I’m staying with some friends for a few days who have an adorable one year old. Last night I pulled out my mandolin and as I strummed chords, a smile spread across her face and her chubby little legs started pumping. All kids love music so many parents are anxious for their child to learn an instrument. When is a good time to start?
Babies and toddlers
There are programs for babies and parents, like Kindermusik, that I’ve heard great things about but please don’t be one of those parents who call me and insist that their two year old is ready for guitar lessons because “he loves music.” Of course he does. Buy Junior a toy guitar and let him have fun for a few years.
Guitar teachers are going to poke me with an E string for saying this but baby’s first instrument shouldn’t be the guitar. Little ones like to bang on things so get them a couple of pots and a spoon and let them go to it. Dock the iPod, put on some music and bang along with them. While you might need Xanax for yourself, it’s a great way to show your child that making music is fun and to help them develop a good feel for rhythm.
Four to six year olds
There are some wonderful Suzuki programs (that include guitar) for kids under seven. They include intensive participation from parents.
Encourage music on your own. Sing together in the car. Put on music at home and dance. If you play an instrument, be sure your child hears you often. They don’t care if you’re not Bonnie Raitt.
Seven and up
I take guitar students as young as seven. With a half or three-quarter sized guitar, some kids are ready. Others don’t quite have the discipline. Don’t force them. Making music should be fun. When I meet people at parties and tell them I’m a music teacher, I often hear stories about those horrid piano lessons they took as a kid. Don’t be your child’s horror story. Go with the flow. If they show an interest in a particular instrument, nurture it. Don’t put Junior behind an electric guitar because you always wanted to be Eric Clapton. Put them behind a guitar because they want to be Eric Clapton.
If lessons don’t work at seven, try again in a year or two. Some kids will teach themselves if you give them a playable guitar and a book or DVD. They may take their time and learn when they’re older. I taught myself to play when I was in my teens. I took one of my dad’s guitars into my room and memorized every chord in a Mel Bay songbook. I applied them to songs I liked, mostly folk songs I knew from Girl Scouts, and I was on my way. (No, Dad didn’t teach me to play but it did help that I heard him play a lot. He told me once that I was getting pretty good at that “hippie music.”)
Most kids can start piano at a younger age than guitar. It gives them a good foundation to learn other instruments. I can always tell when a student has played another instrument first because they have a good sense of rhythm and pitch.
Ukulele is good for little ones. There are only four strings and they’re nylon so they don’t hurt as much to press down. For some chords you only have to press down one string.
Just because an instrument is small doesn’t mean it’ll be great for little hands. I’ve had a few students start with the mandolin because they think it’ll be easier when really, the strings are harder to press down than the ones on a guitar.
Does it help if family members play an instrument?
You could be tone deaf and it wouldn’t matter. If a child wants to learn an instrument and if they practice, they’ll learn it. Your DNA may have something to do with it but I doubt it. I’ve had a lot of students who are the only musical one in their family.
I could blab on and on about kids and learning music but I’ll save that for future blogs. Whether you’ve got a junior Segovia on your hands or just a kid who loves to dance to mandolin music, encourage him or her.
If you’re looking for a guitar or mandolin teacher in the Ottawa area, I’m your woman. If you live elsewhere, see my blog about finding a guitar teacher.