The Music Lesson: When & How to Start

Begin cultivating an appreciation for music early - by playing CDs, singing, taking in a live show, then consider advice of educators

PATRICIA MOSTUE is one of many parents faced with decisions about her children's extracurricular activities. She enrolled her eldest daughter, Anne, in piano lessons at age 10. Now, four years later, Anne's music time is increasingly squeezed by the demands of high school, and Ms. Mostue wonders if Anne should have begun music lessons earlier.

As soon as that memorable first day of kindergarten, and sometimes even earlier, parents like Mostue are often inundated with forms for enrolling their son or daughter in soccer or music lessons, ballet, or the school chess club. Which activities will most nurture their child's natural talents or help cultivate new ones? How many activities are too many? How do parents strike a balance for their children between scheduled activities and down time?

David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and author of "The Hurried Child," suggests limiting school-age children to "one social activity like scouting, one extracurricular activity like music, and one sport - and only a few hours a week on these. Children need time to play with their friends, to play Nintendo or on the computer, to look out the window," he adds.

Dr. Elkind's suggestion made a friend of mine laugh. Her fifth-grade daughter has chosen to be involved in a theater group with thrice-weekly rehearsals as well as several musical endeavors.

Music lessons are often one of the first after-school activities signed up for, especially with school budget cutbacks eliminating many music programs in the classroom.

Not that parents need to wait until school age to expose their child to music. Educators agree that this exposure should start at a young age. "Kids need to be singing. The most important thing kids need to be able to do is develop their aural capability and listening to music," says David Lapin, executive director of the Community Music Center of Boston.

At Indian Hill Arts, a music school in Littleton, Mass., children as young as 18 months are enrolled in a program that utilizes physical interaction between the parent and child. "Mom or Dad is moving to the music with the toddler in their arms or dancing with the child, or holding their hands while they use rhythm instruments for the first time so that Mom or Dad's body is guiding the child and moving with the child," says Erika Boardman Kraft, director of the school of music at Indian Hill.

Ms. Kraft suggests exposing children to live music, not just compact discs. That way, she says, children realize that "there's a live human behind it, that it doesn't just come out of a box."

After that initial exposure, what is the best age for children to begin studying a musical instrument? Because of the range of instruments as well as of philosophies, there are no easy answers. Music educators in the Boston area who were asked that question gave a variety of responses - from age 3 to fourth grade.

Tufts University's Elkind says that in terms of coordination, attention span, and other factors, children younger than 6 or 7 are not ready for formal lessons.

But Mr. Lapin says that readiness depends on the individual child.

Susan Tucker, executive and artistic director of the Powers Music School in Belmont, Mass., says, "It's very important for parents to look at who their child is. It would seem cruel to ask a five-year-old who can't sit still for 30 seconds to sit at a piano. There are other five-year-olds who sit in a corner for 40 minutes drawing."

To assess readiness, music educators say that parents should consider such factors as the child's physical size, motor development, level of interest, ability to process more than one piece of information at a time, and choice of instrument.

Samantha Seeley, now 11, was in the first grade when she asked for violin lessons. Her mother, Susan, says that must have been the right time because her daughter made the decision.

Eric Weinberger, on the other hand, started piano lessons in the second grade at his parents' instigation. "He wasn't longing to," his mother, Janet says. "But we thought, at that point, it was a good time to introduce something."

As for choosing that first instrument, educators agree that some are more appropriate for younger students than others. They recommend piano, recorder, curved-head flute, tin whistle, and string instruments that have been sized down to one-quarter or one-half of the normal size. Children who want to play more physically demanding instruments such as the bassoon, tuba, oboe, and French horn, may have to wait until fourth grade or even later.

Thomas O'Halloran, director of music at the public schools in Carlisle, Mass., says that although his program offers percussion and wind-instrument lessons in fourth grade, there are arguments for beginning later. "If a seventh grader starts, they start at a different place altogether. Any physical limitations are behind them and, you hope, they're smarter so they can learn faster."

On the other hand, Ms. Tucker of Powers Music School says, "For many students, the years 10 to 14 are difficult; it's culturally a hard time to start. Students that age don't like to do something that they don't feel they do well. They find it difficult to be behind their peers...."

Age and size, of course, are not the only consideration when choosing an instrument. Samantha was initially interested in the violin, but Mrs. Seeley says, "I suggested she do viola because I was aware that your options are greater with viola because so many kids are taking violin. She's had a lot of opportunities that she might not have had otherwise, like being able to participate in the New England Conservatory orchestra on Saturdays."

Kraft urges parents to get the best-quality instrument they can afford, "so the child has a chance of getting a lovely sound out of it. Some of the instruments we see, even a faculty member couldn't get a lovely sound out of."

Richard Colwell, chairman of music education at the New England Conservatory, suggests third or fourth grade as a good time to begin an instrument.

But the conservatory's Project STEP, a program that identifies African-American children who have the potential to someday play string instruments in symphony orchestras, starts in first grade. After two years of movement and recorder instruction, the small group of students begins string instruments.

"We don't take them after third grade," says Mr. Colwell. "It takes that long if they want to be a competitive performer after college graduation."

Getting involved in a child's music education can benefit the parent as well as the child. Although Seeley was initially reluctant to learn a string instrument, as required by the Suzuki program her daughter was enrolled in, that year of viola lessons opened new horizons for both of them.

"Now I truly enjoy string music; I never really enjoyed classical music before, and it's become my music of choice," Seeley says. "You really can become a partner with your child. Some people take their kids camping; Samantha and I share musical experiences."

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