Help with the music
January 6, 2012 7:39 AM   Subscribe

My little almost-4-year-old loves music and singing. I think she'd enjoy learning to play an instrument. 1) What would you instrument would you recommend? 2) What instruction method is best (most enjoyable and effective)?
posted by leotrotsky to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
As to the first, the piano is a pretty frequent go-to for a first instrument. It requires somewhat less physicality than other instruments in that you don't actually have to hold the instrument or power it with your breath, so size isn't going to be quite as big of a problem. Learning the piano can also serve as an excellent foundation in musical theory, something which will translate to any other musical endeavor she might care to pursue.

Two things about the piano. First, this involves acquiring a piano. Even used "real" pianos, i.e. non-electric, can set you back hundreds to thousands of dollars. A new 108-key upright will easily set you back $3,000 at the minimum. They're not small, and they're not easy to transport. Electric pianos, on the other hand, can be transported in a sedan and can be put away if needed, so that might not be a bad place to start. They don't cost a dollar, but even a brand-new Korg, one of the best brands out there, only start at $1,900. So you can easily pick up something more basic, used, for a few hundred bucks at the most.

Second, she's four. Her hands are small. This is going to make playing any instrument something of a challenge, and though they do make pint-sized violins, etc., she may well have trouble getting a stringed or woodwind instrument even to work. And she probably has neither the muscle tone nor lung capacity for a brass instrument yet. But though she's not going to be able to hit octave chords this year, she can still plunk around with melody lines on the piano just fine. She'll be limited, but there are other instruments which she might not be able to work at all.

Alternatively, you might try something like a recorder. These have the advantages of being both cheap and widely available, not to mention small and portable. They're also decently rugged, as a lot are made out of hard plastic that can take quite a beating, so dropping it isn't likely to do much. This could be a great way of testing the waters, so to speak. Recorders are frequently used as introductory instruments because they're accessible and easy to play.

As to the second... musical education is controversial, and there are a number of widely disparate approaches, none of which can honestly be described as "best". They've all got their good and bad points, and if you're in any decent-sized urban area, you can probably find a teacher for each.
posted by valkyryn at 7:56 AM on January 6, 2012

I don't know where you are located but perhaps there is a Let's Play Music program near you. I know quite a few teachers in my area as well as many of their students and they all enjoy this beginner look at music and learning.

My nephew, at age four, began playing the violin using the Suzuki method.

Also, look into community centers that often offer music/play classes and/or music lessons.

If you want to go the piano route, don't be discourage by not having a piano - see if a neighbor or friend that has a piano would be willing to let your kidlet practice on it.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:05 AM on January 6, 2012

Your best bet is to let her choose her instrument. Keep exposing her to all types of music. Bring her to real concerts (no, not rock, classical music). At some point she will ask what keeps making that one sound. You want her to fall in love with the instrument. Otherwise, it's you bribing her to keep taking lessons.
posted by myselfasme at 8:06 AM on January 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

oh and re: piano - my neighbor scored a decent piano off craigslist for practically nothing (like $200). They just wanted the thing gone. Of course, my friend had to figure out how to move it, but it was worth it.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:07 AM on January 6, 2012

Background: I'm studying for my PhD in music education, but I don't deal with early childhood that much.

I'd suggest recorder for something like this. It's a great melodic instrument, and coming up with melodies is easy and fun. It also involves a lot less up-front purchase than, let's say, a piano.

I wouldn't describe music education as "controversial," as valkyryn did, but I would say he is right in commenting that there are a lot of different approaches. I'm not sure where you are, leotrotsky, but at my university, they offer classes on Saturdays that bring in children of various younger age groups and do a lot of play-music activities. Some of them use more of the well-known methods (Orff, Kodaly), while others incorporate more free-form. If you can find something like this, it's a great start for a more general music education.

Lessons are always great, but only if she enjoys them. More people have been driven out of music due to bad piano lessons than anything else. Same goes for Suzuki violin lessons.

Ask her what she'd like to do. I started on recorder because I always wanted to be a sax player, even as a little kid. I didn't have an interest in piano (which bites me in the ass the further I get through my degree). If she's more interested in doing string instruments, Suzuki might be the way. Piano? Well, you have that. But make sure you find a teacher that's used to working with younger students. You don't want/need the intense piano teacher for your young beginner.
posted by SNWidget at 8:08 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Strings (violins at least, violas and cellos as well, I believe) come in small sizes for small people and you can probably find a rental program.

