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Teaching Music To Children

Getting a child to learn an instrument is simply a matter of harmony. Get the right teacher to work with that child, Amy Nathan tells viewers of The Early Show, and everything falls into place.

In the Kids Connection segment, Nathan, the author of "The Young Musician's Survival Guide, Tips from Teens & Pros," said there is no wrong age to introduce a child to a musical instrument. "People seem to have the idea that if they don't start their kid on the violin by age three, it's all over," Nathan said.

However, many professional musicians didn't pick up their instruments until age 9, 11 or even older. Nathan herself put her 3-year-old son in group violin lessons — he hated it. She was crushed, assuming he would never be interested in music again. However, a few years later he started playing piano and liked it so much, he also began playing the trumpet.

"See, you can make mistakes like I did and things will still work out," Nathan said.

If your child is young, Nathan suggests starting with the piano, recorder, violin or cello. Band instruments, such as trumpets and trombones, are physically demanding to play; most children aren't up to the challenge until age 9.

"Piano is certainly an excellent instrument for anyone to start on," she said. "You can push down on a key and make a beautiful sound as opposed to a horn where you can sound awful for months."

Professionals seem to agree that the piano is a good choice, saying it helps students see the musical scale laid out in front of them. Many musicians told Nathan they still go back to the piano when trying to work out a particularly difficult passage on the trombone or other instrument.

Finding a good music teacher is key, but parents may be surprised by Nathan's advice on this issue.

"That first teacher doesn't have to be the world's best musician," she said. "You just really want them to be able to relate to kids, get the kid excited about music."

When looking for a teacher, start by asking your child's school music instructor for a recommendation. Music stores often offer music lessons. Also, check out community music schools.

Before settling on a teacher, Nathan suggested getting a trial lesson and paying attention to the relationship between teacher and child. Are the two hitting it off?

"This first teacher is a make-or-break person," Nathan cautioned.

The teacher should be willing to do what it takes to really hook a child on music. For instance, when Nathan's son started on the piano, he only wanted to play music played at sporting events like the "Star-Spangled Banner." The teacher arranged a simple version of the song. Excited by his ability to thump out this tune, Nathan's son was then ready to play some things the teacher thought important.

Even after lessons start, parents need to stay involved. When children complain about practicing, Nathan said, they are really saying they don't know what to do when they sit down to practice. That's why parents need to keep on top of assignments, talk to the teacher about how the child should practice and then be available to help.

"Kids use 'boring' as a catch-all," Nathan said. "It's a word they use when things aren't going right. Learning music is different from learning something at school. At school, you learn a word and the next time you sit down to read, you know it. With music, you practice, you get it, then you mess it up the next time around. You must help kids learn how to practice to alleviate this 'boredom.' You must teach kids to practice because this is something kids do wrong."

Of course, some complaining is normal. "Wynton Marsalis said no one likes to practice because you have to spend time working on things that you can't do, which makes you feel bad about yourself," Nathan related. "Plus, it just becomes tedious."

Nathan has these suggestions for parents to "Beat Practice Blahs:"

  • Allow Child to Choose Music: Kids will be more excited about practice when they love what they're playing.
  • Break Up Practice Time: For instance, practice 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening.
  • Consider Playing An Instrument Yourself: Kids will see you as an example of dedication. Also, sorry Mom and Dad, but there's a good chance your child will pick up these new musical skills faster than you. This will spur your young musician on.
  • Listen To Music Together: Make an effort to listen to CDs or radio together and attend performances, such as high-school band concerts. "The more they hear, the more they get an idea of what they're aimming at," Nathan said. "And, if they think you value music, they'll say, 'that's what I want to do, too.'"

Nathan said practice time varies with the musician's age and goals. For young children with short attention spans, 15 or 20 minutes a day should be sufficient. A child's teacher will guide parents in practice time. Most of the teens in Nathan's book who are serious about music practice an hour and a half each day.

Sometimes a child may beg to change instruments. This is not an uncommon request and it's not necessarily a bad thing, said Nathan. Many professional musicians had to try different instruments before "clicking" with one. Also, if a child want to play an instrument, he'll be more likely to practice and progress. However, make sure he's really given the instrument a try before allowing him to switch.

Nathan suggests a child try the instrument for at least two months, if not more. Keep in mind that if he continues to switch instruments, he will not get very far on any of them and continue to feel frustrated. Remind him that no instrument is "easier" than another.