This is a guest post by Jodie Mesler full of her wisdom on when to start a musical instrument with your child. Jodie is a music teacher and the author of The Magic Flute, a curriculum from Living Music designed to help homeschooling parents teach their children pennywhistle or recorder. She and I met when I was using her curriculum to teach recorder to my Waldorf homeschooling group. Jodie now leads the music workshops at the summer Taproot Teacher Training for Waldorf homeschoolers.
Hi, I’m Jodie, and I’m both a musician and a music teacher. My goal for my musical journey has always been to experience all the beautiful sounds of many different instruments in the hopes of one day writing my own music. Throughout school and college, professionally performing, recording, and teaching, I have learned to play the pennywhistle, recorder, pentatonic flute, the silver flute, the guitar, the bass guitar, the ukulele, the drums, and most recently, the piano and keyboard. I have a well-rounded idea of the beauty of all the frequencies of sound and rhythm, as well as a thorough knowledge of music. It is also my desire to encourage people to learn music in a living way. That is why I named my company Living Music. Music lives within us all. I am wanting to help you make it become more alive.
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Have you ever wondered when to start a musical instrument with your children? Music is such a joyful part of life. So what are the best ages for children to start learning a musical instrument? And which instruments? In this post, you’ll find a collection of ideas and suggestions for when to start on what instruments.
I have been teaching private music lessons in my home for 20 years. I am also the creator of The Magic Flute, a music curriculum. In this post, I would like to share with you my experience as a teacher and as a curriculum writer about when I think the best times are to start learning a musical instrument.
When to Start a Musical Instrument
Homeschooling Parents with Waldorf Kindergartners
Let’s say you have children who are under the age of 5. You are excited to begin teaching music, but you know that in the Waldorf approach, you don’t really start formal teaching until they enter first grade. With respect for the way children develop, you can still fill your child’s world with music by singing throughout the day. This is also a perfect time for you, the parent, to begin to teach yourself a starter instrument using only the pentatonic scale, just five simple notes. The Mood of the Fifth lives within the child during this precious time and it is of great value for him or her to hear you playing and singing songs that are pentatonic. By learning these songs, you are training yourself to hear the proper tones. And as you hear the song on the instrument, it’s easier to match the singing tone.
It’s Winter time now in the Northern hemisphere, and that often means more time indoors for families. This cold winter season is the perfect time to begin to learn a starter instrument. What if you start with songs from your own childhood that you are already familiar with? Do you have Christmas favorites or other holiday songs that you know? It’s just a matter of putting your fingers on an instrument and learning to play the right notes. There are plenty of festive winter songs, too, especially Waldorf-inspired songs. Songs about the Winter Solstice, snow, and Jack Frost. I wrote some songs about the magic of winter, including one called Make Way for King Winter. My Winter Songbook of the same name is an eBook and MP3s for your winter celebrations. This book is included as a bonus when you purchase The Magic Flute Volume 1.
What makes my books so unique is that I craft them for people who love music, but can’t necessarily read music, by adding the notes above the lyrics. This winter songbook includes the MP3s so you can hear the songs as well. If you already know the song, it makes it that much easier.
In December 2017, we did a Giveaway of the Winter Songbook. Our winner, Astrid, wrote, “Thank you so much for such fun songs! I would like to teach my children the pentatonic and diatonic recorders in a healthy way. And I am also in the midst of trying to teach one how to knit, so the Knit and Purl song is a gift that came just in time. I myself have always wanted to learn the ukelele.”
The Child at Age 6
When your child is around age 6, you can start music lessons. Waldorf schools often use a one-note recorder in grade one. Did you know that you can be creative with just one note using many different articulations, styles, rhythms, and games, while being playful? The key: discovering sound, learning rhythm, making sounds by copying nature and so on. When the child makes a sound using a blowing instrument, it becomes magical to her and it is a way for her to express her soul. As he pulls down what he hears internally, he is then able to bring what he hears in his head to his outer world via the wind instrument. Isn’t that beautiful? A clear communion between child and soul. Music teaches how to go within. By going within, you connect to all of your creative resources. That is just one of the awesome aspects of Waldorf education, as you may have read in Jean’s article about the Seven Lively Arts. Music is one of the lively arts. For your child’s music education, I provide you with many great ideas in The Magic Flute Volume 1 using only one note on the pennywhistle or recorder. We stay on just one note for at least 8 weeks. Then you simply teach only three notes for the entire year of grade one in a creative and playful way. It really is as easy as it sounds!
The Child at Age 7 and 8
This is the perfect time to begin learning music in an imaginative way. The child is out of the imitation stage and now in the imagination stage and can hold so much more in his or her mind. Learning music is similar to learning a foreign language. So at this age, the child is really ripe for learning the wonderful new “language” of music. In some Waldorf schools, they teach pentatonic recorder at this stage. On a pentatonic flute or recorder, you only have these five notes: B, A, G, D, E. Staying with just pentatonic notes makes it really easy and less intimidating. There is no way to produce a cacophonous sound, so the sound is soothing to the soul. Read on to hear about your options at this stage: pentatonic flute, recorder, or pennywhistle.
The pentatonic flute is the favorite choice for Waldorf Schools as a beginning instrument. Choroi has a wooden flute called the Quinta Pentatonic Flute which was designed as a therapeutic instrument specifically for young children. It has a soft wooden tone and has a warm feel to the touch.
