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Learning an instrument: a survival kit for parents.

by Douglas McIlwraith, Director of Music at King's School Rochester.

A wise man once said ‘Without music, life would be a mistake’. How true. So why do some people seem to flourish when they pick up an instrument and some people flounder, become bored and end up hating the damn flute/piano/flugelhorn? How, as a parent, can you help your child find the right instrument and develop lifelong musical skills and a love of playing music? Well, read on and take notes!

Let’s get YOU out of the way

Every parent reading this will have some experience of music education. Some of you will be able to read music and play an instrument which is obviously going to be useful when it comes to helping junior with his music practice. Some of you may have tried an instrument in your youth, enjoyed it but gave it up to concentrate on o levels/a promising rugby career/the opposite sex etc, etc. Some of you may have started an instrument and hated it and some of you may have never played an instrument or enjoyed communal music making/singing in school, church or other community group. Whilst all of this background information is useful, try not to let your experience (especially if it was a negative one) influence your child’s musical journey. It is their journey and the delights are there for them to discover themselves with your enthusiastic and open minded support. Just because you failed at an instrument does not mean they will. Just because you loved playing the flute does not mean that it will suit them. Early years music

When should a child begin playing an instrument? Every child and family is unique so it not right to suggest a definite age or method of learning to suit everyone. However, a few things to consider:

Manual dexterity

Almost all instruments require the child to develop their fine motor skills – movement of the fingers and, for brass and woodwind instruments, the mouth, tongue and lips (yuck, I know, but stay with me!). A child learns gross motor skills first – the movement and stability of the head and then limbs. It is essential, therefore, to gauge if a child’s hands are ready for rather large piano keys or if they will cover the holes in a clarinet. The chances are, the later you leave it, the more control they will have. Fine motor skills are developed between the ages of 6 and 12 when they are fully formed.

The inner ear

Ideally, a child should be taught to hear what she sees and see what she hears. She must learn the basic principles of rhythm and pitch and she can do this without all the fuss and bother (and expense) of a complicated instrument. Singing is the cheapest and best way of introducing your child to music but it is important that it is done well and that the child is helped to pitch notes correctly and to sing in tune. There are group sessions available in the UK such as the colourstrings method, area children’s choirs run by the National Youth Choir of Scotland, and courses run by the British Kodaly Academy and Dalcroze Society

All of these organisations focus training the child’s inner ear – her ability to imagine a sound or melody in her head, which is fundamental if you want to actually play an instrument convincingly. The Dalcroze method focuses on gross body movements to impart musical principles, which is a fun and effective method for children to learn. Zoltan Kodaly was a Hungarian composer and music educator and the Kodaly ‘approach’ focuses on teaching musical principles using singing games which are also fun. All of these methods can be used with the very young child but can also be continued into adolescence and beyond to train the performer to a very high level. Visit some of the websites and see if your child can join a local group. It is cost effective, they will make friends and have fun and it will give them the best chance of success when they choose an instrument to play.

Can they read?

Once they have enjoyed a year or two of singing and playing musical games, perhaps it is time to have individual music lessons. This will almost certainly involve having to read musical notation and it is worth considering your child’s literacy level. If they read quite fluently for their age then they may be ready to deal with all the dots, stems and squiggles of even simple music. If they have not yet reached such fluency then expecting them to learn a new system with the said dots, stems and squiggles, might confuse and frustrate them. Best to stick with the fun group music making until they are ready. Kodaly based activities will introduce the dots, stems and squiggles in a very gentle and understandable way ( and fun, don’t forget the fun!).

Which instrument?

Singing is best done in a group such as those suggested above. Church choirs led by dedicated musicians have traditionally been a route that has given many people a chance to start their musical training. Cathedral choirs and the choirs at elite universities and colleges who train both girl and boy choristers provide an excellent training and are always keen to hear from families who are willing to commit to their demanding but rewarding routines. The national youth choirs of Great Britain, Scotland, Wales and Ireland train singers of all ages and it is worth visiting their websites.


How big are your child’s hands and are they well co-ordinated in other activities: holding a pencil, cutting out shapes, playing with lego? If they seem well co-ordinated then why not? It is best to have a piano and these can be expensive. Do not assume that an old piano from the kind neighbours up the road will do. If it is old and dusty and sounds horrible then it is unlikely to be a pleasure to play. It is possible to buy a reasonable modern starter piano for between £1000 and £2000 and it will cope well with your central heating system. Try to put it somewhere where the child will enjoy playing it, not in the back room where the heating is turned off all year and it can be a bit lonely or scary.

