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It is Never Too Late to Ask: Would You Like to Begin an Instrument This Fall?

In the world of music, we constantly hear of the violinist who began playing at the age of 4, or the great pianist who just sat at the instrument at the age of 3 and began to pick out melodies he or she had heard. But most of our orchestras and concert stages are filled with musicians who began taking lessons, either privately or at school, at more "regular" times.

Suzuki, the Japanese musical pedagogue, has spearheaded the movement that has children playing the violin at the age of 3 or 4 (something that was almost unheard of in my youth), and piano teachers regularly teach children who are not yet reading in school (another rarity 30 years ago). As we are faced with a world that is constantly trying to teach more and more earlier and earlier, many parents feel that if their child has not begun an instrument by the age of 7, they are either not musically inclined or has missed the correct age to begin and, therefore, will never catch up with the six children in the class whose mothers found piano teachers when they were 4 and who are now playing fairly complex music quite proficiently.

​The child who begins at 5 or 6 may not be the child who wins the National Trumpet Competition at 12, or plays in the concerto competition at the Interlochen Arts Camp at 14. Believe it or not, it may be the child who began at the age of 10 or 11! If this is the case, why do so many parents, after their child reaches 5 years of age, stop asking the question, "Would you like to take piano lessons this year?" I would encourage parents to ask this question every year and, perhaps, twice a year. Why not re-phrase and expand your own and your child's thinking by asking, "Would you like to take flute, viola, mandolin, bassoon, French horn, oboe, percussion, or tuba lessons this year?"

If we do not give up so easily on broccoli, lobster, tooth brushing, ice skating or going on family outings, why do we accept a single negative response to a new experience as being final when it comes to music?

It is difficult to find the right teacher. Finding the right teacher often comes through word of mouth and is dependent on a number of things. If your child has a friend who is happy with his/her music lessons, try the friend's teacher. Sometimes going to the same teacher as a friend is the most important reason for choosing a particular one. If your child is 13 and wants to play the saxophone, but wants to play "big band" music, make certain you ask the prospective teacher if he/she will agree to work toward this goal. If you attend a concert series that your child enjoys, call the administrative offices and ask for teacher recommendations; they will be able to tell you where to call to begin your search. Realize that this may take as long as getting your child onto the local basketball team, but it can be equally as important.

beginner guitar student learning the instrument with the teacher

As parents, our children's self-perception of failure is one of our greatest fears.

We may think that Harry, at age 9, will be upset if he cannot play Bach's Minuet in G as well as his friend Sam who has been studying piano for three years. Ironically, what I have found is that Harry is so thrilled at being able to play the Bach he has heard Sam play that he is oblivious to the difference in performance level. In addition, the speed at which a 9 year old can learn a piece of music, compared to a 6 year old, is extraordinary. A further incentive that fosters success in the older child is that he/she has had a more active role in the decision to study an instrument and, therefore, often is more committed than the child who began in pre-school and for whom music lessons have been akin to brushing his or her teeth.

Many parents feel frustrated by the child who began the violin at five, then switched to the piano at six, then announced that he or she wanted to play the trumpet, but after one lesson seemed to lose interest almost immediately. Don't lose your patience! This same child may, at the age of 9, finally be ready to study an instrument. Like spelling, reading and arithmetic, there seems to be a time in a child's development when learning each new skill is "age appropriate", and music is no different. You, as a parent, may have asked the question about taking music lessons many times, but remember the green vegetables...we continue asking them to try. If you are concerned that your child might look at you when he or she is 20 and ask, "Why didn't you give me music lessons?", you have an obligation to yourself to raise the question on an annual basis.

No discussion is complete without the question of siblings.

siblings playing and fighting

As the relationship between siblings changes, the ability of the younger or older one to begin an instrument when his or her sibling already plays may be possible this year when it wasn't last year. A bright younger child from a musical family may be intimidated when his or her progress is so slow and everyone in the family plays so well and seemingly so effortlessly (he or she was not around during the early years of practice). But at some point, usually when he or she is a little older, speed or progress will increase, self esteem will be more intact and, consequently, he or she will be ready to take up the challenge.

Most people learn to play an instrument in their youth. The lucky ones learn to play well enough so that they continue playing as adults, but even those who play only for a few years have a different sense of appreciation as they listen to concerts and recordings throughout their lives. Educating your child is a little like prospecting: you will never know what talents you might have found if you stop panning in the river for gold too early.

Bonnie Ward Simon

Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.,

President of Maestro Classics

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