There’s no argument about how good playing music is for kids. Playing an instrument, any instrument, is good for their brains, good for their bodies, good for having fun, good for discipline, good for individual achievement, and good for teamwork. But when is the right time to put an instrument in a child’s hands, and how do you know which instrument to give them?
Parents have a lot of questions about getting their kids started playing music, so we picked 10 of them and got answers from some local experts.
1. At what age is my child ready to start learning to play an instrument?
Matt Sandoski, the executive director at the School of Rock in Montclair, says that 5 is the earliest age to go in for formal musical training, generally with piano or voice lessons. “By age 7, pretty much any instrument is an option,” he says, but notes that “there are always exceptions to these rules; each parent has to assess their child’s ability to focus and their interest in learning an instrument. There is nothing worse for a child’s musical development than being forced into lessons before they are ready.”
2. Should I get things going with lessons, or should I wait for my kids to ask?
Leslie Lucas, the director of Music Together of Montclair, says that “usually by 5 or 6, if someone really has a musical inclination, they’ll usually tell their parents. They’ll ask for piano lessons or something like that.” And she notes that parents should take advantage of a child’s interest in lessons ASAP. “If you don’t feed the interest, it can be a lost opportunity for the child,” she says.
3. Are there in-between steps on the way to full-on lessons on a single instrument?
Miki Hatcher, who is the 5th grade orchestra director for the South Orange Maplewood School District, says that every kind of musical experience is a step along the path to playing music. “Children should be exposed to music in all forms—in general music classes, concerts, family musical experiences,” she says. “The shared musical experience is an important part of the process, and the students, while partaking in these activities, will learn what music excites them and what instrument draws them.”
Leslie says that any kind of musical activity you do with your kids at home—playing an instrument if you know how, or just singing along to a favorite CD—will lay a good foundation for lessons later on. “They’ll learn from the joy and playfulness they get from their parents and caregivers,” she says.
4. How can I help my children choose an instrument?
Both Matt and Miki agree that this part is mostly about understanding that there’s magic in making music, and parents need to let their kids to discover which instrument is right for them. “Try out as many instruments as possible!” Matt says, “You’ll know it’s the right instrument when you don’t have to ask them to practice.”
Miki says to look for “what makes their eyes sparkle. If a child isn’t drawn to an instrument, they will not want to practice it. When I demonstrate instruments, I let the students know that one will excite them and that is what they should choose.”
5. How much practice should my kids expect to do as they learn an instrument?
“The word ‘practice’ comes with a great deal of baggage for adults,” says Miki, but parents shouldn’t apply strict spreadsheet metrics like time and productivity. “Practice takes on many forms. It is the time to reinforce the learning from a lesson, explore the many possibilities of what comes next, share our accomplishments with the family, study the music, listen to music, go to concerts, and watch YouTube videos of people playing the instrument.”
But, she notes, the discipline of practice is still key. “Practice time should be consistent. Sixty minutes once a week is NOT the same as 10 minutes every day. For days when there is not time to practice, have the student play a scale, do some short task, or perform a piece.”
6. At what point should my kids expect to start playing with other musicians?
Matt and Miki both answered this one the same way, and with plenty of exclamation points.
“As soon as possible!” says Matt. “There’s nothing more gratifying than playing with other people. Plus, we find that kids progress exponentially faster when combining individual lessons with a group setting.”
And Miki says, “Young musicians should start playing with other musicians immediately! Playing with others is an invaluable experience. Whatever you can do to encourage sharing the musical experience is highly recommended!”
7. What are some common mistakes parents make that will discourage kids from learning to play?
“Forcing a child to play an instrument that they don’t have a genuine interest in or starting lessons too early can be discouraging,” says Matt. “Music has to come naturally to a student if they are going to excel and enjoy the experience. I don’t mean that someone has to be naturally talented to play, but their interest has to be organic or it may not take root.”
Miki also stresses that just giving your child an instrument isn’t enough—you need to give them the right environment to learn to play. “Make sure you have a music stand, a quiet space, and a good chair!” she says. “A great deal of time in lessons is spent on posture. If you don’t have a stand, the correct type of chair, and enough space to move a trombone slide or cello bow, posture and sound will be compromised.”
8. What should I do if my child wants to quit an instrument and switch to another one?
“This is a tough one, because we feel so much time and money was spent, and if they quit it was for nothing,” says Miki.
But she advises looking at the big picture: “For someone who started violin at the age of 5, when they get to be 10 and now have the option to play a band instrument, they might jump at the chance. The violin helped them to develop fine motor skills, listening skills, responsibility, coordination, the ability to play in an ensemble. They learned how to practice and received a solid foundation in music. All of this will be transferred to another instrument. No time lost. No money wasted.”
9. How hard should I push to keep my kids learning music?
“We always want to push our kids to tackle obstacles but at the same time music is an emotional achievement, not just a physical one,” says Matt. “ I feel strongly that kids have to find their own path with music. If the desire is strong enough they will keep at it despite the effort required to truly master an instrument.”
He also suggests that parents differentiate between different types of musical roadblocks. “If a kid is not practicing because they are having trouble with a piece or technique that is challenging, then some proper encouragement to help them overcome the obstacle is completely warranted,” he says. “However, if a kid has to be asked to even pick up their instrument, let alone practice, then don’t force them. They’ll come back to music when they are ready. Too much pressure when they are not ready might prevent them from ever coming back at all.”
10. How will my child’s music lessons change with age?
“As students progress, their practice time should increase,” says Miki. “Teachers will usually let the students know approximately how much time will be required to accomplish the weekly tasks. We as teachers also point out, the more focused practicing one does, the more quickly one learns.”
And Matt says, “I believe a half hour a day of practice is the bare minimum that can be put in to really get the most out of private lessons. I wouldn’t push a child under 8 years old to practice too much more than that. As they get older, keep a half-hour as the daily minimum, with an hour of practice at least 3 times a week.”
Image: “The Estey” orchestra club, via Wikimedia Commons.