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The Best Age to Begin Music Lessons

What is the best age for a child to being private music lessons? First, here is my philosophical answer: The best age is when the child shows an interest in learning and is both mentally and physically ready for the challenges involved, with a fair amount of confidence from his/her parent(s) or guardian(s) that the endeavor will be a positive one. The problem with enrolling children in lessons before they are ready is that any negative experiences that result due to a perceived lack of success will most likely prevent them from ever trying the activity (and possibly even other activities) in the future. More on that later in this article...

Next is my practical answer: There is no such thing as the “best” age to start lessons on any instrument. Every child is different in his/her development, and a qualified, sensitive teacher should be able to provide appropriate instruction to anyone if he/she has the proper training and experience...which is a very big IF! That being said, there is some consensus among instrumental teachers about the optimal age range for children to begin lessons. Before I get into my own personal recommendations, I would like to state the obvious, which is that any musical instrument can be learned (to one extent or another) by anybody of any age. Although, in my opinion, it may be “too soon” for some to start lessons, it is never “too late” to begin lessons, during any stage of life.

So what age might be considered “too young” to begin lessons? Again, since the physical, mental, emotional and social development of children varies widely, it can be difficult to make an exact determination on this. But let's start with learning piano and then move on to trumpet, as there will be some overlap of concepts...

As a parent/guardian, the first thing you may want to consider is the physical ability of your child to play the piano. The size of a child's hand and fingers has an enormous impact on her initial success playing the instrument. Hands and fingers that are too small for the keys often develop bad habits out of necessity, simply because the instrument was designed for adult-sized hands. Does that mean that children should not play the piano at all? Of course not! However, the smaller the student's hands are, the greater the challenges will be for her to develop and maintain good technique. Even the difference between the fine motor skills (due to size and strength) of a typical 6-year-old's hands and a 7-year-old's hands is quite noticeable. Another physical characteristic of a child to be considered would be her height. Ideally, a child should be able to place both feet flat on the ground while sitting on the front part of a bench or stool. This position provides a sense of balance which will prevent the child from resting her palms (near the wrist) on the piano, which is extremely detrimental to playing, as the wrists need to be able to move up and down freely. Limiting that movement puts an enormous amount of strain on the fingers and makes it very difficult to play the instrument. Although a child's height is obviously only a temporary issue, if not addressed properly, both in lessons and practice at home, it can be the source of technical problems and bad habits. The issue can be easily resolved by using a step stool or box as a foot rest, or by having the child stand while playing (as long as her forearms are level with the keyboard).

Another potential challenge for young children is their attention span. Obviously, if a student is not able to focus and pay attention to her teacher, there will not be much gained from lessons. In my experience, I have noticed a huge difference in this regard between students in kindergarten and students in first grade. That is why I recommend either age 6 or 7 as a starting point for lessons, and emphasize my preference that students already be in the first grade. Not only do first graders typically have a much greater attention span than kindergarteners, they also have usually begun to develop some other important characteristics that contribute to success in private music lessons, including 1) mental/emotional resilience, 2) ability to take constructive criticism, 3) enhanced cognitive abilities, 4) reading abilities, and 5) independent learning skills.

Finally, there is occasionally an issue of social comfort with children that have little experience in working one-on-one with an adult “stranger.” Although this is usually overcome naturally over a short period time, an obvious solution to such a problem would be to have a parent attend lessons with the child temporarily. Still, if the readiness is not there, the experience can end up being a negative one for the child, possibly preventing the desire for lessons in the future.

As for trumpet study, there are many more physical obstacles to overcome for a young child, as compared to piano study. These issues include 1) the weight of the trumpet, affecting the child's ability to hold it in a proper position for extended time periods, 2) the size of a child's hands, which can make it difficult to hold the trumpet properly and press down the valves with good technique, 3) the size of a child's lungs, affecting the ability to take big enough breaths to supply the necessary amount of pressurized air to produce a good tone, 4) strength and control of facial muscles necessary to produce a good tone, and 5) development of permanent teeth.

