Teaching kids music
June 22, 2008 7:50 AM   Subscribe

How do you encourage children to learn to play musical instruments?

We've started well with our first child. At three years old he likes banging and clanking away on percussion instruments strategically placed around the house. We encourage him to sing and he likes to blow his recorder, mouth organ and imitation sax.

We want to buy a piano keyboard but don't want to start him on structured lessons too early. Do you know an ideal time to start teaching him and how can we encourage him further through structured play? Are their any teaching systems that adopt this approach?
posted by baggymp to Education (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Instead of structured lessons, you might also be able to find group lessons for kids his age, where rather than instruments, they concentrate on singing and rhythm and so on. Also good for musical education.
posted by poppo at 8:02 AM on June 22, 2008

Yes, Orff, Kodaly, Eurthymics or some other group class are what's usually aimed at kids this age. Some people will start Suzuki violin at this age, but that's structured lessons.
posted by GuyZero at 8:24 AM on June 22, 2008

I started messing around on my parents' piano when I was about 4; my mom gave me some basic structure (showing me how to play melodies that I asked about, with numbers 1-8 on the C-C scale) but I had a lot of fun just playing around on it. You can always see how he approaches it: if he takes well to experimenting, maybe show him (by ear) some simple tunes. You can start with really simple things like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and then gradually expand the range of what he learns until he has a good command of an octave. Then you can move outside the octave and show him the repeating patterns up and down the keyboard. At that point more structured lessons might be helpful, but I have no experience with Orff/Kodaly/Suzuki/etc.
posted by bassjump at 8:28 AM on June 22, 2008

I can only offer out experience. mr. nax is a musician, so music was just part of the structure of the household, but one kid took to formal lessons without a hitch at age 4 and ended up graduating from college with a performance degree, while the other one could never handle formal lessons, despite gamely trying 3 different instruments. I think it really depends on the kid.

One thing I can tell you. Don't start lessons until the kid is ready to practice on his own. Lessons are one thing, but it takes a higher degree of maturity to handle practice. I wouldn't set a specific time limit on practice for a very young child (like 4-6 yrs old, depending on the kid)-- better to make it task based (do these 5 things), or goal based (play this until you have it perfect).
posted by nax at 8:44 AM on June 22, 2008

The best way to get a kid to love music and grow passionate about creating and performing music ... is for you to love music and be passionate about creating and performing music.

For kids and adults, creative expression is either part of your life, or compartmentalized as something you schedule time to do sometimes.
posted by headnsouth at 9:00 AM on June 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

Take them to see music being performed.
posted by caddis at 9:40 AM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Play music for them. Don't give them lessons. It killed it for me and I only picked it up years later. My lead guitarist, who is a god on the instrument got guitar lessons and never played. The minute he stopped the lessons, he started playing the guitar himself.

If you don't play now, learn. Kids do what you do.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:20 AM on June 22, 2008

We started our youngest with "Music for Little Mozarts" which is a group piano class for 4-7 year olds and their parents. It was offered at a local piano store and is very much play-based. In addition to using the piano, the kids dance and sing and color and it's amazing how much real music theory they learn. My only previous experience with early childhood music was via Suzuki, which was not playful in the least. We started the classes when my son was 4. He did 2 years of classes and then started private lessons when he was 6. My older son started private lessons at 9, with no previous experience other than just playing around with instruments at home. I have to say that my younger son has a better grasp of theory and is all-around more comfortable at the piano than my eldest and I think starting him younger is a big part of the explanation.

My kids (now 13 and 8) don't seem to be particularly stifled by their lessons. Their teacher absolutely encourages them to have fun and learn to play songs that they like. My eldest is working on the Imperial March from Star Wars right now! They both have to practice every day before being allowed to use the computer or TV but they frequently return to the piano just to fool around. It helps that our piano is digital and has lots of fun sounds to play with! I've noticed they both apply what they've learned in their lessons to other musical experiences, like trying to figure out the time signature of pop songs, sight reading unfamiliar songs at church, and being able to jam along with live music on percussion instruments. It's fun to hear them try to play songs from Guitar Hero on our piano.

One piece of advice I have, even if you just want to let your kids noodle around without lessons, is to make sure your kids have real instruments to noodle around on. Toy guitars that won't stay tuned and cheap keyboards that only have one octave end up being frustrating to kids who want their music to sound real. Both piano teachers I've worked with have stressed how important it is for kids to have access to a full 88-keyed keyboard with weighted keys, whether digital or acoustic. This allows them to play dynamically and develop the finger muscles. It's hard to switch from unweighted keys to weighted ones if they do go on to take lessons.

I home school my boys and one of my benchmarks for their education is that they will go to college being able to read music and play an instrument. If my kids at some point absolutely rebel against piano, I will have them pick another instrument or voice to study instead. Part of my responsibility, besides paying for and getting them to lessons, is to make sure that they are surrounded by music and the joy of making and listening to it. I don't know if either of my boys will grow up to be musicians, but I know they will grow up to be musical.

