Instrument Choices For Young Children In Schools

iStock_000010006580XSmall

Recently I had the privilege of talking with a reporter Margie Sheedy from Australian Newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald on the subject of young children learning instruments in school as a compulsory subject.

The topic has come about because an independant school in Australia has made learning an instrument a compulsory part of the school curriculum in the early years of schooling. This means that children as young as year 1 (approx age 6) have a choice of playing either the violin or cello and by year 2 (age 7 years) each student chooses to keep the instrument they started (or they can choose a wind instrument) and they are pulled out of class to participate in a private instrumental lesson.

A parent from the school commented:

“ From the moment they start school, it’s drummed into us parents that the curriculum is packed and we can’t take our children out of school for a long weekend. Yet there’s no choice about them being taken out of class – or which class they’re taken out of – for a private music lesson.”

There’s no doubt that research shows the many benefits in music and in starting young. I also believe that children having a positive start to learning is also a crucial factor. When children start in school at this age together, they’ll all be at pretty much the same ability level. There may be one or two children who may have started playing an instrument early, but they can still be easily extended and they’ll have fun learning and playing with their classmates. In my opinion every child should have the experience of learning an instrument in their lives in this positive environment.

So what is the right choice for young children learning instruments in schools?

Developmentally children at this age are still very small. I’ve always believed that a small instrument such as the violin or a foundational instrument such as the piano are the best for this age group because a violin is made for small hands, while with piano it’s easy to make a good sound on it straight away.

I also know there are never any hard and fast rules on this as many instruments such as the cello and wind instruments such a the clarinet can be made smaller to fit the size of a child. Its also well known that an instrument such as the recorder is a great small, cheap instrument to get started with young- however recorders don’t always fit well intonation wise with a band program.

Generally full sized wind instruments in my opinion require small children to have to think of too many things at one time as they need to incorporate breathing, fingering and embouchure which they will be able to adapt to more easily at about ages 8 or 9. Likewise Instruments such as guitar or drums require a large amount of co-ordination. I also know that there are exceptions to every rule- there are some kids who are just busting to play drums and guitar, but I would look at a foundational instrument such as piano at first with a go from time to time on a ukulele or smaller drum kit for motivation.

I thought this was generally the consensus of most music teachers, but I would love to know your thoughts. Would you be happy to see a child play a cello a drumkit at the age of 6 or 7? Feel free to add to the discussion by using the comment box below.

Click here to view the published article featured in the Sydney Morning Herald.

7 Comments

  • By Margaret Storti Reply

    Janice,
    I agree that starting with a small instrument such as violin or a foundational instrument (piano) are great choices for young children. I have seen many children in this early age group be very successful, especially with The Suzuki method. My own early experience with these instruments developed my ear and coordination, as well as confidence! Beginning guitar lessons at age 8, however, did not turn out to be a good fit for me, however. I am currently learning the ukelele with the intent of accompanying my students with a portable instrument, and the possibility that we might begin a uke program at our school.

    The idea of making private study of an instrument compulsory at age 6, as well as pulling kids from classes for lessons would never fly in today’s standards-based curriculum in the United States. I could see this model working better in a private school, perhaps incorporated with a more arts-infused and exploratory curricular approach. I also wonder how successful the young developing body will be with wind instruments that require the breath control of a clarinet, flute or oboe. The recorder is still a great stepping stone to the later instruments.

    Hand drumming is a load of fun for all ages, but the drum kit? Great for the kinetic child, but certainly not a one size fits all solution – and unless reading notation (pitch and rhythm) are part of the approach, it will limit the child’s opportunity to tackle more difficult work in ensembles down the road.

    Those are my thoughts – thanks for all your advocacy postings!

    • By Janice Reply

      Hi Margaret,

      I’m glad the advocacy articles have been helpful to you.
      Thank you for being the first to start the discussion. I’m glad we think along similar paths even across the miles and I’ll be very interested to know what the consensus feeling amongst music teachers worldwide will be on this.
      Once again – Thank you for your input.

