By Penny Wayne-Shapiro
It's that time of year again. Young Susie or Sam loves to sing, and Mom and Dad think s/he is ready for music lessons. So a very appealing idea arises – let’s put an instrument under the tree!
We often get calls in December from a parent who says, “My 6 year old is getting a violin/flute/keyboard for Christmas, and we’d like to set up lessons.”
My first question is, “Did you already buy the instrument?” And I have my fingers crossed, hoping very much that the answer will be NO.
Actually, there are several very good reasons.
First: cost. Rental is the way to go for a beginner. Purchasing a decent quality beginner outfit may run you several hundred dollars for even a small violin, and $1,000 or more for a wind or brass instrument. Meanwhile, you can rent one of the same excellent quality for $20-25 a month. Of course, we hope your child will end up playing for many years or even a lifetime - but let's make sure it sticks before making that big investment!
Second: size. Instruments should be professionally fitted. String instruments come in six different sizes - your 6yo may need anything from a 1/10 to a 1/4 - and some wind instruments also have size options. The wrong sized one will not only be much harder to play and therefore frustrating; it can cause pain and injury by over-stretching small arms, hands and fingers. Also, think of how quickly your child is growing out of those sneakers you bought only last month. The same may apply to her instrument. Much better to be renting from a reputable company which will switch out the size painlessly, rather than have to resell and repurchase.
Third: quality. A piano teacher will have specific requirements for keyboard type and features. And sadly, I’ve not yet seen a string instrument purchased online that did NOT have problems. Even if there are no visible issues - keys badly set, or strings set too high for little fingers to press down - an inferior instrument will have a thin, “surface-y” sound because of poor set-up. I've even seen violins without a soundpost - the small but vital piece of wood that transmits vibrations internally from the front to the back of the instrument. (The Italian word for this part is “alma”, literally meaning “soul”, and instruments without one sound about as bad as you might imagine.)
Imagine the disappointment and possibly tears of a child who comes to the first lesson all excited and proud to show off their shiny new instrument, only to be told, “I think we’ll need to wait for you to grow into that” – perhaps for several years; or worse, to have parents be told quietly that the instrument isn’t fully functional. Not a great start to lessons....much better to get your new teacher's recommendation for a quality instrument that will help rather than hinder learning, and have your child skip out in excited anticipation of getting it as soon as possible!
So - what musical gift possibilities are there that will get your child excited about music and eager to start lessons after the holidays, while still being fun to open on the big day? Here are a few ideas:
A children’s book about instruments and composers with accompanying CD; or a musical story book and CD such as this time tested classic in which each character is represented by a different instrument.
(These last two are an especially good idea if you don’t really know which instrument your child would actually like to play. Maybe you’ve always wished you'd had piano lessons. But if your child is discovers s/he's really drawn to the cello – that’s the one s/he will be excited about, and most willing to practice even if it gets tough!)
For kids who love animals and/or coloring (probably most of them!) - Instrument Zoo, a coloring book with sound samples.
If Hanukkah is your holiday, this menorah full of young musicians - still a favorite at our house even though its owner is now a college student.
We hope this list sparks some ideas! Let us know which instrument you're thinking of, and we'll be happy to set up a free tryout session for after the holidays. And if you still want to put that instrument under the tree, we can point you to local rental companies that will help you make sure it's a good quality, correctly-sized one.
We wish you a wonderful holiday season, and great new beginnings in the New Year!
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