cognition, literacy and language, math and logic, social-emotional, physical, creative, and musical development. Since its inception in 1978, Kindermusik has gained wide-spread popularity and most communities now offer Kindermusik or similarly structured programs and classes. For children not yet ready for traditional music lessons, Kindermusik is an excellent option.

But, what about children who are slightly older? Many elementary school-aged children are ready for traditional music lessons - depending on the instrument. While there are slight variations, most music lessons are 30 minutes long and provide one-on-one, individualized instruction. By the time a child reaches the age of five or six, many are capable of retaining focus for a 30-minute structured period of time. An experienced teacher is able to gauge a young student's attention span and is capable of shifting activities within the lesson to maintain that student's focus. Once your child is developmentally ready for music lessons, the next question is: What instrument should my child play? Here's where things become murky. The standard options for most elementary school-aged children are piano or violin/viola/cello. Why? These instruments are the most "user-friendly" for young children. Piano is considered the "universal" instrument; by design, it is easy for a child to produce a pleasant sound, it incorporates melody and harmony, introduces both bass and treble clefs, and allows a child to see each note and its spacial relationship to surrounding notes. Student violins, violas, and cellos are sized incrementally and are designed for tiny arms, hands, and fingers. As a young string student grows, he or she graduates to larger-sized instruments with the eventual goal of performing on a full-size instrument. Additionally, there are many piano and string method books designed specifically for young children. If you wish to provide your elementary school student with music lessons, you can't go wrong with piano or strings!

That leaves everything else... Woodwinds, brass, percussion, guitar, and voice lessons are generally more beneficial to students from ages nine or ten, and up. Beginning band programs usually start in 5th or 6th grade when a student has grown enough permanent teeth to sufficiently play a wind instrument. Around the same age, most children's vocal cords are flexible enough to enable them to withstand the rigors of range-extending exercises and diction training. Guitar students at this age usually have large enough hands and possess the necessary finger strength to enable them to manipulate the fretted neck of a guitar. Percussion students have acquired the cognitive ability to coordinate independent movement between hands and feet to perform complex rhythms simultaneously. Music training for these instruments requires physical capabilities and cognitive development most very young children lack.

So, we return to the original question: How young is too young to begin music lessons? Children of ALL ages can benefit from music training - as long as it is appropriate to their developmental level. Is a two-year-old too young for guitar lessons? Yes. But, an age-appropriate music program (such as Kindermusik) can foster a very young child's love of music and whet their desire to play an instrument later in life. An elementary school-aged child who takes piano lessons will acquire a musical foundation that will transfer to any other instrument that child chooses to play in the future. A middle school-aged child who takes music lessons in conjunction with a band program will develop more than performance skills - he or she will learn how to work productively as part of an ensemble and experience the joy of making music with others. Regardless of your child's age, it's never too soon to embark on a musical journey. You just have to know which path to choose...

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