The Next Step: Is Your Child Ready for Music Lessons?

Today's cultural norm seems to be a desire to produce children who are smarter and more accomplished at ever earlier ages. Starting with music-in-the-womb programs for the prenatal set, parents are bombarded with enrichment options for the very young, and it's hard to judge what is actually developmentally appropriate for your growing child. Is earlier really better when it comes to traditional music lessons? Will your child somehow be "behind" if she waits until age six to begin studying piano? In point of fact, music lessons can all too often be a frustrating and even painful experience for a child who is not developmentally or musically ready for them; and most children—even the obviously musically inclined—can benefit from waiting a little longer to start traditional lessons than the anxious parent might be given to believe.

To have a good chance of enjoying and embracing formal music study, a child must have a readiness that goes beyond the traditional prescription of being able to sit still for fifteen minutes, count from 1 to 5, and know the letters A to G. It's important to consider your child's temperament, physical development, and level of tonal and rhythmic competence before signing him up for lessons, and to ask yourself what you as a parent want for your child.

The nature of traditional lessons

It helps to be clear-eyed about the nature of traditional instrument lessons. They involve learning to read music, which is a complex cognitive process, and they require a high degree of hand-eye coordination. They are inevitably product-oriented, focused on semi-regular recitals at which the student's learning will be displayed and judged. Reflect on whether your young child is developmentally ready for the pressure of performing a piece in public. Practicing a piece to become performance-ready requires persistence, patience, and commitment, and music study will not magically produce these qualities in a child who is not already showing some sign of them. If your child is easily frustrated and has little patience for repetitious tasks, it's probably better to continue for a while longer with non-formal music and movement experiences like Music Together classes.

The need for basic music competence

Temperament and developmental readiness are only part of the equation. Even an exceptionally mature and motivated child can flounder in traditional lessons without the most important readiness factor of all: basic music competence (BMC). This is the ability to sing in tune and move with accurate rhythm. Given a sufficiently rich music environment, tonal and rhythmic competence develop as naturally in a child as her ability to speak her native language. In fact, in world cultures where music remains an integral, active part of daily life, children often achieve BMC at around age three, just about the same time they are developing competency in language.

In our culture, however, there is a delay in acquiring basic tonal and rhythm competence. Children grow up apparently surrounded by music but actually at a slight remove from it: their music experiences are often passive, received from CDs or television and offering little opportunity for the active engagement needed for learning. As a result, many children don't learn to sing in tune and move with accurate rhythm until age six, seven, or beyond.

Imagine the consequences of this within the context of a music lesson. A child without tonal competence will have difficulty recognizing whether he is playing the correct melody: he may not even have an aural understanding of what makes one note "right" and another "wrong." If he lacks rhythmic competence, he will likely have trouble understanding the values of notes or keeping a steady tempo. If a child cannot "speak the language" of music by singing in tune and moving with accurate rhythm, how can he be expected to become literate enough to read music? As with language, music mastery happens first at the aural/oral level, through plenty of direct exposure.

Creating a sound music environment

Therefore, the best way to help your child prepare for eventual music lessons is to provide a rich environment with active music experiences. Young children learn through play, so singing, saying rhythmic rhymes, and moving to music are not only fun but beneficial. (See the book Sound Choices, reviewed below, for some excellent suggestions for playful activities which develop musical sensibility.) It's also an excellent idea for any parent who has dreams of her child playing an instrument to begin taking lessons herself. This will pique the child's curiosity and present a powerful role model.

Children who have been in Music Together classes often demonstrate tonal and rhythmic competence relatively early—perhaps by age three or four—depending on how many semesters they've been in the program. While it may be musically possible for such children to start instrument lessons, our own inclination is to allow children a little more time to develop emotionally and physically before starting traditional lessons which involve reading music. In the meantime, they can explore rhythm instruments and strengthen their singing and movement skills, all of which will be useful to later instrument study. An ability to improvise and literally "play" music is invaluable to any musican.

