When is a child old enough for private lessons?

8-9 years old (3rd-4th grade) is the earliest age that most children can make the commitment required for success in private lessons.  Before this age, they are usually not ready to work on new sections in their home (independent) practice.  Indeed, the regular, day in and day out, practice of an instrument often wears out younger student's enthusiasm after their initial love affair with the instrument dies out.  The child becomes increasingly resistant to the idea of practice.  After months of fighting, parents and teachers commonly misinterpret this developmentally appropriate behavior as a sign of strong and permanent disinterest.  Typically, the child quits, never to come back to something that brings up memories of so much pain. 

In addition, very young private students often develop a jaded attitude. No matter how talented the child is initially, their speed of mastery always takes a big jump around the age of 9. There are several major developmental leaps that children experience at this age. Effective practice incorporates more intellectual analysis than mere physical repetition. Children who start many years too early, can only do the physical part well, and they develop strong habits which are very resistant to change as they age. In other words, children that have experienced this developmental growth spurt are able to do efficient practice, independently, at home. They also understand, and can maintain, long range commitments. However, if a child has been working away at an instrument for 3-4 years before this point, they often feel that they've "been there" and "done that".  They find it hard to imagine that anything will change.  They feel ready to quit, and go on to something else, just as they reach the point where they can really shoot off and make rapid progress.  In the past, I experienced this situation with young students often, and it was always frustrating.  I now believe that it is usually best to wait to start private lessons until the child is close to this time of great growth.

Parents often worry that, if they don't start their children on an instrument when they first express an interest, the child will lose motivation and never get it back.  This has not been my experience.  Remember that, when a young child says they want to  "learn" an instrument, they are really saying they want to play the instrument.  They may have seen the instrument played by someone else, and they want to do that too.  They are not saying that they want to work at the instrument.  They really have no concept of what it means to study an instrument- it is not in their experience.  If they start studying an instrument too young, they are asked to behave in developmentally inappropriate ways, and they can easily grow to loathe the very instrument they thought they loved at first.  This type of experience kills off musical interest in far too many children.  However, I have never seen a child lose interest in music when they have developmentally appropriate experiences in music class.  Rather, their desire and interest grows continually bigger.  They may change their minds about where they want to focus their musical energies, but they never stop wanting to go further and experience more.

Another confusing occurrence is quite common.  A child will become fascinated with an instrument and play it for hours over several days or weeks at a time.  My daughter Vicky "practiced" like this on both the recorder and the piano.  She spent as much as two hours a day, three-four days in a row, working with these instruments.  Then, having mastered the skill that was important to her at the time, she did not touch these instruments for the next six months.  This is absolutely normal and healthy behavior for children of this age (4-8). If parents do not understand that this high level of focus is temporary and transient, they often jump on the bandwagon and sign up for private lessons with the expectation that the child will be able to maintain this incredible level of commitment to practicing the new instrument. Frustration quickly sets in, often accompanied by a lot of stress and fighting over practice.  The child gets confused.  They are told that, if they really love the instrument, they will show it by practicing a  certain amount every day.  They do love the instrument.  Often, they love the lessons.  However, they are not ready for the regularity of daily practice.   If we are patient, and follow their lead about when they are ready, fantastic results will follow.