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Music For Kids By Kids
Chapter 1.1:Whether and when to start lessons

There are three prerequisites for the study of a musical instrument:

1) love for music,
2) love for music and
3) love for music.
"Talent" is not the primary issue. As Suzuki believes, all children have musical talent. Just as all children learn to speak their Mother Tongue, all children can be musically educated. ("Nurtured by Love", Shinichi Suzuki, 1969).

In the same line of thought, there is no such thing as an "unmusical" person. There are simply those whose innate passion has been underdeveloped, thwarted or discouraged. Every child should be given the opportunity to learn about music in a nurturing and supportive environment.

The question becomes, therefore, not whether but when to start lessons?

It is now known that the early study of a musical instrument stimulates brain development (hand-eye coordination, spatial perception, memory, pattern recognition, abstract reasoning and problem solving) and strengthens personality (self-confidence, discipline, perseverance, creativity, social skill, enjoyment of challenges). Some recommend starting formal private instruction as early as three years old. While this can work with string instruments if the approach is extremely well-thought out, it is not appropriate to begin piano lessons before the age of five or six, primarily because of the physical difficulties in managing such a large instrument.

Many parents, in their zeal to do what is best for their kids, want to start them on private lessons before they are ready. It is much wiser to wait an extra year or two than to start even a few months too early for the child.

What is a huge struggle for a five year old,can be quite simple for a seven or eight year old. There is absolutely no gain and lots of possible loss from private lessons begun prematurely. The biggest danger is that the child (and parents) will have a such a frustrating and discouraging experience that they may never want to try it again. Numerous studies have shown that as long as formal instruction begins before the teen years, age makes little difference in the ultimate musical achievements of a child.

Your child is ready for private lessons if s/he:

-has asked to start piano lessons and/or shows a spontaneous interest in music (e.g. enjoys listening to other family members and friends make music, spontaneously sings along with recordings and musical movies, likes to dance, has favorite songs and musicals they like to watch).
- can depress the piano keys with individual fingers without straining. Most children's hands are not large enough or coordinated enough before the age of six or seven to accomplish this. If they start playing too early, they usually develop bad technical habits (to compensate for their size and lack of strength) which can be very hard to break later on. They can also develop muscular and postural problems.
- can sit still and actively focus for 15-30 minutes without becoming restless. If yours is a fidgety or easily distracted child, wait at least until the end of first grade or until you see some stillness and concentration skills developing.
- has some beginning reading and math skills. Music consists of a highly complex system of symbols and concepts. Approaching it too early will cause a young mind to rebel.

And if:

- there is a parental support system in place. It requires time and energy to find the right teacher, arrange for the lessons, and give weekly guidance and support to the student. If one or both parents are not ready for this commitment, it is unfair to the child to put him/her in a situation in which there are expectations but no support (see chapters 1.8 through 1.10). Ideally there is extended support from other family members, friends and community/school music programs.

If you are not sure about your child's readiness, schedule a session with a piano teacher to assess the physical, mental and emotional level. If the teacher suggests that you wait, enroll the child in a dance class and/or singing group instead. There is no better way to prepare your child for music lessons (see chapter 1.3 "Giving your child a head start").

What about talent?

As any teacher can tell you, children vary widely as "raw material" when they first start lessons. Some can sing in tune, others can't, some have great rhythm, others don't, some are excited by challenges, others are afraid of them, some understand musical concepts quickly, for others everything is a big mystery, some are very dexterous and coordinated, others are awkward. When some or all of these "predispositions" are positively evident in a child, we tend to call it "talent". When they are abundant, we call it "genius". I am not in favor of these labels, however, partially because I don't think anyone really knows the potential of a child well enough to label it. Also, exactly whose criteria are we using here? The down-side of labeling is what happens when a child's abilities are not yet obvious or developed. To bestow upon a child a self image that includes "unmusical" or "untalented"(just because they cannot sing "Happy Birthday" in tune, for example) is a travesty and a great tragedy - but it is all too common.

A parent need only know if the child wants to learn. That is all. It is the teacher's job to evaluate the "raw material", and gradually even out and develop all the skills required to become a musician.

The great artists and thinkers throughout history are not always the ones to whom everything came easily. Great accomplishment is more often the result of passion and perseverance than innate or apparent ability.

How do I know if my child is seriously interested, and if lessons will be worth the investment?
You don't. Children are completely malleable and changeable. You won't know until you try it. A great teacher can engage a child in anything and a good support system in the family can keep it going. A young child has no clue what it means to study an instrument, so s/he cannot possibly know ahead of time if it's something s/he is going to like. Kids will usually start asking for lessons if their friends or siblings are studying. There is no point engaging in a long verbal decision-making process with a young child. You just have to jump in and try it. Though there are never any guarantees, if your child has an appreciation for music, you find a teacher who possesses good teaching skills and a true passion for music-making, and you as parent have the time and energy to create a support system, it will almost always work out well.

It is not wise to push a child into starting lessons if they are not interested and eager. There are many possible reasons for resistance:
-having observed siblings who disliked their lessons, fear of the unknown, fear of challenges, lack of self-confidence, etc. Getting a child to do something "for his/her own good" or so that s/he will have a more fulfilled adulthood (both of which are fuzzy and mysterious concepts to a child) will only create tension and negativity. Children are pleasure-oriented and "now" oriented. Where they are "at" needs to be respected. Patience will usually pay off. One way to inspire a child, is for a parent to start lessons themselves. The child will invariably become interested and could then be invited to join in for a few minutes at the lesson. It can be kept very low key and informal for as long as necessary.

Guidebook for Parents and Teachers