I am often asked this question. There is no right answer as each and every child is a unique individual and, particularly at younger ages, children’s development can vary widely. However I can offer some guidelines which may help parents to understand if and when their child is ready to take up individual music lessons?
The first and foremost requirement is this: is your child really interested and enthusiastic about the idea of studying an instrument? If the child isn’t interested, then no amount of will power on the part of the teacher and parent is going to get that child to practice.
Can your child sit still, more or less, and concentrate for half an hour? While it would be ideal for small children to have two 20 minute lessons per week, the reality is that, unless you live very close to the teacher, logistics will get in the way. Wait until your child is mature enough for that 30 minutes of concentrated time.
Is your child physically big enough to play the desired instrument? There can be real limitations here for some instruments, while others come in various smaller sizes. Violins, cellos, and guitars come in sizes adjusted to all ages of children. There is a good reason that recorders are often a starting place for children.
Do you have, or are you willing to either rent or purchase an instrument on which your child can practice? You would be surprised at how many students I have had begin piano lessons without having an instrument to practice on. Sorry, but the iPad just doesn’t substitute for a piano and playing the table is a tough sell to a child who wants to make music. They cannot progress if they can’t practice on an actual working instrument.
Can you commit to your child having time to practice every day? A child who is over-programmed will never have the chance to really give the time and energy to music lessons. Daily practice is crucial to the overall success of the music lessons. Of course there are things that will get in the way, we music teachers do understand this, but don’t expect miracles if your child can only practice the night before their weekly lesson.
If you can say yes to all of the above questions, then it is time to consider the options. Violin can be started quite young, and there are many students who start at age 3 and 4 but I recommend that you wait until they are at least 5 or 6. In my Summer Music Program we give all the 6 year olds a two-week introduction to the violin and it is the perfect age to begin as the students can both physically and intellectually understand what to do. Remember, it is quite tiring to hold up the instrument and use the bow. For piano lessons, the same is true. In my experience, on average, whether the students begin at age 5 or age 6 they are more or less in the same place by the time they reach age 7. Starting younger just means that it takes much longer to get through the preparatory/primer books. However if your child is jumping up and down with excitement to begin lessons and just can’t wait, then give it a go with a patient teacher.
For instruments that have to be blown (woodwind and brass), generally one needs to wait until the child is a little older. We normally start the 7 year olds on recorder in my Summer Music Program because they are old enough to pick up the two handed fingering and be able to blow at the same time. But for the clarinet and saxophone, you must wait until the child has their adult teeth at the front. Otherwise there is a risk of damaging or deformin
g the palate. Age 8 or after is generally safe. The saxophone is bigger and takes more air to blow, so wait until the child is physically big enough for that. The flute, however, doesn’t have the same constraint and is a natural extension that flows from the recorder, but like the violin, a student has to be strong enough to hold the instrument up with raised arms for extended periods of time. The bassoon is a wonderful instrument and there are small ones made for children. Because the double reed is smaller there isn’t the same pressure on the palate. The student pictured here was inspired by our woodwind demonstration at the Summer Music Program and took up the bassoon at age 6 and was playing very well by age 7.
For brass instruments, the student really needs to be able to blow through the horn and use the mouth and facial muscles to buzz the lips to make a sound. This is quite physically tiring and so the student must have enough strength and lung capacity to be able to do this for long enough to learn something in a lesson and to be able to practice well. A good starting instrument is the cornet as it is smaller than a trumpet and easier to hold. But even so, a student should generally be 8 or 9 years old to start.
Drums can be started as soon as the student is able to comfortably sit on the stool and reach the right spot on the drum heads. Although a louder instrument (be aware of limited practice times if living in a Swiss apartment!) drumming gives a good sense of rhythm and can be an excellent solution for children with a more active physical need in their music making. On the other hand, hearing does need to be protected at a tender age and good physical coordination is needed. Good success can begin as early as 6 but generally, best results come from starting from age 7- 8 and above.
And now for the big question regarding Voice (singing) lessons. Please, please please do not try to start your young children on Voice lessons. The vocal chords are very immature—indeed a real singing voice doesn’t fully mature until the twenties. Learning to sing properly is a complicated thing as one cannot “see” the instrument inside our bodies. So it takes a combination of physical and intellectual maturity to really benefit from a good Voice teacher. And the dangers of working with a singing teacher that does not understand how to properly train and protect those young vocal chords are very serious. One can repair a damaged instrument, but we only have one set of vocal chords for life. So many Voice teachers teach their students to “belt it out” and use only their chest voice because they want to sing the big numbers from musical shows and the latest “pop” songs, but this limits the vocal range and causes all sorts of problems later. Late primary school age is really the earliest one should start if there is clearly a special “instrument” (Voice). Good choral singing instruction should be adequate for vocal training in primary school and will hopefully not put any strain on young voices. However, volume should never be mistaken for vocal quality. In general, I recommend that students wait until they are 12 or 13 years old to begin voice lessons as this is when they can really start to make the most out of the lessons.
Keeping all this mind, it can still be confusing to know when is the right moment to start your child on music lessons. The benefits can be so great, particularly in the development of the brain (please read my article on The Importance of Music Education http://www.lemanevents.ch/Education-Platform-Blogs/the-importance-of-music-in-education-gwa-e.html )but don’t be afraid to stop the lessons if you think that things are not going well after giving it enough to time (3 – 4 months). You don’t want to turn your child off from music. But as a parent, remember this: the goal is to establish a life-long love of music making in your child. Don’t push too soon. You know your child best. When in doubt, wait a bit and don’t start too young, but waiting too long can mean that the child will develop other interests that might preclude having time to practice. In general, age 6 – 7 is a great time to begin individual music lessons on the appropriate instrument. Just keep those exceptions listed above in mind.