Learning A Musical Instrument As A Child

14/08/2014 16:59 | Updated 20 May 2015

Young Girl Playing Violin

The benefits of learning an instrument are considerable, boosting brain power, self esteem and concentration. What's more, making music can be a fun, rewarding and lifelong pastime. You never know, your child might even build a career out of it.

Here's pretty much everything you need to know about children and music, from when to start and how to find a terrific teacher, to grade exams and what to do if they want to give it all up. We hope our guide will be music to your ears, unlike the sound of your young novice violinist practising...screech, screech...quick, grab those ear plugs...

Should the instrument be a child's choice or their parents'?

Some children will have their heart set on a specific instrument from the off, others need guidance. Their involvement in choosing is wise as they will need to be as self-motivated as possible when it comes to playing and practice.

Raymond Mack is a music teacher in North London who also runs the MUSICART holiday courses in the area. He suggests parents need to be aware that some instruments make better initial choices than others.

"A child might have a burning desire to play, for example, the saxophone from seeing someone play on TV but this is quite unrealistic as a first instrument, especially if they're too young. Parental involvement is important as you can suggest they start on another instrument. For example clarinet leads naturally onto saxophone but it might be better to begin with recorder first."

Practicalities need to be taken into account - size and portability matter. With a very large instrument, will they struggle to transport it to and from school if their lessons or orchestra sessions are there? Have you got room for a piano or even a keyboard?

Consider also the noise levels that you and your neighbours might tolerate – bagpipes and thin walls might not be the best mix...

How can we narrow things down then before committing?

The national Learn to Play Day (Saturday April 12 in 2014) is an accessible and free way for potential players of all ages to try out instruments and enjoy a trial lesson. Listings of participating venues should be announced a month or two beforehand. Local authority music centres also tend to offer free taster sessions – run an internet search for your county/ city's name + music service.

What age is the best for getting started?

There's no one size fits all answer to this according to Robin Barry, Director at the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). He offers the following advice based on the organisation's book Raising an Amazing Musician; You, Your Child and Music: "Children develop physically and mentally at very different rates, so it's impossible to recommend precisely when to begin learning a particular instrument. They can be limited by what they can hold, control and understand, yet children as young as three can begin the violin, while at five many are ready to start piano. Only a teacher will be able to determine whether a child is ready."

Younger children can still benefit from a fun, group music class, with singing and the opportunity to enjoy using percussion and other simple instruments. This should set the foundations for more formal music tuition later on.

Hmm, I'm keen for them to learn but my child isn't showing any interest...

Have a go at encouraging them with a trial on an instrument or two but if playing music is not for them, don't push it. If your child has no enthusiasm whatsoever and it's only you that wants them to get musical, you'll probably end up fighting a losing battle. Learning an instrument requires a degree of commitment to practice that's hard to engineer if it isn't led by them.

How can I buy an instrument wisely, especially given I don't know how long they'll play for?

The biggest message here is not to splurge too much initially in case your offspring's new found hobby doesn't last. Keep spending appropriate to their stage too – that beautiful baby grand piano is going to be wasted for the beginner years when they're playing chopsticks rather than Chopin and expensive instruments can take a battering at the hands of younger children (although ideally they will learn to respect them and be careful).

If you want to buy new, limit outlay by sticking with a basic student version of the chosen instrument for now. Those sourced from a reputable music shop or from established brands online should suffice for beginners and some will have features to make learning to play easier, such as less resistance on a brass instrument.

Some instruments come in varying sizes according to the age and stage your child is at. A music teacher or a reputable music shop should be able to offer advice on this.

What about buying secondhand?

Another great way to keep costs down. Ask around among those with slightly older children, via the local authority music service or your child's music teacher to see if they know of anyone selling on an instrument that's no longer needed.

Buying secondhand online is usually best avoided as you won't be able to see and check the instrument beforehand.

Ouch, this all sounds expensive, even when buying secondhand. Are there ways to spread the cost?

If shelling out for an instrument and accessories such as a case and sheet music in one go is daunting, check out the Take it Away scheme, a relatively new initiative funded by the Arts Council England that offers interest free loans for parents looking to buy their children instruments. It applies to both new and reconditioned instruments but they must be bought from one of 300+ approved music retailers in England listed on the site. Those in Scotland and Wales can still participate, either by visiting one of the shops in England or if that's impractical by ordering from them via mail order. Northern Ireland has its own similar Arts Council scheme.

Can hiring an instrument work out well?

Renting can keep your initial outlay down too and is especially useful if you want to hold off committing until you know your child is going to continue playing. Many school music services offer a rental scheme, as do some schools themselves and music shops. Rental schemes sometimes offer a hire purchase option to buy the instrument after the initial period. Check terms and conditions, such as interest rates charged, carefully.

Right, that's the instrument sorted, how do we find a decent teacher?

