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Tooting Your Own Horn: How Early is Too Early for Music?

By Rebeldad Brian Reid

Not long after we moved last summer, the family stopped by the local weekend-long arts festival and were immediately waylaid by a small tent packed to the gills with musical instruments. The local conservatory had pulled out violins and saxaphones and trombones and were letting kids just wail away.

My eldest tried just about everything there. She loves music (if not always the right kind), and immediate became fascinated by the trumpet. This was happy news to me, since I knew a thing or two about the trumpet and actually had my old one kicking around. We tracked it down when we returned home, and her ardor for brass only increased as she began squeezing out sounds.

She is still a younger elementary school student, so there's no band yet in school for her age group. We'd tried piano lessons earlier with no particular success, but she really, really wanted to have a go at the whole trumpet thing.

That left kind of a dilemma. The conservatory said it didn't usually do lessons for kids that age, but would be more than happy to find a teacher if we were truly interested. And -- as with sports -- I am still taken by the idea that children should be indulged in their passions. She might be a bit young for brass, but if she's interested, why not have a go of it?

Now, more than six months later, the newness has faded, and getting the practice time in has become ever harder. And we've talked to some musicians who have questions whether -- physically -- a young kid can develop the chops to really play trumpet. We're still showing up to lessons every week, and she's still gaining skills and notes.

We've talked about these issues before as they relate to sports, but most youth sports have a built-in expiration date: baseball season lasts only three or four months before it's on to the next thing, and when the ground thaws again *next* spring, the excitement gets renewed. Not so with instruments, which tend to be a year-round focus. Curious to know how you all have handled: Is there a point at which you simply have to say "wait until you're older?"

Brian Reid writes about parenting and work-family balance. You can read his blog at

By Brian Reid |  April 9, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers
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I think as long as the child is interested and wants to do it, you let them do it. You just do it at an age-appropriate level.

Our son is 7 and he started guitar lessons a few months ago. Getting him to practice is a bit of a struggle but he loves going to the lessons.

Posted by: dennis5 | April 9, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

This is an interesting question for me. My son is not even two, but he already shows an interest in music - both listening to all kinds and playing his own. He has several kid instruments and plays with them everyday. He also sings these wordless songs, but on key, which I can't do, so we know he's not just imitating me. Frankly it's facinating and a little scary. Oh, and he dances on beat, too (also something that I can't really do!).
I have wondered how far in the future piano (or whatever) lessons will be...I am guessing 4 or 5 year old.

Posted by: VaLGaL | April 9, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Well . . . I can't imagine that it's ever too young for music. But I do think we need to be careful about pushing our kids to continue certain things. They younger they are the more they need to experiment with their passions. Having said that, my 9 year old wants to quit tae kwon do after having spent 3 years getting to his brown belt (which he originally loved and was passionate about, but has now lost interest). I've said he absolutely cannot quit until he gets his junior blackbelt - - probably another 6 month commitment. There are also things we can teach about follow through and the satisfaction of achieving one's goals.

Posted by: ElaineatLipstickdaily | April 9, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

As an elementary music teacher and lifelong band kid, I generally think that kids should be 9 or 10 before starting a band instrument (brass and woodwinds), simply because of the amount of air needed to get a good tone on the instrument. I typically recommend piano as a first instrument because of the overall musicianship it promotes. However, if a younger student shows an unusually high interest in learning to play something else, I think that should be encouraged and supported. I had a second grader earlier this year who desperately wanted to learn the trombone. After talking with other music teachers, particularly brass specialists, I encouraged his parents to look into private lessons for him. A drive like that shouldn't be suppressed. One thing to take note of is that kids who start taking an instrument will be leaps and bounds ahead of their peers when band starts later. I don't think this should be a deterrent, but it is something that parents should be aware of and be prepared to help their child through that transition.

Posted by: kacd | April 9, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

I think it also depends on how much involvement the parent is willing to support.

Lessons usually involve outside practice and for most children that involves parental commitment.

You don't want music to turn into another parent-child battle. If you feel like once you've paid for lessons and driven your kid around that they're letting you down if they don't really apply themselves then you probably need to steer clear of the activity unless your child is really self-motivated.

Posted by: RedBird27 | April 9, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

This isn't about music specifically but any passion a child has that fades and when to make them stick it out, etc. I used to work with a guidance counselor who I felt had a good theory on this subject. Kids younger than 10 should be encouraged to pursue and also drop interests as they wish; exposure to variety was the key to this stage. She didn't mean drop a sport mid-season and leave a team hanging, but individualized pursuits shouldn't be pressed beyond a child's interest. However, after around age 10 she advocated requiring a child to commit to an interest, either with a certain time commitment (one year, etc.) or an acheivement level to be attained. So far we are just in the variety stage, we'll see how Stage 2 goes when we get there.

