“I’ve heard that kids learn music faster than adults,” said one of my adult students. My own observations from teaching piano are the contrary.* Adults quickly catch on to concepts that grade schoolers take years to mount.
But the kids do have an important advantage: they're better at enjoying music. As soon as they’ve got a recognizable melody under their pointer finger they’re playing it for you, for Grandma, for themselves. It’s about sharing more than impressing, recreating more than accomplishing.
Adults, who don't prefer beginner melodies and hate feeling awkward, tend to give up before getting to music that feels rewarding.
So while any age is a good age to start learning, ages 5-10 make a good window to tap into that eagerness to play.
Since kids love recreating what they've learned, it's important to give them stuff they can recreate now and not over rely on drills and difficulty. My daughter's youth chorus director was a master at leveraging this pedagogical angle. He said something like, "Kids can learn anything if you make it a game." So, yes, he was precise with their solfege singing and pronunciation and posture - but peppered throughout the lesson were singing games and rote imitation so they could not just learn music, but make music. Parents were called in to listen to them sing what they had just practiced; no silly wait-until-the-recital tradition. In this way, by semester's end that group of ordinary 3rd-8th graders could perform a chorale motet arranged by Michael Praetorious. In German.
In light of all that, I offer these suggestions to consider if you want to prioritize music education.
- Treat music like you would sports. Very few student athletes go pro, but many get proficient enough to enjoy tossing the ball around even as adults. Music is meant to be social, so aim for a music education that gives your kids enough skill to do music for or with others.
- Look for organic opportunities for them to share what they’re learning--not to get the spotlight, but to serve the occasion. Some of my students have played a Christmas carol at a family gathering or learned a hymn for Thanksgiving Day.
- Prioritize lessons. I have homeschooling families in mind here: affording lessons is often a challenge, and some fall back on just studying music literature and history. But that's not doing music. Good instruction by a practitioner is irreplaceable.
- If you can’t pay for lessons, get instruments in the house. When my brother got a new guitar, he let me play his old one before he sold it. In a few weeks I won myself callused hands and enough open chords to play along with many songs and write some of my own.
- If you can’t pay for lessons (and, if you can!), sing with your kids. Singing makes anyone an instant practitioner. Don’t get hung up on what to sing. Start with what you know and like, and they’ll like it, too (if they’re young enough).
*By the way, I don't mean to oversell my expertise. I have a college certificate in piano pedagogy and several years of teaching experience.
Photo: Rukma Pratista