Good luck with your little one, and have fun!
posted by Biblio at 11:44 AM on June 22, 2008

Definintely be creative yourself, and create an environment where creativity is an essential part of daily life. I think you're already on the right track. The worst thing you could do is make art or music out to be frivolous or encourage inhibition. It seems there's little risk of that happening, so keep doing what you're doing.
posted by loiseau at 1:47 PM on June 22, 2008

I started learning piano when I was 3 (and later violin when I was 8) and I'm so glad I did. I suppose I had 'structured' lessons, but they were fun; I learned via the Suzuki method at a Suzuki music school (and then later switched to a regular music school after maybe 5 years). My sister also started learning music fairly young, via the Yamaha method at a Yamaha music school - and that's supposed to be very stimulating for children as well. So yes, there are certain methods of music-teaching that are specially tailored for young children, and they're designed to help children develop good music 'ears', better overall musicianship, good discipline / practising habits, and a general love for music. :)

I suppose the Yamaha method is more 'playful' (or at least, colourful and maybe incorporating more movement/physical activity?) than the Suzuki method... but I liked the Suzuki method. Maybe it also has something to do with personality types (my sister is more playful and laidback than I am); I appreciated the relaxed but dignified atmosphere learning under my teacher, and I liked how my teacher taught me to respect music and my fellow musicians at a very young age. In my experience, I learnt discipline and a lot of good practice habits without the usual 'stress' and 'pressure' one imagines young children to have when given 'formal' 'structured' 'training'. Upon reflection, the time I learnt under my Suzuki teacher was probably the time I was the most confident (without arrogance) and least self-conscious at the piano. I actually felt more 'stressed', competitive, self-conscious and pressurized when I started going to a regular music school. I probably don't outwardly exude that sort of dignity, confidence, etc etc wrt music nowadays, but at least I have that grounding of knowing what good practice, good techniques and good discipline should look like. :)

It's true that structured lessons sometimes kill one's interest in music - and I did experience that at one point (in my teens I think)... but good music technique is (much) more easily learnt when you're still a child. Even after I stopped my classical music lessons and started trying to develop myself musically in a more 'unstructured' way, I relied upon the basic techniques I learnt as a child, and the 'ears' and general musicianship my classical music teachers had helped cultivate. (Honestly, technique and ears go a very long way in anchoring you as a musician, even if they seem sort of boring. As an adult, it's so much easier to rediscover a passion and taste for music than it is to attempt to learn good technique at that age. I have friends who regret dropping their structured music lessons early on as children, because they're now interested in music but find it much harder to play the songs they want to play because their fingers and muscles have stiffened etc.)

And echoing what Biblio said - real instruments are so much better, and so much more inspiring than electronic versions of otherwise acoustic instruments. And I personally think that playing on a real instrument helps you to develop a better appreciation for the nuances of timbre and touch than, say, a keyboard (even a weighted 88-keys keyboard). (Besides that - a real piano has so much more character than an electronic piano. No two pianos are alike, really - even if they're made by the same company / maker, etc...)

As a child I also saw music being performed quite regularly, and my parents would play music tapes / videos in our house and car quite a bit. I think it also helps to learn about music history, and the stories behind musicians and music... there are always really interesting stories that you can tell kids about, I think. Like Liszt, the first 'rockstar' classical musician... or the story of the Supremes, or Michael Jackson (my dad was a huge Michael Jackson fan and he'd tell me bits and pieces about the stories and contexts etc of MJ's songs/videos)... or how the Beatles' "Hey Jude" came about... or how Beethoven's later music was written when he was deaf... or how Bach's prolificness had so much to do with his religious faith... etc, etc, etc. There are so many human stories interwoven with music history - actually, in a sense, music history is human history - and hearing those stories (from my dad, and some of my music teachers) really helped to cement my passion for music. I guess it really helps to be passionate about music yourself, because then music just becomes part of a way of living and such an integral part of your life - and that's probably the best way to give a child a love for music. There've been (and are) some people in my life that are so passionate and knowledgeable about music - such that they're constantly talking about it, and commenting on everything they hear, and making up music all the time, etc - that their love for music is pretty infectious.

Exposing your child to a variety of music genres and forms might help as well. I did stuff like drama and dance (both of which incorporated music) when I was quite young, as well as musical theatre (fun!). And my music schools had regular performances/concerts that gave students a platform to show their peers what they'd been learning. It can be very encouraging (if you go about it the right way, without pressurizing the child) for children to perform for their friends and family. :)

If you can carry a tune (or actually, maybe even if you can't...) or play an instrument, you could try singing/playing to your child. If I ever have children, I plan on singing to them and playing music for them, a lot... and writing music for them. :) But even if you aren't musical, there's still so much you can do. My parents aren't musicians at all, or even musical people, but they were good at surrounding me with music and good (sometimes inspiring) music teachers.

Feel free to MeFi mail or email me if you want to know anything else. Hope I didn't ramble too much.
posted by aielen at 3:15 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try to get them into just listening to music over time, and becoming a music fan. I never was one growing up, but once I got into it more and more in my college years, in retrospect I'd wished I had taken some kind of lessons in my earlier years. Of course, it's never too early to learn, but childhood is obviously the best time to learn things like instruments and languages.

So try to have them take an interest in the kind of music you like, or maybe they're starting to do so with other styles of music (or stuff through TV and movies). Either way, once they get into singing or playing along with those songs, they'll no doubt be more eager to take lessons so they can perform them on their own. If they're not interested in being able to perform what lessons can teach them to do, they'll be turned away by the lessons themselves and it'll just be a chore.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 3:39 PM on June 22, 2008

In NYC, composer 'Dave Soldier' went into poor city classrooms and taught elementary school kids to make music using inexpensive, easy-to-use equipment. He outlines his gear and technique in this 2-year-old article. The gear is a bit outdated today, and your child is younger than the kids Soldier worked with, but it's a good starting point.
posted by skywhite at 7:53 PM on June 22, 2008

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