Side note: Here is the pneumonic of sorts that my violin teacher taught me to remember triplets. "Doc-tor Su/zu-ki says/ nev-er be/ la-zy just/ prac-tice and / prac-tice un/til you go/crazy." (Yeah, I know, the last one isn't a triplet.
posted by maryr at 8:10 AM on January 6, 2012

Also - you don't get stuck in the path you start on. If she wants to play trumpet, starting now probably won't work, but getting general musical skills will help. Piano, recorder, and to a lesser degree, violin, will all help. If she wants to be a drummer (I am so sorry), then lots of childhood music programs use percussion instruments such as xylophones and rhythm instruments.

If it's her dream, she can work her way up to tuba when she can carry it. :)
posted by SNWidget at 8:10 AM on January 6, 2012

I was once a not-quite four year old that loved music and singing. My mom put me in piano right away, not so I would become the next Angela Hewitt, but so that I would learn the basics of how music is structured and understood. She let me sing to my heart's content, encouraging me to join choir in school as soon as I could, and to perform solo for friends and family. Voice instruction came later, when I was 14 and my voice broke.

Now, mom was a pianist, and there was a piano in the house. Otherwise, she may have looked at a different instrument for me.

I say, give your little one access to whatever instrument and instruction is going to work for your situation and budget, and beyond that, encourage her to make music whenever she can. Ask her to sing when you have visitors over. Get her to make a recording for grammie and grandpa to send at Christmas time, or their birthday, etc. Get her to "compose" a song for you, or stage a musical based on songs she has access to on the ipod or whatever. Make music fun for her, instead of interminable scales and exercises; even little kids find those boring.
posted by LN at 8:13 AM on January 6, 2012

Piano and violin seem to be the standards for the younger set. My son's preschool has piano and violin lessons offered as part of the program. My son (who's 2.5 years old) has a keyboard we found for free on the side of the street, several drums, and just got a child sized guitar (a real one not a play guitar) for Christmas. We aren't working on teaching him how to really play much right now, mostly just letting him have fun and get comfortable with the instruments. He sits and strums the guitar while singing songs as happy as can be. I wouldn't worry about getting the best at this edge, just let her try things out and see what she likes and go with that.
posted by katers890 at 8:18 AM on January 6, 2012

What fun - you have a music loving kid.

I would encourage you to look into musical education for youngsters (as said above there are lots of options) - where they can learn to match pitch, make harmonies, copy rhythms, learn new songs and generally continue to feel positive toward music. This can be with a specific instrument or with their bodies. Just make sure the teacher connects to your kid and that they have clear goals so you can see and she can see how she is progressing musically. Just giving her an instrument can make for a frustrated little kid and an instrument that is not played with much.

If you go down the road of an instrument - ask her what she wants to play. Then watch You Tube videos, talk about how its played, what it sounds like (good and bad), what you can do with it (piano plays multiple notes but you cannot throw it or move it easily, a recorder can be taken everywhere but only one note at a time, so on), etc. Is she still interested? 4 year olds have plenty of opinions and having an instrument that she is drawn to helps keep this going in the long run. (And whatever instrument you choose together you should be able to find it in a child size.)
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 8:20 AM on January 6, 2012

There are all sorts of funky hand-held percussion instruments -- tambourines, maraccas, etc. -- that could be fun. No tunes, but getting the hang of rhythm is also good, and the percussion instruments are also easy to understand how to use ("take this and shake it/hit it/bang on it"). Even if you go with a different instrument, it may be fun to have a collection of simple percussion things just for fun anyway; my parents have a big bag of different percussion things like this that my niece is crazy over, but they also dig it out sometimes for family-wide percussion jam sessions.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:31 AM on January 6, 2012

I loved Suzuki at that age (caveat: my mother, who has had a million jobs, was a Suzuki piano teacher.) Piano and violin are the standards; we already had a piano (actually, two) so I started with that and added violin when I was in third grade. We also had a lot of musical toys - recorders, tambourines, xylophones - and in elementary school my teacher had us learn to play the autoharp.

I'm a big fan, at that age, of focusing on the enjoyment and understanding of music more than "lessons," per se. Go to concerts, play "Peter and the Wolf" CDs, watch the Bernstein concerts on Netflix, etc.

Oh, and get real, simple instruments - not cheap plastic fake ones - to play with. Bells and recorders can be awful if they're poorly made, and kiddie keyboards are stupid, IMHO.
posted by SMPA at 8:37 AM on January 6, 2012

Our three and a half year old loves her ukelele. She can pluck out little songs and sing along, it's small enough to hold and simple enough for her to be able to do some basic stuff. She has other small, simple instruments as well - maracas, a xylophone, a triangle thing, and has had a lot of music classes (classes in the sense of 'sing and dance around like a bunch of goons' classes). I'd really recommend the ukelele. Plus, her dad has one, so they can play together. They are both musical. I'm a dud, musically. I think it helps a lot that the making of music is a thing which she actually sees her dad do.

