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When should a child start learning a stringed instrument? From "The Strad"

Originally publisted in September 2009, "The Strad" magazine posted this valuable article this month written by Tom Homfray on their website. This is a very common and most important question to ask when deciding to sign up a child for a stringed instrument.

It is a common belief that all great musicians began their glittering careers when they were scarcely out of nappies. Child prodigies have always been popular, the biographies of performers often mention a first public appearance when they still had their milk teeth, and sooner or later everyone mentions Mozart, the benchmark for precocious infants everywhere.

But even the most gifted of children have a great deal of early mental and physical development to cope with first. This includes getting to be of a size to hold even the smallest of instruments, let alone gaining a grasp of what to do with it. Opinions among teachers vary on the earliest age a child should start playing: some say three, and others four, five or six. Most teachers agree, however, that before starting on an instrument, children should take part in some kind of preliminary musical activities involving games and movement, or should even just come to watch classes.

Of the various systematic programmes for teaching very young children to play stringed instruments, perhaps the best known is the one developed by Shin’ichi Suzuki in Japan, which has since been taken up in many parts of the world. Jillian Leddra, who studied Suzuki’s approach in the US and has been teaching violin in the UK for 20 years, finds that while some girls might be ready to start at the age of three, boys are generally better starting at four. ‘The violin involves a lot of fine motor movements,’ she says, ‘and young girls often do activities that involve fine movements: they manipulate small things. With boys, fine motor skills take a little bit longer.’

Gerry Howard, a cellist with over 30 years’ teaching experience (he also teaches violin), warns against starting children before they have reached a certain stage of mental development: ‘There are children of three and a half who are ready to go, but they must have the ability to cope with having some sort of instruction.’

Colourstrings is another system for teaching young string players that is becoming increasingly popular. Géza Szilvay, who developed Colourstrings in Finland with his brother Csaba in the early 1970s, has a different, and robust, view on the earliest age for a child to start: ‘I would say to a parent, if you like your child don’t give them an instrument before they’re five. There are some who can do it at four, but very seldom. In general the body is not strong enough before five to take up an instrument. The posture is unnatural – I would say unhealthy. An early age is for the benefit of the parent, not the child. If you start them at three or four, they will learn, but why do it? They have plenty of time.’

Sheila Nelson, whose work as a violin and viola teacher with young UK string players over many years has been inspirational to students and teachers alike, won’t normally take anyone younger than four. ‘I have started them at three, but that is more for fun than development,’ she says.

Six is the ideal age according to Caroline Lumsden, who launched the String Time programme for young beginners at Junior Trinity College of Music in London, and who founded what became the Gloucester Academy of Music. ‘I have started children at three, but it takes a lot of time playing open strings before they really get going. If they start at six at a slow pace I can always get a child to the Associated Board’s Grade 5 standard by the age of eleven. If someone came to me now with a two- or three-year-old, I would probably send them to a Suzuki teacher.’

There is, then, no general agreement on the question of which starting age is best. The answer depends partly on the different demands and approaches of the various teaching systems. But whatever the differences of opinion among teachers, there are good reasons for starting young, not least the fact that there is an awful lot to learn. As Howard says, ‘The earlier you start, the more years you have to develop.’ Szilvay reckons that starting at ten is possible, ‘but after that it may be too late, because the violin is such a virtuosic instrument that you need the years.’

Leddra explains: ‘Because music is a language, it is good to start sooner rather than later. Also, the child will never have known a time when they didn’t play the violin. It’s completely natural for them. And I have seen very young children able to develop sensational bow arms.’ Howard also points to the advantages of starting young from a purely physical point of view: ‘Bones and ligaments mature and set in shape as children get older, but young children are still bendy, like gymnasts.’

For Nelson, ‘There is no ideal age to start, because children develop quite differently in all kinds of ways, but later starters usually find it physically a bit harder, particularly if they are not good at things with their fingers.’ She might, she says, take on a ten-year-old, but would be less likely to accept someone at 14. Lumsden, however, knew two conservatoire students who didn’t start until they were 14, and both went on to do very well. ‘If someone really has the ability perhaps it is never too late,’ she says. ‘But there is such a huge amount of technique to acquire.’

It is worth mentioning that many of these teachers started fairly late themselves, although they had often been introduced to music earlier on. Howard and Leddra didn’t start until they were into double figures, and Nelson only started violin at eleven, after a thorough grounding in music at primary school and experience as a triangle player. So starting early is far from an absolute necessity.

