The squeaking sounds rang through the house, and we silently cringed. The girls did their homework behind closed bedroom doors, an attempt to buffer the sound of their brother’s clarinet “playing.” Even the dogs seemed to be scarce for the 30 minutes of daily practice.
It was week 1 on this new instrument for our 4th grader. The boy was not exactly making music, but his enthusiasm was impressive. He showed us the reed he used and demonstrated the duck sound he could make by blowing through the mouthpiece.
The following week, he learned how to assemble his instrument. The sounds coming from it were still squeaky, but he demonstrated the few notes he had learned, and he meticulously followed instructions on the care of his instrument.
Several weeks later, he was doing Squidward impressions and playing spooky Halloween sounds. We were doing less cringing and more smiling: He was hooked.
Learning how to play a musical instrument has been shown to have educational benefits. It’s associated with better cognitive skills and grades in school, as well as increased conscientiousness, openness and ambition.
It has also been shown to improve math skills and physical coordination, among other benefits. By understanding beat, rhythm, and scales, children are learning how to divide, create fractions, and recognize patterns. Playing instruments requires moving hands, arms and feet, and certain instruments, such as percussion, help children develop coordination and motor skills.
Instrument lessons also help with perseverance, discipline and patience. A student must first learn now to hold an instrument – and possibly how to assemble it, as in the case of my son’s clarinet – before they can even play a note. Discipline is required to ensure regular practice; perseverance is needed to continue to practice even though their playing doesn’t always sound quite “musical.” In group lessons at school, a student must be patient and wait their turn to play individually.
When students are playing in a group, they must learn to work together – so playing a musical instrument helps develop a sense of teamwork.
Finally, playing an instrument can be a lot of fun.
What should you do if your child expresses an interest in playing an instrument?
- Do research on the best instrument for your child. Learn about and listen to different instruments. Ask for advice from a music teacher, and listen to what your child has to say. Many schools and/or music stores will offer an “instrument petting zoo,” which allows a child to explore different instruments before making a decision.
- Don’t force your favorite. If you’ve got a flute in your closet from high school, make sure your daughter really wants to play a flute. Your child’s level of commitment to practice is likely to be higher with an instrument he is excited about.
- Consider portability. If your child is taking lessons at school, he/she will have to bring their instrument to school at least once each week. A flute is easy to carry on the bus, a cello needs a ride. If you can’t provide transportation, help your child choose an instrument that is easy to transport.
- Figure out funding. Musical instruments can be pricy to rent, but many schools have agreements with local music stores or rental agencies to keep the price reasonable. If the cost is going to be a deterrent, talk to someone in your school’s music department. Schools will often have loaner instruments or know families who own an instrument but whose children are no longer playing.
- Be honest about what you can tolerate. It’s hard to encourage a budding violinist if you can’t stand the screech of strings. Be honest and open about your feelings, and be sure you both understand that sometimes a compromise is necessary.
- Our fourth grader continues to enjoy his new adventure, interspersing regular practice (playing musical scales develops dexterity, tonal awareness and rhythm control) with spirited exploration (think Squidward). The sense of accomplishment he feels as he learns new notes makes us realize the squeaking is definitely worth it.
Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with Capital Region BOCES since 2011. Mom to two daughters, 17 and 15, and a son, 9, she looks forward to her son’s first concert.