Katie Preston was inspired to take up the violin at age four after hearing a concert that featured a group of boys and girls playing. Why the violin? “It was a stringed instrument, it was shiny and it had a nice sound,” she says.
Katie’s mom says they found a quarter-sized violin and started off with a teacher who Katie saw once a week for a private lesson. Katie’s second teacher came to the house twice a week. “They would play for about half an hour. The teacher was amazing — gentle and kind and fun.”
Every child’s progress is different
Learning to play an instrument or read music can give a child a lifetime of enjoyment. And there are other benefits. One study at McMaster University in Hamilton found that children aged four to six who took music lessons had enhanced memory and attention spans, and that music lessons may help kids do better in language and math. Still, aren’t the preschool years a bit early to start a child in music lessons?
It really depends on the child, says Dianne Latchford, who teaches guitar and piano in Peterborough, Ont. In her experience, not all five-year-olds are able to sustain their focus for half an hour. “There are physical issues as well. A preschooler, even with a scaled-down guitar, may not have the hand size and strength to play,” says Latchford.
And there’s no guarantee that starting kids off younger means they will progress faster. Nauni Parkinson is mom to two boys: Kaiman started piano when he was five, while his younger brother, Charlie, began lessons at age four. “I think Charlie felt frustrated at times because his hands were still quite small when he started. Both boys were at the same level by age six, but it took Charlie longer to get there.”
Start with group lessons
Unless your child is keenly interested, private lessons may not be the best way to start her music education. Mary MacEachern, who teaches for Music for Young Children in Charlottetown, PEI, says group lessons are a great option for preschoolers. (And a commitment for parents: Programs like Music for Young Children and Suzuki Music require parents to attend the classes, participate and follow up at home by helping kids practise.) In MacEachern’s classes, “from day one, the kids are up and down, moving around quite a lot. They’re learning about rhythm and to recognize note patterns, singing songs that help with ‘finger geography’ (for piano notation), developing their listening skills, learning about composers and learning to compose themselves. And the parents are right there with them as they learn.”
Start a love for music
Regardless of the program your child is in, “if parents become taskmasters, kids soon hate playing, which defeats the purpose,” says Latchford. “What you hope for is that they will grow up with a desire to play.”
That approach has paid off in Katie Preston’s case. She’s almost eight now and “still loving it,” says her mom. “She can play wicked fiddle tunes, such as “Swallowtail Jig,” and is now learning “Whiskey Before Breakfast”… the song. I have to remind her to practise, but once she starts, she has fun.”
Questions to ask
It’s a good idea to meet with the teacher before you sign your child up for a class, says Peterborough, Ont., music teacher Dianne Latchford. Here are some things to ask about:
What is the teaching style? Some programs, such as the Leila Fletcher series, are precursors to the Royal Conservatory curriculum and are based on learning to read music. Others, such as Suzuki Music, start off training the ear.
Does the teacher have experience with young children?
Does the teacher insist on daily practice?
Does the teacher encourage parents to remain in the room?