Many schools use the recorder to teach children beginning music. It’s also a great choice for homeschoolers. In fact, Jean’s favorite choice is the recorder (as is Eric Fairman’s, author of the Path of Discovery curriculum series). All three of Jean’s children learned on the recorder and loved it. She was able to use it with my music curriculum. She simply had to adjust the fingering to match the recorder fingers, the note tones are the same. Jean likes the tone of the recorder better than the pennywhistle, and it is inexpensive if you buy the plastic ones. You can actually spend a little more and find a plastic one that has a soft, rounded, almost wooden sound. Here is the recorder I recommend: Yamaha Recorder YRS-314B.
My favorite choice is the pennywhistle (also known as the tin whistle) as a homeschooling parent for many reasons. It only has six holes, with no back hole. Not only can you play the pentatonic notes, but you can also play the diatonic notes, too. Like in the song from The Sound of Music: Do, Re, Mi. I prefer the one with the wooden fipple mouthpiece, not the plastic one, because it requires more breath than the recorders, which in turn builds strong healthy lungs. It has beautiful tone, is a woody/tin breathy sound, and goes up to almost three octaves. I also love that it connects us to early American history with roots from England, Scotland and Ireland. Irish music is still preserved to this day and you can go to Ireland or to any Irish pub in America and see and hear people playing the pennywhistle. Hey, did I mention, it is also very inexpensive? You don’t have to buy multiple instruments or learn the different fingering systems like you would if you choose the pentatonic flute. You see, the pentatonic flute is only used for about two years. Next you move to the recorder and you have to learn all new fingerings. Not to mention that buying all those wooden instruments gets expensive, especially if you have more than one child. With the pennywhistle, you simply stay with one fingering method which is the same fingering system you use on the silver flute, clarinet, and saxophone. Here is a link to the Clarke Pennywhistle that I recommend.
Age 7 or 8: Piano
The best time to learn the piano from what I have seen in my piano studio is age 7 or 8. But in my opinion, the piano should be the second instrument the child starts, not the first. The piano is a huge instrument of 88 keys, so it is a bit overwhelming. That is why it is best to get a foundation on a starter recorder instrument, and then move to piano. Let’s compare. Take the pennywhistle, as an example. It only has a handful of notes and is easier to master. But the piano is enormous, taking the longest to master. Also, have you ever thought about how instruments make a sound? Well, it is easy to make a sound on the piano. You just strike a key and the sound is produced. But, how does the sound work? You can’t see it or really feel it, because it is disconnected from the human to the string. The hammer strikes the note, not the hand. So, to truly get a soul connection, playing a blowing instrument connects your soul with your breath, making the pleasing soul sound you are longing for. You are developing more than just notes when you begin with a wind instrument. There is so much more going on than you think, and in my opinion (as well as Rudolf Steiner’s!) there is so much more value in starting with a blowing instrument first.
Age 9: Wind or String Instrument
A great time to start on a wind instrument, like the flute, trumpet, saxophone, etc., or a string instrument, is around age 9. All these instruments are great because they are close to the heart when you play them and you can feel the vibration connection to the soul, especially string instruments such as violin, viola, cello, or bass. What is also great is that the heart and lungs are still growing and developing physically in the child at this time so a wind instrument is a great choice for strong lungs. Also, you don’t have to stop pennywhistle! You can continue and join a Ceili Band in which you play Irish music with other musicians who play instruments like the fiddle, guitar, accordion, concertina, uileann pipes, drums, or piano. What a beautiful world music has to offer us!
Age 10 and Up: Guitar
The guitar is a great instrument and very popular. But it is big and it has six strings which can be challenging to learn. It also requires strength in your wrists and fingers pressing down all those strings. You also need great hand and eye coordination. I play the guitar and I love it, but when I have taught others how to play, I find that age 10 or even later, is a great time to start. Many kids who start earlier become frustrated and give up. If you want to start earlier, make sure your child has the physical strength. Many people say you can use a 3/4 size guitar, but they don’t tune well and don’t have the best tone. The best starter guitar instrument that I have found, that sounds good, tunes well, easy to play, and has an affordable price is a guitar called the Epiphany DR-100 Acoustic Guitar. I like the natural color as it has a bright sound. But if you like a smooth and not so bright sound, then the sunburst or black guitar is a better choice for you.
I hope you now have a better idea of when to begin a musical instrument and I hope that you are inspired to get started. I know there are exceptions to when to start, and only you will be able to discern what is best for your child. For example, I have a 3-year-old piano student who was born to play piano, and his mom recognizes that in him. We are whaling away on the piano together! Honestly, most 3-year-olds will run away from the piano and just dance. So, generally speaking and from my experience, the example of ages that I have laid out here are what I have seen to work best. There are certain windows of learning opportunities that are best for children and it all starts with you. You provide them with the magic tools to a very magical and fun musical journey.
And now for a very special treat! Want to learn how to play a song from the Winter Songbook? Here is a video where I sing the song Knit and Purl plus share the sheet music to go along with the song. Enjoy!
Our December 2017 Giveaway winner is Astrid! Congratulations!
Here’s the question we asked our readers: what instrument have you always wanted to learn and what instrument do you want to begin teaching your child?