First up, think about whether group or individual tuition is going to work best for you, your child and your bank balance. Group tuition won't offer the same level of attention and might not work at the appropriate pace for the individual student. It can however be a smart move for the beginner stage to keep costs down and add a sociable angle to learning.

You can find your own teacher or group out of school (ask friends for local recommendations) or most schools offer musical instrument lessons, either bringing in their own teachers or via the local music service.

Raymond Mack recommends in-school lessons especially for musically inexperienced families, as teachers will have been checked and assessed for their standards. "Most school instrumental teachers have been regularly monitored for their suitability at teaching their instrument(s) to the age of children involved by the Local Education Authority's Music Service."

Mother of one Victoria's nine-year-old son has violin lessons at school. She says: "We find it much more convenient than having yet another after school class to take him to and we didn't have to find a decent teacher ourselves. It works well."

There are downsides to in-school lessons though in that pupils might miss playtime or class work and you probably won't have a choice of teacher, leaving it to luck as to whether they gel with your child.

Maya, a mum of two, recently switched to finding her own teacher after school for her piano playing daughter and prefers this. "Piano was interrupting her classroom lessons. It was easier for me to have them at school but we moved to our own teacher and I now realise this is better for us as I get to see the teacher every week and keep a check on her progress."

Which way to go is personal preference but certainly if you aren't confident finding your own teacher, you could do well to start with in-school tuition and switch later if it isn't working out.

What should I ask a prospective teacher?

Assuming you'll use a non-school teacher, check what experience they have with your child's age group and what their preferred style of music is if they have one. Ask them if they favour grade exams or not and how rigid they are about practice schedules (if they're very strict and grade-oriented and you don't want it to be about that, look elsewhere). Do they come to your house (convenient but also potentially distracting if you have other children in the family) or will your child need to go to theirs? Check the teacher is Criminal Records Bureau checked too.

I keep hearing of my son's classmates doing grades. Should we be starting all this now?

Is taking grade exams essential anyway?

Many pupils do work towards grade exams, starting with grade 1, often after a year or two of playing, and moving up potentially to grade 8 (although the majority don't make it that far). They will typically work through the initial grades more quickly than the later ones when things get more demanding and school/ academic exams start to compete for time and attention.

The grade exams consist of both theory, such as musical notation, and practice (playing set pieces, scales and sight reading etc) elements.

Grades can give pupils a framework to work through but some children find them stressful.

Julia, whose daughter Emily is now in her twenties and took piano to grade 6 has mixed feelings: "Grades did give some structure but the downside is that they have to learn the pieces for the grades for so many months (as well as all the scales and sight reading) which has an impact if they are also juggling academic work. It requires a lot of motivation. Emily found the exams very stressful although happily it all worked out as, now as an adult, she still plays for fun."

Not taking grades at all is fine and teachers should accommodate this. "The most important aspect of a music teacher's responsibility is to nurture and develop a pupil's enjoyment of making music," says Raymond, who also warns that starting on them too soon can be detrimental due to the commitment involved.

All in, again it does rather depend on the individual child and there's no right answer – be guided by your child's teacher about their readiness for exams. And try and ignore that parent in the playground who is claiming their seven-year-old prodigy is on grade 4 already.

Daily practice? Is that really necessary?

Practice really does make perfect (well that's the idea anyway) and it's absolutely vital that pupils play between lessons. Most teachers suggest little and often is the way to go for younger children – five or 10 minutes a day. In the real world, the holy grail idea of daily practice isn't always realistic so trying for five or six times a week but really sticking with that might work out better than aiming for seven and getting stressed if they miss a day.

Integrating practice into their after-school routine at a set time can make it all less of a battle (in theory at least!).

We've bought the instrument, paid for the lessons for several years and now...he wants to give it all up. Help!

You've spent both cash and much time and energy between you on practice, yet one day your little darling declares that's it, they want to pack it all in! What to do?

Allowing them to just quit without discussion or good reason sets a bad precedent for future activities. Looking at the reasons why they might want to stop can help identify an action plan.

Are they fed up of daily practice, not getting on with their teacher, bored of playing the same pieces? Or just having a bit of a moan about it all?!

If you do identify any valid issues, stopping doing grade exams but carrying on playing in a more relaxed way, switching to another instrument or style of music or even a change of teacher are all worth consideration.

Asking to stop might well be a temporary blip though, so not letting them pack it in at the drop of their instrument's case is key. "The best advice I can offer is to suggest that it would be silly to give up something that 'you are so good at and which provides so much enjoyment to all the family'," suggests Raymond.

If all else fails, perhaps look at giving them a target date when you will take it more seriously if they still want to stop, or having a temporary break to see if they change their mind. Maya's daughter asked to stop playing piano last year but her experience proves all might not be lost. "She wasn't keen on it a year ago, I allowed her to take a break for a few months, and then she really missed it. She went back and is enjoying playing again."

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