Before getting into what’s a good first instrument for a child, there’s a few things you ought to know. First, we recommend private music lessons for students aged five and up. On rare occasion, we have had children begin private piano lessons or private violin lessons who are as young as 4.5yrs old. But for both of these ages, we highly recommend booking a trial lesson first. It’s important to be able to meet with a music instructor and get their feedback in terms of whether a young child is ready for private music lessons. If your child is younger than four and a half or five, not to worry! You can STILL get started with music using early childhood music education techniques. Check out our other blog article on that topic HERE!
How Do I Know If My Child Is Ready?
There are a few things to think about before your little one jumps into a private music lesson. First, is my child comfortable enough to meet with and take instruction from someone they do not know? Most children are typically very excited to jump into a lesson, but some children are more apprehensive than others. They might need the comfort of having a parent in the room during the lesson. Or they might be flat out scared to spend time with someone they do not know. Whatever the case, it’s NOT a good idea to force a child who is uncomfortable to take lessons. This is a clear sign they are not ready and should be given time.
Next, fine motor skills are required to play any instrument. Music lessons are a great way to enhance their development, but children ought to have basic fine motor skills developed in order to get the most out of lessons. What are basic fine motor skills? They include:
- Being able to tap your thumb with each of your fingertips on both hands
- Be able to turn pages of a book
- Be able to hold and handle small items with care
For a more comprehensive list, check out this list published by Empowered Parents to get a good idea of what to look for.
The third important item on the list is the ability to engage in instruction for an extended period of time. By extended period, we mean no more than 30 minutes. Anything longer than this is simply asking too much of a young person! Most children this age are just not capable of sitting still, quietly and attentive the whole time. Indeed, letting them explore the instrument, asking questions to the instructor, playing music games and listening to the teacher perform are all part of a productive lesson! However, if the child is more interested in running around the room or has a hard time following the instructor’s prompts, then the child is not ready. A music and movement type of group class would be more beneficial for this type of student to begin with.
Having A Good Teacher Matters
It’s not all on the student. The music instructor needs to be engaging and personable so the child is interested in what is going on. For young children, using big sounds, large gestures and overreactions keep children entertained and focused. Correcting students in “fun” ways as opposed to hard “no’s” is essential. One popular technique teachers employ is pretending the student is making mistakes on purpose. The teacher will then tease the student and say “you really knew what note that was but you were trying to test me, huh?”. Young students can’t resist laughing or smiling after this one!
Having fun when learning challenging material is essential for the music student to know it’s okay to make mistakes. By doing so, a teacher is automatically encouraging them to try harder. Incorporating movement in a lesson is also key. It can be as simple as clapping rhythms or depicting how a song sounds with movement or dance. All these techniques will keep children engaged, learning and having fun all at once.
So Which Instrument Already!!??
Okay, okay! The go to instrument for this age group is definitely piano. There are several reasons. One is the student does not need to hold the instrument. That is a BIG plus as all the child needs to do is sit on a bench and press the keys to make a sound. This idea is easy for a young child to grasp and lends itself to their learning capability. Simply push a key and you’ve got it!
Next, the keys on a piano visually align with the way music is written. Music notation is essentially a visual representation of piano keys. This visual helps young children read music much more easily than any other instrument. There is a connection between what a child sees on a page and what they do with their hands/fingers. Many music educators view piano as a foundational instrument for this reason.
If you don’t have a piano and the instrument’s size is of concern, you can opt for getting a spinet piano. These instruments are only 35 to 40 inches tall and specifically designed for small spaces. Other options include electric piano consoles or keyboards. The only issue with these is to make sure to get an instrument with WEIGHTED KEYS! Weighted keys imitate the resistance of an acoustic piano and gives the ability to play softly or loudly. This touches on the topic of technique development, so just know it’s important to have weighted keys on an electric piano. If you are unsure, stop by our Mission location as SMMC carries the weighted Alesis Virtue piano console and Recital Pro keyboard.
The Second Most Popular Choice
Another good option for young beginners is guitar. SMMC carries various sized nylon string guitars including ¼, ½ and ¾. Many of these guitars can be viewed at our online shop. SMMC recommends starting with a nylon stringed guitar as this is easier on the fingertips for a beginner. The strings have less tension and make it easier to be able to pinch a string to produce a sound. Acoustic and electric guitars tend to use steel strings and make learning the instrument more difficult for a beginner.
The guitar neck is separated into boxes called frets. Each of these frets is a separate note just like each key on the piano is a separate note. In order to produce a sound, the student needs to pinch the guitar string with one hand while plucking the same string with the other hand. Since each fret is separate, it’s not too hard to be able to learn the notes on the instrument. You simply must have enough strength to pinch the string.
The amount of fine motor skill required to play the instrument is higher than that of piano since each hand acts in a separate manner. Some beginners can have a hard time with this level of coordination. That’s why it’s best to do a trial lesson before purchasing an instrument or committing to lessons.
The Third Most Popular Choice
Another good option for young beginners is violin. Like guitar, we carry a wide variety of violin sizes to suit students aged five and up. Most of these instruments are available for purchase or rent through our online shop. Similar to guitar, violin strings need to be pinched with the left hand and bowed with the right hand in order to produce a sound. Of the two actions, it is the bowing that can be frustrating to young beginners. Developing a proper bow hold can be tedious to master so it requires a supportive, patient teacher. The act of bowing the string can also be foreign to a young child, so a teacher who can engage and make this fun is very helpful.
The violin neck does not come with frets like the guitar. In order for violin students to know where to place their fingers, violin instructors often use tape or stickers to show. Even with these visual cues, some children struggle landing their fingers on the right spot. Therefore, their playing will sound out of tune and unpleasant at first. Some youngsters do not have the patience to practice enough to get past this beginner phase. So having supportive teachers and parents is key.
And that concludes SMMC’s top 3 instruments to recommend for young beginners aged five to six. We would be remiss if we did not give an “honorable mention” to another popular instrument, the ukulele. These instruments are fun, affordable, generally easy to play and popular. Although it does not provide the musical foundation piano does, it’s another option that can make both parent and student really happy. Check out our article specifically on that topic here: “6 Reasons To Learn Ukulele”.
The most important thing to learn from all this is not to rush into something the child is not ready to participate in. Trial lessons are a perfect way to explore an instrument before making the commitment. Talk with other parents, get feedback from music teachers or give SMMC a call and let us guide you with information to help make the right decision!