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You are in:  Reading | Music: To Play or Not to Play. When Should My Child Begin?

Music: To Play or Not to Play. When Should My Child Begin?

By Micah Levy

As a music teacher, parents have asked me many times: At what age should my child begin to play a musical instrument? Here's what I've told them.

Music is a language. It consists of sounds, in a sequence, that have meaning. Let's think about how we learned our first language. We starting hearing our own language from the time we were born.  People spoke to us; we heard them speak to each other. At first, the sounds meant little or nothing, but gradually we figured out at least some of their meanings. Just think how much listening we did before we uttered our first words. And we learned to speak without going to school.

So, too, musical learning doesn't have to wait for a formal studio or classroom setting.  In fact, it shouldn't. It should begin with listening. Plenty of it. Listen to music at home or in the car. If you play an instrument of any kind, play away.

Infants can begin learning two important musical instruments: the hands and the voice. You be the teacher. You and your child can clap, sing and move along with any of the music you hear. I encourage you to do so. It's fun.

ViolinChoosing an Instrument
At some point your child may express interest in playing an instrument. But which instrument? Based on having heard a variety of instruments, your child may already have an idea of which instruments s/he would like to play. That's a good start. However, playing the violin is a very different experience from playing the cello. Unless your child is adamant about one particular instrument, suggest trying different instruments to find the one that s/he loves.

Consider music's social aspects. If we play an ensemble instrument such as a string, woodwind, brass or percussion instrument, we play with other people, except when we are practicing on our own. If we play a keyboard instrument such as the piano, we play alone most of the time, whether we are practicing or performing. Pianists can, of course, and often do play with other people. However, when children are beginning to play the piano, they spend most of their musical time alone. The social aspect of music playing is a very powerful ingredient in the mix. Keep this in mind when helping your child to choose a musical instrument.

One real advantage to keyboard instruments such as the piano is precisely that they can be played alone. When your child becomes an adult, with the little time adults have for niceties such as making music, it will be wonderful to be able to sit down to the piano and play something at their leisure. As an adult, it can be more difficult to find convenient times to play in an ensemble.

If your child does begin to play an ensemble instrument, s/he should be playing in an ensemble, such as a band or orchestra. Whereas a virtuoso solo instrumentalist can make some very powerful and beautiful music alone, a beginner cannot. And it won't be fun. However, as part of an ensemble, they can have great fun.

Band

In addition to the classroom band, choir or orchestra conductor, your child will need a private teacher. First, because the classroom setting can't offer the personal attention a music student needs. And second, because it is rare to find one person knowledgeable and accomplished enough on all the instruments that s/he can teach your child an instrument other than his or her major instrument.

Choosing a Teacher
So how can you find a really good music teacher? Musical skills and teaching skills are vastly different. The musical world is rife with stories about great performers who can't teach. I know a musician who went to one of our great music conservatories and found that her teacher couldn't teach. So in addition to her lessons with the great performer on the faculty of the conservatory, she also studied with a teacher outside of the conservatory to improve her playing.

Ask for recommendations for good music teachers. Inquire about their credentials - as a musician and as a teacher. Once you've selected a teacher and the lessons are underway, monitor your child's performance. Has your child grown? Does s/he play better now than s/he did a year ago? Is your child enjoying the experience? Your child's success will be the result of the efforts of a team consisting of your child, the teacher and you.

Most parents want their children to develop a love of music and, hopefully, the ability to play and enjoy music for their entire lives. Learning music should be joyful, not miserable.  If the learning experience is painful, something is wrong. That doesn't mean that learning music involves no work. It involves constant work. But there needs to be a good ratio of work to fun. There has been much said in recent years about the benefits of music. There are those who say music, such as that of Mozart will help your child do better on tests or even better in school. Some folks get their children involved in music to help them improve their chances of getting into a great college or university. But the most important reason for studying music (and this may sound radical) is: Music. Music, a universal language, communicates fully, without the need for words or pictures.

Music has the power to reach inside and touch us and transform us. I highly recommend it.

About the Author
Micah Levy is a composer and conductor whose compositions and performances have been heard throughout the U.S. and Europe.  He received his MM in Orchestral Conducting from the New England Conservatory and his BM in French Horn Performance from California State University, Fullerton.

 

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