Regarding #5 in the above list, the issue of teeth size and spacing can be a very tricky one. Since every individual has a completely unique dental configuration, and there is no consensus about what constitutes an ideal “setup" for trumpet playing anyway, I don't believe that primary teeth (“baby teeth”) are necessarily bad for playing the trumpet. In fact, it's not even the loss of teeth or ability/inability to play with missing teeth that is the main issue, as I've had students with all kinds of teeth configurations play with success. It's really about the changes that occur when teeth come and go, and the related adjustments that really interfere with a trumpet student's success. This is also true for students with braces. Of course, since braces are not typically installed until after age 12, they are not a factor for most beginning students. As for the issue of permanent teeth, since the central incisors usually come in at age 7-8 and lateral incisors at age 8-9, I recommend waiting until around age 9 to begin lessons. This happens to be the age when most students begin learning instruments in school anyway, for good reason.

Obviously, it would be appropriate (and is often recommended by school music teachers) to begin private lessons around the same time that group lessons that are first provided in school. However, starting private lessons before instruction begins in school is not only a good way to get a head start, but also ensures that students receive good instruction, as many well-intentioned school music teachers provide incomplete or inaccurate information regarding the technical aspects of playing the instrument, particularly when trumpet is not their primary instrument. Therefore, my best recommendation is to being lessons at age 9, sometime before the start of fourth grade. Of course, parents of home-schooled children that are not concerned about the issues related to learning in school could consider instruction at age 8, although that adds some risk to the prospect of success with the physical aspects of playing.

It should be noted that beginning lessons after instruction has started in school is still a great idea, as private music instructors can catch improper technique in students before habits are solidified. Also, since the very nature of group instruction does not typically allow for much individual help, students can get the one-on-one assistance that is so critical when beginning an instrument. This is also extremely helpful when students are saddled with the task of learning their band music independently, after group lessons in school have ended (usually in fifth grade). So, although age 9 (before fourth grade) is the ideal time to start in my opinion, lessons will certainly be beneficial at any subsequent age.

As mentioned earlier in this article, I believe all parents, in deciding when their children should start lessons, should keep in mind the potential for damage that can be done when the readiness – physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, or otherwise – is not there. I have been involved in numerous situations, mostly with 6-year-old kindergarteners, in which it was obvious that the child was not ready to start the instrument and consequently became very frustrated with her own perceived failures, discontinuing lessons shortly thereafter. These kinds of situations could possibly have been avoided, in my opinion, had lessons been delayed just one year. On the other hand, I have had a good amount of success with many 6-year-olds (especially those that have started first grade) it could go either way, and I always defer to the judgement of parents.

My best recommendation for parents that would like to get their children involved in music as early as possible would be, first and foremost, to immerse them in a rich and varied music listening experience. This experience should primarily involve active listening, but also incorporate passive listening (background music played as much as possible). There are lots of studies that have shown that listening to good quality music in a variety of styles at a young age has an enormous impact on the development of a child's musical aptitude. Another suggestion I have for parents is to enroll their young children (starting at age two) in “music readiness” classes such as Kindermusik. Depending on the age of the students, these classes usually involve music listening, singing, whole body movement, playing simple instruments (especially percussion instruments) and learning basic musical concepts, all in a playful and fun atmosphere. Beyond that, if a parent really wants to enroll his/her child in piano lessons before age 6, I would recommend doing extensive research to find a teacher that is highly trained, very experienced and personally talented in working with young children.

As for finding a trumpet teacher that specializes in working with children younger than 8-9...well, to my knowledge, there is no such thing. Although you can always find a teacher that is willing to accept students at any age, that does not mean he/she has any particular knowledge, skill, talent, or experience in dealing with the unique challenges that are involved with young children trying to play the instrument. My best recommendation is to start off with piano lessons, which can contribute greatly to many of the same skills that are involved with playing the trumpet, or any instrument for that matter. Again, if the child is younger than 6, I would recommend music readiness classes. Any parents that are insistent on beginning trumpet lessons for their young children should definitely consider starting them off with a high-quality plastic trumpet (instead of a brass one), which will resolve the issue of weight and make the instrument seem less intimidating. Also, a smaller-than-average sized mouthpiece (which should be brass) will help in most cases.


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