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The Debate Over Early Music Education

We know that “educational” TV for preschoolers and early learning toys for babies don’t add up to smarter kids. But what about music training? Music instruction aimed at the newborns to age 5 set continues to proliferate, and parents are signing up tots in record numbers. Does earlier training give your young Amadeus a head start?

Early childhood programs are designed to be fun for children as well as to position them for future music training, says Jennifer Roemer, a Plano piano instructor and pedagogy specialist. “The kids don’t even know they are learning; their perception is one of having fun and playing musical games,” she observes. “And, if the child has completed [an early] program … he will already have sufficient reading skills, working music vocabulary and music-making experiences to ensure a successful transition to private lessons.”

For serious instrumental training, an early start provides truly gifted children with the opportunity to advance earlier rather than later. But for the average child, the results even out over the years. “With the typical child, an earlier beginning generally means slower progress at the beginning,” Roemer notes. “By age 10 or so, a child who began at age 4 will most likely be at the same level he would have been had he begun at 7.” Early pressure can backfire, she adds: “If the teacher and child are not well-matched or if the child was not truly ready, the experience could be a frustrating one, which could result in the child developing a strong dislike for music and music-making.”

The “sweet spot” for starting serious instrumental training is generally about 6 to 7, according to Roemer. Special methods like the Suzuki method for piano or violin work best for children who are interested in starting before then. For these early learning methods, she cautions, parents must be prepared to be an integral part of the practice and learning process. They should also ensure that children learn to read music through standard methods, so that they can transition to traditional training as they grow older.

Plano’s Meg Horigome is the mother of an 8-year-old pianist who started Kindermusik at 9 months old and Suzuki method piano lessons at age 3. “I'm from Japan, and in Japan they start early with music lessons,” she explains. “He always loved music and it seemed like a natural thing to do. Music is like a mother tongue. The earlier you are exposed to it, it becomes more natural to you.”

The right teacher and the right training make all the difference in keeping young students focused and interested. “I don't think it is difficult to stay focused if you have a good teacher,” Horigome says. “At younger age, you need a teacher who knows how to redirect a child … but at private lessons, it’s all about you, so it is easy to stay focused.”