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Get your child in tune with music

Is earlier better when it comes to music lessons?

Today's cultural norm seems to be a desire to produce children who are smarter and more accomplished at earlier ages. Starting with music-in-the-womb programs, parents are bombarded with enrichment options, and it's hard to judge what is actually developmentally appropriate for your own growing children.

Pressure on parents
Is earlier really better when it comes to traditional music lessons? If children can start Suzuki violin at age three, does this mean your child will somehow be "behind" if she waits until age six to begin studying piano?

Andrea Soberman, former director of Musical Munchkins of Orange, says, "Feeling bad about anything is never productive. If your child does not seem to be ready for formal music lessons, there are musical programs that do not require the very structured one-on-one format of learning to play an instrument."

Music lessons can all too often be a frustrating and even painful experience for a child who is not developmentally or musically ready for them; and most children - even those obviously musically inclined - can benefit from waiting a little longer to start traditional lessons.

Are traditional lessons the right choice?

Traditional music lessons involve learning to read music, and they require a high degree of hand-eye coordination. They are inevitably product-oriented, focused on semi-regular recitals at which the student's learning will be displayed and sometimes judged.

Soberman says, "Formal lessons require a certain amount of focus and follow through, fine motor dexterity and a basic reading readiness."

If your child is easily frustrated and has little patience for repetitious tasks, it's probably better to continue for a while longer with non-formal music and movement programs.

READ MORE: Questions to ask when choosing an enrichment program

The most important readiness factor

Temperament and developmental readiness are only part of the equation. Alexia Tate, director of Music Together with Alexia in Peekskill, says, "A child will be more ready for formal music lessons if they have basic music competence. Can they sing a song on pitch? Do they have rhythm?"

Even an exceptionally mature and motivated child can flounder in traditional lessons without tonal and rhythmic competence. Soberman insists that the most important factor is the desire on the part of the child to play an instrument. "Developing interest is paramount in a young child's developing years," she says.

Learning through doing

Tate stresses the importance of making music together with children in the home. She says, "All children are born with a musical aptitude that can decrease if they are not making music or if they don't see music being made around them." Children often grow up with passive musical experiences from CDs and television. These offer little opportunities for the active engagement needed to learn.

READ MORE: Choose the best enrichment for your child

Growing up with music

The best way to help your child prepare for music lessons is to provide a rich environment with active music experiences. Young children learn through play. Singing, saying rhythmic rhymes, and moving to music are not only fun but beneficial. Tate says, "Instead of just listening to a CD, sing along with your child. Grab some pots and pans and make music together."

"Parents play a large role in developing their child's musical ability. Parents don't have to be a musician to do so," says Soberman. "Expose children to musical expression by playing simple instruments, homemade or store bought. Dance and move to music, sing songs, make fingerplays, and say bounce rhymes. All these facilitate language development as well as bonding between parent and child."

READ MORE: Activities for tiny tots

Any child can be musical
If your child is not ready for formal lessons, group classes are a great way to get children involved in music in a much more casual environment. "Group classes for young children are a great way for parents to learn how to play music with their children and learn ways to enhance the musical experience with their children," says Soberman. "With a trained early childhood music teacher, your child can experience music in a supportive, loving and creative atmosphere."

Every child is capable of taking part in and enjoying music, according to Tate. She says, "Getting together in a community to make music is all part of advancing primary music development."

Kenneth K. Guilmartin is the founder and director of Music Together and coauthored the Music Together curriculum in 1987.