Since I make most of my living teaching guitar (and selling guitar goodies), I’m certainly not going to dissuade you from getting your child guitar lessons. Hey, you gotta expose your young ones to new things, see if anything inspires them! That said, guitar is a challenging instrument that takes a lot of focused practice to really get a handle on. Not to say your kidlet will need to practice three hours a day, go on a special diet and such. But there’s something about it that takes more work than other instruments. I mean, that comment is debatable for sure, but I’m amazed at how the piano teachers in our store maintain rosters with 5-10 year-olds who continue to excel on the instrument. There’s something about piano that kids can start grasping at a young age. I have a few guitar students excelling in this age range too, but they’re the exception, not the rule.
This isn’t just my teaching ability either. The other guitar teachers are pretty much in the same boat, with the exception of a few teachers who specialize in dealing with young kids and promote themselves as such. Those teachers often do quite well…unless you get the ROCK STAR kid who would rather bang his head into a wall then practice Three Blind Mice on the guitar–he wants to play Green Day or whatever music his Dad listens to! So I often get students who have tried the “child-friendly” teachers who didn’t work out. The kid wants to learn what HE wants to learn, only he’s still a kid and might not know exactly what he wants to learn. Enter the rock guitar teacher–hopefully me–who ideally has good people skills and can help the student learn to rock properly.
The question I get from prospective parents is whether or not their child is ready for guitar lessons. The answer is that it depends. Has he really pestered you about wanting them? Is he using Dad’s golf club for an air guitar (like I did)? Is he turning on the radio in the car or on cable, or still watching the Baby Einstein DVDs on music? Those are obviously good signs, though not required. I doubt the violin virtuosos of today were highly motivated to practice violin when they were three…they had parents providing guidance. But it’s a great sign if they’re listening to music on their own. I remember wearing out KISS records when I was a kid. It would have been crazy of my parents to NOT put a guitar into my hands and see what happened.
Here’s where it gets tricky. I get so many parents dumping their kids with me, expecting to get them all fired up about music. And I CAN do that most of the time. I’m pretty good at interacting with the young ones, but then they go home and forget about the instrument because no one tells them to practice. Then s/he comes back the next week, we have a good time, laughing at my silly jokes and such…but there’s no progress. And even though I can push forward a little into other areas, eventually something needs to be practiced to properly condition the fingers for the harder stuff. I get parents saying, “Well, we don’t want to force him to practice…he needs to show us he’s interested.” And I can’t argue because I’m currently not a parent. But I can say hoping he’ll take to the instrument is sort of like hoping he’ll take to putting out the trash or other chores that help the family…unlikely to happen. You need to be prepared to push a little, find some way to encourage a commitment.
What do I expect out of a young student’s practice? I hope for maybe ten minutes a day, 4-5 days a week. I’m likely teaching Star Wars or Sponge Bob-type stuff and ten minutes is enough time to get the fingers moving on songs like that. As conditioning sets in I would push for something closer to twenty minutes a day. This is the average…a child who really takes off certainly deserves a bigger push, more complex music, more time devoted to practice.
The next problem I see is poor quality of the guitars that are brought in. PLEASE, for the love of God, DON’T:
–Use the guitar that’s been sitting in Grandma’s attic since the 40s. At least let the teacher check it out first for a professional opinion.
–Buy one of those toy guitars at Target or Walmart and expect it to work for serious guitar lessons. It takes me fifteen minutes to tune these junkers to pitch (it normally should take a minute or less), then I strum a basic chord and it sounds like I’m playing bizarre, avant-garde jazz that only a few houseplants could listen to. Go to a local music store, talk to the salesmen and let them test a few guitars on your child to see which one fits best. A decent starter guitar leans in the $150-200 range. Not ready to make that sort of financial commitment? No problem, as most Mom & Pop music stores have rental programs, which I’d definitely recommend to all beginners. Or if you’ve got money to spend I recommend a Les Paul Custom, which will only set you back around $3000 or so. But when your kid quits in a few months I’ll be happy to take the guitar off your hands for $500.
–Get the right sized guitar to fit your child’s body and fingers. These parents buy their kids a full sized acoustic guitar for their eight-year-old daughter. The body is too big, the strings are too thick. We make annoying plunking sounds for a month because her fingers aren’t going to be able to press these strings firmly until sometime after college and I’M the one blamed for being a bad teacher??? I personally (and opinions vary) recommend starting with an electric guitar, as the strings are thinner, easier to fret and more common in the rock music. What’s that…you want your child to learn “proper” guitar, not the bad rock & roll he listens to? Then set the money on fire, because lessons with me will be the same thing. On second thought, don’t set it on fire…give it to me and I’ll teach your kid the stuff he wants, but give him some Mozart sheet music to hide his rock songs so you think he’s learning proper guitar!
–Oh, and stay away from guitars sold on home shopping channels. I don’t want to get sued for slander, so I can’t elaborate. But trust me!
This one might be obvious to some, but I wouldn’t mention it if I didn’t feel I had to. PARENTS–plan on sitting with your child in his lessons for at least the first month of teaching. You know how awkward it is for both me and the child to have him dropped off, a quick handshake, then you disappear to run errands? I’m good at relaxing them, but the shyness barrier makes for a rocky start. Besides, I want parents to know me as best they can, how I teach, my personality. It makes for a better teaching relationship and better progress.
Cool, you’re child has been taking lessons, you’re sitting down with him for those ten minutes most days (maybe even picking up a few things yourself) and…? Is it a struggle? Torture for both of you? Do you dread asking him to practice each day? Then it’s time to quit and move on. Congratulations for giving it a try. Or maybe you need to try a few tricks to get him motivated. Among the ideas:
–Play music EVERYWHERE! On the radio, CD player, iPod, Comcast Digital Cable, XM Radio, Internet radio (I love www.pandora.com for customized radio stations). In my experience, the students who don’t listen to music tend to be the hardest to motivate. The ones who come in able to name several favorite bands have a much better chance of succeeding because they want to sound like their favorite bands.
–Play with them. Either with a second guitar or another instrument if you can play it.
–Make a deal. For every ten minutes of guitar practice they get ten minutes of video game time…or whatever deal you want to try. Can’t say I’m thrilled with this idea, but I’ve seen it work.
Another issue could be the teacher. Some of them lack the skills to deal with young kids. Others simply lack the skills to teach at all. You don’t have to be a musician to tell when your teacher isn’t delivering the goods. Your child should be leaving the lesson with a gameplan as to what needs to be practiced. I put colored post-its with the date on each paper I hand out that week along with a quick list of the things we’re working on. No going home and saying, “Hey, I forgot what we did in our lesson, so I guess I’ll just goof off!” IMO, there should be something tangible on paper, easy to read and review. Any teacher expecting a kid to remember a song or chord shapes from memory the day after it’s taught is asking for trouble.
I’m going to revise this as more ideas or experiences arise, so feel free to ask questions in the comments section…:)