It is worth remembering that on most instruments a child will play one note at a time. As a child progresses on the piano they may need to play several notes at a time. Does this make it more difficult? Perhaps, so your child may make quicker progress different instrument unless they are prepared to work hard to improve their co-ordination.

Keyboards and Organs

A cheaper option and these days parents often opt to buy one to see if junior takes to it. Most organ teachers suggest learning the piano to about grade 5 before trying the organ. However, if junior is keen he can learn some basic organ music at a young age.

Violins, violas, cellos and basses – The String Family

Children can start these instruments at quite a young age (although the double bass is usually started later as it is quite big) and it is relatively cheap to buy quarter and half size instruments. You can download apps to help tune the instrument and this is important as it is quite troubling for all concerned if the violin is out of tune all week between lessons!

Trumpets, horns and trombones - The Brass Family

The mouth shape required to play a brass instrument is known as the embouchure. In order to blow down the instrument it is important that the child has a reasonable number of their second set of teeth! Also, the weight of a brass instrument can be quite considerable and the child may have difficulty holding it up which will affect the embouchure. A good brass teacher can advise on what instrument may suit and when the child may be ready. However, some brass instrument can be relatively easy to make swift initial progress and who wouldn’t want to be in the brass section when you get to play in all the best bits of film and orchestral music?

If your child requires a dental brace during adolescence then this can cause problems for brass players. These problems are not insurmountable and the braces are usually only on for up to two years.

Oboes, flutes, clarinets and bassoons – The Wind Family

The child needs to create an embouchure to play a wind instrument so the same issues apply regarding their second teeth. It is possible to buy junior versions of clarinets and bassoons and some flutes are bent to allow shorter arms to reach the keys over the holes. If your child requires a dental brace during adolescence it is usually easier to continue playing a woodwind instrument without much negative impact.


You can choose to have classical guitar lessons on a nylon stringed acoustic guitar or to have lessons on an electric guitar. As long as your child’s fingers are strong enough to press the strings firmly and long enough to play the chord pattern then they can start at a fairly young age.


Drumkit actually uses more gross motor skills so it would seem suitable for very young players. However, a great deal of co-ordination and a feel for rhythm are needed. You could check out local samba drumming groups or African drumming or Indian tabla as other options.

Making the most of your child’s music lessons (and YOUR money!)

If your child embarks on a course of music lessons then they will have to develop a productive practice routine to consolidate everything taught in the weekly lesson. If they do not then this is when they become bored because they are not moving forward at the right pace. Pace is perhaps the single most important factor in keeping a child interested. If they learn something new every week and do enough practice to complete what the teacher has set them then they will have very rewarding musical future.

Some tips on developing a constructive practice routine.

• If possible, do a short practice as soon after the music lesson as possible. This will consolidate what was taught in the lesson.
• You may need to be firm and plan when the child will practice. No xbox until you have done your practice??
• If your child does between 20 and 30 minutes per day then they will make excellent progress.
• You may decide to have one day off in the week. Fine, but don’t let it drift until they only sit at the instrument for 7.5 minutes per week or you will be wasting your money.
• It is often useful to split up a longer session into 15 minute sessions, especially for younger children. The brain also processes and makes sense of the work done in the practice and when the child returns for a second session, he may find it a little easier.
• You could try 15 minutes practice before dinner and 15 minutes after dinner. Or, 15 minutes in the morning , and 15 minutes when they get home from school.
• There is a difference between practicing and playing stuff you already know. However, a practice session can embrace both activities; spend the majority of time on the new material and then relax by playing an old favourite or revisiting an old piece to see how easy it has become now that basic skills have improved.

