I Teach Music For A Living And These Are My 8 Tips For Getting Kids To Stick With An Instrument

For those about to rock.

by Tom Serb
Originally Published: 

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What’s the best approach to teaching a child how to play an instrument?

Be Enthusiastic

This is helpful in teaching anyone, but it’s critical with kids. You have to convey the sense that learning music is a fun adventure, not a chore.

Be Encouraging

Playing an instrument requires developing fine motor skills. A quick glance at a child’s handwriting is a great reminder that they don’t have a lot of muscle control yet, so they’re going to find some things frustrating. If a child is really hitting a wall with something, I’ll turn back to a piece they did some months earlier and have them play it, and remind them that they once found it hard — so if they don’t give up, in another month or 2 they’ll think the piece they’re working on is easy.

Unsplash (Laith Abuabdu)

Match Your Vocabulary To Theirs

A lot of kids won’t tell you when they don’t understand something, and it’s easy to assume they get what you’re saying. I remember teaching a 6-year-old guitar, and telling her to arch her fingers, but she didn’t understand what “arch” meant. “Curl” or “curve” might have worked better, but the really brilliant explanation came from the student herself when she got the concept: she said “oh, you hold a guitar like you pick up a bug!” (I’ve used that description with young kids ever since!)

For another example, explaining 3/4 time to a kid who has never done or seen a waltz can be tough, but you can say and clap “Roses are red, violets are blue” and get the idea across quickly.

Make Sure You’re Using Appropriate Lesson Materials

This is going to depend on the instrument. Some method books start with tunes that are easy to read, but aren’t the easiest to play. For example, the Suzuki recorder method begins with a low D note, which is harder for a complete beginner to play than a G.

Be Familiar With The Challenges A Method Presents, And Adjust The Order If Needed

For example, on guitar I typically use the Mel Bay Primer with young kids, because all the material is in single notes. But that book does present a first string A note (which requires a stretch or a position shift) before moving to the second string. I’ll usually skip over that and come back to it a bit later.


For piano there are a lot of methods to choose from. I’ve taught kids as young as 4 using “Music for Little Mozarts,” which teaches musical concepts through a story about Mozart Mouse and Beethoven Bear (the bear likes loud low sounds, the mouse likes soft high sounds, etc.), but by about age 8 they might think a method like that is “for babies” — the Alfred Premier Piano or Schaum Piano methods might be better. You should also estimate their learning speed from what you know or observe, as methods move ahead at different speeds — Schaum moves ahead faster than the Alfred series. You don’t want to hold back a kid with aptitude, but on the other end of the scale you don’t want the material to become too frustrating before they’ve built up their confidence level.

Most instruments have a decent kid’s method — percussion has the Alfred Kid’s Drum Course and the Kid’s Drumset course. The Suzuki books for orchestral strings are quite good.

Be Aware Of, And Compensate For, Weaknesses In The Materials You Use

Try to figure out, and keep in mind, what the goal of the material’s author is — methods like “Accent on Achievement” have the goal of having a school band play tunes together, so the tunes are arranged in level of difficulty for the band as a whole; individual instruments will find some tunes easier than others.

The goal of the Mel Bay guitar method books is to teach reading standard notation, which is easiest in the key of C. But the key of C uses an F major chord, which is difficult for beginners. By understanding the limitations inherent in the method you’re using, you can create your own supplemental material, which is helpful for virtually any instrument. I’ve yet to see a method series that was ideal for every student.


Shortcuts Are Okay, But Have A Plan For Replacing Them

For example, you can teach a rhythm by syllabification. Four-sixteenths and 2/8 is “Miss-is-sip-pi hot dog.” But you want the child to be able to count rhythms as other musicians do, so you’ll need to replace that with one-e-and-a-two-and before it’s ingrained too deeply.

Be Ready To Change Gears At A Moment’s Notice

I teach private lessons, which are booked in half hour slots. That can stress a youngster’s attention span. When you notice they’re flagging a bit, do something different. Your goal is to develop a young musician, so move to a different skill. Maybe we set the method book aside and do some ear training (does this chord sound happy or sad?) or move to clapping out rhythms.

Tom Serb is a professional guitarist. He is also the founder and director of Midwest Music Academy in Plainfield, IL. You can read more from Quora below:

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