Raise a virtuoso

Set fledgling musicians in motion with these tips about when to start doing what.

By Dr. Robert E. Johnson

Music educator

Dr. Robert Johnson is Co-Director of Curriculum for the Music Intelligence Project and The Tuneables. Dr. Johnson received his Ph.D. in music education from the University of Michigan and was a professor in music education for over 25 years. He has advanced the cause of early childhood music education by teaching music to hundreds of young children, composing age-appropriate songs, offering courses to prepare teachers, conducting research, and offering workshops for parents and caregivers of young children.

Many parents want their children to learn musical instruments, yet are unsure of the best way to proceed. We’ve compiled the most frequently asked questions and answers to help get you “in tune” with the process!

Q: Do I need to prepare my child to learn an instrument?
A: Children need to understand the sounds of music before they can effectively study an instrument. Learning to play an instrument without understanding the sounds of music is like learning to type on a keyboard without understanding the language being typed! Children become familiar with musical sounds by listening to a wide variety of music and by exposure to rhythm and tonal patterns through movement and singing. Engaging children between the ages of two and five in a substantive music learning program, such as The Tuneables: I Love Music, is a solid approach to developing this understanding.

Which instrument should my child learn to play?
Parents should provide exposure to an assortment of instruments and allow children to select one based on their interests. Children are most successful when picking an instrument based on the sounds they like rather than what someone else thinks they should play.

What age is the best time to start?
This depends on the physical requirements for playing the instrument. Age five or six is a good time to start piano lessons. Violin study can begin earlier because of the smaller-sized instruments available for young children. Wind and percussion instrument lessons are best delayed until upper elementary school.

Is it necessary to have a teacher?
A good teacher helps children apply their understanding of music fundamentals to the physical requirements of playing an instrument. Teachers also provide children with the opportunity to imitate their demonstrated skills.

What else should parents know?
Parents who provide their children with opportunities to study an instrument give them the chance of a lifetime. Playing an instrument is a long-term commitment, and success depends on parental support and encouragement. Providing the readiness experiences, finding a good teacher, making practice fun and celebrating accomplishments are conditions that sustain the excitement and expectations that occur at the first lesson on the instrument.

Are there recommended preparatory activities?
Visit a music store, and examine the instruments on display. Attend a concert given by other children, such as a school music program or a piano recital. Watch a video performance, and name the instruments being played.