Music Lessons For Preschoolers

An interview with Sachiko Isihara, Director, Suzuki  School of Newton, Newton, MA

How do I know if my child is ready to begin musical study?
Research has shown that it is never too young to start musical study.
The first of the five senses to be developed in the womb is said to be one’s sense of hearing. The unborn child hears the mother’s sounds–her voice, her  heartbeat, and also external sounds if brought close enough to the mother’s body — the father’s voice, siblings’ voices or music being played. So, it is never too young to start musical study.

From age zero, it is recommended to listen to “classical” music. I am not sure it is necessary to limit to one particular style, however, it is important that the music be of good quality. A great jazz player, a concert classical artist, blues singer, etc. all can be valid. Although I had heard that the trochaic nature of classical music (Strong beat – weak beat – strong beat – weak beat) is better for the baby than the iambic nature of popular music (weak – strong – weak – strong). As proof, look at all the baby stores that sell recordings of Mozart and the articles written on the Mozart effect.

After the parent establishes this musical environment, the next step is the music and movement class. While a parent may be capable of doing this sort of thing (combining physical movement with music) at home on his own, it is a good opportunity to start looking for a class in the community. Not only should the instructor be able to introduce singing, rhythmic awareness and interesting repertoire, but also this is a good social outlet for the baby, toddler or pre-schooler.  There is structure, regularity of attendance, a new authority figure, and new social awareness for the child. There are rules to be followed and it is a gentle preparation before beginning individual instrumental study. Before a child begins Suzuki instruction in our school, my first question is what has the child experienced already. Even for a three or four year old, these are the initial steps. For the nine year old beginner, it is extremely difficult to begin an instrument having never done any music before and it is recommended to do some sort of group musical activity before or simultaneously with the instrumental study.

But to answer the question, regarding readiness to start instrumental study, the child should be interested and excited about music. She should have the ability to carry a tune (If not, go back to the music and movement class)and demonstrate the ability to focus on one activity for a certain length of time. I often ask what are the activities the child enjoys most.  If it includes sitting down looking at picture books by himself, drawing or coloring, imitating playing an instrument or playing regularly on instruments in the home then you’re ready to talk to a teacher about lessons.  I should say, each child is different, so meeting the teacher face to face and having the mutual opportunity to see if a relationship can be established is important.  Another preliminary step (which doesn’t cost you anything) is to attend recitals of the students of the teacher you have in mind to study with or attend the recitals at the music school you are interested in attending.  This a good way to see if your child is really interested in music and has the ability to sit still through the music.

How old should my child be to start learning an instrument with the Suzuki method?
It depends on the instrument, the family musical environment, and of course the particular child. There is Suzuki instruction for violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, harp, guitar, piano, recorder and now even singing. I don’t know the requirements for singing instruction but for the other instruments a lot depends on the (basic physiology) size of the child. The guitar, harp, bass, flute do not  instruments as small in size as the violin. On the average, for the Suzuki School of Newton, students begin violin or viola studies between 4 and 5 years of age. For the piano and other instruments, the average age is between 5 and 6. But we do commonly have 3 year old violin studentsand also 4 year old piano students.

How do I know which instrument to start my child with?
Ask your child.
Amazingly enough, most children know their own minds. Then it is necessary to do some preparation. Observing other students’ lessons and attending recitals where the chosen instrument can be heard is very important in making sure of the choice.  If the child does not have a preference, sometimes the parent should just choose.  The decision is not unmitigable, and with the Suzuki method, the parent must share in the lesson and home practice. Choosing an instrument that the parent enjoys will only help the child share that enjoyment.  Other important issues include the temperament of the child.  A child who needs to move around may prefer the violin because it is played standing up and can be played while walking around. (This is a technique often used in Suzuki group classes). The more introverted child who likes to draw and to look or read books may enjoy the piano.  Guitar is a quiet instrument. The register of the instrument is also a factor. Some prefer high pitch sounds, often meaning a melodic instrument like a flute, and some prefer low sounds such as the cello or bass. These preferences all help in making a sensible choice of instrument.

What should I look for when deciding on a school or teacher?
Reputation is important. Hearing from other friends that a certain teacher or school is good is an excellent credential.  If you don’t know anyone who has attended the school, ask to observe some lessons or attend the “end of the year” recital of the teacher’s students.  If there is no recital, that is very strange.

How much practice is required?
Depends on the age and level of the
child, but daily practice is very important. However, extremely short practice sessions are important. We talk a lot about the home practice in our parent seminars.  It is very important to have “positive” repetition. That means repeating something without error. The basis of the Suzuki pedagogy is giving the child a short “extract” from  the piece that the child must repeat several times. Given clear instructions, the child does not make mistakes and is able to put these small increments together to overcome difficult passages.  It is always important to end the practicing before the child gets bored and tired. For a 4 year old, the practice session may last 60 seconds.  In this case, we try to encourage the parent to practice 3 or four times per day.

What types of things can we do at home to reinforce what my child is learning in the weekly lesson?
Listening to a good quality recording of the piece(s) being learned is a great help and one of the responsibilities we assign to the Suzuki parent. Praising the nice things one hears of the child’s playing is also helpful. For example, if you praise good, slow practicing, the child is more apt to do it again the next time he practices. If you comment on the things you hear that needs correcting, you end up passing on bad feelings and end up reinforcing the difficulty. Most children hear the errors as much as we do, if not more. What they need is confidence and encouragement to keep on trying.

How long should my child study Suzuki before switching to a traditional method?
Most Suzuki teachers will tell you when you are ready for  another teacher, Suzuki or traditional. The length of time spent with a teacher “Suzuki” or “Traditional” depends on that particular teacher’s experience and skill. We do say, however, that after a certain point, say 4 or 5 years of “Suzuki” lessons, it would be practically impossible to tell the difference between a Suzuki lesson and a traditional lesson. However, one can hear the difference between a Suzuki student and a traditional student by the ease of performing (Very rarely do Suzuki students get stage fright) and often the Suzuki student has more advanced and natural technique for the number of years of study of a traditional student.