An Instrumental Decision

From tuneful tots to mini musicians, when you introduce your child to music, you bestow them with a gift for life.

Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything.” So said Greek philosopher Plato, who also believed that music “is a more potent instrument than any other for education”.

Research shows playing music uses both sides of the brain, which makes it brilliant for a child’s development – academically, emotionally and spiritually. It also gives them an awareness of their body, posture and breathing.

“Music can speak to children in a way conventional lessons might not,” says Krystyna Budzynska of the Royal Academy of Music.
“There are so many benefits; they learn to be organised through practice, orchestras teach them about teamwork, plus their aspirations make playing very rewarding.”

Krystyna, director of the primary academy which caters for eight to 13-year-olds, adds:
“We have had children on the autistic spectrum and music enables them to communicate. All children benefit from that creative outlet.”

Children of concert pianists and virtuoso violinists are weaned on a diet of classical music. But what if you can’t tell a clarinet from a clavinova, a violin from a viola? Don’t allow your inexperience to be a barrier for your child. Read on for a step-by-step guide to nurturing your child’s inner musician.

When is the right time to start?

“It’s all about whether the child really wants to do it,” says Krystyna. “If they love the instrument, starting late won’t put them at a disadvantage.”

There is no definitive “right time” and views vary on how old is old enough. One thing most practitioners do agree on though is the importance of the pre-instrument stage.

Emma Hutchinson, founder and director of The Music House for Children in west London, says, “Nurture normality in music within a child’s life through baby and early childhood music sessions.”
Beginner classes at the Royal Academy of Music start with a pre-instrumental year.

Krystyna says, “The children sing and clap and get used to working with rhythm and pitch.”

Different instruments are recommended for different ages, mainly due to the development of the child’s fine motor skills and instrument size. However, many instruments – particularly stringed – are available in smaller versions.

Between four and eight, children grow at a furious rate. With that comes better middle motor movement – dexterity, strength and some breath control.

Emma says, “In other words the violin, fife, ocarina, ukulele, recorder and keyboard are all appropriate instruments to learn at this age.”

According to some experts, like Krystyna, the piano is best left until seven or over as it requires both hands and therefore good coordination.

She says, “If you start too early, progress is relatively slow and the children can get more fed up. Once they are settled at school and their reading has come on, the piano is a good option.”

At age eight, most kids are bigger and have the strength in their diaphragm to hold and manage instruments like a cello, banjo or guitar. Fast forward another three or four years and anything goes, according to Emma – even the trombone, tuba and harp.

Choosing an instrument
Cost and space are all important. Also, ask yourself whether your ears are prepared for crashing drums or the inimitable screech of the novice violinist. Is a younger sibling likely to use the instrument too? Overall, however, it is your child who must decide.

Emma says, “Encourage exposure to a range of instruments. Then the choice will hopefully be driven by the child’s desire to learn a particular instrument.”

“Fundamentally, the choice must come from the child, however well-meaning or hungry a parent is for musical success. The worst crime is to put a child off music for life because of a premature start, inappropriate choice or terrible teacher.”

Finding a teacher
A good teacher should engage and inspire, so invest the time in finding the right person. Recommendations are invaluable, but otherwise consult the online register of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM). Alternatively, check the notice board in your library or nearest music shop.

If you live in west London, The Music House for Children is a not for profit organisation providing quality instrumental tuition in homes and at school. Entry to the early beginner courses and primary academy at the Royal Academy of Music is by competitive audition, though there is a lengthy waiting list.

Ask prospective teachers about:
✽ Qualifications
✽ Where they teach
✽ Experience with children
✽ Whether they perform. Do they teach because they enjoy it or simply to fund their careers?
✽ References from other parents
✽ Sitting in on the first couple of

The cost
Tuition does not come cheap, though prices vary. You may economise by booking in advance or by taking group – rather than individual – lessons. Be aware, though, that this setting is not always appropriate.

Shop around for instruments and think twice before shelling out hundreds. Let your child spend a couple of terms learning before you make a large investment. Instrument hire can be very reasonable, so it’s best to rent until you are sure of your child’s commitment.

In some cases, however, it makes more sense to buy outright. Ukeleles cost from as little as £20 and you will pay upwards of £60 for a violin.

If buying a second hand piano, Emma recommends you take a tuner with you. “Seek professional advice as moving can cost you £150 for a broken soundboard, woodworm and shocking tuning pins, not to mention ruined furniture.”

Practice is an indispensable part of learning to play, but how do you prevent it from becoming a chore?

“Young children do not have the concentration to practice for hours,” says Krystyna.

“A few minutes here and there gradually evolves as you go along, then eventually the child becomes independent.”

Emma urges parents to explain the importance of practice and patience.

“In this busy world we live in, music is one thing to appreciate but a completely different thing to learn,” she says.

“No one polishes their instrument off in a week and relationships between teacher and pupil take time.”

“Play an active role in practise sessions”, says Emma.

“Ask them what key the piece is in, how fast, slow, loud, soft it should be. Be interested and you will get so much response back.”

Remember though that there is a thin line between encouraging and being pushy.

“The one thing that does put you at a disadvantage is being pushed to do something you don’t want to do,” says Krystyna. “When it doesn’t come from within, it can all come crashing down.”

Nurturing a love of music
The more you encourage your child to enjoy music, the more they are likely to develop and thrive. If you are not a classical music buff, pay a visit to your library. Classic children’s favourites include: The Carnival of Animals, Peter and the Wolf, and The Nutcracker.
Book a family ticket to a concert. Many of the big venues, including the Barbican, Wigmore Hall and the Royal Festival Hall, run regular kiddy-friendly events.

“It’s wonderful for children to watch live musicians in action,” says Krystyna. “There’s so much going on in London that there’s never been a better time for children to start learning to play an instrument.”