Posted by: mlc2 | April 9, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

I think even if you postpone lessons on an instrument there are some fabulous opportunities to have fun with music at very young ages. I have great memories of taking my toddler to music classes with my infant in tow and we all banged and clapped and danced and had a blast.

Posted by: annenh | April 9, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

I talked to a piano teacher about lessons for young children. She prefers the child to be able to read, so the youngest she accepts students tend to be 5 or 6. That said, there are teachers who will teach younger children and there are young children who have the ability to sit still and focus enough for music lessons. For wind instruments, I can't imagine a very young child having the lung capacity to play a trumpet or even a flute, never mind the fine motor skills needed to actually produce a note.

In general, lessons and activities are really YMMV. I think we have tended to push down the age when waiting is okay. Kids don't have to take up violin by 3 to become a concert violinist; they don't have to swim competitively by 9 to be an Olympic swimmer.

Posted by: slackermom | April 9, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

I think it's fine to tell kids they're not old enough yet and would worry that letting them do something too soon could create frustration and bad memories that would discourage them from trying again later. Kids are never too young for music, but they can certainly be too young for certain instruments (trombone for a second grader? could the kid even reach 4th position? I'm full-grown and can barely reach 7th.). Strings and percussion instruments, especially those that exist in kids' sizes, can work for younger children, but it's probably best to wait for brass and woodwinds. Size, motor skills, lung capacity, and even the fact that they're still losing and growing in new teeth at the front part of their mouths will really hamper kids' ability to play. Can you imagine trying to play a brass instrument or clarinet with a loose front tooth? Hard enough a few years later with braces :). Making them wait isn't suppressing interest if you start them with age-appropriate activities with the promise that they can move up in a couple of years. Let the excitement build a few years and give them the instrument and lessons when they're physically ready for it.

Posted by: silverspring4 | April 9, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

In discussion with his parents, we discussed the potential difficulties he would have considering the size of the instrument. The kid is very tall for his age, and he can comfortably reach 5th position, and stretch for 6th. I also suggested that if he didn't have the reach yet, he could start on trumpet or baritone, and decide later if he wanted to switch to trombone. I assure you, it wasn't a decision that was lightly made.

Posted by: kacd | April 9, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

My daughter was 8 when she started piano lessons, 9 when she started taking violin. She'd do flute also, but the school won't let you do two instruments.

She wanted to begin piano as early as 6 years old, but I couldn't find a piano teacher then. I would have started her at six, but I am glad I ended up waiting. At age 8 she was very able to pay attention to the teacher and practice what the teacher wanted her to practice. She handles the responsibility well--she really likes to practice. And in a year and a half, she has as much skill as other students her age who started taking sooner. A friend of mine started her daughter at age 6, but she has to attend the lessons and sit with her daughter during practice to so she knows what the teacher is telling girl and the girl is practicing as told. I don't know if that is typical for a 6 or 7 year old, but I am not interested in that.

With violin, I never considered having her start early--strings instruction in our school district begins in fourth grade and I never intended to pay for and take her to lessons outside of school. Again, this is a good age for her. She is eager to learn and practice--it is not a chore for her (or me).

Posted by: janedoe5 | April 9, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for clarifying, kacd. If he can stretch for 6th, it's sounds like he's as tall as an average 5th grader. I hope he enjoys playing as much as I did.

Posted by: silverspring4 | April 9, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

I started with the cello at age 7 (suzuki method; some teachers will start with the violin at age 3 or 4). One thing that did happen was when the school orchestra started in 4th grade, I was far ahead of the other kids, which was an adjustment. But I am so glad that my parents went ahead with it for me. I ended up playing in the local youth symphony, which I loved. I quit my first semester of college (I was the only non-music major in the univ orchestra) but it's given me all sorts of appreciation for music.

That being said, though my 5 year old can seriously hold a tune and loves to sing, we'll wait until he is a strong independent reader to start with piano.

Posted by: MOMto2 | April 10, 2009 1:08 AM | Report abuse

My little cousin started piano lessons at...3 and a half. She's now 5 and is really good. She loves to play and at her last recital, she did a better job than some of the 8 and 9 year olds. She can't read a book yet, but she can read music.

Posted by: ally75 | April 10, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I know lots of parents who got their kids started on instruments at three and four years old. While this may be great for the kids' development, it still seems to early to me to force such structure on your children. My eldest son started playing the trumpet at 8 years old, but it was his choice all the way. He is a natural though, so there's always that!

Posted by: KatLuvsShoes | April 10, 2009 5:43 PM | Report abuse

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