When should my child start playing a musical instrument?

Spending much of my time sharing music with pre-school families, I constantly extol the benefits that music can bring to their lives. I am, therefore, frequently asked what age a child should be to start learning a musical instrument and which one might be the best to play. Whilst eager to see every child experience the satisfaction of playing and the joy of making music with their friends, I am cautious to avoid this experience starting too early and their enthusiasm being extinguished by frustration. However, having witnessed a 4-year old Freddy Kempf performing as a newcomer in our local music festival many years ago, astonishing his audience with a rare virtuosity beyond his years (to go on and win the BBC Young Musician of the Year and tour as a world class soloist), I would hate to hold anyone back!

There are a number of excellent teaching methods specifically designed for teaching instruments to very young children. One of these is the Suzuki Method, where learning resembles the process a child goes through in learning to speak (listening to speech for several months before attempting to speak themselves). Suzuki observed that when a child makes their first sounds and words, parents encourage with praise and by repeating the sounds the child makes. This process of learning to talk is the model for Suzuki, or the Mother Tongue Method, explains Nancy Daly, a Suzuki Method Recorder Teacher and Teacher Trainer. Children listen daily to recordings of music they are to play. Praise and encouragement from teacher and parents, along with music games and activities, produces a consistently nurturing environment that makes the learning process fun and rewarding.

Founder-Director of Stringbabies, Kay Tucker, agrees that this nurturing environment is key for young learners. Kay told me, Stringbabies aims to deliver sound technique, coupled with musicianship, in a fun, imaginative and age appropriate way. This gives children a head start in becoming musicians, aids general educational and social development and develops skills which are transferable. Kay explains that because young children are very physically flexible, with wise and skilled tuition it is possible to instil sound technique right from the start. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Principal of my former stamping-ground, the Royal Academy of Music, told me that he believes the key is gradually introducing young children to the idea of instruments and the fun they can bring. Ideas can be planted through listening with parents, attending an orchestral family concert together (at the South Bank, for example) and afterwards identifying sounds with pictures of instruments. Children need a context in which an interest in music can lead to a proper instrument they are always direct about what they like the sound of (or not!). Of course, if attending an orchestral concert presents your family with something of a logistical nightmare, there are some excellent resources available on-line. For younger children, we always recommend the fabulous cbeebies prom and older ones might enjoy the BBC’s wonderful “Guide to the Orchestra”, with fascinating performances from orchestral instruments.

Paul Harris, author of The Virtuoso Teacher and one of the UK’s most respected educationalists, agrees that musical interest should grow from within a relevant context. He urges parents to get started as early as possible with musical skills by attending specific early years classes with specialist teachers: These classes are wonderful and encourage children to develop their understanding of pulse, pitch and many other musicianship skills. The journey of musical exploration can begin early in this way.

The strong backdrop of providing a rich musical playground for an early-years child would clearly set good foundations for instrumental learning. An environment with access to excellent music-making and a variety of real musical instruments, supported with listening together as a family and attending concerts will nurture a child’s curiosity to have a go! The ensuing question of which instrument to experiment with may well be answered practically by the availability of a skilled teacher or a working instrument of the right size! Kay Tucker explains that the beauty of the bowed strings is that they come in all sizes, so that you can learn to play a violin or cello if you are aged 3 years or 30 + years because music is for everyone irrespective of age. Stringbabies and the Suzuki Method would both be excellent providers of skilled teachers, using considered methods designed specifically for the very young. Nancy Daly adds, Suzuki is a way of learning to play an instrument in simple steps. By using radically different teaching techniques, it is possible for children to start learning as young as three or four, although the method works well at any age.

Freeman-Atwood believes that the piano is a good first instrument for lots of reasons and that can come as early as 5 or 6 years old. This has certainly worked well in our family, with my children all enjoying the piano as one of their favourite toys in their early years, before starting to play more intentionally aged 5 or 6. Harris suggests that once a child expresses an interest in learning an instrument, the parent should consider the personality, skills and character of the child as well as which instrument gives their child a buzz. The correct age to start playing an instrument depends on so many facets from one child to another. When the time is right for an individual child, they can continue the journey of musical exploration by learning to create sounds, from a skilled teacher, on whatever instrument is appropriate. We have found Atarah Ben-Tovim’s book “The Right Instrument For Your Child” to be very handy, with it’s practical, step-by-step guide towards choosing a musical instrument to suit the temperament and skills of your particular child.

It seems that the old adage wait and see could be applied to this whole scenario. As you wait, with the desire for your child to enjoy a musical instrument, walk with them on their journey and let them enjoy rich musical experiences. When the child is ready, they will let you know and it is then time to find a skilled teacher to lead them on. This teacher should be experienced in teaching children and happy to work alongside your particular child’s temperament, with love and encouragement. At this point an adventure will unfold for the child and their family: of discovery, friendship, joy and practice! Investing in a child’s musical education may be costly in many ways but will reap benefits for life. Closing with some wisdom from Shinichi Suzuki:

Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.

Lou Bradbury, Director, Little Notes