Parents and Teachers

Building Character

Nurturing Creativity & the Arts

Raising a Young Musician

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There is little debate that the benefits of learning to play an instrument are numerous. Besides the obvious—creative expression, discipline, and a stronger memory—scientists are positing considerable positive changes in the brains of young musicians as well.

Our family’s foray into music lessons began when my then-four-year-old son found himself captivated by a string quartet playing at a worship service. He begged me for a good half a year to let him learn the violin. At the time, I worried he was too young to begin lessons. I didn’t want him to face failure. Perhaps more honestly, I didn’t want to endure the potentially spine tingling sound of a young child dragging a bow ruthlessly across the bridge of a violin.

I finally relented when he was almost five, and thus began our journey as parents of musicians.

Now 11, the same son handed his violin bow over to his big sister many years ago, has tried as many instruments as he has lived years, and has now settled on a pair of drumsticks (no doubt payback for my concerns over the screeching violin). My youngest has found joy in the magic of her own voice. My eldest has followed a more traditional route with her violin and has recently added the cello. We have, as a family, run the gamut with music. With that, we have also learned a few things along the way to help any family navigate the world of music.

Younger Children (0-4)

Start by exposing your children to a variety of instruments. Have an open mind. Though you will receive plenty of advice about which instrument is most useful in an orchestra or most coveted by a conductor, allow your kids to explore and choose.

Many local music schools hold regular instrument petting zoos for free. They allow children to hear a skilled musician play, and then to touch and try the instrument themselves. If you can’t find a local one, you can plan one yourself for a few friends. Ask people to bring their instruments and kids to a party, indicating that you would like the children to be able to try the instruments (suggest that anyone who would not like children touching their instrument should let you know ahead of time; most music stores will allow you to borrow a child-sized instrument for free for a weekend).

Besides instrument petting zoos, research your area for free concerts (accomplished musicians frequently hold them). Places of worship also host concerts on religious holidays.

Finally, listen to music as a family often, though not with the intention of producing the hotly debated “Mozart Effect.” Instead, create a culture of music in your home, a place where music feels natural and welcome.

Early School-Aged Children (5-8)

These are good ages to begin lessons. With the onset of lessons, it is important to establish regular routines. The general rule for younger children is that they practice the same amount of minutes daily as their weekly lesson. Their teacher will guide you in this. During practice, listen to their moods. Learn when to pull back and when to push.

Kids should be challenged, but not angry or irritated. Practices don’t have to be completely fun for a child to want to continue playing the instrument, but they should not cause angst. If your child is not challenged, push a little. If he or she is melting down, pull back. Evaluate (with the child and the teacher) how it is going every few months. Be prepared to take breaks or move on to other instruments.

Try and establish lessons that best suit your child’s personality. An easily distracted child does well with private lessons outside of the home. A social kid may enjoy group lessons. A shy child might prefer a teacher who does not require performance at a recital for younger ages.

Likewise, there are many different styles of teachers. Ask prospective teachers about their teaching style. My eldest child, usually gregarious, barely says a word during lessons. She says she is not there to play (other than musically) and prefers her teacher to be organized. She is very serious. My son, on the other hand, likes to go with the musical flow. He prefers teachers who are willing to encourage his creativity and who play lots of games.

Continue cultivating a culture of music in your home. As music lessons can be time-consuming, it is easy to allow a child’s lessons to drive the musical choices of the whole family. Try and expand your family’s repertoire by listening to music other than that which your child is learning.

Middle Ages (9-14)

Curb your own dreams for your blossoming musician. It is easy to imagine your child soaring to stardom with their new bassoon and then act accordingly. I made that mistake and once found myself verbalizing my dreams of my then-11-year-old daughter traveling all over the world. She looked at me like I was telling her we’d planned to move to Mars and retorted, “Yuck! I’m not going anywhere! I like my home! And you’re pressuring me. Stop!” Oops. Of course, I was devastated that she did not share my dreams until I did stop and realize that she was already fulfilled by music. She was satisfied with the hard work she was doing. She enjoyed performing for people. She was constantly challenged. That was just right for her at that time.

Understand that a child’s relationship to music and the instrument ebbs and flows. This is especially true when a child reaches the preteen years. Try and consider where they are from all angles before either pushing them forward or allowing them to quit. Most preteens will beg to quit. Some should. Others might benefit from a few shifts in their program. Before agreeing to your child giving up an instrument for good, explore some potential changes. A new teacher may help, even if the child has a good relationship with the current teacher. It might be time to explore a different musical style, add an instrument, or switch instruments altogether. Perhaps your child would enjoy learning to compose. Just as preteens are learning more about who they are as people, they are also learning more about their musical personalities. Encourage them to explore a bit before giving up entirely.

The preteen years bring big decisions for young musicians who choose to continue playing, and their families alike. It is often at this point that musical budgeting becomes an important issue. Many musicians need to purchase an instrument that is right for them. Discuss with your child and your child’s teacher the various options available. If at all possible (and it usually is), ask your chosen vendors to allow your child to try the instrument you are considering buying for a few weeks before purchasing.

As your young musicians become more serious, allow them to steer the ship. They can make their own decisions about competitions, camps, performances, lessons, and musical groups. As you did when they were younger, know when to push and when to pull back. Let their intensity and passion, or lack thereof, guide your mutual decisions about music.

This is a good time to consider a wider array of musical options. At 12, my eldest fell in love with Jewish Klezmer fiddle. It has reignited her passion for classical violin in a way no other genre has. Despite the inevitable advice you might receive about the proper path to musical success, the best path is the one that is most satisfying and doable for your child and family.

I truly believe that music has gifted each of my children with a unique musical fingerprint. Music has informed who they have become and, whether or not they pursue it professionally, who they will one day be. It is the gift that keeps on giving.


Paula M. Fitzgibbons shelved her career as a Lutheran Pastor to focus on her children, two of whom joined her family through adoption from Haiti and a third who arrived by birth 11 months later. She is an educator, writer, and comedian to the teens when absolutely necessary. You can read more about her many passions, including adoption, parenting, education, and social justice at Mommy Means It!, as well as on Facebook , Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.


Updated on 7.30.13