If you can just barely bang out chopsticks on your dusty, basement-dwelling piano, it can be intimidating to find a music instructor for your child, knowing you want someone who is qualified, inspired and can provide good foundation habits and technique.
Ironically, even professionals can be challenged by the quest to give their child a solid start with music. Steven Demorest, Ph.D., University of Washington associate professor of choral music education and chair of the music education division, says he used a combination of his knowledge and instinct to choose a piano instructor for his 7-year-old daughter.
"There has been some research on how successful young musicians got started," Demorest says. "[One study] showed that the thing that tied together the kids who stayed with it was that these children had a very positive personal experience with their first instructor. What I was looking for most of all was someone I could see my daughter was excited to hang out with."
While it is important for a teacher to have good technical skills, it is equally important that the child feels comfortable and relaxed with the teacher, he adds. If parents are able, it is a good idea to pay for a trial lesson with a few teachers. Sit in on a lesson with each instructor and child, then get input from the child about his or her experience, he advises.
"You want music lessons to be fun for a child," Demorest says. "They're kids -- if it's not fun, they won't do it!"
Word of mouth is a good way to build a list of potential instructors. Perhaps your child's friend or classmate has had positive results with a local instructor your child could try. If you don't know of anyone through connections, a good bet might be to ask the band or music instructor at your child's school.
"Usually school music teachers will have a list of instructors they are familiar with," says Chris Monroe, a parent, professional local musician and percussion teacher. "If the instructor is used to dealing with those people, they are probably good. A band director will have an idea if a teacher is qualified or not or if they teach bad habits." Local music organizations and music stores can also be good sources for instructor contacts, he adds.
Scott Ketron, program development manager at Musicworks Northwest, a non-profit music school in Bellevue, says that there are many different aspects to good music instruction.
"I think the bottom line is finding someone who has been teaching for awhile and who has over 25 students," Ketron says. "They are going to be serious about doing it well."
Aside from finding a great instructor, parents may also be at a loss to know what instrument their child should start with. An 8-year-old girl may yearn to play guitar like Avril Lavigne, but developmentally may not be ready to stretch her fingers around the neck of a Stratocaster. Monroe recommends piano as a good first instrument for any aspiring musical artist.
"What I usually recommend is to have kids take a year or two of piano. Piano is a great instrument to start with because to actually get a sound out of the instrument; all you have to do is put your fingers on the keys," Monroe says. "With piano, children can learn about the basics of music in a more relaxed fashion and can get the idea of practice and how to work toward musical goals."
Once a child has locked onto an instrument and an instructor with whom he or she seems to click, what can parents do to support the music experience?
Monroe suggests that parents view music practice like homework, something they can do to improve and learn new things. He also advises against marathon practices. "It's better to practice a little bit every single day," Monroe recommends. "Fifteen to thirty minutes a day is ideal but I'd rather have a kid practice five minutes every single day rather than cram in a long practice the night before a lesson."
Lessons are wonderful for a child to have, but at minimum, providing some connection with instruments and music can be a benefit. Demorest would like to see all children have access to good music instruction, not just those who can afford it, and laments that only about 50 percent of Seattle elementary schools have a general music teacher.
"All cultures make music of some kind, which suggests something about it that is necessary to our humanity," he says.
Rhonda Aronwald is a communications consultant, freelance writer and mother of a second-grade son soon to start piano lessons.
Resources for finding a music teacher