Mark Bruce, retired vocal coach at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and now a music teacher and voice coach in San Jose, California, shares his tips on where to start:
Let your child have first go at picking out an instrument.
Choosing the instrument your child should start on is easy: Put her in front of a bunch of different options and see what she gravitates toward. If she’s completely enamored with the violin, that’s what she should start with.
Consider your family’s musical background.
If you have an instrument you play at home—at any skill level—consider starting your child on that instrument. Or if an older sibling is a piano genius, maybe start little brother on the piano as well. Providing steady opportunities to watch other people play live music is one of the best ways to help kids succeed musically, which may be why exceptional music skills (think the Bachs, the Strausses, or Frank and Nancy Sinatra) may run in the family.
No clear preference? Start with the piano.
If you put most kids in front of an instrument like a clarinet, they might pick it up and play with it for a little while—maybe. Plunk them down in front of a piano, though, and they’re likely to bang on it no matter how old they are. That’s because it’s so clearly tactile—and for a young kid, “tactile” means “fun.” Other benefits to starting with the piano:
- It’s one of the easiest instruments to start playing early. There’s a certain amount of physical strength required to, say, hold up a violin. Not so with the piano.
- It teaches the basics of hearing and playing more than one note a time—something really important for musical intelligence later on.
- Most musicians—from brass players to opera singers—learn how to play the piano at some point. Learning from an early age gives your child a head start on any instrument.
…Or recorder lessons.
Can’t afford to rent or buy a piano (or no more room in your living room)? The soprano recorder is easily portable, affordable, sturdy (good ones are made out of tough plastic that won’t break if dropped), and small enough for kids to reach all the holes by the time they’re about 5 or 6. If your child is crazy about the clarinet or flute, this is the perfect first instrument.
…Or voice lessons.
The voice is the most basic instrument. No trip to the music store required. Besides, while it’s tough to teach a whole group how to play the piano, the best way to learn how to sing is with a children’s choir. There, your little musician will learn not only how to sound great (even if he or she only uses those skills in the shower), but also important life skills like patience and attentiveness while other children are working on their parts, discipline and teamwork, and the joy of working hard together to collaborate on something creative and beautiful.
Remember also that your child’s first instrument isn’t necessarily his or her only instrument.
Starting in about fifth or sixth grade, most schools start providing band instruments for children to learn how to play in music classes. Most of my high school-age piano students are typically playing one or two other instruments besides the piano. That means that if you’ve always wanted them to play the flute or the trumpet, there’s still time for them to learn after they get the basics of music and musical theory down.
Photo: Joe Lewis/Flickr