So let’s suppose you do have a 10-year-old who really wants to play. The first thing you MUST do is explain to them that they are going to have to practice regularly. That means at least four or five times between lessons and every day would be better. Although this is sometimes difficult and even impossible certain weeks it is vital for the simple fact that there is nothing a kid has ever done in every day life that compares to playing a guitar, at least from a purely physical standpoint. And that is vitally important to understand: in the purest sense, playing the guitar is exercise. Like any form of exercise, doing it frequently in moderate amounts is far more beneficial than doing a lot on an infrequent basis.
Also, as I mentioned last time, there’s no getting around the fact that at least for a few weeks it’s going to hurt a bit to press down on those strings. This is a tough one – kids are used to short term gratification with the expectation of success. To make a child understand that he or she has to keep at it even though it may take a few weeks to see substantial progress is often difficult. This of course is part of my job – to evaluate a kid’s progress and not overwhelm him while still looking for and expecting progress, all the while offering encouragement. But remember – I only see that child once a week and I want him to look forward to his lesson, not dread it. I understand that some weeks are going to better than others in terms of the amount of practice time but the parent who’s writing that check every month should reasonably expect that their child will get better. The key there is offering support and encouragement on a daily basis and figuring out how to remind a child to practice without it seeming like nagging. A challenge, for sure!
So if you feel the child can at least somewhat understand his responsibility and the issue of practicing has been resolved it’s time to pick out a guitar. I could write 10,000 words about this but I’ll boil that down to one simple fact. I have seen bad guitars do more to discourage beginners, young and old alike than every other cause of discouragement combined. If a child has to struggle with a guitar because the strings are too high to press down effectively, or just simply that the instrument is too big to hold comfortably he has two big strikes against him before he plays much of anything.
Start by selecting a guitar that is small enough to be held without too much effort. For most kids that means something like a ¾ size instrument, or one that is “concert” size. A reputable dealer or an experienced relative or friend who plays should be able to help with this. Avoid jumbo or “dreadnaught” size guitars as they are difficult to reach around to play and the neck is often too long for young arms and hands to control.
Consider starting with an instrument that has nylon or at least light or extra light gauge steel strings. These are somewhat easier on young, tender finger tips. One proviso here – avoid full size “classical” guitars because while they have nylon strings the width of the neck makes reaching around it difficult for small hands. So what you gain with nylon vs. steel is negated by the wide, usually thick neck. You can put nylon strings on a guitar that is supposed to have steel but you will lose some of the sound (volume, sustain, resonance) of the guitar because it is heavily braced internally to deal with the much higher stress and pressure of steel strings. This may be a viable, short-term solution however; you can always re-string the guitar with steel as the student becomes more experienced and his or her fingers get stronger.
If the child is going to be learning on Uncle Joe’s old guitar that’s been sitting in the closet for ten years, be sure to take it to the teacher before the first lesson to find out if it is viable. I say to go BEFORE the first lesson because on occasion I’ve had young students arrive with Uncle Joe’s old clunker and after being excited for their first guitar lesson be hugely disappointed to hear me have to tell them that the guitar they’ve brought is functionally unplayable. Not a good first impression of learning how to play the guitar!
Finally, explain to the child that they are going to try lessons for one month, then decide if they want to continue. This will “cut to the chase” for all concerned. A kid should know after a month whether playing the guitar is something they truly want to do. Assuming the answer is yes, stay aware of how long and how much a child is practicing and give encouragement at every opportunity. Everyone learns at different rates. A kid who is an average student at best in school can progress rapidly, and likewise, one who is at the top of his class academically may find learning the guitar is a big challenge. A parent may want to set a specific time for practicing, perhaps just before or after dinner – some kids really thrive with a set schedule. I hesitate to recommend a specific amount of time for each practice session but I would expect it to be at least 15 – 20 minutes per day for the first month, with twice that amount from then on. What you don’t want to do is say – you have to practice an hour every day! Because all that does is make a child spend much of the time watching the clock and then put the guitar down at one hour on the dot.
I hope these tidbits have helped someone reading them make a decision about a child beginning to learn to play the guitar, or at least led to a discussion. I welcome comments or questions.
Peace & good music,