• The importance of music in a child’s development has been researched and proven over and over again. Music improves coordination, concentration, self-confidence, and provides structure. At the very least, it is certainly a better use of time than spacing out in front of the television. I’m pretty sure we’re all on the same page with that. The age at which you should start your child with an instrument depends on his/her interest and maturity level. There really is no set age for any child. It’s simply when s/he is ready. And the only way to find out is to give it a try.

    They promise up and down that they’re going to practice all day everyday…and what happens? You get sucked in.

    Often kids will beg you to buy them an instrument because they think it looks cool. They promise up and down that they’re going to practice all day everyday…and what happens? You get sucked in.  You begin to have visions of your little virtuoso playing at Carnegie hall so you immerse yourself in research on the instrument and finally purchase a medium grade – let’s say–guitar…something your child can hopefully grow into. Then your child takes it out and tries to mimic his favorite artist’s songs, only to realize that it sounds nothing like the real version. He stares at the instrument as if it were a magic harp that should miraculously play properly.  Once he realizes that not only is that not going to happen- it actually sounds pretty horrible (I especially feel for those of you out there whose children decided to pick up the violin).  So he gives up, forgets about it and leaves his ‘beloved’ guitar in the corner collecting dust, which then leaves you feeling like you were duped.  You try to give or sell the instrument to another ambitious (and likely falsely optimistic) parent, and swear to yourself that you won’t be so gullible the next time around.

    The trick is finding the balance between being totally hands-off/disinterested and becoming the next “Tiger Mom.”

    Flash forward a couple of years to your second child. This child ends up borrowing an instrument from a friend, staying after school for band practice, going to the library to copy sheet music (which is illegal and we at Playdate.com absolutely DO NOT endorse) and cuts grass in his/her spare time to save money for an instrument. But you’re determined not to be fooled again. This child has to prove his/her interest to you.  You hold your ground and only when a relative buys your child an instrument as a gift (after watching him/her mock playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a home-made guitar do you begin to think that maybe lessons are a possibility.

    Here’s my dilemma– if I buy an instrument and am paying for lessons, I want to see some kind of return on my investment.  This means that my kid had better be playing something somewhere! The trick is finding the balance between being totally hands-off/disinterested and becoming the next “Tiger Mom.” So here is the real question-how do you raise children who are self-motivated and interested in practicing consistently? Below are some tips I’ve used with my own children –two of whom are under the age of 12 and have been playing instruments for over 3 years. One of whom had suddenly decided to take a one year hiatus from lessons, but then got back into it on her own.

    1. Obtain Decent Equipment – You don’t have to go out and buy a Gibson guitar or Stradivarius violin. But really poor equipment can turn your child off immediately.  A child (anyone!) will get discouraged if s/he’s putting in the effort and practicing yet the instrument doesn’t sound right.  The problem here is that truly inferior instruments can cause the player to have to work extra hard to produce a sound that would take half of the effort on a better quality instrument. There is a significant discrepancy in the playability and quality of instruments.
    2. Set Realistic Goals – There are very few musicians who can just pick up an instrument and play well. So, help your child understand that it may take some time and that success directly correlates their effort and consistency. Emphasize that the goals are for your child, not for you (the parent).  Start with simple songs, which can be easily mastered and in time your child can move up to that piece by Chopin they’ve been dying to play.  How long it takes depends upon dedication, talent and practice.
    3. Give them Guidelines – Most kids do well with structure. Make sure to set aside a specific time for practice of some sort every day.  In this article we are talking about music, of course, but really it is good to have this slot of time for a creative hobby (playing video games doesn’t qualify here… sorry kiddos!) even for your children who are not playing instruments. This period of time should be non-negotiable and take between 20 – 60 minutes per day, depending upon your child’s maturity, level of interest, and completion of schoolwork. You really have to show your children that creativity is as important as scholastic studies (see number 4).
    4. Model What You Expect – It’s no secret that children who come from musical homes take to instruments at a relatively young age and often with apparent ease. They emulate what they see. Whether or not you are musically inclined, if your children see you setting time aside for yourself to engage in creative development this sets the tone and shows them that you value creativity.
    5. Keep Their Goals in the Forefront – Be interested and discuss their music idols. This helps remind them of why they decided to play in the first place. Discuss other brands of instruments they might be interested in – higher quality ones to save up for.  If your child is frustrated to the point of giving up, then do not force the issue or instrument, but remind him/her of tip number three—the requirement to allocate this time to creative development of some sort.  Kids want you to parent and guide them regardless of how much they may protest.
    6. Applaud Everything – Make it fun for them and encourage every attempt, no matter how excruciating or painful those drums may sound. That immediate reward gives them the motivation to continue when they might think that they sound terrible. Try to use phrases like, “It sounds a lot better,” and “I like the way that sounds” about a particular piece they are playing.
    7. Take them to Concerts – It doesn’t matter if it’s a symphony or rock concert. Being around other artists will motivate and inspire them to play. If they say they’re bored and don’t like the music then try to help them appreciate the artists and their skills.
    8. Find a Mentor – This can be a music teacher or a family friend who’s a musician – someone to whom they can ask questions. They will have someone to talk to about frustrations and plateaus –someone who they believe will understand (because parents NEVER understand!).  And it allows them to see firsthand what can be achieved with practice.
    9. Give them Skills to Grow – Once they learn to read music you can provide them with material so that they can take their music further at their own pace (aside from their regular instruction). This allows them to experiment with their own techniques and/or tunes. It will make the music more personal for them and allow them to be creative.
    10. Set up a show – Gather friends and family for a short (15 minutes max to start) performance. This can be informal in your own home, or you can ask one of your friends if your child can perform at his/her gathering. The other option would be to encourage them to join a band or some type of organized symphony (such as a Jr. Philharmonic). This will give them a deadline and something to look forward to, and will provide an added motivation to practice.