How young should they start?

A question asked by many parents to music teachers is when Little Johnny should start learning a musical instrument.  And the answer most music teachers give is, “when Johnny is ready”.  I try not to say this as I don’t think it is very helpful.  My reply is invariably, “well Little Wolfgang started learning Suzuki violin at age 3.  Would you like to know what that involves?” I tell the truth about some other pupils: “Little Hannah started learning piano with Mrs. Crackwhip; Hannah is pretty amazing, would you like to know how she got so good?”  Sometimes I reply with a question like, “What would you say to Little Johnny if he asks to give up after three weeks?”  When parents understand what learning an instrument really involves and how it affects their children and themselves, they start to ask the right questions, rather than looking for assurances on how good a parent they are or trying to keep up with the Jones’. 

I make it clear that when I teach an instrument my style is not the same as Mrs. Crackwhip’s.  Not because Mrs. Crackwhip is bad but because parents need to know that tuition is different, not only for each individual student but because teachers are different too.  I explain that my pupils will not go on to be virtuosos like hers and they will not get over 140/150 in their ABRSM examinations, but there is role for my style of teaching too.  It’s a bit slower paced, a little more theory based and more appropriate for children who want to learn but are going to really struggle with Mrs. Crackwhip’s approach.  But I will defend Mrs. Crackwhip to the bitter end because her style of teaching is absolutely vital for a certain kind of pupil that needs to be constantly stretched and will not be concerned about two to three hours of daily practice.  We need a variety of different teachers to cater for the variety of different students.

Another question people ask is what instrument to learn and when this should be taught.  I normally say that clarinet and trumpet teachers have told me that it is best to wait for pupils to have their front two adult teeth before learning these instruments.  I have no idea if that is true but it is what I have been told.  They often ask about guitar – I try to discourage this as it is very difficult for young children to play well.  I sometimes say to these parents to get a small ukulele first and see how they get on with that before starting the guitar.  That normally leaves parents asking about piano, violin and flute.  I try to encourage the cello and viola as well as the violin, as there is no reason why small children cannot play these as long as there are good teachers available.  I suggest that budding flautists learn the recorder first before buying a flute, which is one of the reasons I like to teach recorder in Year 2.  I try to promote drum kit too.  At my current school we have some great Year 1 and 2 drummers, one of which is already in a band playing around town with his dad in local gigs!  The one instrument I get asked about the most is the piano.  There is nothing to stop most children from learning this from the age of 3 but there are many reasons why it might not be a good idea to start so early.  However, I am very happy with very young children learning musical instruments; the research is pretty clear that the younger you learn, the more advanced you will get if you keep it up and also there is a much higher percentage of children who have absolute pitch when they started young.  I will blog about this phenomenum in my next post.