At what age should children start to learn to play an instrument?

In part this depends on the instrument; there are obvious restrictions in terms of size – small hands can’t reach the fingerings on a bassoon, for example! Hindhead Music Centre offers a carefully planned approach to the development of children’s musical abilities. We take the view that there is nothing much that can or should be done in the way of formal musical training until about the age of three, though of course children should listen to as much music as they like before then!

Our term-long Mini-Music classes for four to seven year olds allow children to have a go at instruments in perfectly balanced reduced sizes, helping establish which instrument a child is drawn towards playing, and more often than not, this is same instrument that our tutor suspects they will have the greatest aptitude for. Starting formal lessons depends upon the nature of that instrument, which is something we can discuss with parents.

The violin and cello are both available in perfectly balanced reduced sizes, so small hands don’t lead to bad habits stretching to reach the correct fingering; children as young as three can learn on a sixteenth-sized violin following the Suzuki method. However, this requires considerable effort on the part of a parent, who must sit in on the lessons, listen carefully to what is said, taking notes and then ensuring that their child practises every day. Our view is that it is far better (and cheaper!) to start at about five or six, when the child him- or herself will have more motivation.

We recommend that children who are thinking of playing the viola start on the violin, and transfer later to the bigger instrument, for reasons of size and repertoire.

While it can be fun for youngsters to pick out a tune on a piano, there are no small-sized versions of the instrument, and small hands cannot reach without contortions, so our view is that is far better to wait until the fingers are able to cope comfortably; six is a good age to begin to play the piano with structured tuition. While some teachers take children from as young as three, we find that in order to overcome some of the physical difficulties of small hands, bad habits can arise which may be difficult to correct as the hands grow. Most children will learn more quickly one their physique is not holding them back.

The harp is similar to the piano, in that the fingers need to be able to reach the strings without contortion, so six is also a good age for harpists to begin learning.

Playing a wind instrument depends not only on hand size, but breath control. Teeth play also a part, as it is not easy to play any wind or brass instrument if you have no front teeth! Breath control is obviously very important for all wind players. It all begins in the lungs, so learning what we call ‘diaphragm breathing’ is the first essential. This means using the lower region of your lungs and not just gulping air and half-filling them and raising your shoulders. The air then has to be released correctly from the mouth. This is called embouchure, and enables learners to make a beautiful sound. In addition to this, there is also finger technique to master.

The clarinet is probably the easiest wind instrument to start when young; we suggest at eight years old, if the child’s arms are long enough to allow fingers to cover all the keys.

It is less easy to make a sound on the flute, and the embouchure can take longer to master, but it is possible to have a curved headjoint fitted which returns on itself so that the stretch is not impossible for short arms. Again, eight years old is the earliest we would recommend when beginning to learn too play the flute.

Due to tricky breath control – you have to learn to exhale before inhaling – it is not advisable to begin to play the oboe until 10 or 11 years old.

Brass instruments have similar requirements to woodwind instruments. The cornet is often considered easier than the trumpet to play, in that it is slightly smaller and therefore lighter to hold. The trombone inevitably requires longer arms and plenty of puff!

The horn – one of the most beautiful wind instruments – requires good lungs, and a certain musical ear. It is heavy to hold for the very young, so again, the earliest age we would recommend is eight or nine years old.

Drums are great for children with good rhythmic sense, but bear in mind that they are not popular with the neighbours unless you have sound insulation!

As well as choral and group singing, we offer singing lessons and voice training. No age is too young to begin singing!

Buying an Instrument

Once the choice of instrument is made, we come to how to acquire one for daily practice. We often see advertisements saying ‘Instrument for sale, would suit a beginner’. The instrument must be in good working order and make a sound which the player will enjoy, as well as being the best possible instrument to produce the best possible results, so buy one which covers these requirements. It may be a good idea to hire an instrument to begin with, so that you don’t fork out a great deal of money until you are sure that your child enjoys playing it.

Some instruments – for example, violins and cellos – improve with age, as the wood mellows. On the other hand instruments with a greater number of mechanical parts are likely to wear out with age. If possible, seek the advice of a teacher or a musician who plays the instrument in question; there can be hidden pitfalls of which the uninitiated may be unaware.

It is advisable to have a piano checked for pitch, as some old pianos may not be able to be brought up to concert pitch, and a child’s ear needs to be trained to play in tune.