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Navigating kids' music lessons

Several music schools on Long Island encourage children

Several music schools on Long Island encourage children to learn an instrument, such as the piano, at an early age. Credit: iStock

Music lessons can bring joy, discipline and an appreciation for the arts to your child's life. But they also can be time-consuming and costly. So before signing up your child, it's best to know the standard guidelines about practicing, choosing an instrument and figuring out the best age to begin.

Take these guidelines for what they are -- suggestions on how to plan your child's early musical experience. Since each child is different, use the tips in conjunction with the understanding that you know your child better than anyone else.

FIRST INSTRUMENT

The piano is a great first instrument because it can offer immediate gratification. A child touches a key, and it makes a sound. It's also one of the few that allows you to learn the bass clef (low sounds) and the treble clef (high sounds), says Michael Scalone, director and music teacher at the Long Island School of Music in East Northport. The piano may be an important part of your child's musical future because most music colleges require students to be proficient in the piano.

AGE TO START

The optimum age for a child to begin music lessons is between 5 and 7 because this age group is best able to absorb and retain information. Children younger than 5 are able to absorb the information but may not have the dexterity or attention span necessary to learn the instrument, says Valerie LiCausi, co-owner of Farmingdale Music Center, which offers music lessons, instrument repair and instrument rentals.

There are a few exceptions. If your child wants to study the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, flute, trumpet, tuba, trombone or guitar, starting at age 8 is better because of the size and weight of those instruments, says Michelle Nam, music director of the Music Academy of Long Island in Commack. Lessons in harp, bassoon, marimba and other instruments are best when a child has music experience because they instruments are costly, can be hard to transport and it may be difficult to find a teacher at a reasonable price, she says.

SUZUKI METHOD

This is a method of teaching children age 3 to 5 how to hold the instrument and develop an ear while learning to play. The child is essentially ready for Suzuki once he is toilet trained, because this means he can control his body, says Geri Kushner, director of the Music Institute of Long Island, Manhasset.

The reason Suzuki is so different from traditional music lessons is because it's aimed at a younger group of children, and, most important, because the Suzuki kids don't learn how to read music; instead, they play by ear.

It's great for children who don't know how to read at all, but once they can read books, they're ready to give up the Suzuki method and learn to read music, says Fran Greenberg, manager of the Great Neck Music Conservatory. Lessons in Suzuki tend to be group lessons in violin, cello, guitar, flute or piano.

PRACTICE TIME

Bribes, timers and pleading have been used by nearly every parent of a child who is learning an instrument. It's a big commitment for parents and for children, and both have to agree to this commitment before the lessons begin. At the start, children should expect to practice about 15 minutes a day, five days a week, Greenberg says.

Offering your child a sticker after he finishes practicing is fine, but it's a slippery slope to start bribing your child every day. Gently pushing him to practice on days he is not in the mood is also fine, but if he doesn't ever want to practice, then perhaps switching instruments or stopping lessons altogether would be best.

PICKING AN INSTRUMENT

When your child is ready to start playing an orchestral instrument (violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, flute, trumpet, trombone, tuba, French horn, percussion, timpani), it's best to expose him to the instrument first by taking him to a concert or by taking him to a music school to have a look at and a feel for the instruments.

If children pick something they are is interested in, "then they will be more likely to succeed because they are enjoying it," LiCausi says. "They will be more committed to their instrument because this is something they want to do."

But if they don't have a preference, it's fine to choose an instrument for them, with the understanding that if they want a different instrument in a few years, that's OK, too.

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