What do parents need to know about music lessons for their children?

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Your child has just come home from school and announced to everyone that they would like to learn an instrument. For most parents hearing this statement can cause uncertainty and panic. There is a desire to support your child in learning new skills but also a fear of what that actually entails and how to get started.

When to start lessons and when to wait?

There are certain instruments that work for different ages. For younger children the piano, traditional strings (violin, viola and cello) and recorder work beautifully as starter instruments.

The strings (violin, viola and cello) work really well because the instruments can come in different sizes so an 1/8 or 1/4 size violin for a 5 year old is great and by the time they get to 12 – 14 years old the child will be on a full size violin. This means the instrument is nice and light at the early ages and is easier to play.

The recorder is a great instrument for children to start around the age of 7/8. The instrument is nice and light and as long as your child can cover the holes then they will be able to play a host of wonderful songs. The recorder has lots of similarities to the other woodwind instruments so children often transition from recorder to clarinet, flute, oboe or saxophone.

The piano is also a great instrument for young children and you will see lots of children starting at 3 or 4 years old. There are many people who will advocate for starting this young. In my opinion, I have found that a majority of children whose parents don’t play the piano make the quickest progress on the piano when they get to grade 3/4 (age 7/8). At this point the child is able to read and identify symbols, have spacial awareness and generally can read books well. This does make a difference in my opinion to the speed of progress that the child makes and I have found students are more likely to not quit so quickly at this age.

In terms of other instruments such as brass and woodwind, it is sensible to wait until the child can cope with the physical weight of the instrument and play the instrument comfortably. Usually this is around grade 5 or 6 (10+ age). Starting too soon will cause physical pain not just from playing the instrument but the weight. This will lead to bad posture and for many students quitting quickly. Waiting that extra 6 months to start lessons will definitely lead to more success.

What are the costs I should consider?

Like all hobbies, there is a cost to learning a musical instrument and I totally understand that it can be a little frightening at first, especially if your child has just come home and announced that they want to learn the double bass or tuba!

Your child needs an instrument to practice on that is fit for purpose. If the school doesn’t have one you can borrow, then I recommend you consider some of following options:

  1. Borrow a good instrument from a family member or friend. If it hasn’t been played for a while then ensure it gets serviced so it is in good working order. Students never understand at the beginner stage that a bad instrument is really hard to play – they will just believe that they can’t play it and quit.
  2. Avoid the ‘cheap and cheerful’ instruments that look like a great deal on the internet. I promise you they are not. Think of it like buying a car. Would you buy a cheap and cheerful brand of car you had never heard of and expect it to work?
  3. Contact your local music shops and see if they offer a rental scheme or a rent to buy scheme. If you can’t afford a new instrument (and a tuba is not cheap!) then they may also have some good second hand instruments for sale / rent.
  4. If you buy from Market place or any other second hand source buy a popular brand (Yamaha, Buffet, Fender, Selmer, etc). Don’t buy an instrument that is old unless you are prepared to spend money on servicing it and you might need to buy new accessories – mouth pieces, cleaning materials, etc.

Generally everyone who wants to learn an instrument takes weekly music lessons. If this is not on offer for free at your school, then individual 30 minute lessons or group lessons is a good way to start. Lesson prices vary depending on your location, the teacher’s qualifications and experience. Shop around and ask for recommendations of good teachers who offer students a positive learning experience, the opportunity to perform and can offer music exam opportunities if your child wishes to go this route.

Also consider the style of music that your child is interested in learning. If your child has their heart set on singing musical theatre, then it is important that your teacher is comfortable teaching and singing this style of music. The music teacher you approach may be a specialist in opera so therefore might not be the right teacher for your child.

Other costs to consider include accessories for the instrument – reeds, mouthpieces, strings, valve oil, cork grease, cleaners, etc). Consider servicing the instrument every year to keep it in good working order and maintain its value. If you have an acoustic piano I would recommend tuning it once or twice a year. Then there should be some money spent on music books or sheet music. Not everything can be found for free on the internet and composers don’t get paid for their music when it has been photocopied. The great thing about music books is there are always plenty of pieces to play so it is a great investment and will improve your child’s sight-reading skills and range of repertoire.

How can I help my child practice?

To become good at anything requires practice and music is no different. There are so many varying opinions on what makes good practice it can get a little confusing.

In all honesty, music is a life long hobby therefore at times your child will practice a lot and other times not so much due to other commitments. Realistically though, your child needs space within the week to be able to do productive practice. If they are out every night doing lots of different activities then adding music is not sensible. Practising late at night, when your child is hungry or tired just doesn’t lead to positive practising. Good practice is done in a calm, quiet environment, away from distractions. So it is important that your child is not hungry, thirsty or distracted by others entering the practice space or by the use of social media devices. Good practice is not meeting a specific time spent doing it but in developing musical skills, connections, motor memory and good techniques. It’s all about working towards a goal and fixing the hard stuff!

Finally, do not make practice a punishment or chore. It really doesn’t work in the long run. Instead, try to make it a positive part of your weekly routine, praise all the small successes and listen supportively to your child’s progress. Encourage your child to listen to music and people who play the instrument, even if this is just in the car on the school run.

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