Music lessons

Whether your child wants to be a concert violinist or a guitar hero, here's how to get started with music lessons

Music provides a soundtrack to our lives. Playing in a band, orchestra or choir, or simply enjoying music privately, can bring deep satisfaction and pleasure. What’s more, studying music teaches discipline and focus while at the same time providing an opportunity to express the joys and sorrows of life.

Of course, those words of wisdom may seem far away when the only song your young musician knows is “I Hate Practising.” To help, we’ve enlisted the aid of educators, professional musicians, and other families to answer the most common questions that will come up on your musical journey.

How do I know if my child is ready for formal music lessons?

Take the lead from your child. If she comes home from school flushed with excitement and begging for a drum kit, you’re well on your way. On the other hand, nobody wins if you shove a child into lessons when she simply isn’t ready.

While some kids start music lessons as early as three or four, there are developmental factors to consider, says Joanne Tremblay, an Edmonton piano teacher with more than 20 years’ experience. “It helps if the child knows right, left, the letters A to G, and the numbers one to five. He should be able to sit and take instruction for 10 to 15 minutes, and be comfortable one-on-one with the teacher.” And don’t forget that he’ll also be expected to commit to 15 to 30 minutes of daily practising.

Put some thought into how much energy you will be able to give to this venture. A beginning musician will struggle with new concepts and will need strong support at home. You’ll need to set aside quiet space for her to play, and one parent may need to carve out time every day to sit with her while she practises. You’ll also need to ensure that her extracurricular schedule has room for the daily discipline of practice. Finally, be prepared for the cost: Weekly half-hour lessons typically cost $25 and up, plus extra for books. You’ll also need to purchase or rent a quality instrument and keep it maintained.
What instrument should we choose?

Try not to influence your child’s choice by family tradition (“Your father and I both learned piano”) or your own preferences (“Drums are too loud”). The video game Guitar Hero is probably responsible for a surge in the number of kids wanting to learn electric guitar, while the dramatic shows put on by Stomp and Blue Man Group have inspired many children to explore percussion. Your child may love to sing or feel a particular affinity for the violin. If budget is an issue, and you already own a piano, it’s worth trying that route. If you can afford it, give your child the freedom to explore what he wants.

Before dropping a few hundred dollars on a new instrument, consider renting one from a music store, or buy a used one. Resist the temptation to get the cheapest you can find, though — poor quality instruments are more difficult to play, and it’s discouraging for a budding musician to learn on an instrument that doesn’t stay in tune or sounds like a screeching cat.

What kind of lessons are best for my child?

The instructional method you choose for your child — especially if he is just starting out — may determine whether he’ll stick with it or lose interest. Your options include group or individual lessons, each requiring different levels of parental involvement.
The most important consideration is your child’s temperament. A child who is comfortable with a high level of noise and activity will likely thrive in a group class. One-on-one lessons may be a better option for more introverted kids, or those who fare better in a quiet, focused atmosphere.

For parents prepared to be heavily involved, Music for Young Children (MYC) and Suzuki Music are popular choices. Both expect a parent or caregiver to participate in lessons.

MYC offers group lessons on keyboard for kids up to age nine. Even if you haven’t been involved in the early units for younger children, you can join the stream at any point and your child will learn everything he needs to be ready for Royal Conservatory Grade 1 piano.

The Suzuki method involves a great deal of group work as well as one-on-one lessons, usually on violin or piano, but begins with a heavy concentration on learning music by ear before moving to reading. Kids are encouraged to begin with Suzuki Music as young as three, but can join at any age.

How about private instruction with a neighbourhood teacher?

This is a good option for families who want more input: Many teachers will tailor their lessons for kids interested in pursuing pop music, jazz or a variety of classical pieces rather than following a rigid program.

If you prefer a highly structured curriculum, the most widely recognized piano-teaching method in Canada is the Royal Conservatory (rcmusic.ca). This program includes instruction in technique and theory as well as exams several times per year.

How do we choose a teacher?

The teacher may be the single most important factor in your child’s enjoyment of music. You’ll want one who is patient and encouraging, yet also helps a child strive to do her best.

If you’re going the MYC or Suzuki Music route, contact the organization in your area and ask to sit in on a class or two. In larger centres there will be several teachers offering the same program, and you can determine whose approach best suits your child by observing.

If there’s a college or university in your area, you can contact their music department for listings of teachers. Or you can look to the Canadian Federation of Music Teachers’ Association (cfmta.org), which has local chapters across the country.

Take time to interview teachers, and don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. What is her teaching philosophy? Does she specialize in teaching kids? What styles of music does she teach? Will the child have any input into this? How much time does the teacher expect your child to devote to practising? What happens if you miss a lesson? Is there a cancellation policy? Ask yourself whether you see your child developing a warm, trusting and inspiring relationship with this teacher. And be sure to ask for references.

Thinking of forgoing the search for a teacher and doing it yourself? A word of warning: Even if you’re a musician of supreme skill, teaching your own child is usually not a good a idea. “For the same reason you hire a professional to teach your children how to drive, leave the music training to someone from outside of the family,” says Douglas Burden, father of two and a trombone teacher at both the University of Ottawa and McGill University in Montreal.

What if my child doesn’t want to practise?

You will search long and hard for the child who loves to sit at the piano and practise scales. Be willing to adjust your expectations.

Sometimes, especially with very young children, 30-minute practice sessions are simply too much to expect. “Try dividing the practice time into two sessions of 15 minutes,” suggests Jan Tissandier, a professional musician, composer and piano teacher in Canmore, Alta.

Douglas Burden suggests a system of rewards, particularly for beginners: a sticker chart is often enough for younger kids. “Reward and motivate, but never intimidate and give ultimatums,” he says. Katherine Stauble, whose daughter Sarah plays trumpet and French horn, used to give out gummi bears when things got bad. “That really worked,” enthuses Sarah, now 16.

Some kids will want you to sit down with them and offer a calm and reassuring presence. Your role here should be to offer encouragement and praise, not criticism.

Be patient and positive, and you should have more good days than bad. When it comes to this age-old struggle, that’s the closest thing to a guarantee you’re going to get.
My child’s first recital is coming up and she’s terrified. How can we help her prepare?

Performing in front of an audience for the first time can be a scary business, but there are plenty of things you can do to help kids survive and even enjoy the experience.

Tissandier recommends finding less threatening venues to first expose your child to playing for others, such as relatives, friends or neighbours. Burden agrees: “Make a habit of having your children play in front of anyone who you can get to sit and listen and provide positive feedback.”

In the rare case when a child is simply too shy or too anxious to perform, though, it’s best not to push it. Janet Scott Hoyt, associate professor of piano at the University of Alberta, puts things in perspective: “I think most parents are not interested in producing a Carnegie Hall performer and would prefer developing a player who has a comforting and enriching relationship with music.”

My child insists she wants to quit music lessons. Should we let her?

The world is full of adults who regret having quit music lessons in their childhood. Before you do anything else, talk to the teacher and to your child and get to the bottom of why she wants to quit. Is she overwhelmed with other activities? Would she prefer a different instrument? Is it time to seek out a new teacher? Do you need to stop pushing so hard?

When Katherine Stauble’s daughter Claire asked to quit piano, it turned out that what she really wanted was to play more of the music she liked, and for her parents to back off on their practice demands. Turned out that was the winning formula, Stauble says. “Two years later, Claire is happy and motivated.”

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