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The Benefits of Playing a Musical Instrument

Your child wants to play an instrument—now what? We asked music instructors to weigh in on renting vs. buying, how to choose what to play, and the benefits of private and group lessons.

It was 1998 when I decided I wanted to play the violin. Only 5 years old, I was watching Disney’s Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra on TV with my parents when a violin soloist named Vanessa-Mae came on stage to perform “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot opera, and her own piece called “Storm” on the electric violin. She swayed back and forth with her eyes closed, evoking a fiery passion with every note. I turned to my mom, mesmerized and inspired, and declared, “I want to do that.” After 12 years of violin and three years of viola lessons, I can firmly say that my life changed for the better.

Science has proven time and again that children who play musical instruments do better in school. That’s because while playing an instrument the brain exercises motor, auditory, visual, and emotional responses all at once, making it the “most complex and demanding cognitive challenges that the human mind can undertake,” according to a study published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

Brain stimulation is just the beginning of the benefits of music. It also helps children focus better in school and grasp new concepts easily.

Sophia Lee of Manhasset is the mother of two children—Christian, 8, and Jessica, 6—who take piano lessons at the Music Institute of Long Island, also in Manhasset. Both of them began taking lessons at age 4 and got started because they looked up to Lang Lang, a Chinese concert pianist, and their grandmother, who also played piano.

“Piano has also been a great method to be focused, structured, and has helped them academically with school,” Lee says. “[They have more] confidence [when] delivering presentations at school, and [it] has helped Jessica with dance, to be more artistic and graceful.”

Practice, Practice

Music lessons are a discipline because the only way to improve and advance is to practice, which can be hard if a child refuses to pick up her instrument regularly.

“It’s a slow process, but kids have good days and bad days,” says Geri Kushner, director of the Music Institute of Long Island. “Not everybody is going to have an incredible day at a lesson and a practice at home. Slow and steady wins the race.”

Whether parents want their children to play an instrument or a child chooses to, the child needs to first have an interest in learning about music. “If there is no interest, there is little chance that the child will study an instrument long-term,” says Karen Geer, executive director of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Geer suggests that if a child is not ready to play an instrument, she can join a pre-instrumental class to try out different ones and learn about rhythm, pitch, and tempo.

Selecting an Instrument

When choosing an instrument, it is important that the child gets a say in what he wants to play. After all, he is the one who will be practicing it. Some children may have an idea of what they want to play. If not, most schools offer trial classes.

“We say you have to give it at least a semester,” Kushner says. “Otherwise you’re never really going to know.”

Other schools may have community outreach programs, such as “instrumental petting zoos,” for kids to try out their options. Parents and kids can also sit in to observe classes. Summer camp programs can also be helpful for families to tour the schools without making any commitments.

If your child is still undecided, Rachael Carson, director of Bach to Rock in Mamaroneck, suggests either trying out voice lessons or playing piano because they are the foundation for a lot of instruments. “We also emphasize to kids that if you pick an instrument, it doesn’t mean that this is the only instrument that you will ever play,” Carson says.

Renting vs. Buying

Most music instructors recommend renting an instrument if a child is just starting out—especially if she is young and can outgrow an instrument that fits her perfectly now.

The only instrument that musicians recommend buying right away, if a family can afford it, is a piano because it is a timeless piece of furniture. “If you can get it in the beginning, you won’t have to worry about it again,” Kushner says.

Otherwise, for piano players, a keyboard can suffice, as there are many decent ones available.

Your music instructor can provide suggestions for affordable rental options. Carson strongly advises against buying instruments from eBay or other similar websites because they are poor quality, calling them “instrument-shaped objects.”

“If your kid gets really serious and you bought an instrument that’s a beginner quality instrument, it’s going to end up hindering that child’s development on the instrument,” Carson says, adding that she did not buy her first violin until she was in high school.

If your child continues to show an interest in playing his instrument years down the line, it could be worth investing in a high-quality instrument.

Musical Methods

Among the first decisions parents need to make when deciding on music lessons for their child is what teaching method to pursue. Many music teachers use the Suzuki method of teaching, developed by a Japanese violinist named Shinichi Suzuki, in which parents learn to play alongside their children. The child would take private lessons along with group classes. (This is the method that I studied.)

Other methods include the Orff method, which engages kids in music using percussion instruments such as the glockenspiel or xylophone; and the Kodaly method, which enforces singing as the foundation of musicianship.

Some music schools, such as Bach to Rock, offer the Suzuki method, along with their own curriculum for kids to learn a mix of classical, pop, and rock music.

“Parents are surprised when they find out that a violin student can learn Katy Perry in addition to learning how to play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ on the violin,” Carson says. “One comment that I get all of the time is, ‘I can’t believe how fun this is!’”

The Music Institute of Long Island offers Kindermusik classes for young children, a Germany-based curriculum designed to encourage musical play and movement.

Private vs. Group Lessons

Children may be enrolled in both private or group lessons—or a mixture of the two—as both are beneficial and provide different experiences for the student.

Young children might consider starting off by taking lessons with one or two other students, then transitioning to a private lesson around age 7. Private lessons are highly encouraged because the teachers can better review the students’ techniques, and one-on-one instruction tends to instill in kids a sense of responsibility.

Group lessons allow kids to play as an ensemble, which teaches them to play cohesively and perform together. For example, the Music Institute of Long Island performs at nursing homes and other venues as a way to give back to people in the community, as well as to build confidence in playing for an audience. Bach to Rock holds a Battle of the Bands competition for its rock band program, in which the kids have the responsibility to listen to the members of their group and play at the same tempo.

If a child is very eager to play, it is possible that she can begin at age 3. Otherwise, age 6 or 7 might be more appropriate, as that is when children begin learning how to read and are more focused and physically developed.

When sitting in lessons, Kushner advises parents to record their children using a video camera or tape recorder and to take notes to make sure that the child takes the corrections from class and applies them at home.

“Everything takes time,” Kushner says. “We improve and sometimes we plateau, just like in everything else. But if they’re not putting in the time, they can’t expect to do fabulously.”

The Payoff

Something that most parents may be surprised to learn once their child begins music lessons is how much dedication and commitment is required. Just as a child might study over and over for a test, he must be ready to constantly practice his instrument to become more advanced.

“If [children] take SATs, ACTs, math tutoring, English tutoring, and Kumon, [those teachers] expect them to work there,” Kushner says. “We expect them to work at a violin lesson or piano lesson, as well.”

Parents can motivate and support their children by giving them words of encouragement.

“The attitude of the parents, and just being ready to be a support and as enthusiastic as their kids, is important,” Carson says.

As for me, my mom would encourage me to enter music competitions, and even though I only ever placed among the winners once in the 12 years I took lessons, the experience made me learn how to pick myself up from failure and move on. It was not until adulthood that I realized how valuable this was for me.

Even if my parents and I butted heads when I did not want to practice, it disciplined me to refocus my energy to buckle down and chip away at improving, which showed that hard work and dedication can take you far. If it were not for music, I do not think I would have had the ambition and drive to push myself through Advanced Placement classes in high school, move 5,000 miles away from home for college, and make a living here in New York City, arguably the most competitive city in the world. All thanks to that unforgettable TV concert nearly 20 years ago.

BY SAMANTHA NEUDORF, www.nymetroparents.com, www.msidallas.com