Some general recommendations

Children develop at different rates physically, emotionally, socially, and musically, so the following can be only approximate guidelines for what might be best at different ages.

Threes and fours will continue to thrive in group music classes like Music Together. This allows them a direct, playful experience of music and movement which supports their learning style. Create a music environment at home, too, by integrating spontaneous music play into your daily life.

Fives and sixes will enjoy classes such as Music Together Big Kids®, Dalcroze, or Orff (see below), which begin to introduce more sophisticated music concepts within the context of a whole music and movement experience.

Seven to nine is often a good time to explore traditional lessons. Choose a teacher you think is a good temperamental match for your child. It's more important at this point for him to fall in love with his instrument than work with a noted maestro. (That can come later.)

Ten and older is not too late to begin! The older child tends to be focused and to progress rapidly. Sometimes, however, he may find beginner music to be "babyish," so the choice of materials will be crucial. Try Béla Bartók's Mikrokosmos, a series of books with musically interesting exercises that older children find appealing.

Other Resources: Group Classes

The following programs are all an excellent way to provide your older child with developmentally appropriate music instruction.

Music Together Big Kids® (MTBK)
This newest offering from Music Together is currently available at selected centers around the country (with more to come). Designed for five-, six-, and seven-year-olds, MTBK introduces a solfege and rhythmic vocabulary within the context of a class which celebrates the growing social and music skills of the older child. Children experiment with developmentally-appropriate musical activities such as conducting, improvisation, game songs, folk dances, and drumming.
Founded by Swiss pianist and composer Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, this approach emphasizes rhythmic movement (eurhythmics) along with sight-singing and improvisation. All types of music are used, and students are encouraged to express themselves by making movements which fit the music. Deep listening, imagination, and expressive responses all help develop musicianship. (Note: Many Dalcroze principles were incorporated into the Music Together program.)
Composer Zoltán Kodály of Hungary developed this method, which emphasizes ear training and sight-singing. Kodály believed that the voice is the first instrument and that learning through singing should come before learning to read music or learning to play another instrument. Taught in group classes, this sequential method uses folk songs and gradually introduces children to ever more complex concepts of melody, rhythm, and harmony.
Founded by Shinichi Suzuki of Japan, this method offers a non-traditional approach to music instruction for a number of instruments---including violin, cello, piano, and flute---for children as young as three or four. Most Suzuki programs offer both individual and group classes; the youngest students are often taught in a group setting. They learn to play by ear, thus strengthening the child's aural ability and removing the difficulty of learning to read music at an early age. The Suzuki method, modeled on the way children learn language, requires a strong parental involvement: parents attend lessons and often learn the instrument along with their child.

Other Resources: Books

Guide Your Child to Play a Musical Instrument (And Enjoy It!)
by Stephanie Stein Crease
Chicago Review Press, 2006
This friendly and informative book offers information on various early childhood music programs as well as how to choose an instrument and find a teacher for the older child. It encourages parents in being their child's guide and support, while cautioning them to examine their own motivations and dreams for their child. A refreshing, sane, and sensitive approach to a child's formal music education.
Guiding Your Child's Musical Experiences
by Wilma Machover and Marienne Uszler
Oxford University Press, 1996
Written with insight and warmth, this book is a wonderful resource for parents. It includes many suggestions for music play at home; descriptions of all the instruments and how to determine which is right for your child; and a comprehensive guide to books, CDs, videos, and music software. It has sections exploring the changing characteristics and needs of children at different ages and what parents might expect—and how they can help—at each stage.
Learning to Trust Your Musical Self
by William Westney
Amadeus Press, 2003
Although written with the adult in mind, this book is invaluable to any parent who will be overseeing a child's music education. A passionate advocate of vitality and joy in music-making, Westney believes that an emphasis on precision in performance leaves students "physically tense and expressively timid" by the time they arrive in college programs. He offers an approach to practicing and performing which keeps alive a love of music and celebrates all that can be learned from a "juicy" wrong note.