BTW we've specifically chosen stuff for her that allows her to both play and sing, since she likes both, and we've avoided the type of instruments where she'd have to use her mouth to play or instruments (like the drums) that are less conducive to singing along.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:50 AM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can't tell you what might be a good instrument for your wee one but last year, I bought my son (then 6 years old) a banjo for Christmas. The music store (not a chain but a fairly large mom and pop) said that should he decide he not like it within two years, we would be able to TRADE IN the instrument for what we gave for it if we were willing to put that money towards the purchase of a new instrument.

Perhaps you could look for a music store from which to purchase with that in mind. If your little one decides she doesn't like say, the violin, in 6 months you can trade it in for something she might like without suffering too much of a monetary loss...

(Another note that sort of tags onto what others have said about talking the kid concert going with you: I took my son to a Breathe Owl Breathe concert, which was the catalyst for the banjo love. I'd recommend them -- they are adults making adult music but it's all kid friendly and their live show was interactive. I feel like I owe that band a debt of gratitude for breaking my kid into the live music scene so wonderfully.)
posted by youandiandaflame at 8:54 AM on January 6, 2012

When I was that age I remember loving the color-coded xylophone. It had songs you could pick out using the colors, and it helped me get more into music. It doesn't require the breath control of a recorder of little flute, which was a later step, and by the time I was 6 I started in on the cello, mostly of my own choosing.
posted by ldthomps at 8:55 AM on January 6, 2012

Just to throw this out into the mix, not that it probably applies at this early date: When my daughter was picking out the instrument she wanted to play in 5th grade band, only the kids who had a piano background were allowed to even try out on any of the percussion instruments. Since music had been just one of her many many interests, and she had never taken formal lessons or stuck with any one instrument prior to this, she was steered toward the trumpet. I guess (in our school district) the trumpet is the default instrument for a kid who's never seriously played an instrument of any kind before. It turned out to be a huge win in the end, because now she is a total marching band geek in high school, but she was a little disappointed at not even being given the option to try drums back then.

tl;dr: A piano background might open other doors later on.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:01 AM on January 6, 2012

My not-quite-2-year-old loves playing the harmonica. It is small and easy and fun.
posted by steinwald at 9:15 AM on January 6, 2012

I am a pianist, but also learned cello and recorder, the latter to quite a high standard. I would recommend that no matter what else he does, you should encourage him to play piano. It used to be a requirement for anyone studying higher-level music that no matter their instrument, they also had to study piano, because it promotes understanding of music theory much more completely than almost any other instrument.

Past that though, I think you should encourage him to make his own choice. Not to the point of letting him try anything and drop it when he's not feeling like playing it any more. Get him to listen to all sorts of music, with many different instruments. Make a deal with him that he gets to choose one, but he has to promise to stick to it for a number of years. That should dampen his impulses when he sees a new and shiny instrument and help him to choose something he can learn to love.
posted by fearnothing at 9:31 AM on January 6, 2012

IANAME (I'm not a music educator), but I think that a useful approach for a 4-year-old would be to pick out a bunch of low-priced instruments from the different musical families, and let your daughter choose from those. Having a few different instruments available will give her a visceral experience with each instrument type.

Most of these instruments can be had for $30 or less, they're durable, and not a super huge investment like a piano:

Stringed instruments: ukelele

Pitched percussion: Glockenspiel (this one is $50, but I got the same model for $30 at some point)

Woodwind: recorder

Melodicas are pianos you blow into, and are awesome and reasonably priced.

The Stylophone is a fun electronic instrument.

There are tons of small percussion instruments like claves, shakers, tambourines, maracas, etc. that can be picked up for <$10 a piece.

Also, check out used music stores, garage sales, craigslist.

Basically, I'd recommend creating a conucopia of cheap, durable musical instruments instead of going all in for one instrument. Let your daughter play with them for a year, see what she likes.
posted by baniak at 9:34 AM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

(-he/him, +she/her) And whatever you do, make sure that you choose teachers very carefully. A teacher who teaches good technique from the beginning makes it far easier to access the satisfying position of being able to play impressively, beautifully and with surety.
posted by fearnothing at 9:38 AM on January 6, 2012

As someone who was shoved into piano lessons at 5, I vote NOT PIANO. Unless maybe your kid is unusually big for her/his age or really really inclined to it already. As a young child I found the piano physically painful to play simply because my fingers couldn't span the keys easily. Which made it painful to practice. Which made my progress slow and my teacher angry. At least with a guitar or violin you can get something sized to the kid.

