Teaching children to play musical instruments

Teaching music to children is sometimes viewed as a difficult task, and music itself is often considered a skill that must be inborn. I don't believe so. I've been on both sides of this fence as I did not understand music as a child. Since learning music as an adult I've been questioning why this happened. The following points on teaching music to children arose from this study.

Cultivating interest

I think that before a child can want to learn music, they need to develop an interest in it. Learning music, and especially playing an instrument, requires a lot of effort. Without a strong personal interest, they may not see the point.

There is no formulaic way of approaching this, but just exposing a child to a large range of music is a good first step. This gives a broad sense of what music is and increases the chance that something they hear will resonate with them, creating a drive to learn to play it themselves. Exposure to instruments, such as through a parent who plays, will also help. Children learn a lot through observing their environment, and seeing music being played elevates it from 'something that magically exists' to 'something that I can learn how to do'.

Music is a big topic which broadly divides into melody, harmony and rhythm, and a child can be guided to recognise these different aspects while listening. I believe that initial teaching should take this wide perspective, as real music almost always includes at least two of these factors. They can also be guided to recognise how different instruments contribute to different parts of music, and it may be interesting to note that some fill several roles at once. All instruments have limitations and few, if any, offer a uniform perspective.

Using individual interests

Once this initial interest has surfaced, or if a child has already developed this personal interest, it can be used as a hook. Often, someone wants to learn music because they have heard a song or tune that resonates with them. They want to learn how to play it. Build on this and show them how to play it; don't bog them down with technical exercises. If that means making vast simplifications and playing really slowly, that's OK. New players have not yet learned to hear details, so even a loose facsimile can resonate and build confidence. From their point of view, they are playing their favourite song.

As someone progresses, they will notice their technique limiting them. At this point, show them how to improve it through subtle hints and guidance. A good way to do this is to make technical exercises from tune fragments. Having this connection enables the student to see how the exercise relates to the music they want to play so it is no longer an abstract thing. The human mind is associative, and it is usually easiest to understand things, when they have a clear connection to existing knowledge.

Accounting for learning styles

Music can be taught in multiple ways, to give a few examples:

Children learn in different ways and none of these are inherently correct or wrong, just different. For something to be understood, it must align with an individual's learning style. Not catering to this will lead to a subset of students thinking 'I suck at music'. This was a big obstacle for me as my learning style leans toward physics and theory.

People tend to teach along the approach that makes the most sense to them, which may or may not work for a given learner. Adults can work around this through an awareness of how they learn best. They can then browse different explanations in books or online and try multiple teachers to find methods that work for them. Children by comparison often don't have this opportunity, they may be taken to a single teacher for private tuition, or assigned to a teacher in a school. It is pot luck whether the approach that they use will work for the individual.

Groups are especially troublesome as it impossible to optimally cater to all of these learning styles, thus the lowest common denominator is often used. Whatever approach is used, it will not make sense to a subset of learners. Lumping this into 'learning disabilities' as is often done, is greatly oversimplifying the problem because even within the group that does 'get' a given methodology, there will be variations in how well it works for them. There will be a group who do understand, yet could do so more easily if something were explained differently, resulting in reduced performance. This is a multidimensional problem and not a simple one.

Passive learning should not be underestimated, either. Children can learn a lot from observing and the human mind is very good at piecing things together, even in cases where the learner is not consciously aware that this is happening. For example, my interest in technology started from watching my dad making things and doing DIY. Unlike music, I picked up those skills quite intuitively. I was exposed to things years before they came up in school and was among the best in class in these subjects.

Some students failing to understand does not imply that someone is a bad teacher, just that their approach doesn't work for the learner. I don't think anyone can teach in a way that makes sense to all students. It is important to keep an open mind, and if an approach clearly isn't working, try something else.

Learning to understand music

For children, learning to play music can be difficult because instruments are challenging. Ones initial experience with them is often gruelling and there is a substantial delay between starting to learn, and effortlessly playing music. However instruments themselves are not critical to the art of music. Music is a form of artistic expression using sound, and instruments are just a means to an end.

It is actually possible to develop an understanding of music without traditional instruments. A common way that this is already done is through singing, but it can also be approached through non-traditional instruments. Tools such as MIDI sequencers and SonicPi allow music to be created without rote practise, as pitch and timing are automated for the player. Such tools may well be the best 'first instrument' for that reason.

Something that could be given more attention is to relate music learned through song to these instruments. I distinctly remember singing songs that I liked, but having no idea how to play them on an instrument. So perhaps teach the same thing using both techniques. It is also probable that MIDI sequencers connect more directly with the music that children these days are exposed to.

Approaching physical instruments

I feel that once a child has grasped the basics of music through singing, and using tools like MIDI sequencers, they are in a better position to approach learning a physical instrument. This task can be made much easier with good approach.

Playing an instrument can appear to be a single task, but it is actually a number of separate skills, such as rhythm and melody. Attempting to learn all of these at once is usually overwhelming for a beginner, and thus they are best taught separately. I believe that rhythm is the best place to start as almost everything in music is based on it. Rhythm is also intuitive to learn by ear, ignoring the technicalities of sheet music.

