The art of teaching kids to play music: when to start
By Lindsay Ruebens


A lot goes into learning music, from rhythm to pitch to the notes themselves. Figuring out the best way to start – or to get your kids to start – can be overwhelming.

“Not everybody is Yo-Yo Ma, but 70 percent of the population should be able to play an instrument well enough to play in a civic orchestra,” said Phyllis Fulton, co-owner of Music Together of Charlotte.

Read on to find out what some local music experts who work with young people have to say about when to start lessons, practicing and affordable education options.

Let’s start at the very beginning

All of the experts recommended children start learning to play at a young age.

“In general, fairly early is good,” said Ernest Pereira, who has been the music director of the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra since 1989. He said that all of the youth in the CSYO’s strings program (that’s instruments played with strings, like violin and cello) started playing by at least age 6.

Fulton, whose company is for young children learning about music with their parents, encourages parents to get their small children musically active. “Start singing, dancing, making up songs with your child, moving them around to rhyme,” she said.

It’s tricky to say the best age – if there is one – to begin learning to play an instrument.

For formal lessons, Fulton recommended starting when children can write their name legibly, which shows they have fine motor skills, and can sit for at least 15 minutes.

“Usually around 8 years old is a good ballpark range,” said John Tosco, founder of the Tosco Music Party. His three children formed the band Justincase, which signed with Madonna’s label, Maverick Records, and released an album in 2002. (They have since moved on from the band.)

Tosco, who also teaches guitar, said kids who want to learn how to play brass and woodwind instruments probably need to be older than 8 because it’s difficult to hold the instruments and muster the breath necessary to play.

Fred Spano is an associate professor of music education, music education coordinator and interim coordinator of undergraduate studies in music at the UNC Charlotte. He said optimally, children can start learning string instruments at age 3 and piano at 5.

Don’t worry, baby

If you’ve passed middle school and want to start learning, no need to fret.

“Really, you’re never too old and rarely too young,” Tosco said.

Spano said that musical aptitude generally can’t be changed past the age of 10 or 11. “After a certain point, it’s not that you can’t learn music, but you won’t be able to change aptitude for it.”

Still, he encouraged adolescents who have an interest to give music a try. Laurel Talley, the Suzuki coordinator at Community School of the Arts, said that learning is never too late. Teens should figure out which instrument and what kind of music they want to play, and not get discouraged, she said.

“Instrumental music is very tough at first…. You’re not going to sound like the recording (of a song) you’ve heard for a while.”

She recommended that teenagers have a goal. “It should be much more than being in the spotlight,” she said, saying a lot of kids get attracted to the idea of fame.

Play it, Sam

A key to learning to play music is practice. But just about all the experts said a common complaint they hear from parents is that their kids don’t like to practice.

Lisa Lashley, a music teacher at Chantilly Montessori, said that if the music student is in elementary school, “it’s not reasonable to let them stop without 6 to 8 months of work at it.”

She said it takes time for children to know if they’re really interested in an activity. “I know it’s an instant society, but I don’t think a child will instantly know, ‘I’m going to like this,’ or ‘I’m going to hate this.’ ”

At the same time, she said, it’s the parents’ call if a child is particularly reticent. “If it’s a household battle with temper tantrums and screaming and all that, you pick your battles, and that’s not one I’d pick.”

Spano said choosing to continue or not depends on the age group and importance of music in the household. He said parents can compare practicing with doing homework, which needs to be done. By middle school, he said, allowing music students to have a choice in the pieces they play will generally make them more interested in practicing.

“I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard, ‘My mother let me quit piano, and now I wish I could play,’ ” he said.

Tosco said that kids should play because they have a serious interest in a particular instrument and are excited to play.

“It’s not just something to do, or a randomly picked instrument. Sometimes I think that happens in schools. A band director just says, ‘You don’t know, so I’m assigning you to trumpet.’ Sometimes that works out and sometimes it doesn’t.”

He said his goal for students is that they go home wanting to play, not practice.

Tosco said an easy way to ensure kids practice enough is to keep your instrument in an accessible place (not a bedroom), and to pick it up and play for a few minutes several times a day. He also said it’s important to understand that mastering a song usually requires having to practice certain scales and chords first.

Talley had some tips for parents of young maestros:

“Create a really positive atmosphere with plenty of reinforcement with practices daily, but (keep them) really short so that (the children are) focused and attentive, feel a sense of achievement but don’t get worn out.”

She also recommended parents set aside 10 minutes of quiet time to sit with their children while they practice to give encouragement.

“If practice feels like something they’re going to do every day by themselves, that’s isolating … but if they have that positive reinforcement, they’ll just keep going for you.”

ABC, it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3

Music education is so important, the experts said, not only for learning music but because its benefits spill into other parts of life.

“Research suggests the benefits last beyond when you’re just having instruction,” Fulton said. “Processing, relationships, math, science, language acquisition – all these things are supported and enhanced in children who… learn to play music.”

Music is made up of math, history and language, Talley said. “It taps into pretty much any academic area and developmental area.”

Spano said recent studies have examined the connections between music and neuroscience. “It grows the brain faster, the neuroconnections are deeper,” he said. “Music enhances and develops the brain.

“Not having music… is probably doing a disservice to the child.”

Tosco said he’s witnessed how music can help develop minds socially as well.

“There’s a social aspect of being able to be part of a group of people that are playing music, whether it’s in a school band or at a party and strumming a guitar and singing songs together.”

Instruction options

There are several affordable options for help with music education.

Fulton said YouTube is a great resource for instructional videos and free music lessons. She also suggested singing in the church choir or buying an inexpensive instrument from Craigslist. “I have a friend who just bought a ukulele for $10 on Craigslist in a box, unopened.”

She also recommended giving young children homemade percussion instruments (think uncooked rice stapled between two paper plates) and also Fisher-Price’s rainbow-colored xylophone.

For inexpensive private lessons, Fulton said teenagers who play music well often give lessons at lower rates than seasoned teachers.

For teens, she recommended open mic nights. “It’s a great way to come see it and get inspired to do it yourself,” she said.

Tosco hosts open mic nights at the Evening Muse the first Wednesday of every month (8 p.m. Aug. 7 is the next one) for a $3 cover. He said a lot of young people come to listen and play. The Common Market in South End has an open mic night every Tuesday.

He also recommended the Community School of the Arts, and Talley said that the school can work with families to be affordable, and it offers scholarship programs.

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