Friday Mailbag

April 18, 2008
I spent nearly an hour on the phone this morning with a dad who is thinking about starting his almost two-year-old on lessons. He lives about a hundred miles from me, so he’s likely to not actually be coming to me for lessons. He asked a bunch of questions, some pretty common, but others not so. So for the Mailbag, I thought I’d go back over a few of the questions he asked, since they are important ones that a lot of parents ask about preschool lessons.

Q. How old should a child be to start music lessons?
A. It depends on the child. “Ready” is a relative term. My low-end limit is age 3, but some kids do better waiting until they’re closer to 4 or 5. Some aren’t ready til they’re 40. Some teachers will start students at age 2, or when they’re potty trained. I sometimes think that the better answer is “when the parent is ready.” Kids are usually ready for anything, as long it seems like a game to them and it doesn’t tax their ability to focus. Focus is trained, not genetic, and it has a lot to do with a kid’s personality. It’s usually the parent who has a harder time adjusting to the “game” and the routine involved in successful pre-school music lessons. The other factor here is money. A lot of people have a philosophical problem with paying full fee for a two-minute lesson, even though the parent gets the rest of the time. If a three-year-old is taking “lessons”, why would a teacher (or parent) want to turn it into a battle of wills and concentration by insisting on the child’s full participation for thirty minutes? It’s supposed to be fun. That’s why 40-year-olds and 90-year-olds play violin — because it’s still fun! The parent is the home teacher between lessons, at least until the child is old enough to practice on his own without supervision (age 10 or so). It would stand to reason, then, that the parent would want to know as much as possible about how to practice at home in order to keep it fun and keep the child interested. In the beginning, parents of preschoolers should be prepared for very short “lessons” with the child. But, it’s good to keep in perspective that they grow up very fast — the lessons will likely be all-kid within a year or so.
Q. How do you gauge readiness?
A. Again, every child is different. There are some pretty general signs that you can look for: ability to focus for as little as 20 seconds; ability to look whoever is speaking in the eye; ability to follow very simple instructions; interest in playing simple games with adults; interest in listening to music (not necesarily classical music) and/or singing along with music that is playing. There are others, but these are the most common things I look for when assessing a potential pre-school age student.
Q. How can I help my child get ready for lessons?
A. Listen to as much music as possible, as often as possible. Make it part of the normal daily routine. Put it on as background music. Listening at this stage does not have to be active. Engage musically with your child — sing to them and with them; teach them simple songs that have actions (like “Itsy-bitsy Spider” and “Pat-a-Cake”). Make up rhythms by banging on pots and pans in the kitchen. Make it a game and have fun.
Q. How do I interpret the teacher’s qualifications?
A. In this particular case, the dad found me through a teacher registry at the Suzuki Association of the Americas website. Suzuki Association members may choose to place themselves on this registry as a convenience for parents. We are allowed to list our registered Suzuki-sanctioned training, which for me includes ECC and pedagogy units 1A through 5. ECC is the acronym for “Every Child Can”, the Suzuki Association’s introductory course to the methodology and philosophy more properly called Talent Education. It is open to teachers, parents, high school and college students and anyone who is interested in learning more about how it works and what we consider to be the fundamentals of learning. After ECC, there is a pedagogy course for each book level; for violin teachers there are 10 book levels. There are also many supplementary courses that are offered to teachers after they have completed various levels of training. This system is currently being revamped, a certification program is being implemented, and the repertoire books are being revised. I personally am lovin’ it! The violin committee has done a fabulous job on the revisions. I am all for anything that makes it easier for the students and their parents to learn, and if it makes it easier for me to teach them, that’s a definite plus.
Q. Rent a violin or buy a violin?
A. Either. I lean toward rentals until a student has grown into a full-sized violin, but I have students who get really good deals on purchases and always get very high-quality violins. eBay is not a recommended place to buy violins, because there are too many VSAs — violin shaped objects — that are not worth the plastic and plywood it took to glue them together. Stick with reputable dealers, either locally where you live, or an online retailer that specializes in stringed instruments.
Q. Four-string or five-string?
A. Huh? I was a little taken aback at this question, because no one’s ever asked. Wow. This dad had been doing some serious homework. Cool! Anyway, five-string violins are usually found in the non-classical realm: fiddling, rock, blues, etc. The prospects of obtaining a five-string might be a good motivation for a teenager who needs a little motivating. Heck, it’s a good motivation for me! But, most students will be served quite well by a normal, four-string violin.
Q. What about electric violins?
A. I happen to own one. Got it for Christmas. As much as I hate to admit it, I chose it off … eBay (ducks head in mild embarrassment). And to my dismay, it did not arrive in one piece, and it wasn’t a shipping problem. The problems were quality-control related at the factory, although I could not get the seller to admit it. So, I have to say again, don’t buy violins off eBay. The problems it had I was able to fix or minimize myself, saving me a shipping charge to the repair facility in Canada. If the seller really even has a repair facility in Canada. It’s a nice looking violin and sounds pretty good, but it was cheap and good enough to learn on, so I can figure out exactly what kind of sound I want, what kind of upgraded amp I should get, if it needs a better bow, what kind of distortion pedal would give me the sound I want, stuff like that. Electrics are for people who already play, and a cheap one will get an aspiring rock-star started. You definitely don’t want to use one as your primary classical instrument. An acoustic with a pick-up would work for that, if you think you might want to delve into non-classical repertoire. Electric instruments are also considerably heavier than acoustics, and the sound is dead until you plug it in. And when they are plugged in, there is a completely different quality to the sound than you will get from an acoustic.
Remember, Fridays are mailbag day, so get those questions in so I don’t have to surf for links for next week’s edition.