Children who show a strong interest in music and good concentration can sometimes begin constructive music activities as early as age 4. By age 8, most children are ready.
While adults can learn on their own in many cases, children really benefit from the input from a teacher in order to maintain progress. Without guidance and structure, few children make real progress at learning an instrument. Even the most hard-working and amazing children rely on the support of their parents and teachers to be able to practice consistently.
Ukulele or guitar?
Because the ukulele is similar to the guitar, many instructors recommend that younger children begin on ukulele. The instrument is smaller, easier to hold, has fewer strings, is easier to understand, and easier to play notes because the strings are made from a softer material than guitar strings. A child can “jump” from ukulele to guitar if he or she is ready, or continue to play the ukulele. It is a genuine musical instrument, not a toy or substitute. It just happens to be easier for children to grasp.
The best bet is a baritone ukulele. Such an instrument is tuned exactly the same as a guitar, but is smaller and has only 4 strings. This is a great instrument for children to learn on.
Before You Start Lessons
Before you enroll your child in guitar or ukulele lessons, you need to be able to answer a few questions.
Is my child ready?
You know your child better than anyone. Will he or she stick to practicing the instrument or resist you? Is the child’s interest in music strong, shallow—or not really there at all?
Am I ready?
Even the most gifted child musicians in history did not generally have much of their own motivation. Abstract thinking skills take time to develop. These include goal setting, honoring commitments, and being able to practice even when one is not really in the mood. While some children do show more motivation than others, the common thread is that all of them seem to need help sustaining it. In order for your child to succeed in music, you will have to provide support. That means giving structure and sometimes authority, but not excessively. The authoritative parenting style works best here.
Before you commit to enroll your child in lessons or buy an instrument, you need to get their commitment to practice daily. But this commitment is much easier made than kept. Then it becomes your responsibility to enforce the commitment. The agreement is that “Mom and Dad will take you to lessons, but we expect you to practice every day and not to quit for at least one year.” This is a big commitment. But now when you enforce the rule of practice, you are not a tiger mom forcing a child to play. You are a caring parent helping a child to honor their commitment. And one of the most valuable skills learned in the study of music is the importance of thinking long-term and honoring commitments. When you learn to see your musical practice as a daily effort that produces results over the course of many years, you learn a persistent worldview that few people are able to develop. This may be one reason that studying music is linked so closely to success later in life.
How will this benefit my child?
You can ask a music teacher what the benefits of studying music are. You can ask researchers studying the effect of learning music on brain development, who have found some pretty shocking and amazing results—convincing many that learning music is by far one of the most productive activities for the developing mind. But before you do that, you should ask yourself what benefit you expect it to have. Do you hope this will teach your child self-discipline, or make friends, or earn scholarships to college? You owe it to your child to have realistic and fair expectations.
Who is this for—you or them?
Do you believe music lessons will benefit your child’s development, or do you hope to fulfill your own dreams or missed opportunities by using your child as a proxy? Are you overloading your child with multiple “extracurricular” activities, or will music be the only one, or one of few? As your child matures, he or she will inherit not only the benefit of your patient support in studying music, but also the expectations and hopes you may unknowingly project. We owe it to young learners to provide them with the support and patience to learn new talents—including forcing them to practice, if they’ve already promised to—but we should spare them from our own hopes and expectations. If we give them the room to develop their own dreams, that’s when they really surprise us.
What are my expectations?
How long will it take before you hear the recognizable sound of music coming from behind your child’s closed practice room door? For some children, it’s not long at all. Other children, especially very young ones, may take up to one year before they can even play a simple melody. We shouldn’t measure their progress on the same timeline that we would use for ourselves. What we’re giving them is a head-start. It’s a big investment. In the six years between ages 12-18, a child might only gain the progress that a new learner could gain between 18-20. But the difference is that they will reach adulthood already having the foundations of the skill, and then have the chance to reach a higher level in those next two years than their classmate who never had the chance to take lessons before.
How much time should children spend practicing?
Daily consistency is better than infrequent but long practice sessions. It is the habit of practicing daily that promises results over time and builds our character.
Every child is different, and expectations vary, too. Hopefully this chart will add clarity to your expectations.
|Commitment Level||Daily Practice (Minutes)||Expectations|
|Minimum||15||4-5 times per week for at least 15 minutes is probably the minimum amount of practice needed to see real, continuing progress over time. This is a great practice goal to start with as it is achievable—and we are always concerned with consistency over quantity.|
|Typical||30||Half an hour per day will result in enormous benefits, especially in the long term, over the course of months and years.|
|High||60+||An hour per day of practice is an extraordinary commitment for a young person to make, and best reserved for the most serious learners. Since we want to establish daily practice habits first, this is not a good goal to set in the beginning.|