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Some thoughts on introducing children to learning an instrument

We are constantly bombarded with research about the benefits of music for children, even starting from before they are born. A 2012 study at McMaster university showed that one-year old babies, who participated in interactive music classes with their parents, smile more and communicate better, as well as showing earlier and more sophisticated brain responses to music. It has been shown that children who are actively involved in playing instruments have improved neural processing, and that the musical sounds they are hearing help them distinguish between certain sounds, improving literacy. The volume of research is indisputable. Music should be a key part of any childhood education.

As a professional pianist, teacher and mother to two young children, I am often asked by parents about the best way to introduce children to music and more specifically, to playing an instrument. This, as well as having two small children of my own (now aged 3 and 5) inspired me to really think about the process. Children are such natural musicians and encouraging and fostering this innate ability and love must always remain at the forefront of musical activity. In music teaching and learning we have every opportunity to follow the child’s lead. This remains a privilege of the instrumental teacher, and every child can benefit from this individual attention and lack of prescribed targets to meet, or any formal testing.

We are lucky to have so many music classes for carers and babies across the UK, all of which encourage singing and movement as a central activity, which is the most natural way of music making. I had many happy mornings taking part in the free ‘Bounce and Rhyme’ at the local library with my son and have enjoyed many other musical experiences with both my children since then, both at classes, and at some of the brilliant baby concert series which now exist – a lovely experience for parents, as well as children (See, for example, Lilliput Concerts in Cheltenham and Bristol; Music for Miniatures in Bath; and Classical Babies in London).

So, how do we hold on to this natural love of, and feel for, music whilst making the transition to piano lessons, violin lessons, guitar lessons or any other instrumental lessons? What is the best age to start? How do we maintain enthusiasm for something that requires daily (where possible) practice, and which children will find, at times, difficult and frustrating?

Many of my teacher colleagues are not keen to take children beginners before the age of 6 (with the Suzuki method being a notable exception) and I was recently advised by a professional trombonist, that 8 is the earliest age he would take on a student. When a child starts an instrument, they have to be both mentally and physically ready. They are being presented with many things at once. They are being asked to read and count the rhythms, which requires mathematical skill; to read the notes to which the rhythms are assigned; and to physically produce the note, requiring physical co-ordination and dexterity, which children develop at different rates. A child who wants to play, but doesn’t have the physical development to do so, will easily, and understandably, become frustrated with the instrument, or with themselves. Of course, the requirement of all these different skills, is what makes learning an instrument so valuable, as well as difficult!

Probably the first most important thing in deciding when your child is ready to learn an instrument, is their enthusiasm to learn. That is probably the main thing which will keep them going – they have to want to do it. In addition, research has shown that one of the main factors in children being successful in their chosen instrument, is the parent sitting with them during their practice time. Even if you do not have musical knowledge, you can be a support to your child in sitting with them and encouraging their efforts. Of course, in a busy world, with younger or older siblings, our attention and time is pulled around in all directions, but it is worth bearing in mind the importance of this where possible.

In 2014, in response to parent’s enquiries, I founded Blackbird Early Years Music classes, for 3.5-7 year olds. The classes aim to build on the natural ability of the children, whilst building a musical foundation to help ease the transition to an instrument. The children learn to read rhythm through fun characters, and using words - the counting comes later, when they are ready. Having spent time in Hungary, I witnessed, and was inspired by, the musical feel of those children who spend the first year of their musical education singing, before they approach the reading of music, or the instrument. I saw that children could be taught to sing in tune, and it has been a real pleasure to watch children gradually gain the confidence and skill to really sing during the Blackbird classes. We use the body a lot, inspired by the Dalcroze method of teaching, so that the children feel the pulse and the rhythm of the music. The classes follow on naturally from toddler music classes and singing classes for toddlers.

So many adults express regret at having given up an instrument, either because it was hard, they didn’t have the time, or they didn’t get on with their teacher.  I have many friends and colleagues who are professional musicians, and their starting ages range from age 3 to age 11! There is no perfect age to begin an instrument and children learn in so many different ways. Ultimately, it is the parents who know and understand their children the best, but I hope there is some food for thought here on some of the issues associated with the process.

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