Teaching musical instruments to children is often considered a difficult task, and I believe that a large part of this falls on the instruments themselves. The instruments and approaches traditionally used for teaching music to children stack the odds against the learner.
Frequently instruments like the recorder are used, but while they look simple, they have numerous hidden pitfalls. Oppertunities to mis cover holes, the need for breath control, and the need to control intonation. These instruments are also frequently taught before students are really aware of the fundamentals of music. Learning the mechanics of an instrument, at the same time as learning to understand rhythm, and melody is needlessly difficult.
I think that a better aproach is to build up an understanding of music gradually, and in an intuitive way, which leads to the following guiding principles:
Thus, I do not believe that any single instrument is ideal for teaching music to children, as different instruments can teach differet things.
One can start to teach an intuition of the fundamentals of music using the following instruments:
Working like this allows children to begin to develop a feel for the fundimentals of music seperately, before they try to apply them to an instrument, which is naturally going to be easier.
At this stage, things like sheet music, or counting rhythms would be needless complexity, and would probably be alianating.
It should be noted that in all of these situations, tuition is just as important as instrument choice; simply giving instruments to the children to mess with probably won't achieve much. I talk about this more on the page: thoughts on teaching music to children.
Once a child has developed some familarity with the fudimental principles of music, they should find it much easier to apply that knowlage to other instruments. Here are a few instruments that allow the basics to be combined together:
This would also be a good oppertunity to introduce the concept of scales in singing, and how they replace to different instruments. Show that the same scale can be performed on different instruments, which can teach the concept of timbre.
This would also be a good point to introduce sheet music, as it will be much easier to grasp if a student allready knows melody and rhythm. They are now relating things they know to notation, not trying to extract something alian from notation. That's more like learning to read, children learn to speak before learnng to read.
As western instruments are based on the same general ideas, once a child has grasped basics they can be applied to any instrument. I think that once a child has grasped the basic concepts, and learned how instruments relate to each other, they can learn instruments that demand more in terms of technique, as they have an appreciation of why they are doing what they are doing:
More complex instruments like these require more in technique, but they also tend to indicate when mistakes are being made. For instance, the recorder will squeal either if it is overblown, or if finger holes are not properly covered. This is a good thing as it tells the learner that they are doing something wrong. A teacher should indicate 'if it squeaks, either you are not covering the holes correctly or you are blowing too hard. Check your fingerings and don't blow as hard.'
I think it's also imortant to remember that we live in the modern world, and we now have musical instruments beyond the traditional accoustic ones, electronic instruments should not be ignored in music education as they have some advantages:
Different chidren are going to be interested in different things, and some will be naturally drawn to things like midi sequancers or sonic pi, more than traditional instruments.
Electronic instruments simulating physical instruments also have certain advantages for teaching music to children:
One of the problems of playing acoustic instruments is that many things must come together at once, and developing all of these skills takes a long time. This has been handled by ignoring large aspects of technique, such as breath control. Under this situation, the player is practically guaranteed to sound bad, as they are not fully in control of the instrument.
Isolating these issues allows a learner to sound the best their current ability allows, and enables things to be approached one at a time. I discuss this topic more on the page 'can musical instruments be naturally intuitive'.
It is worth considering that many of the instruments considered 'children's instruments' today where not designed for teaching music to children, rather they are technological ancestors of modern instruments. The chalumeau for instance is an ancestor of the modern clarinet, and was played by serious musicians of the time. Many so called 'child's instruments' seem to have been chosen based on their visual appearance, rather than a deep understanding of an instrument’s mechanics.
In actuality, the modern instruments tend to be easier to play, as they represent a higher standard of technological development. While key systems can look complex, the actual fingerings are not. Plateau keys, as found on a hole-free boehm flute make playing easier. Unlike simpler instruments, it does not matter where the finger rests on the key and partial hole venting is impossible. Though this does mean that pitch slides are impossible.
It is important to note that children are different and no single instrument, or approach will make sense to everyone. As such, I believe that multiple instruments must be used to teach music effectively. The order that things are taought is important, and introducing the basic concepts of music is more important than exactly which instrument is used.
It's important that one should not view different instruments as better or worse than any other, as this is not how music works. It seems to be a common misconception as I've talked to a number of people who have mentioned that they gave up on music as they 'did not get past the recorder'.
Musical instrument's are tools used to make a sound, and different ones make different sounds. No instrument is inherently better than any other. Also Some people will find certain things easier than others. There may well be some other instrument that connects with them.