While teaching someone to play a melody on an instrument, you can demonstrate how to clap along with the melodies rhythm while listening to a recording. Additionally, instead of clapping, a percussion instrument such as a drum or egg shaker can be used. If this is done repeatedly, it will enter the child's subconscious; thus, they will no longer have to think about it. To achieve this, it MUST be practised regularly. One lesson a week is NOT enough. Guide them to practise slowly with a focus on accuracy, and make a point of how it gets easier after a few days if they are struggling.

Once a child has learned to reproduce a rhythm, the corresponding melody can be layered on top. I feel it is easiest to do this with a percussion instrument like a xylophone or glockenspiel. These instruments require little in the way of physical accuracy to reproduce a basic tune. Their mechanics are also very simple, with no need for complex finger movements or breath control: you just bash the right bar with a stick, and hitting the bars too hard won't cause the instrument to go out of tune. The structure of such instruments is also easily grasped, once a child understands octaves.

Teaching muscle memory effectively

As noted previously, when some muscle movements such as the fingerings of an instrument are repeated frequently they become automatic. This is called muscle memory and is absolutely critical to playing musical instruments. Developing this skill requires regular practice, far more than the one lesson a week typically given to music in schools.

I suspect it would be better to have a lesson every day for a few weeks in the beginning. This directly shows the learner how muscle memory develops if they practise regularly and doesn't require them to take that on faith. Simply telling them to practise is unlikely to be effective as they have no context to understand that. Obviously, it isn't practical to maintain this indefinitely, but it should be enough to plant a seed.

Beyond this, pairing with a parent or guardian who also plays or is simultaneously learning is a good idea. Practising with someone else is a lot more enjoyable, especially for young children with a short attention span. Plus, while a child can understand something in a lesson, when they come back to it after a day or two, the context is lost and they may not understand anymore. Pairing solves this as the adult can explain things when needed.

Music may also be promoted as a fun social thing. Encourage the children to form bands and get them to show off their skills to each other. This creates a natural competition which encourages practice. Make sure that making mistakes is socially accepted and encourage them to point out each other's errors.

Teaching technique

Playing an instrument is technically complex and there are numerous errors that can be made in technique. In the case of the ocarina, one has to:

In each of these cases, there are many ways that things can go wrong. Just holding the instrument offers mistakes like covering holes using the fingertips or forcing the thumb to bend backwards. It may be best to teach initial lessons one-on-one as it is easier to notice and quickly correct mistakes.

Children often don't respond well to being told exactly what to do, and would rather mess around. This often ends up being self-detrimental as they land on a bad technique, and end up getting frustrated as a result. A solution to this problem is to use the intuitive 'bad' approach advantageously, by showing the child how the good approach makes the task easier. Verbal cues may be used to reinforce this without being invasive.

Environmental teaching is also a useful approach. In this technique, instead of telling the student what to do, they are placed in an environment in which the solution is obvious. An example of how this can be used for teaching music is playing with accompaniment. It is the most intuitive way I know of developing a sense for intonation as the interaction of the sounds makes tuning errors sound outright bad.

Don't assume that children will intuitively correct postural errors. I experienced a similar problem with my pen grip for writing. I have hitchhiker's thumbs and, for a long time, folded my thumb back while holding a pen or pencil. This causes joint pain and made me avoid writing until I got a computer. It is pretty easy to rectify by keeping my thumb straight, but I wasn't aware of that.

Avoiding confusion from simplifications

Making simplifications is fine if it helps someone to progress but it may also be misleading. While learning a simplification, it is easy to assume that it is the whole story. Suddenly revealing additional complex layers can be really off-putting and cause a student to give up. Consequently, I believe that there should always be a hint to the learner that they don't have the whole story.

I cannot recommend ocarina tabs for this reason, as there is a huge volume of missing information and little indication that it is missing. By comparison, if you ignore rhythm and focus on the note heads while learning sheet music, it's blatantly obvious that you don't have the whole story.

If a student asks a question about omitted details, at least try to answer it. At one point in my school music class, the teacher introduced the basics of keyboard and sheet music, and I asked, 'What are the black keys for?' While this is a perfectly natural question, it was shrugged off. That response caused me to falsely assume that it's extremely complicated. If instead they had shown me another scale or introduced the major scale formula, I may not have abandoned music.

In closing

While music is a big subject, I do not believe that it is the intangible 'black art' that it is often viewed as. Children can be guided to discover music that they like, which may lead to an interest in playing it themselves. I don't think this process can be forced, as it may take a long time for things to fall into place. In my opinion music should be taught broadly, without excessive focus on a single instrument.

I don't think that everyone has to enjoy playing music. Some will take to it immediately, some will come back to it years later and some may never do so. This is OK—people have different strengths and weaknesses. Children should be allowed to explore and discover what there's are. Nobody is good at everything.