I’ve heard that question dozens of times over the years. Being a parent myself with two grown children who both played musical instruments (not the guitar, by the way) I know where that question is coming from. In the best case it comes from a desire to expose a youngster to the joys and challenges of learning how to play music. Most parents have an understanding either from playing themselves or from observing other children of the long-term value of learning to play an instrument. They want their kids to have that opportunity.
Unfortunately, at times there is another element in play. Some parents feel they should involve their child in as many activities as possible – organized sports usually is a big part of this but it might include things like getting their child into private tennis, golf, skating, or horseback riding lessons, and many other activities. They feel that if their child is “booked up” for a large portion of the time they are not in school the child will not be bored and will be able to decide where they really want to put in more concerted effort when they get a little older.
Call me Old School. OK, guilty as charged. When our kids were small and I saw this happening with their classmates and friends I was often appalled and amazed. Yes, Matt and Joanna briefly took private lessons on the drums and flute, respectively, and Matt was involved in Little League and fall soccer. Joanna tried group skating lessons briefly. But I felt then and now that they needed “down time” and you know what? They both did just fine and while neither of them play their instruments at this time (although I believe Matt will return to playing the drums as soon as it’s practical) being involved in school band throughout their years in public school DID teach them all the things that most parents hope for when a kid plays an instrument. Matt is an attorney in Texas and Joanna is an RN in the labor and delivery department at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. I don’t think they missed tennis, golf, or horseback riding lessons.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. Just whose idea was it for the youngster in question to play the guitar? Does the kid have a relative or friend who plays and they said – without coaching from a parent – hey, I’d like to play the guitar! Or was it a parent who perhaps thought about the possibility of listening to their child squeaking away on a clarinet and decided that guitar was not only way cooler but easier to listen to? Or worse yet – that the guitar would be easier than some orchestral or band instrument? "Hey Johnnie! How would you like to learn to play the guitar?!"
If I’m beginning to sound a bit harsh I apologize. But after teaching guitar for about 40 years I can say this without hesitation. Guitar is unlike almost any other instrument in one simple way that few if any kids understand before they start: It hurts!
You can put a three-year-old down on a piano bench and he or she will plunk away, and while it couldn’t be called music it at least sounds like a piano. Not so with the guitar. Until little fingers get strong and calluses begin to develop it is very, very difficult to coax even the most basic musical sounds out of a guitar. In defense of the child, they have never been asked to arch their fingers and using their fingertips, press down as hard as they can on sharp objects!
The reality is, in those 40 years of teaching I have seen less than 50% of kids younger than the age of 10 succeed on the guitar. There are many reasons for this but it is the cold, hard truth. And I would submit – if a child tries to learn to play the guitar and does not progress or succeed and stops playing, what kind of lesson have they learned? Worse yet, suppose they have already tried that squeaky clarinet and not succeeded on that, either? Is the parent then subtly driving home the terrible thought that a child is just not “musical” when that is most likely totally absurd?
For this and other reasons I have made the decision to not accept students younger than the age of ten. From a purely self-serving standpoint, I know I’m losing potential business by doing this and Lord knows, I can always use more students! But in too many cases a younger student trying to learn the guitar will quite likely be doing nothing more than wasting their parent’s money and my time.
Again, sorry to sound so harsh! So let’s look at things in a more positive light. In the next part of this blog I’ll go into what a kid and their parents should expect from learning the guitar, what practicing is all about, how to select a good beginner level guitar and much more.
Peace & good music,