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When to start?

William Congreve said "Musick hath Charms to sooth a savage Breast" and it has been proved that cows give more milk if they listen to Mozart in the cow-shed! Music really does have almost magical powers to soothe and heal, and young children can benefit enormously from listening to music long before they are old enough to play an instrument. That is to say, gentle classical music, Mozart for example, not the heavy beat and noisy rhythms to more popular music, which builds up tension and excitement (which is I suppose its intention in older children!).

When I am asked at what age should children be introduced to music my reply is "Let them listen to Mozart in the cradle." Recently I visited the home of a friend with a toddler who had just been diagnosed as autistic. I found the T.V. was on the entire time of my visit, with loud music blaring throughout the whole house, and pictures of endless cartoons to test my eyes, and screeching music to deafen my ears. My first reaction was, there is no connection. However, it is definitely not conducive to a peaceful calm mind. Television has a lot to answer for!

Music is an art which can be enjoyed from a very early age, and careful nurturing of a child's musical talent can develop into a lifetime of great satisfaction and enjoyment of music.

The Hindhead Music Centre offers a carefully planned approach to the development of children's musical abilities, and here we briefly describe the facilities available.

When to start?

There is nothing very much that can or should be done in the way of formal musical training until about the age of 3. Before that time, a child should be allowed to listen to as much music as he or she likes - particularly classical music, which lacks the aggression and monotonous beat of much rock and pop music. If he or she wants to ' play at' the piano or keyboard then allow him to do so, but do not attempt to teach him the instrument! He may find it fun trying to pick out a tune, by all means encourage this, but no pressure!

Here at Hindhead we first start our 'musical appreciation' classes for toddlers from about 18 months in our 'Musical Bumps' classes. Younger siblings often attend in their cradles, and they seem to enjoy it also, in fact it is very rare for one of them to cry during these classes, (except they occasionally object to the toddlers pretend to be soldiers marching in time to their banging tambourines!) Who can blame them!?

At what age should one start to learn to play an instrument? This of course depends on which instrument, and this must be the child's choice, not the parent's. So often one hears the remark "We have a violin in the attic, so Johnny should learn to play it" or "we have a piano and nobody plays it, so I want Suzy to learn". Both Johnny and Suzy may have different ideas and perhaps feel a longing to play a cello or a clarinet or a harp. It is the child who has to spend hours practising, so it is the child who must choose.

One needs to ascertain whether he likes the idea of blowing or bowing, high or low pitch sounds, harmony of the piano and harp or single note tunes like most orchestral instruments. It is strange that in our Mini-Music classes which are held to a large degree for this specific purpose, that almost all children acquire a feeling for one particular instrument, and it is more than often the same instrument which I, their tutor feel looks most comfortable to them.

Of course there a restrictions on many instruments. Small hands can't reach the fingerings on a bassoon for example!

The violin and cello are both available in perfectly balanced reduced sizes, so small hands don't lead to bad habits stretching to reach the correct fingering; thus children with devoted and dedicated parents can learn as young as three on a sixteenth sized violin with the Susuki method. However, this requires considerable effort on the part of a parent, who must sit in on the lessons, listen carefully to what is said, taking notes and then to practise with the child each day. We consider this is almost always too young, far better (and cheaper!) to start at about 5 or 6 when the child itself will have more motivation and almost certainly catch up and probably surpass the level he would have been at starting at such an early age.

Viola. We recommend that children start on the violin, and transfer later to the viola, for reasons of size and repertoire.

The piano as said above, can be fun when picking out tunes, but there are no small sized pianos, and small hands cannot reach without contortions, so better far to wait until the hands a re able to cope comfortably; we recommend that six is a perfectly good age to begin to play the piano with structured tuition. It is however debatable, as there are teachers who will start at 3. We find that in order to overcome some of the physical difficulties of small hands, bad habits can arise which may be difficult to correct as the hands grow. Also most children will learn more quickly one their physique is not holding them back.

The harp is similar to the piano, in that the fingers need to be able to reach the strings without contortion, so 6 is a good age for harpists also.

Wind instruments depend not only on hand size, but breath control. Teeth play a part also, as it is not easy to play any wind or brass instrument if you have no front teeth!

The clarinet is probably the easiest to start when young, maybe at 8, if the arms can reach and fingers cover the keys.

The flute is slightly less easy to make a sound and the embouchure may take longer to master, but these days it is possible to have a head-joint which returns on itself so the stretch is not impossible for short arms. About 8 seems quite young enough to start to learn the flute.

The oboe is different. Due to the different breath control, where one learns to exhale before inhaling it is not advisable to begin to play the oboe until 10 or 11.

Breath control is obviously very important for all wind players. It all begins in the lungs, so learning what we call 'diaphragm breathing ' is the first essential. This really means using the lower region of your lungs and not just gulping air and half filling them and raising your shoulders. Next, the air then has to be released correctly from the mouth, this is called the embouchure, so the student learns to make a beautiful sound, and then finally we have finger technique.

Brass Instruments. Here again, we have similar requirements to other 'blowing ' instruments.

The cornet may be considered easier than the trumpet, in that it is slightly smaller and therefore lighter to hold up. The trombone requires longer arms and plenty of "puff"!

The horn, some say (including me!) the most beautiful of the wind, requires good lungs, and a certain musical ear, it is heavy to hold for the very young, and not really to be encouraged before the age of 8 or 9.

Drums are great for children with a good rhythmical sense, but they are not popular with the neighbours unless you have a padded cell for practice!

Singing is something which everyone can do, and much to be encouraged even if actual tuition is not on the list of instruments to learn. Singing in groups, choirs and just for fun is a splendid hobby, one could say it doesn't need practice to the same extent (unless you are actually taking lessons and having your voice trained.)

The Guitar (to be completed)

The Recorder (to be completed)

So having mentioned most of the instruments regularly learnt by the young, it is up to the young themselves to choose. If you are not in the area of the Hindhead Music Centre try to find someone near you who can offer a session trying out all the instruments, so the right choice is made, and not just the convenient one (the violin in the attic syndrome)!

A whole life-time of joy can be had from playing a musical instrument, and the great enjoyment of playing music with others give a hobby which is hard to surpass.

The above paragraphs should not be read as gospel; they are the personal opinion of the principal of the Hindhead Music Centre, after many, many years of experience, and are offered as a guide to questions which arise so frequently that it seemed opportune to write down her thoughts.

Buying an Instrument

Once the choice of instrument is made, we come to how to acquire one for the daily practice. We often see an advertisement saying 'Instrument for sale, Good enough for a beginner'. It must be remembered that it must work properly, it must make a sound which the child will enjoy, and the best possible instrument will produce the best possible results, so either hire or buy one which covers as many of these requirements as possible. It may be a good idea to hire to begin with, so that you don't fork out a great deal of money until you are sure that your child enjoys playing it.

Some instruments improve with age, like violins and cellos generally may do, as the wood mellows and vibrates so the sound will improve; on the other hand instruments with much mechanism are likely to wear out with age, and one needs to be careful that you have sound advice when buying any instrument. There can be hidden pitfalls which the uninitiated may be unaware of. It is advisable to have a piano checked for pitch, as some old pianos may not be able to be brought up to concert pitch while a child's ear needs to be trained to play in tune.

Children's music tuition on the harp
Music lessons on the violin

Hindhead Music Centre, Hindhead, Surrey GU26 6BA.   Tel: (01428) 604941.   Email: info@hindheadmusiccentre.co.uk   Click for map