Jackie was interviewed and her pure innocence and love of performing was apparent. I had to wonder though - what lies ahead for her? All I can hope is that her parents watch very, very carefully the people who will surround her in years to come. There are many well known stories of young musical talents being pushed too hard, too fast with very sad results. You can only hope she is able to find the balance between her talent and those who want to help/exploit her.
On a much more personal level, I'm frequently asked what the appropriate age is for a kid to start playing guitar. This is a very difficult question, to say the least. I've seen players as young as age 6 do very well, but alas, those are not common. Even though I'm certain is costs me business, my rule is to not start a kid on guitar until the age of 10. Here's why.
First and foremost, in the beginning learning to play the guitar hurts! Until fingers get strong and calluses develop the amount of time a person can practice is limited. Adults can understand this. Even if they find playing very uncomfortable they will suck it up and keep going, confident that things WILL get easier. Kids have a tough time with this however. Remember - their world is measured in much smaller increments of time than adults. A month or two is nothing to an adult; to a kid that amount of time is long indeed, for simple fact that they have not been on this planet all that long!
There are things that can be done to ease the process somewhat. Having the appropriate guitar is of paramount importance. A big dreadnaught that belonged to an uncle, which has sat in a closet for years and has awful action is a sure formula for failure. That guitar might have even been a nice one at one point but a kid just can't handle the physical size of the instrument and trying to press down on the strings when they're a half inch off the neck is asking way too much. Fortunately there are quite a few 3/4 size instruments available today that play and sound quite good and don't cost all that much.
Some parents will suggest starting with a classical (nylon string) guitar and while those strings are certainly easier on the fingers, classicals have very wide necks and whatever advantage is gained in ease of pressing down compared to steel strings is negated by the fact that small hands have real trouble reaching around those wide necks. A somewhat viable solution is stringing up a guitar designed for steel strings with nylon but the sacrifice in both volume and tone quality is pretty substantial. It can work though, and I've done that from time to time, switching back to steel strings after the kid has developed some rudimentary technique. Another alternative is using "silk and steel" strings, which are kind of a compromise between all steel and nylon.
So what do you do if your 7 or 8 year-old says "I want to play the guitar!" My advice is to encourage his or her interest - it is a fine pursuit and playing any musical instrument has benefits way beyond the playing itself - this is well documented in music education. But it is vital to make them (as much as possible) understand that there is going to be some pain involved in the beginning and that they will be required to practice on a regular basis. I advise parents to designate a certain time every day, say just before or just after dinner when the guitar is the kid's total focus. If they still want to play after having this discussion, start the search for an appropriate guitar. I will be happy to take a look at Uncle Jack's old guitar and let a parent know if it is useable, without charge.
The next step is to perhaps utilize the internet. There are many good, basic beginner guitar web sites that offer at the very least some basic chord diagrams and even video and audio content. See what the child's reaction it to this - and help them with what you both see, in terms of taking written notes and answering any questions they may have, to best of your ability. Then see what happens. If the child picks up the guitar without being prompted the next day or over the next few days, you have some great potential on your hands.
Will your child be the next Jackie Evancho? Unlikely. But who knows? Encouragement is key and a few complements about a child's playing go a long, long way.
Then, on their tenth birthday, give me a call! Only time will tell if a child will succeed but having the right teacher is also very, very important.
Peace & good music,