This is a very difficult question since no two people are the same and different instruments have unique challenges.
The piano is a classic instrument that many people start learning when they are very young. The same thing applies to violin and cello. Other instruments take time to grow into. You could not expect a small child to play the trombone and reach all the outer positions or to hold a flute properly until they are old enough (and have long enough arms) to hold and play properly. Some of these instruments just have natural disadvantages for young children and are simply not possible for them to learn until they are big enough, perhaps 9 or 10 years old.
When it comes to instruments that younger children can play, such as the piano or string instruments, age is not as big a factor when it comes to physical limitations. If you search online you can see videos of children as young as three or four playing on a high level on the piano or string instruments. So, knowing that a child can achieve this level of success, when is the right age to get them started learning a musical instrument?
When it comes to learning an instrument, one size does not fit all and the individual child is the determining factor in whether or not they are ready to learn an instrument. Some kids will simply be drawn to an instrument and no matter what you do, you simply can’t take them away from it. If you have a very young child who seems drawn to an instrument and has a willingness to learn and play you shouldn’t stop them from learning. What’s more important than allowing them to play though is finding the right teacher for them.
Most teachers do not specialize in teaching very young children how to play musical instruments. Even if they are a very accomplished teacher and have many great students, it can be a real disaster to have them teach a child younger than they are used to teaching. It takes a very special teacher to teach a young child in a nurturing, enjoyable way which engages them and encourages their progress.
In addition to having a good teacher, a younger student should always have a parent or other adult in the home who is willing to play and learn with the student when they are not at their lessons. It is not reasonable to expect a child of 4 or 5 to work independently. They will need someone to guide them in their learning and help them along on a daily basis.
The keys to starting at a very young age are:
- Willingness to play and learn an instrument
- Finding a good teacher for their age level
- Having a parent or guardian who is willing to practice with them
So what is the proper age to start learning a musical instrument?
Starting to play the violin or other string instruments is something a child can start learning as early as 5 or 6 years old. String players and pianists can potentially start younger if they are in a special program geared towards very young children like the Suzuki program which has them working together in groups to learn and share – it becomes more like playtime with music which enforces the activity as being enjoyable rather than a chore.
In my experience with teaching piano, the lessons should start when the child is ready to take direction independently. I find that when kids can start doing homework on their own they are generally ready to start learning piano. If I had to put an age on it I would say around 6-9 years old depending on their patience, willingness to learn and ability to work independently.
As for starting an instrument at a later age, there are no limits! You can start learning piano or any instrument in your teen years or even as an adult and become a very accomplished musician. Keep in mind though, starting early in life (just like developing language skills) increases the potential for development. Parts of the brain develop much more quickly and easily at a younger age and as you get older it can become a greater challenge to begin learning a musical instrument.
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