He wrote his Minuet and Trio for piano at the age of five. Nine years later at the age of fourteen, when Mozart visited Rome, he was privileged to hear for the first time the ‘Miserere’ by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652). The score of the choral composition consisted of five voice parts. It was privy to the choir of the Sistine Chapel and forbidden to be transcribed so as to preserve the mystery of the music. This didn’t stop the young Mozart returning to his lodgings that night and notating the entire piece from memory. Following the publication of the music in 1771, the ban was removed and Mozart was heaped with praise as a musical genius.
All of us are endowed with different gifts, some of which we may only become aware of later in our lives. Parents can often identify and see that their child responds to music at an early age. Naturally, they want to give every chance for a musical talent to be developed. You hear them say “Johnny can hum along or dance to the music on radio” or “Four-year old Susan is able to repeat the tunes she hears the older girls singing.”
Not untypically, they begin to consider if it would be appropriate to find him or her a musical instrument suitable to their age, which they could formally learn.
And so, they begin to ask the question - at what age should we begin thinking about music lessons for our children?
To answer this question, we may have to ask a few others first! What is the overall aim? And what is it that we hope to achieve? Often, we hear teenagers complain that they don’t wish to continue with music lessons because to them it all becomes a toil or they aren’t getting any fun or fulfilment from them. There are a number of reasons for these sentiments being so widely expressed, a lot of which goes back to the two key questions relating to our aims and our hopes.
Any decisions about music lessons have to be made within an environment where music is alive and at the heart of family life. The first and most important element for parents is to expose children to music in such a way that they will learn how to listen, process, understand and enjoy it.
This can happen from birth and even before birth (Some studies show that our musical memories are formed in the womb). Simple activities such as singing to the child or playing music help to foster such a climate. There is nothing formal in the infant years but the child will recognize a drum beat, a well-known tune or the distinctive sound of an instrument such as a piano or trumpet.
At school, children are involved in new activities, and music like every other learning activity, be it a language or mathematics, is learnt in small steps. We ‘pick things up’ at different rates. In the early school-going years, our capacity for creativity is at its peak. Picasso wrote that “every child is born an artist. The problems begin once we start to grow up.”
What Picasso was hinting at is backed up by recent studies. It is in those early years that every other area of our humanity is being nurtured. In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works author Jonah Lehrer posed this question to school-going pupils: Do you think you’re creative? Nearly 95% of second-grade pupils answered yes. By fifth-grade the percentage fell to 50% and on reaching High School senior-level, it was a mere 5%. While these statistics raise an issue for debate in and of themselves as to how we can cultivate minds that are creative and innovative, what we can draw from them is how crucial a period the early years are for creativity. This includes the growth of musical sensibility and awareness.
It reinforces the idea that the best time to learn an instrument is when the child is relatively young and not to leave it too late! A Study early in the decade from the Journal of Neuroscience suggested that there was compelling evidence that early musical training in the ‘sensitive period,’ (the developmental window where experience has long lasting effects on the brain and behaviour) has greater effects than training in later life. (16 January 2013 –Christopher Steele, Jennifer A. Bailey, Robert Z Zattore and Virginia B Benhune). Brain scans of musicians who began their training before the age of seven showed stronger connections between the motor regions than those who started later on. They had stronger movements such as fingering and co-ordination of both hands with better accuracy and precision, despite having the same amount of experience and training over time.
Of course, at the outset, central to learning any new discipline, whether that be at the age of six, seven or eight, it is helpful to have some concept of being able to communicate, use basic motor skills read, write or count. In exceptional circumstances, some can learn music (which is in and of itself a creative discipline) through sheer listening and repetition, but some ability to engage with an instrument that the player deems suitable for them is essential. For example, a string instrument always requires the use of both hands.
So, when we begin to investigate formal music lessons, we have to decide what is the most suitable kind of class for the child. This will involve some consulting with a music teacher about our aims and hopes. We need to be clear about our expectations as there are a lot of dynamics at work –Will the child like the chosen instrument enough to persevere? Will the child be able to form a positive relationship with the teacher? Will they respond well to early aural tests and if not, are tuning or other practical performance difficulties likely to arise further down the line?
An experienced teacher may use a Musical Aptitude Test (sometimes referred to as the Bentley Test) to gain some or measure of a student's aural capacity before learning an instrument. This test is commonly used as a guide for teachers wanting to award places for instrumental teaching or music scholarships, but the four tests which concentrate on aspects of pitch, melody, texture and rhythm are good indicators of a prospective pupils’ aural capacity when starting from scratch.
Once lessons have begun, little by little we too learn ourselves, seeing how the child responds by gently encouraging practice within the supportive environment at home. It takes some time before a student will become a performer but with each lesson and the discipline of practice, a further understanding of music is gained.
It makes sense that a child commences his or her formal music lessons when mature enough to know what a teacher is about, to feel at ease in the teacher’s presence and to have the capacity to communicate, at least verbally. Early lessons are very short and all about setting a scene. It takes time to get used to the feel of an instrument and the sounds we are creating.
The choice of instrument depends a lot on the home support, musical ear and even the physique of the child. 'Strummed' instruments like the guitar are maybe popular because they have more visibility in the real world. The piano requires both hands working in conjunction and is usually taught along with stave-notation. There are various methods used for this end.
Tuned string instruments such as the violin require posture and nimble left-hand fingers that are used to create the note pitch. The right hand of course holds the bow. Woodwind instruments like the flute or oboe are obviously more suited to those content to use their breathing to some sound. The same is true of brass instruments such as the trumpet but be aware of the neighbours when practicing.
As they gain experience and technique, if interest is maintained, then the aim of the lesson may change to that of preparing a student for a specific exam. There are different grades offered by various recognized schools of music depending on the locality. These are designed to acknowledge a standardized level of playing ability reached by a student. In the process, they are asked to select from a range of set pieces. Alternatively, students may not opt to enter for such exams but continue to learn by experimenting with different styles of play or improvisation. Much depends on the player’s wishes, competence and what he or she wants to achieve from their music. Either way, high and acceptable performance levels can be acquired.
After all the considerations, it is recommended that once a child is able to relate, converse and understand basic instructions, aside showing an interest in or aptitude for music, then it is a good time to begin formal lessons.
It is sensible to monitor how the lessons go and gradually take things from there in consultation with the teacher. Avoid ‘forcing’ the child to continue with lessons if things don’t chime but have a good chat and return again at a later date, possibly with a new and different teacher or even a change of instrument. The experience is never lost and maturity will offer new ways to approach things again.
If on a rare occasion a budding Mozart displays an exceptional talent at an early age, then arrangements can be made with professionals to help bring such a gift to its fullness.