What is the right age to begin guitar lessons? This is a question that is frequently asked by many parents who have young children who are five to eight years old. Many times they have taken them to a music store for lessons and were told that the child is too young to start and they should be ten to twelve years old.
However my answer is start as soon as they’re interested, but you have to have realistic expectations. For example a child who is five years old says “I want to play the guitar”. Most of the time they have no preference as to what style of music, rock, country, jazz etc… to them it’s just “I want to play the guitar”. On the other hand the parent, who can’t really remember what its like to be five, may be thinking “how could they possibly ever play like ________” (fill in the blank with your favorite artist) or that their fingers are too small or any number of reasons that would convince them that maybe they should wait till they’re older. So what is important here is to focus on the child’s interest not the multitude of limiting factors that an adult can postulate.
When a teacher says a child is too young to start it’s due to the fact that they do not know how to teach a child or they’re not willing to put out the effort that it takes to teach a young child. I see it this way, a child eats the same food as an adult but its cut in smaller pieces. The child has to learn the same way but it has to be broken down in very small attainable bits of information that can be easily acquired intellectually as well as physically.
A rule of thumb that I like to use is that you have one minute of attention span for each year of the child’s age, some have more some have less. So if I have a five year old for a half hour lesson I change the focus every five minutes, or when I see that the attention is drifting. I also like to make the lessons fun by joking around and relating to them on their level. I leave room for fidgetiness and don’t make repetitive harsh demands to sit still, sit up straight, pay attention etc… This would only make the experience miserable.
I also think it’s good for the parent/s to sit in on the lesson so they can understand the learning process. The main purpose of starting early is to develop the basic skills needed to play the guitar, not necessarily playing songs like an accomplished musician. The goal here would be to keep the child’s interest while developing the coordination between the right and the left hand and the individual use of fingers so eventually they will be able to produce a good tone.
The first thing may be to get them to pick just one string without hitting any others while getting them familiar with the names of the strings, then eventually how to place one finger on a fret and play a note on one string. Don’t expect that the notes will sound good, most likely you’ll hear a lot of doinks and buzzes and this is normal, remember the goal is keep the interest and develop the basic skills and at the same time you will be developing their attention span as well as their discipline.
What about practice time? Remember the rule of attention span, one minute for each year of their age, don’t get hung up on the hard line rule that they should practice at least a half hour a day. It would be better to take full advantage of whatever attention span the child has and formulate daily practice based on that amount of time. For example a five year old with the average attention span of five minutes can practice five minutes a day. A plan like this will achieve very important results as far as developing basic skills and discipline at an early age and as time goes on increase the amount of practice time as the attention span increases.
A parent can make practice a fun time by asking them to play for them rather than demanding that they practice. Ask questions about what they learned during the lesson. Sometimes they don’t remember anything but it makes them think and focus their attention. They should always keep a positive attitude and compliment their effort.
I use the example of a five year old but that’s not to say that a child can’t learn or at least develop the interest at even an earlier age. My oldest daughter started learning when she was two years old. I bought a cheap, junkie beat up guitar for five bucks and just left it sit around in reach. One day she just sat it on her lap and began strumming on the open strings. From there I showed her how to pick one string, then one note and so on, but nothing heavy or formal. It was just a minute or two here and there along with cheering her on. However it wasn’t until she was about six or seven when we began a more structured lesson time, she started to learn how to read music and had some regular practice time.