My 5-year-old, Sadie, has been sounding out a version of "Do-Re-Mi" on her toy electronic keyboard since age 3. Now that her musical repertoire includes jamming to Laurie Berkner and Sam Cooke on her faux white guitar, I'm thinking about signing her up for music lessons this fall.
"This is a great age to begin playing an instrument if your kid shows an interest," says Menon Dwarka, director of the Greenwich House Music School, in New York City. "In kindergarten and first grade, kids are tracking words from left to right and learning to read, so a music teacher may not have to rely on having them just memorize the notes by ear."
Music lessons may even help children become more confident readers. "Music and schoolwork build similar skills, including letter and number recognition and fine motor development," says Glenn Schellenberg, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. "My research on first-graders shows that learning an instrument improves a child's reading scores on standardized tests." If that sounds like music to your ears, start off your budding Bach on a high note.
You and your child need to agree on what she'll play. She won't have enough breath support or finger dexterity for a wind instrument like flute or clarinet until she's around 10, and brass instruments are too big. While some music schools offer guitar lessons for 5- and 6-year-olds, most experts believe it?s smart to wait until kids are a little older and have more hand strength, coordination, and dexterity. The best options: piano and violin.
"It's easiest for children to learn how to play melodies on the piano," says Marvelene C. Moore, Ph.D., professor of music at the University of Tennessee. Since a piano is a big investment in space and money, it's okay for a kid to practice on a keyboard at first while you gauge her long-term interest.
The violin, especially the scaled-down one made for kids, is smaller and more portable than a keyboard, but it requires more patience. The first few lessons will be devoted to learning how to hold the instrument and bow (for many kids it feels awkward initially) and remembering several finger positions.
There are two basic kinds of classes: Suzuki and regular. With Suzuki (which is especially popular for the violin), playing by ear is emphasized at first over reading music. A parent and child usually learn together -- so you not only have to attend your kid's lessons, you'll be expected to participate as well. For either option, your child can have group or private lessons. Group lessons with three or four other children around the same age and level are often a better choice since young kids learn well from one another, explains Nicole Yorty, a music teacher at Herbert A. Derfelt Elementary School, in Las Vegas.
Great musicians aren't necessarily great teachers. So rather than looking for an instructor with a lot of musical accomplishments, focus on finding one who has experience working with young children. "The music teacher at your child's school is usually a terrific person to ask for recommendations," says Yorty. If you want to try the Suzuki method, keep that in mind because not all instructors offer it.
Once you locate several possible instructors, request to observe the type of class your kid would attend to get a sense of the teacher's style. "A quieter, laid-back teacher may be the right fit for some children while others will respond better to one who brings a lot of energy to the session," says Mike Blakeslee, deputy executive director of The National Association for Music Education, in Reston, Virginia.
Finally, take into account the teacher's expectations. Some instructors want kids to practice for 20 to 30 minutes daily. You (and your kid) may not be ready for that time commitment at first, so it's smart to choose someone who gives, well, less homework.
Depending on where you live, a 30-minute private lesson will run $15 to $50. Expect to pay 25 to 50 percent less for group lessons. Rather than buying an instrument, look into renting from a local music store. "Renting will save you from getting stuck with an instrument if your child doesn't like it," explains Yorty. Violin and keyboard rentals typically cost $15 to $25 per month. For a year of lessons the bill usually ranges from $1,000 to $3,000.
The truth is, progress will be slow. Six months into violin lessons, most kids can play a recognizable version of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Piano progress generally happens more quickly, and a child will know three or four simple songs in the same time frame. What's more impressive at the end-of-year recital: the amount of confidence kids develop. "They'll come out on stage one by one and play for the audience," says Yorty. "It's amazing."
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Parents magazine.