There used to be a good practical reason for not starting too young: the instruments were simply too big. Today it is possible to get violins so small that they could probably be played in a pram. At the other extreme, those interested in playing the double bass used to have to wait until they were older, and would probably learn another instrument first. Cathy Elliott, chair of the European String Teachers Association’s British branch, didn’t start playing bass until she was a teenager. Now, she says, ‘The starting age can mercifully be about ten years younger than it was when I was a child. But there is definitely still a too-small time to start. Around six years old is normally good, unless the child is very little – they should be able to play a tenth-size instrument.’ Elliott did have one very keen five-year-old who was so small that she had to sit him on an upturned waste-paper basket and lean the bass up against him. She told him to eat lots of Weetabix and come back in a year, which he did. But he still counts that as his first lesson.

Howard warns against choosing an instrument based on the size of the child, however: ‘If you choose really big children to play cello, you are really only choosing the ones who got big early. You can only hazard a guess at what size they will be when they’re older. And there are a lot of small cellists in the world.’

Along with the readiness and ability of a young child, and every bit as crucial, is the ability of the teacher. As Howard points out, ‘Too often you have professional players who are amateur teachers. On the whole they’re pretty disastrous, unless they have had some experience in teaching young children. Most of their knowledge of teaching comes from what they experienced at an advanced level, and if they started at a very young age themselves they won’t be able to remember it. Many haven’t a clue where to start.’

For a parent with a keen young child, programmes developed specifically for the very young with trained teachers (such as Suzuki and Colourstrings) or courses at junior conservatoires are obvious options, but only if they are within a realistic travelling distance. Otherwise, finding a teacher experienced in working with very young children can be difficult. Training in this area of music teaching is patchy at best, and often can only be acquired by working with experienced teachers. Where there are training courses available, says Howard, they are often expensive, which means that the young professionals who most need to attend them can’t afford to.

Parents also have to be prepared to put in a lot of their own time, both attending the lessons and working with their children at home, supervising practice. Most teachers insist that the involvement of parents in teaching very young children is essential, or at the very least greatly desirable. ‘Teaching very young children is a team effort,’ says Howard, ‘between the teacher, the pupil and the parent. If there is little parental help it is better to wait until the child is about seven.’

Leddra wouldn’t take on a three- or four-year-old without help from a parent, but she warns that some parents can find the early years hard: ‘They find it extremely difficult to understand that the rate of progress they regard as quite slow in fact represents a huge achievement.’ Lumsden also welcomes parental involvement, but she too has seen parents becoming upset by the progress and commitment of their very young children. ‘I used to get parents who were totally stressed about practice,’ she says. ‘And they can also do harm to a bow hold, for example, if they don’t know what they’re doing.’

‘There are so many things for children to take in that adults don’t really understand,’ says Nelson, who also likes to have parents at lessons. ‘Someone has to take responsibility,’ she says, ‘although they don’t have to present throughout every lesson.’

Ideally, young children will have some preparatory experience, playing musical games, developing their ears and learning about rhythms. At Junior Trinity, Lumsden conducts two years of nursery classes with just singing, games and rhythm. Géza Szilvay encourages kindergarten music, doing movement and singing, so that children’s whole bodies are like instruments. They know what they are doing and their coordination is developed before the instrument is touched.

It’s important that pupils know what they are trying to achieve, says Nelson. ‘Children have to learn how to listen and to be able to hear in their head how a tune will sound. If they start young they must sing right from the beginning, otherwise they have no idea what they are trying to do. It’s the brain that makes the body work. I don’t let a child in the early stages start playing a tune unless they know what it sounds like.’

When pupils have started on an instrument, many teachers like to see them twice a week, normally once individually and once in a group. ‘Individual lessons are very important physically, mentally and technically,’ says Szilvay. ‘But the group is very important socially, perhaps even more than the individual lessons.’

Leddra recalls a young girl who couldn’t come to her group lessons. ‘Even though she came from a musical family she didn’t have the degree of confidence that the other children had. It’s much harder to do something in a group than on your own.’

Once they are a little older, students can prosper more on their own, and parental involvement becomes less crucial. Howard will teach seven-year-olds without having a parent present, and, as Szilvay says, the increased understanding of an older child can compensate for a lateness in starting.

There may be an age when it is too late to achieve full mastery of a stringed instrument, but it is never too late to go a fair distance. Lumsden has started people in their fifties who have gone on to have semi-professional careers, and recalls a cellist who only started when she retired, and went on to take a Grade 8 exam successfully. Elliott took on a 15-year-old pupil who won a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music three years later.

As for younger children, while it may be tempting to want an easy solution, the best age to start learning a stringed instrument depends on a range of factors: the speed of the child’s mental and physical development; the choice of instrument and teaching method; the scope and quality of parental involvement; and the musical life that is envisioned or dreamt of, be it professional soloist or amateur orchestral player. A one-size-fits-all approach does not apply. Nor would any teacher suggest a best age across the board. As Nelson says, ‘That would just be silly.’

Photo: Belinda Lawley

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