These guidelines will help you to have a successful, rewarding experience learning an instrument. These are practical tips we have discovered from years of experience in teaching hundreds of students.
1. How Young is Too Young – Starting at the Right Age
First of all, adults can start any instrument at any time. Their success is based on how willing they are to commit to practicing. We teach many beginner students in their 60’s and 70’s.
But for children, starting at the right age is a key element to the success of their lessons. Some people will tell you “the sooner the better”, but this attitude can actually backfire in a negative way. If a child is put into lessons too soon they may feel overwhelmed and frustrated – resulting in wanting to stop taking lessons. The last thing you want to do is turn off a child toward music just because they had one unpleasant experience which could have been prevented. Sometimes if the child waits a year to start lessons their progress can be much faster. Children who are older than the suggested earliest starting age usually do very well. The following are guidelines we have found to be successful in determining how young a child can start taking music lessons.
3 – 4 Years Old
If a preschooler has a keen desire to start learning music, a group preschool music class will give them a good foundation in music basics which will be helpful in later private lessons. At this age, private lessons generally do not work as the child has not yet experienced the formal learning environment of grade school. They learn more effectively through the game oriented preschool environment.
At our school 5 years old is the youngest age that we start children in private piano lessons. At this age they have begun to develop longer attention spans and can retain material with ease.
Guitar – Acoustic, Electric and Bass
8 years old is the earliest we recommend for guitar lessons. Guitar playing requires a fair amount of pressure on the fingertips from pressing on the strings. Children under 8 generally have small hands and may find playing uncomfortable. Bass guitar students generally are at least 10 years old. We also recommend that a young student takes piano for 3 or 4 years before studying guitar. Studying piano is much more realistic for young fingers. A young student can learn the basics of music at an early age. Then when they start on guitar, they may progress very quickly – perhaps more rapidly than if they had studied guitar for the whole duration.
We accept voice students from the age of 5 as piano students in order to learn the basics of music. We also ensure healthy vocal production, breathing and pitch matching. Dedicated voice lessons are not practical until students are near 11 years old, but learning to read and understand music is best learned on the piano at an earlier age.
2. Insist on Private Lessons when Learning a Specific Instrument
Group classes work well for preschool music programs and theory lessons. However, when actually learning how to play an instrument, private lessons are far superior. In private lessons it is easier to match the curriculum to the pace and style of students’ learning, and each can learn at their own pace. This means the teacher doesn’t have to teach a class at a “middle of the road” level, but instead can use the time and focus to work on the individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. For that lesson period the student is the primary focus of the teacher.
The teachers also enjoy this as they do not have to divide their attention between many students at a time. Then they can help the student be the best they can be.
3. Take Lessons in a Professional Teaching Environment
Learning music is not just a matter of having a qualified teacher, but also having an environment that is focused on music education. In a professional school environment a student cannot be distracted by TV, pets, ringing phones, siblings or anything else. With only 1/2 to one hour of lesson time per week, a professional school environment will produce better results since the only focus at that time is learning music. Students in a school environment are also motivated by hearing their peers who are at different levels and by being exposed to a variety of musical styles. In a music school, the lessons are not just a hobby or sideline for the teacher but a responsibility which is taken very seriously.
4. Make practicing easier
As with anything, improving in music takes practice. One of the main problems with music lessons is the perceived drudgery of practicing and the fight between parents and students to practice every day. Here are some ways to make practicing easier:
Set the same time every day to practice so it becomes part of a routine or habit. This works particularly well for children. Generally, the earlier in the day the practicing can occur, the less reminding is required by parents to get the child to practice.
We use this method quite often when setting practice schedules for beginners. For a young child, 20 or 30 minutes can seem like an eternity. Instead of setting a time frame, we use repetition. For example, “Practice this piece 4 times every day and this scale 5 times a day”. The child then does not pay attention to the amount of time they are practicing their instrument. Rather, they know that if they are on repetition number 3 they are almost finished.
This works very well for both children and adult students. Some adults reward themselves with a cappuccino after a successful week of practicing. Parents can encourage children to practice by granting them occasional rewards for successful practicing. In our school we reward young children for a successful week of practice by giving them “gold coins” redeemable for little rewards. Praise tends to be the most coveted award. There just is nothing like a good pat on the back for a job well done. Sometimes we all have a week with little practicing. In that case, there is always next week.
5. Use Recognized Teaching Materials
There are some excellent materials developed by professional music educators that are made for students in a variety of situations. For example in piano, there are books for very young beginners, and there are books for adult students that have never played before. It’s easy to find books that can start you at a level you are comfortable with. These materials have been researched and are being continually upgraded and improved to make learning easier. They ensure that no important part of learning the instrument can inadvertently be left out. If you ever have to move to a different part of the country, qualified teachers and institutions will recognize the materials and be able to smoothly continue from where the previous teacher left off.
Music should be something that you enjoy for a lifetime. So try not to put unrealistic expectations on yourself or your children to learn too quickly. Everyone learns at a different pace and the key is to be able to enjoy the journey.