My thoughts on teaching 4 and 5 year olds…

The McMinnville News Register ran a nice article about me in yesterday’s paper. It was well written, and mostly correct, apart from stating that I usually start lessons with students at 4-5 years old.

In fact, I rarely start lessons with 5 year olds, and I never start lessons with 4 year olds. A lot of parents of 5-6 year olds do ask about lessons, and I will usually meet with the parents and the potential student, because I recognize that every child and family is unique. But I’ve learned from experience that for most students, it’s better to wait a year (or 2, or 3!) until the child is a bit older. In fact, some of my best students did not start until 10 or 11!

So, how do parents know if their child is ready to start private music lessons? Other teachers may have different thoughts, but these are some things I consider when meeting a potential student…

1) basic reading skills
Students need to be able to easily recognize numbers (1-10) and letters (A to G) to learn to read music. It also helps to ready basic words, so they can recognize song titles, although that is less critical as most beginning music books have a lot of pictures.

So how is it that we see kids at ages 3 and 4 playing music? Most often those children are learning through the Suzuki method, a music teaching philosophy based on the idea that people acquire language by listening first (rather than reading), and so music can be acquired in a similar way. Suzuki students usually do not start out reading music at first. I know of many excellent musicians who started out with the Suzuki method, but I personally learned note reading from the start, so that is what I do (particularly for piano… guitar can be somewhat different).

2) maturity level
This is very important. Every child is different and while many children love to go over to a piano and plink out a tune, and some may even be able to sit for a while and play around, having the maturity to actually practice for music lessons (and practice in a way so that they learn well) is very different.

Also, many young kids are not good candidates for starting with guitar lessons because of the fingertip pain that happens until you build calluses (and even after you have calluses, if you stop playing for a while). Pain tends to be a big disincentive for young students, and they tend to not want to practice if they know that their fingers might hurt.

I do work with all students on practice techniques, but generally, most 4-5 year olds are too young to understand how to practice effectively, or even why they need to practice a certain way. This often leads to struggles between parents and children, and to children resenting their instrument.

3) family musical history
I have found that students with musically-inclined parents, siblings, grandparents or aunts/uncles are often better candidates for starting music lessons at a younger age. I taught guitar to a 5 year old girl for a while… normally I wouldn’t do guitar lessons with a child so young (most do not deal well with the pain of pressing down on the strings), but her mom was a music teacher and pianist, and the little girl did very well.

Having a musical family can be helpful for many reasons. Early exposure to relatives who play or teach is often inspirational, and allows the child to see what is involved with music study, and the enjoyment it can provide. Children who listen to music a lot seem to pick up rhythms and melodic phrasing better than those who don’t. And I think that “nature” does play an important role… musical talent does seem often to be passed down from one generation to the next.

4) parental involvement
Even if the parents don’t play an instrument, parental involvement is crucial, particularly for younger students. Sitting in on lessons can be very helpful so that parents understand what their child is learning. Scheduling a regular practice time every day can be very helpful for young children. Also, even sitting with your child during a practice, or asking them to play for you afterward (maybe ask them to play something they are particularly proud of) can be helpful.

5) boy or girl?
I often will start girls on lessons at a younger age than boys. This is primarily based on maturity… I’ve found more girls who do well starting at a younger age than boys. Now, this is not always the case, which is why I usually agree to meet potential 5 year old students to assess their readiness, rather than turning them away. There are always children who are exceptions… I’m currently working with one young boy who started somewhat younger than I would normally recommend, but his family was musical, and he seemed a good candidate. (He is a great student, and an excellent pianist!)

So, what should parents do if they have a 4 or 5 year old who wants lessons?

Ask around and see if you can find a teacher who specializes in working with younger students. Inquire about the Suzuki method. Encourage your child to just play around on an instrument (maybe have older siblings work with younger ones). Listen, listen, listen to music as much as possible.

And know that by waiting until your child is 7, or even 10, or even 13, you are probably not missing out on a chance to have a prodigy. Most likely, you are giving your child time to mature so that he (or she) can truly enjoy learning an instrument, and hopefully, carry that enjoyment and skills with them for the rest of his life.