      Kind Regards,
      Janice

  • By Nancy Pearson Reply

    I teach recorder to my 4th grade students, it is compulsory as a part of our curriculum. Their success seems to coincide with their regular reading abilities. As long as all students use the same manufacturers recorder, they will sound good together. Mixing recorder quality is problematic.

    The article is an interesting one and I’m looking forward to reading more comments.

  • By Sue Reply

    Certainly piano and violin seem to be the instruments that help build the foundational skills best and this can lead to a life-long love of music. Along with singing the students who have studied these instruments in their early years are equipped to go in virtually any direction musically – any instrument and any genre of music.
    One way of dealing with teaching instrumental technique in schools is to have semi-private lessons eg 3 beginner violin students together in the first 2 years.
    As a clarinettist, I think the weight of an instrument and other physical challenges can be detrimental to a young body when they are small.
    I enjoy reading your articles on a variety of topics, but especially music advocacy.

  • By Michaela Reply

    Why not just singing in the early years? Everyone has a voice, and it is something that you can take with you forever. I’ve done a lot of primary school relief teaching in the past year, particularly music, and I find it really depressing that so many young children are too embarrassed to sing. A good music program could just focus on developing children’s singing voices early on, then introduce instrumental lessons later when their hands are bigger. There is so much fantastic choral music for children, and learning to sing in parts is just as challenging and rewarding for a developing brain as learning fingering. A singing program is also much cheaper since you don’t need all those instruments!

    I’ve just started my own kids (aged 7 and 9) in a children’s choir in Melbourne this year, and they are really enjoying it. I joined a choir myself, 9 years ago, and get just as much satisfaction from that as I did playing in youth orchestras and chamber groups when I was a flute player.

  • By Merry Dickins Reply

    For $8, a student can learn a lot about music- pitch, dynamics, tone, style, teamwork – with a recorder.
    Accessible for all, inclusive and with Sarah Watts backing CD- Red Hot Recorder, you can’t go wrong.

  • By Amand Reply

    Hi everybody,
    This is such a wonderful discussion!

    I have been teaching violin, viola and cello in a strings program at the public schools in Jackson, MS.
    Before sharing some of my own experience teaching ” orchestra classes” I have to say that there is so much involved in teaching instrument lessons for young kids. Specially in the school setting. And I assume you all know that, but still, I felt like I had to say that 🙂
    My kids get pulled out of their classes every week for their strings classes! somehow the pricipals manage to add these classes during school time. However it is a ” special subject”. The students have to register for it at the beginning of the school year. They can apply for scholarships, which provides them an instrument for the entire year they enroll in the program for free. Or they pay a loan fee and they can rent an instrument from the program.
    I have classes with 15-20 beginners sometimes! Yes….
    So, here are some thoughts about instrument choices and class settings:
    Having a masters degree inPiano Pedagogy really made me think how much more suitable the piano is for a young child. The notes are always on the same place and in tune ( hopefully 🙂 ). The body position and posture is way more natural to a child than those of the violin/viola or cello; and the visual factor…you can see the notes you play and which notes you play. For string instruments you have to: open the case; take the instrument out and tune it up -something that may take years for a student to learn, therefore he’ll need someone who can always do it for him- ; take the bow out, tighten it, rosin it and theeeeeeen you can start playing 🙂 it may sound simple for us, adults, but in a classroom setting seems a lot of prep time before getting to the actual playing. Then,there’s the position aspect of playing those intruments and the fact that until they develop their aural skills they’ll more often than not need a sound reference in order to know wether they are playing the correct notes, right?!
    Now, as much as I believe string instruments develop ( at least it should) great aural skills and other benefits involved in music making, I believe for a program such as string classes to be successful It needs a great structure, small group classes and some private lessons that reinforce the group classes. And the involvement of the parents. That’s when the group setting works – Suzucki.

    I could go for a long time on the subject 🙂
    Hope I have shared good information with all of you!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

eighteen + thirteen =