Take an interest

• You may or may not be able to help them to play the right notes but every parent can take an interest and listen to their child play, find out which piece they like best, organise a short concert for granny when she comes round. All these things will help the child feel that their efforts are worthwhile.
• Sticker charts and other reward systems are useful for the young pupil until they develop some skills and when they will hopefully develop the ability to practise independently.
• Some parents like to sit in on the music lesson and this can be useful but it is ultimately best if the pupil and teacher are able to build a productive relationship without mum or dad sticking their noses in all the time.
• Some parents want to sit in the lesson so that they can help the pupil when they get home. Again, this can be useful at times but, if a child has learnt something in a lesson then they should be able to tell the parent about it afterwards and demonstrate. If not, what did they learn in their lesson? Hmmm…! • Most teachers will write up the work for the week in a book. You should check it each week and then you can prompt your child to ensure that the work is done by the next lesson.
• Talk to the teacher and discuss the lesson and the week ahead (not for too long though!). Remember that children really respond to people and if your family can build a close relationship with the teacher and your child enjoys the time they spend working with the teacher, then this can only be a positive thing.

Set their mind on fire

Playing ‘lightly row’ or ‘two-note-toe-tapper’ will give a very young child a sense of achievement, but as they grow children need to a greater variety of stimuli so that they can imagine what may be achieved if they commit to practising.

• Do you have lots of CD’s and music DVD’s around the house? Stuff with real instruments on rather than Kanye West’s most recent offering which is mostly computer generated and overproduced?
• If they play the piano you could buy a CD of the greatest all time classical piano pieces. Maybe some jazz – Art Tatum or some boogie-woogie or ragtime.
• If they play an orchestral instrument then you could buy some popular orchestral classics and listen out for the violin or clarinet or whichever instrument they play.
• Take them to LIVE events with REAL MUSIC, played by REAL PEOPLE. A child may be inspired as much by the performer as by the sound of the instrument or the piece being played. Children need musical role models.
• Don’t be afraid to let your child experience a wide range of music. If you find something that sparks an interest then that may be the key to them finding the intrinsic value of playing an instrument. • Children need no real musical training to be entranced by a flute solo or piece sung by a choir.

Give them a chance to hear all sorts of things and you’ll be amazed at what they respond to.

So, you may need to go on a musical journey of discovery yourself but it is sure to be a rewarding one, especially if you find something that your child takes great delight in.

Take the plunge

If you are really committed to helping your child learn an instrument then perhaps you can learn it too so that practice becomes another point when a child can enjoy time with mum or dad. You could really help your child through their first couple of years if you learn the basics with them. They will also feel an incredible sense of achievement when they ultimately overtake you and leave you in the dust!

Listen to the teacher

• Your teacher will choose the right music for your child to ensure steady progress and that the music becomes steadily more demanding to develop their musical skills. They will have good reasons for choosing the music so it is best to support them and help your child get beyond any misgivings your child has about a new piece.
• It is really great to buy music for your child that you know they will like: a favourite pop song, film themes etc, but unless your child is sufficiently advanced, they will probably not be able to play such pieces. The teacher is there to help them develop the core skills to enable the child to eventually pick and choose what they want to play.

Music Exams

Graded music exams can be an emotive issue. What we actually want our children to do is to be able to play their instrument and enjoy it. However, we feel they need something to work towards and music exams seem to be a useful incentive. Make sure you and your child stay focussed on being able to play the instrument rather than sticking to a rather narrow repertoire of exam material. There are other ways to incentivise young musicians and the best way is perhaps to encourage a joy of performing or playing with others. Whilst it may be very satisfying to pass an exam, how many exams can you remember doing that were actually ‘fun’?

What if they don’t practise?

You need to find out why. Here are some possibilities:

• They don’t like the piece. Sometimes this can happen but when they don’t like every piece that the teacher suggests then they may just not be industrious enough to do the work involved. Playing an instrument is not like playing an xbox, you can’t just jump to the next level and there are no power-up super weapons! It is your job as a parent to make them realise this.
• They simply find it difficult and stringing a few notes together and making them sound better is actually quite hard work. Well, it does get easier but they do need to do it regularly. It is the same as learning to read, they need to do a little everyday until they gain some fluency.
• They only play their instruments for a few minutes on a couple of days per week. In this case they are simply not doing enough to gain any fluency. Insist they do it every day and they will start to make progress.

The business side of things

Make sure you are clear with your child’s music teacher about details regarding payment.

• Most teachers charge in advance.
• Commit to the lessons and do not cancel for fairly trivial events or do your best to re-organise for a mutually convenient time.
• Teachers will usually charge for an unexpected missed lesson so make sure you know the terms for cancelling a lesson.
• Pick up and drop off (and chat briefly!) without being late as many music teachers will have pupils before and after your child’s lesson.