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When is the right time to introduce your child to music lessons?

While many parents want their children to be little Mozarts,  there is a right time and place to expose them to the rigours of music lessons.

From the ages of 11 to 13, children often want to give up music lessons. Their technical capacity still limits what they can play. And, the time and effort it takes to master techniques becomes boring

Here are some questions and practical suggestions to help guide the decision-making about your child’s music lessons.

When should children start music lessons?

Don’t start your children too early. A child should at least be able to count up to 10, know the letters of the alphabet and be able to sit and concentrate for 10 to 15 minutes, suggest John Ziegler and Nancy Ostromencki. Generally, it is probably not worth starting until about the age of six or seven, as most children will not yet have the coordination, agility or cognitive-processing skills required. If you start a child too early, progress is generally slow, frustrating and not worth the time and money. From about seven, children see the rewards of their efforts sooner. Consider a general music education course or basic lessons on the recorder before the age of seven.

How do I know whether my child has talent?

Dr Robert Cutietta distinguishes between aptitude, the child’s natural potential and achievement, and the child’s skill on an instrument. Children who have musical potential usually play with much greater sensitivity of expression and learn music relatively quickly.

However, he points out that many children can still reach a high level of skill on an instrument with less musical aptitude. Talent does not guarantee children will achieve, if they do not practise regularly and put in the hard work necessary.

How can I get my child to practise and enjoy it?

Regular practice is essential for progress, but the key is to practise effectively. This means spending minimum time for maximum results. Let your child focus on one aspect or task for the day and get it right, even if it takes five minutes. Endless repetition for no purpose other than to fill the time slot gets boring, and children will often practise in errors.

Encourage your children not only to practise what has been set, but to experiment. Let them fool around on their instrument and create their own tunes and sound effects. The greater variety of music-making your children experience, the more fun they will have.

While it may be helpful to have a set time to practise each day, being very rigid about this may curtail your child from spontaneously sitting down to play when they feel like it. Spontaneously picking up an instrument to play is a sure sign that your child is enjoying making music and developing intrinsic motivation. If your children show resistance to practising, link it to something they really want to do. In other words, if they learn the first five bars of a new piece, they can then play their favourite computer game.

Read more about the benefits of exposing your baby to music here.

How do I choose a suitable teacher?

Make sure the teacher you choose is open to discussing and implementing an approach that best suits your child’s wants and abilities. Try and find a teacher who thinks outside the box and does not focus solely on mastering set pieces. Learning to improvise, playing music by ear, learning the latest pop tunes, playing jazz, and composing are fun activities.

Avoid teachers who only teach children how to prepare for exams. And also avoid teachers who won’t let your children move onto new pieces because they can’t play an existing piece perfectly. If a child is not ready for a more challenging piece, the teacher can extend the child laterally by developing other skills and extending the child’s repertoire of pieces at an easier level.

Don’t let your children tackle pieces beyond their capability. This often happens with talented youngsters. The temptation to give children more difficult pieces to show off their virtuosity may destroy their blossoming talent. When pieces are technically too difficult, children struggle. Overextending a child, in order to master a piece often leads to frustration, boredom, dissatisfaction and burnout. If the child struggles, this also leads to a sense of failure.

What instrument is appropriate for my child?

Some children seem to have more aptitude for string instruments, others for wind instruments. Some children take naturally to the piano, while others may not be as adept at the hand coordination it requires. When choosing the piano, remember it is primarily a solo instrument and playing it can be a lonely business. Create chances for your child to play duets and accompany other children on the piano. Playing a wind or string instrument means your child can participate in a band or an orchestra even at beginner’s level.

When is it appropriate for my child to stop lessons?

This decision depends on what your children wish to achieve and why you supported them learning music in the first place. Beth Luey and Stella Saperstein, in The Harmonious Child: Every Parent’s Guide to Musical Instruments, Teachers, and Lessons, suggest that when children are able to play with ease, have reasonable sight-reading skills, know the basics of music theory, can tackle a piece of music on their own with the correct rhythm and phrasing, and enjoy music, then they are musically literate.

Some children may want to go further and make a career out of music, while others who choose a different career can still play in a band or an orchestra or create their own music group. Their ability to continue along a path of their choosing and enjoy music-making means they have a lifelong skill that will give them great pleasure. The time they spent and your investment should never be considered a waste.

What should my role as a parent be?

Examine your motivations for encouraging your child to learn a musical instrument. Children tend to take on, and try to fulfil, their parents’ expectations. Ambitious and pushy parents result in children denying their own aspirations and extending themselves beyond their ability and what they can really cope with.

Not every child is soloist material. Other children find the endless repetition involved in mastering an instrument not sufficiently intellectually stimulating. It is crucial for children to discover and realise their own potential and find ways of music-making that match who they are.

Heather Brookes