In more than 10 years as a piano teacher, I’ve noticed that my students’ parents invariably ask the same basic questions. It made me realize how little material there is out there to guide those who need practical information about how and when children should begin formal music instruction. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of the top five questions I hear most frequently.
1. How do I know if my child is ready for music lessons?
Some children show a natural interest in wanting to play a certain instrument such as the piano or guitar, or in singing. I tell parents to follow the child’s instincts with lessons – if they’re ready, they’ll tell you.
At the same time, watch your kids for signs like constant humming or tapping with their fingers. That’s a clear sign of musical interest that you should consider developing as soon as possible, no matter how old the child. You can adjust the intensity of lessons or rate of practice if they are especially young (3-4 years old is on the younger side).
If your child has not shown an interest in one particular musical instrument, but you want to incorporate music into their education, I recommend starting with piano lessons for a couple of reasons. First, the piano is a great way to introduce music theory to your child. which can then be transferred to other instruments and voice. Second, the learning curve for picking up piano technique is not nearly as steep as other instruments. This allows the student to focus on learning general musical concepts.
2. Can I make my kids enthusiastic about learning an instrument?
You can’t: See “If they’re ready, they’ll tell you” above. Don’t force an instrument on your child that he or she doesn’t want to play. Rather, try and determine what your child might have a natural interest in. They may pretend to play the guitar, drums, or other instruments jokingly when they hear music; this can be a good indication of their natural inclinations.
It can help if your child has friends who are in music programs, or if they realize they will be joining a community of music students. I recently had a parent bring her 10-year-old daughter to the studio where I teach, and the mother told me that before they came in, her daughter wasn’t sure it was something she wanted to do. When she came in and saw other children waiting for their lessons, she immediately said she was ready to start. Now she is one of my best piano students.
3. How can I encourage them to practice?
My short answer is: Make it fun! I have a student who wanted to learn the “Harry Potter” theme. I wrote it out for him and told him to practice it along with his other assignments at home. His parents said that he sits down at the piano frequently and they are the ones who have to tell him to break away and do homework. Providing access to some sort of music or musical style the student can relate to will help sustain their interest and lead to more practice time, so have your music teacher incorporate your child’s favorite songs into the lessons.
I also tell parents that repetition is more important than long practice sessions that are infrequent. Students who practice for even 10-20 minutes daily (4-5 days a week plus lesson day) will advance more quickly than those who practice for an hour once or twice a week.
And sometimes you will have to do more than “encourage” them. This is especially true when you are the driving force behind the lessons, as opposed to your child taking because they genuinely want to. If you are determined to have your kids learn an instrument, you are going to have to stay on top of them and this might mean rewards and incentives for playing and practicing. And because music is a life-long endeavor, positive motivation is always better than the threat of negative consequences.
4. What qualities should I look for in a music teacher?
A lot of adults I talk to tell me they had music lessons growing up and then stopped because they hated their teachers. As a music teacher myself, I can tell you helping children learn an instrument sometimes takes a lot of patience. That said, each child is different and should be taught accordingly. No two teachers have the same style: If your instructor is a bad fit, keep looking.
Another concern is your teacher’s level of proficiency in the piano. You may find someone in your area advertising piano lessons, and she has a wealth of knowledge…with the violin. Be sure to ask the hard questions about their actual ability with the instrument they are trying to teach.
This is important for at least two reasons: One, you don’t want your kids to develop bad habits that will hinder them in progressing and two, you don’t want to waste your time and money twice when your child is just going to have to start over to try and unlearn all of the bad instruction she received from the previous instructor.
5. How much do music lessons cost?
Music teachers in your area will have competitive rates. At the same time, the teacher’s level of expertise and experience are also factors: Professional musicians may charge more per lesson than those who do not earn their living by playing the instrument they teach.
Also, instruments can be expensive. Some studios offer rentals for a low monthly rate and most music stores offer instrument rentals on a rent-to-own basis.
You have a lot of options out there so don’t feel the need to rush the decision when you’re ready to start your kids on their music education. Listen to your instincts and those of your child and you can help them learn a skill and joy they can keep with them their whole lives.
Stephen Williams is the owner of the Williams Piano Studio in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.