What Age Should My Child Learn to Play a Musical Instrument or Chess?

After going on and on about the benefits of learning a musical instrument:

And how playing chess develops the brain and enhances academic performance:

I was finally asked by a parent: “When is the best age for a child to start these activities?”

I wish there was a simple answer for this, but there isn’t. Just like everything else, the answer is – “It depends.” Yes, I know. I hate those wishy-washy answers, too. My mathematical brain likes black and white answers – it either is or it isn’t, don’t tell me about the shades of gray. But we’re human beings and the nature of that means that what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for another.

Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Are you looking at fun and games or sending your child for formal lessons? Obviously, formal lessons will require a significant level of commitment and a certain level of maturity from your child.
  • Is your child interested to learn? This is probably the easiest gauge to follow. If your child appears interested in playing the game or learning the instrument, it’s probably a good time to start.
  • Level of maturity – if you are planning for formal lessons, your child needs to be able to meet certain requirements in order for the lessons to be meaningful. It is important to remember that all children are different and will reach this level at different ages – some may be ready at 3 years old, others may need to wait until they’re 5 or 6. A good gauge would be to ask:
    • Will your child follow instructions?
    • Can your child sit in one place for an hour?
  • Group or solo? Some children do better with group lessons, while others need one-to-one attention.

Considerations for Starting Early

If you are a long time follower of this blog, you will know that I am an advocate for starting early because the younger your child is, the easier it is for your child to learn. However, the difficulty of starting early is that young children are also harder to engage. You need to thread carefully and make sure that the approach is suitable. Some programs don’t work for very young children and there is a possibility that the methods that are geared towards older children may put off rather than encourage the young child. If your child is particularly sensitive, the wrong approach may ruin any possibility for further development.

Getting Started

What’s your stance?

A music teacher once told me that I could treat music lessons in one of two ways:

  1. It can be an activity for your child to enjoy – he can choose to continue or to quit; or
  2. It can be like school – where music lessons are something that you require him to do.

There’s no right or wrong, whatever decision you make, however, depending on your child’s personality, one approach may work better than the other.

The Commitment Period

I’ve always had this romantic idea that I would introduce my child to an activity and he will discover an intense passion for it that will take him the rest of the way. This notion has perhaps been encouraged by the stories I have read about the greats…

  • Susan Polgár started learning chess at the age of 4 after she discovered a chess board and demonstrated an interest in the game
  • Joshua Bell started learning to play the violin at the age of 4 after he started playing music with rubber bands stretched across the handles of his dresser drawer

I hate having to nag my son to practice his instrument. It is a constant dilemma for me whether to insist he give it a “proper go” or to let him give it up. When I think about the stories of Joshua Bell and Susan Polgár, I wonder if their parents ever had to nag them to practice? Did they go through periods when they just wanted to quit? Nobody ever writes about that.

Amy Chua, the infamous Tiger Mum, once said that “nothing is fun until you’re good at it” and she has a point there. So before starting any classes for your child, have an agreement that your child will commit to “x” number of lessons before deciding to continue or to quit.

The Method

Sometimes it is not the lessons that need to stop but the approach of the teacher, because the way the teacher engages your child can be the difference between your child continuing or quitting.

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