Close up of a keyboard.

12 Questions on Learning a Musical Instrument

Here are 12 questions often asked about learning a musical instrument. The advice is given in good faith and is only intended to provide a general guidline, as unique circumstances apply to every situation. As with many things, it is always best to seek a variety of opinions.

What’s the best age to start learning an instrument?
Opinion is strongly divided over the best age to start learning an instrument, but I think most teachers would agree that starting at a young age is best. Where opinions differ is on the definition of ‘young’. The famous Japanese Suzuki method advocates starting children of pre-school age. But a lot depends on exactly which instrument the child is going to learn. It’s important for the young learner to have the physical strength to be able to hold and operate the instrument correctly, because although some instruments come in different sizes – violins for example – many don’t. For the piano, the student’s hands should be sufficiently big enough for the five fingers to rest on five consecutive keys. However, it doesn’t matter if the child’s feet cannot reach the pedals.

In my experience teaching the trumpet and piano I would say seven or eight is a good age to start, and possibly as young as six (for the piano) if the child has reached the stage where he or she is able to concentrate on a specific task for more than a few minutes.

Is it ever too late to learn an instrument?
I believe it is never too late to start learning something new, including learning how to play a musical instrument. However, it’s important to have a clear and attainable goal.

For the teacher it’s important to pin down exactly what the late-starter wants to achieve, suggest realistic targets, and then guide the student to his or her goal.

Which instrument is right for my child?
A photo showing a selection of musical instruments.There have been whole books written on this subject, and I do believe that certain characters match certain instruments. However, this shouldn’t dictate the instrument you allow your child to start learning. If a child shows a particular interest in an instrument he or she should be encouraged.

It’s worth mentioning that if a child wants to change from one instrument to another, some of the musical skills learnt learning the former can be applied to the latter. For this reason, learning the first instrument shouldn’t be viewed as a waste of time and money. However, it would be a mistake to change to another instrument just as the one being learnt starts to get more difficult.

What should I do if my child wants to stop learning his or her instrument?
First of all it’s best to try and establish exactly why your child wants to give up. Is it because he or she doesn’t like the teacher? Is it because your child is missing out on something else at the time of his or her music lesson? Is your child being bullied at school for learning an instrument? There could be any number of underlying reasons for your child wanting to stop, and it could be that learning the instrument isn’t the problem – something else is. If you can identify the problem there may be an alternative solution than giving up. However, if your child seems to have stopped making progress, doesn’t respond to encouragement, and clearly isn’t enjoying learning the instrument, then perhaps it’s time to stop. Talk to the teacher first though to get his or her view.

It could be that your child would prefer to play another instrument, or simply that their natural interest lies in another field, sports or dance for example. Not everyone is musically inclined. As a parent I think it is important to give your child as many opportunities as possible, coupled with plenty of encouragement.

How much should I pay for my child’s first instrument?
Paying a lot for your child’s first instrument is not a good idea for two reasons. First, you can’t be sure that your child will continue to learn; he or she might lose interest and want to give up after just a few weeks. Second, giving a child an expensive instrument won’t make him or her sound any better. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should buy the cheapest instrument you can find though. Take advice from your child’s teacher.

Some manufacturers of high quality professional instruments also make lower-priced ‘student’ models. However, the price of these may still exceed the amount you are willing to pay for your child’s very first instrument. A good option might be to rent. Some shops have rentals programs where your child can try, i.e. rent, an instrument before deciding whether to buy it. There are also rental programs where the money you have paid to rent the instrument can be used as part payment for the instrument if you decided to buy it at a later stage. Again, take advice from your child’s teacher.

For more advice on buying a piano or keyboard read the following articles on this site:

Buying a Used Piano and Choosing a Keyboard.

Some instruments are very cheap. Are they any good?
For the most part the answer to this question must be ‘No’. My experience is with pianos, keyboards, trumpets and bass guitars. A really cheap trumpet, or any brass instrument for that matter, will at best play out of tune, and at worst start to fall apart after a short amount of use. The same will be true for a cheap woodwind instruments. A cheap bass guitar might not fall apart, but it won’t sound good and will play out of tune (I know, I used to have one). I think the same probably applies to any cheap instrument, with the exception of an electric keyboard. These will play in tune but won’t be durable.

Just to be clear, when I use the word ‘cheap’ here I am referring to ridiculously, almost too-good-to-be-true, cheap new instruments.

How can I find a teacher?
Your local music shop may have contact details for music teachers in the area, so this is a good starting point. Also, if you know of other children learning an instrument there is nothing wrong with simply asking their parents for the teacher’s contact details. And of course there is the Internet, with a huge amount of information at our finger tips.

How much do lessons cost?
Prices will vary but it’s worth remembering that teaching music is a skilled profession. With this in mind expect to pay the same hourly rate as you would pay a mechanic to fix your car or for someone to repair your washing machine. The best teachers can charge considerably more. If you can find a good teacher at a low price then consider yourself fortunate, and be sure to be generous at Christmas!

Do I need a metronome?
A traditional-style metronome.A metronome produces a regular tick, click or beep to help play in time. Electronic metronomes may also have an LED that flashes at the set rate.

They are a valuable tool for musicians to have, but should be used with caution. The danger of playing to the pulse of a metronome is that timing can become too rigid and unmusical. I therefore do not recommend buying one for the young learner.

How much should my child practise?
Everyone can reach a certain level with the minimum amount of practice. This level will vary from person to person but is never very high. Regular practice is important. Just a little each day is far better than a couple of hours the day before the lesson. Routine is also important, so if your child is learning an instrument set aside some time each day for practice.

For the very young learner perhaps 20 minutes each day is probably enough. For school-aged children 30 minutes is a good starting point. As your child progresses an hour a day might be best. However, consult the teacher as there are many factors to take into consideration, not least the type of instrument being learnt.

As an adult how much should I practise?
Much of the advice given for children above also applies to adults. Regular practice is far better than intermittent practice, although intermittent practice is better than none at all (only just). Learning anything requires a level of commitment. Practice and you will make progress. Without practice you will soon grow tired of your lack of achievement and will most likely become disheartened and give up.

As a parent what can I do to help my child progress?
As a parent encouragement and support are crucial. A good teacher will always give encouragement, but this needs to continue in the home. Comments such as ‘That sounds good’ or, ‘I like that tune’ are a good starting point. In addition, always try to attend any performances your child is giving, and offer words of encouragement and praise.

If your child does well in a performance, contest, or music exam, for example, consider giving a small reward or treat.  Reward effort as well as results, but take care not to promote the situation where the child will only ‘produce’ on condition of ‘reward’ as this doesn’t foster motivation from within i.e., a desire to do well for one’s own satisfaction.






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