All this year, Birdy has been asking me if she can learn the violin. I hate saying ‘no’ to this, because I remember how passionately I wanted to play the guitar when I was 5. For about a year I begged my parents for a guitar and I will always remember the sheer joy of waking up on my fifth birthday and finding a guitar on my seat at the breakfast table. It’s still one of the happiest memories of my childhood. Unfortunately my fingers were too small to start lessons and by the time they had grown, the one and only guitar teacher had left town. It would be another ten years before that guitar saw any real action, but I kept the love alive for all that time. So when Birdy asks me if she can play the violin, the sentimental side of me wants to say yes, but the rational side of me knows I can’t afford to pay for music lessons while I’m not working.

I have to confess there’s another reason I’m not willing to let Birdy start the violin just yet and that is because I know it’s going to be painful. This was vividly brought home to me when I heard her school band absolutely slaughtering Abide with Me on Anzac Day. We almost need to have another special day to commemorate the pain and suffering that was inflicted at the Anzac service, it was SO bad. I know that if Birdy starts learning an instrument like the violin, the first few years are going to be ugly. Personally, I’d rather defer that pain until a time in my life when I’ve had more sleep.

One of the most common questions that parents ask music teachers is what age should children begin music lessons and what instrument should they start on. One of my friends runs a music teaching business and she once told me that it’s helpful if children can read and know their alphabet before you’re trying to teach them to read music (unless you’re doing the Suzuki method). But in general anywhere between 6 and 10 seems to be a good age to start. (Unless you want your child to be a concert musician, in which case it’s probably too late.) Personally I’m a fan of learning the piano first because it’s less painful to listen to – you can’t play it out of tune – but also it’s so much easier to understand because you can see visually exactly where every note is in relation to every other one.

Amanda Niland is a Lecturer at the Institute of Early Childhood at Macquarie University and Commissioner of the Early Childhood Music Education Research Commission. She says, “We all learn best when we are intrinsically motivated, that is, when we really want to learn something. So the best time to start instrument lessons is when children show an interest or ask to learn.” But they also need to be committed enough to practice if you want them to learn an instrument. Can you see your 4 or 5 year old practicing every day? If not, it might be best to wait a little longer or start a more general early childhood music program.

“Children are naturally attracted to music and respond to it joyfully even as very young babies,” Amanda says. “The earliest communication between mothers and their babies is inherently musical: adults use a singing-like voice to which babies respond with great interest. Adults rock, pat or jiggle their babies rhythmically, which babies find soothing and satisfying. Children are born with musical potential, which is then developed through experiences with music in their daily lives.” There’s no doubt that there are benefits for children in learning and practicing music in formal lessons. There is some evidence that learning music long-term and from an early age can improve children’s IQ. But even without that, there are many benefits: the discipline of practicing, fine motor skills, learning to perform in front of others, creativity, confidence, self-expression and listening skills.

With all this in mind, I decided to take Birdy along to the Australian Girls Choir. It’s cheaper than learning an instrument, but still a step towards more formal music education. If you’ve never heard of the Australian Girls Choir, just go on u-tube and check their version of Thriller from last year. It’s seriously cool. So I was all excited about it, but unfortunately at the end of her trial class Birdy decided she didn’t want to do it. She just wasn’t as excited about it as I was. At first I was gutted, but then I realised that learning to play and appreciate music is just like learning to read or to dance – what you do at home is just as important as what happens in a formal lesson.

Amanda Niland agrees, “In music as in every other aspect of learning and development, children learn most through play. If you would like your children to include active music-making in their lives, then it is essential that their early musical experiences are enjoyable.” So just listening to music, singing nursery rhymes, making your own instruments, playing games with rhythm and clapping, or where you have to guess what song the other person is humming, all these things just as important as paying a lot of money to learn an instrument. I like to think of it as home-schooling music lessons. And with all the money we’re saving, we can afford to splurge on the occasional Play School concert or Babies Proms!

Did you learn an instrument as a child? Did you enjoy it or was it a burden?  Have you started your child learning an instrument?  How have they responded?  What do you think is a good age to start?