Love the idea of the recorder.

When I was a tiny musically inclined person, what I really loved was singing. Our church had a children's choir, which I participated in until I graduated into school choir and musical theatre and the like in middle school/jr high. It was a great way to learn about music and performance (and, like, how to act like a human rather than a feral little beast) without the challenge of forcing my tiny self to power an adult-sized musical instrument.
posted by Sara C. at 10:11 AM on January 6, 2012

I'm a pianist since starting on it when I was around your child's age. Piano was great in that I learned how to read both treble and bass clefs, something you don't get with a stringed instrument or a recorder. I started playing oboe in middle school too. Just knowing basic music theory or even knowing how to read the notes made my life a lot easier. When I got to pick my instrument for band, I knew that whether I chose the tuba or the flute, I would already have a head start since I knew how to read the clef. Piano's also great for learning basic music theory. There's a reason why music majors need to take some sort of keyboard skills class.

Even though my love with piano has come much later, I'm still glad that my parents pushed me towards it first because it just made learning other instruments easier. I eventually stopped playing oboe and focused more on piano. My brother did the opposite. We both started on piano, but he ended up absolutely loving the clarinet and dropped piano later. Just make sure your child sticks with one instrument at first. This way you won't end up with multiple beginner instruments and not know what to do with it.

I'm not a music educator of any sort but I'd really vote against the recorder for your sake. True, every instrument with a beginner on it will sound pretty raucous, but I find recorder (along with clarinet) is probably very high up on the list of sounding like a cat being very slowly gutted when your child is just starting to learn.

As for lessons, there really isn't one awesome method to teach a kid. A lot of it comes from whether or not you and your child like the teacher or not. Having that click is probably the most important thing. If you guys like a certain teacher who happens to use the Suzuki method, then your kid will just happen to learn via Suzuki method. Having a teacher your child doesn't like or get along with very well is probably the best way to guarantee that your kid will stop playing the instrument or even music altogether.
posted by astapasta24 at 10:29 AM on January 6, 2012

I learned violin using the Suzuki method, and I would highly recommend it for younger children (at later stages I think there is insufficient emphasis on theory). As mentioned above, as much can depend on quality of teacher as the quality of method.

For a more general approach to music, rhythm, and movement, look for any children's courses offered under the Orff-Schulwerk instructional method. Orff classes are fantastic for very young children. They use primarily xylophones and glockenspeils. Here's an Orff 101.
posted by Kabanos at 10:42 AM on January 6, 2012

I favourite baniak's suggestion for making a variety of toy instruments available, especially the xylophone and tambourine. Also, serious pianists might hate me for saying this again, but I am a big fan of cheap Yamaha and Casio electronic keyboards, which are tones of fun.
posted by ovvl at 4:17 PM on January 6, 2012

Make a variety of instruments available to your daughter. I started playing the recorder, piano and violin at about the same age, and stuck with the piano to grade eight and a few other instruments to similar grades a bit later (oboe and bassoon - she will get a free ride through US college as a decent bassoonist!). But there is always percussion, if she displays some rhythm point her towards the timpani or a proper (appropriate-sized) drumkit and she will rock.
posted by goo at 4:41 PM on January 6, 2012

Oh I pressed send too soon. Give your daughter a decent grounding in music theory starting NOW. She can learn any instrument with a good grounding in theory, and can learn the basics of rhythm and chords which will take her everywhere. If she is so inclined, send her to a good piano AND theory teacher (theory is graded the same as proficiency in an instrument) and she can do whatever the fuck she wants.
posted by goo at 4:50 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

And music is just maths, really, so if she's really good at basic music (in any instrument) and theory, she will have a solid grounding in maths as well!
posted by goo at 5:05 PM on January 6, 2012

My daughter has hugely enjoyed the Musikgarten system, which has a heavy focus on learning-music-by-stealth; a lot of singing, dancing, hand rhythms and so on at the start as they work through to more an more sophisticated stuff; at 5 she's beginning to be able to read the rudiments of sheet music and will be starting piano this year, but they give them exposure to a wide range of instruments as part of the play/broad introduction philosophy (last year she got to play a violin and a trumpet, for example).
posted by rodgerd at 8:48 PM on January 6, 2012

Also, serious pianists might hate me for saying this again, but I am a big fan of cheap Yamaha and Casio electronic keyboards, which are tones of fun.

They're fun but they teach completely the wrong habits if your kid ever does want to play piano (and will have to unlearn), and also make it easy to get distracted by the accessibility of punching in numbers that make the unit play itself rather than experimenting with music, if the small children I've watched with them are any guide.
posted by rodgerd at 8:50 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

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