Most parents know by now that Mozart is food for the brain and that learning musical notation can help develop abstract thinking.
We want to expose our kids to all that good stuff. Children are natural music lovers, singers and dancers, but when it comes to learning a musical instrument even the most gifted need some help. Music is easily one of the most popular extra-curricular pastimes and a lot of time, money and effort is invested in taking lessons. Yet a lot of that effort, time and — let’s be practical here — money can be wasted.
For those of us with limited musical experience, it’s hard to know what to look for in a teacher. And yet we all know that a teacher can make all the difference in the world. The self-esteem acquired from being good at something at an early age can be a great help during the teenage years and later on in life. Whereas music schools offer plenty of guidance and a choice of teachers on various instruments, private lessons are more convenient for a lot of people. This article was written with the desire to address some of the issues that come up when you decide to invest in private music lessons for your child, to offer some “inside information” on looking for a teacher and to foster realistic expectations for the beginning stages of the lessons.
Finding the right private teacher
Before you shop around to find a teacher, let’s see if you and your child are in a suitable frame of mind and practical circumstances for starting private lessons.
• Is your child ready? If you are eager to introduce your child to music before the age of four, group lessons are the best alternative. Private lessons require the ability to concentrate for 10-15 minutes at a time, to know the first seven letters of the alphabet and to be able to recollect the pieces learned and practice them at home.
The youngest beginner I ever encountered was three, and she did extremely well, not only because of her personality but also due to the fact that her older sister took lessons as well, and their mother helped. On the other hand, I’ve met some are very intelligent yet rambunctious seven-year-olds who wouldn’t sit still and listen, so it all depends.
Generally speaking, with a parent’s help at home, most kids are ready to start piano, violin or cello between four and five years of age. If a parent is unable to contribute, six or seven is a better bet. For kids younger than four, there are other options, usually offered by music schools as opposed to private teachers, such as Suzuki violin or piano classes, group keyboard classes, etc. Playing wind instruments requires a certain lung capacity and a later beginning age, around nine or 10. Drums and guitar are usually requested by teenagers, as most of us are aware.
• Do you have an instrument at home? This may seem like an obvious condition to some, yet many parents are surprised to hear that they need to own or rent an instrument. Small-size violins and cellos are usually available for rent from instructors, string instrument repair shops and some music schools.
Local music stores carry most instruments. As far as keyboards are concerned, electronic ones are OK to start with, but after several months it’s a lot better to consider getting an acoustic piano, especially if the child is progressing well. If there is room, a small upright will do, and decent ones can be bought as cheaply as $400, or even less, if you get lucky and are willing to handle the moving from a private seller.
A convenient alternative is “renting with an option to buy” from a store. The fees range from $75 to $100 a month for an upright and the store will deliver and tune for free. After six months they will call you and ask if you want to buy the piano, counting the rental fees you have already paid toward the purchase price. You can always decline and shop for a better deal from a private sale, while continuing to rent. The good thing about buying used pianos, as opposed to used cars, is that you can always get your money back when you resell, unless some serious damage occurs. So, avoid liquids of any kind on top of the instrument, which also means discouraging your pets from exploring the keys and the strings, no matter how cute that looks on postcards.
• Does the child want lessons or is it your idea? Some kids request lessons, some just tag along with their parents’ choices. There are parents who mistake their own unfulfilled desire to have had lessons as a child for a sign that their offspring is destined for musical greatness. Another common scenario is a parent who did learn how to play but was unhappy with the teacher, or competitive with a sibling, and wants the opposite experience for the new generation.
It’s very valuable to reflect on your childhood memories and learn from them, yet your child may have a completely different temperament and will have a different teacher. That being said, if he or she shows some musical ability (picking out tunes by ear, reproducing fairly complex rhythms) it’s sensible to try to give an extra push for lessons.
• Do you want lessons in your home or outside? For some people, in-home lessons are the only choice, for logistical reasons. The convenience is hard to beat and the fees are only 5-10 dollars higher if a teacher comes to you. If you have a decent instrument and find a punctual and reliable instructor, things may work out very well.
Do keep in mind that some willful children enjoy creating distractions when the teacher is “on their turf” and a lot of time can be wasted by trips to the bathroom, sudden onslaughts of hunger or thirst and deliberate sharpening of pencils, not to mention the absolute necessity to answer the phone or doorbell regardless of who else may be home at the time.
At a music school or in a teacher’s studio, the atmosphere will be more conducive to learning and the instructor will have more control of the situation as well as more books and teaching aides to choose from. If going outside the home for lessons, remember that lessons are usually scheduled back to back and finding parking can be a time-consuming aggravation, so unless your schedule is very relaxed or the teacher is right in the neighborhood you may end up with a lot of shortened lessons.
• Would you like your child to learn to play the instrument well or is a general, relaxed introduction to the world of music your goal? The answer to this question depends on many factors, including your parenting philosophy, the availability of practice time, your child’s personality and his/her degree of natural musical affinity.
If anyone in your home already plays an instrument, the child will have a predisposition to take lessons more seriously as well as the advantage of “educated” practice supervision when needed. If the prospective music student participates in many extra-curricular activities already, the practice sessions will be sporadic and your (and the teacher’s) standards will have to be adjusted accordingly. Both approaches are fine, as long as you, the teacher and the child are on the same wavelength.
• How much involvement would there be on your part? To be frank, learning to play an instrument isn’t easy, especially in the beginning, and as the learning becomes easier, the pieces get harder, so help and encouragement at home go a long way toward success. If your beginner is four or five, there absolutely must be help between weekly lessons or everything will be forgotten. Older kids can remember things much better, but most will not sit down and practice unless a parent suggests it or there is an established routine.
I feel that it’s unreasonable to expect self-discipline from a child when most adults have trouble with it unless it involves their livelihood. I never wanted to practice before I was in my late teens and many professional musicians will confess to having had the same attitude as children. So, be prepared to nudge, exhort, bribe or beg once in a while if you want speedy results.
• Taking lessons along with your child. If you feel inclined to take lessons as well, you will set a great example, motivate your child, and have a common pastime which you both will treasure. You will help each other and be able to play together, which is a lot of fun. You will also have to do much less nudging, exhorting, bribing and begging.
Eleonor Bindman MA, an award winning pianist and longtime piano teacher, maintains a studio in Park Slope, Brooklyn. You may learn more about here at www.eleonorbindman.com.