At age 6, I sat down for my first piano lesson,enthralled with the idea that by placing my fingers in a particular order, I could re-create songs I loved. A few years later, I began playing saxophone in my grade-school band. When we lined up for our town’s Memorial Day parade in the spring, I couldn’t have been prouder.
A big boost in confidence is just one of many rewards kids reap from learning to play music. The challenges of coaxing sounds from a recorder (or keyboard or clarinet) give kids an edge in all sorts of classroom subjects, from spelling to multiplication to reading. Meanwhile, the very act of caring for an instrument, fitting in practice, and mastering the notes without (too many) mistakes teaches critical life lessons, such as stick-to-itiveness, time management, and responsibility. Plus, for children who get hooked, making music opens up a whole new world — one where it’s possible to create beautiful sounds from silence, express deep emotions without saying a word, and fill an empty room with a joyful melody.
Especially if you didn’t grow up playing an instrument yourself, raising musical kids can seem like a daunting prospect — one that requires a massive investment of time and money. Don’t be deceived! Getting an instrument is much easier and more affordable than you realize. Read on for insider advice on making music education super-doable for all families and to discover the surprisingly sweet perks of learning music that science has uncovered. They'll definitely be music to your ears!
How Lessons Help Kids
Playing an instrument gives kids bigger, more active brains—especially the parts involved with hearing, memory, and motor skills. After all, musical training requires listening to and remembering notes, as well as honing eye-hand coordination. Even playing for just one hour a week for a few months can significantly alter the brain’s architecture, studies have found. Those changes can ultimately translate into better grades because they improve a kid’s ability to stay focused during class and memorize information — everything from multiplication tables to spelling words.
You might also notice a spike in your child’s reading and language-learning abilities. “Kids who play instruments make faster sound-to-meaning connections because of the increased activity in the auditory centers of the brain,” says Nina Kraus, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Northwestern University. This allows them to quickly process the words they see on a page, as well as the ones they hear in class.
Music also sharpens math chops. It helps kids count (something they must do with beats), learn to recognize patterns (when they hear repeated chords and melodies), and think in fractions (like when playing half or eighth notes). One study found that when 5-year-olds learned to play a keyboard, they put together puzzle pieces faster than non-playing peers. That’s likely because the lessons improved spatial thinking (the ability to mentally rotate and organize objects), a skill that’s key to success with more complex math problems, such as writing proofs.
Then there are the practical lessons kids pick up. Sticking to a practice schedule builds discipline and patience, which come in handy for doing homework. As they master a tough new song, they also learn perseverance — something they can apply when they try to read a book above their grade level or learn a new language, says Mary Luehrsen, executive director of the NAMM Foundation.
Instruction at the right price
Try these tips to find a great teacher without paying top dollar.
Join the band. Ninety-four percent of public schools have music programs, according to a recent government report. Translation: Your kid can likely get weekly lessons for free. Many band teachers also give lessons outside of school for less than what private instructors may charge. Even if your child is too young to join the band, ask if the teacher will give him individual beginner lessons.
Buddy up. Group lessons cost less than private ones, so look for a local academy where your kid can learn alongside a few peers. Or team up with other parents and enlist an instructor to give group lessons.
Scout for students. An accomplished teen can serve as a music tutor for your beginning player. Or check nearby colleges for music majors who have more training and are often hungry for work.
Go online. YouTube offers a plethora of instructional tutorials for kids, and many music teachers have websites that feature free videos (just be sure to check them out on your own first and watch together). For budding pianists, try Hoffmanacademy.com.
To encourage good habits without turning each session into a battle, take this advice from Chris Johnson, Ph.D., a University of Kansas music professor and dad of four instrument players:
Keep sessions short so kids stay engaged. For those 9 and under, try for 15 to 20 minutes, three days a week; 10-year-olds and up can play for half an hour or more, three or four days a week.
Don’t hover or nag, which makes practice feel like a chore. Motivate kids to work hard by encouraging them to perform. “If I haven’t heard one of my kids play for a while, I’ll ask if they can share their new piece with me,” Johnson says.
Praise perseverance. If your kid gets frustrated with a difficult piece (and he will!), acknowledge how he feels, then remind him how proud you are that he’s sticking with it. “Kids need to get beyond the stumbling blocks to a good place again,” Johnson notes. “That’s true in life and with music.”
So Your Kid Isn’t Into Music?
Try these activities for similar benefits:
- Dance: Learning routines boosts coordination and cognitive skills as kids memorize movements.
- Theater: Acting develops kids’ reading skills and teaches them to see things from other perspectives.
- Chorus: Singing lessons have been linked to improved math skills — possibly because reading choral music activates parts of the brain responsible for memorization and focus.
Pick the right instrument
Most experts peg the ages between 6 and 9 as the ideal starting point for formal music training. By then, kids have developed the fine motor skills, eye-hand coordination, attention span, and physical size needed to play most instruments, although some, like the drums, are easy for even younger kids to learn. As you mull the many instrument options, let your kiddo hear what different ones sound like. Each individual gravitates toward some tones more than others, and paying attention to what she likes can help you pick a winner, says Kenneth K. Guilmartin, director of Music Together, in Princeton, NJ. You can do this at a music store or online (try Youtube.com/user/musicartsfamily). Here, get the scoop on the best age to start these popular instruments—and why:
High-energy kids can learn to bang out beats and rhythm without having to worry too much about melody.
Early grade-schoolers will like the instant gratification: Press a simple combo of keys and out comes a recognizable song. Very exciting!
Thanks to better control and manual dexterity, older kids can more easily manipulate the bow.
Learning how to shape the mouth and control the breath takes patience that younger kids typically don’t have.
This horn requires major wind power and strong facial muscles to create the right tension in the mouth to produce decent sounds.
Saxophones are heavier than they look. Make sure your kid already has some solid upper-body strength.
The trombone slides require kids to have long arms, while the sheer weight of the tuba means both are best suited to tweens.
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