A beginner's guide to helping children choose a musical instrument.
Another school year is almost here. Amid the classroom newsletters and fundraiser notices, kids may bring home information about beginning instrumental music lessons through their elementary school.
Studies have shown that participation in music activities and instruction increases children’s capacity to learn.
Music is “an entire branch of intellectual activity and human experience ... equal to other disciplines,” said Joe McEttrick, a freelance trombonist from Milton, Mass., who has played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. “Every student should have music education. If you don’t have (music) skills, it’s almost like not being able to read, or not knowing history or math.”
If your child wants to learn an instrument at school, where do you start? Schools that offer lessons will have a selection of instruments from which students can choose.
In the Sharon, Mass., Public Schools, fourth-graders can play flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, percussion, violin, viola or cello, said John Coffey, instrumental music teacher.
What if there’s a kid who is wild about the tuba or the French horn? Coffey says it’s important to build a foundation first, and then branch off from there.
“When they get to middle school they can switch over” to the more demanding or larger instruments, he said.
Do teachers ever guide students to particular instruments? Sure, said Coffey. This past year, there were only three trumpet players in the Sharon High School band, so the trumpet was showcased a bit more for the elementary students, in the hopes of achieving balanced instrumentation in the middle and high school bands in a few years.
And don’t forget the motivating factor of the young musician’s affinity for a particular instrument. No child will want to practice an instrument they don’t care for.
Once junior has decided on an instrument, how do parents acquire that instrument for their child? Most school music programs have arrangements with instrument rental companies at reasonable cost to families. And some school districts have rental agents present at lesson sign-up night.
Music lessons are usually taught during the school day for 30 or 40 minutes each week, typically in groups. Some school districts offer fee-based after-school lessons with school faculty and/or private teachers.
Factors to consider with school-based lessons include the potential for missed class time, costs for fee-based programs, and transportation issues if lessons are taught after school.
And music study requires practice at home. Before making a semester- or year-long commitment to lessons, be sure both you and your child are clear about the teacher’s expectations for practice time and frequency, as well as other requirements such as music listening time or participation in band or orchestra.
Bear in mind that most beginners will require a substantial amount of support as they begin to learn the fundamentals of how to play the instrument and read music. Parents may have to help the child schedule and organize his or her practice time to facilitate progress.
Quincy, Mass., resident Grace Bryson, whose twin sixth-grade daughters studied flute and clarinet, said that in the beginning she had to encourage them to practice.
“I said, ‘These instruments are costing me 50 bucks a month,”' she said. “‘Let’s practice!”'
But within six months, Emily (clarinet) and Julia (flute) had established strong independent practice habits.
“They would just pick it up on their own and go with it,” said Bryson.
While practicing is important, music is a performing art, so kids need the opportunity to share their skills with an audience. For most school music programs, this takes the form of concerts, and what beginning musicians sometimes lack in beauty of tone, they often make up for with enthusiasm. More important than the performance, however, is the skill set young musicians develop when they play in an ensemble.
“They need to work together, just like the Patriots and the Red Sox,” says Coffey. “Listening and working with the bandleader is similar to working with a coach, or with a manager in the workplace.”
As you listen to your budding Perlman or Marsalis sawing or squawking away, just remember that your young musician is developing self-discipline, study, and teamwork skills that will last long after the last note has faded away.
Reach Patriot Ledger writer Julie Fay at firstname.lastname@example.org.