The age that a child should start learning a stringed instrument can be a tricky question for parents, and a tough decision for teachers. Tim Homfray asks teaching experts for their advice
It is a common belief that all great musicians began their glittering careers when they were scarcely out of nappies. Child prodigies have always been popular, the biographies of performers often mention a first public appearance when they still had their milk teeth, and sooner or later everyone mentions Mozart, the benchmark for precocious infants everywhere.
But even the most gifted of children have a great deal of early mental and physical development to cope with first. This includes getting to be of a size to hold even the smallest of instruments, let alone gaining a grasp of what to do with it. Opinions among teachers vary on the earliest age a child should start playing: some say three, and others four, five or six. Most teachers agree, however, that before starting on an instrument, children should take part in some kind of preliminary musical activities involving games and movement, or should even just come to watch classes.
Of the various systematic programmes for teaching very young children to play stringed instruments, perhaps the best known is the one developed by Shin’ichi Suzuki in Japan, which has since been taken up in many parts of the world. Jillian Leddra, who studied Suzuki’s approach in the US and has been teaching violin in the UK for 20 years, finds that while some girls might be ready to start at the age of three, boys are generally better starting at four. ‘The violin involves a lot of fine motor movements,’ she says, ‘and young girls often do activities that involve fine movements: they manipulate small things. With boys, fine motor skills take a little bit longer.’
Gerry Howard, a cellist with over 30 years’ teaching experience (he also teaches violin), warns against starting children before they have reached a certain stage of mental development: ‘There are children of three and a half who are ready to go, but they must have the ability to cope with having some sort of instruction.’
Colourstrings is another system for teaching young string players that is becoming increasingly popular. Géza Szilvay, who developed Colourstrings in Finland with his brother Csaba in the early 1970s, has a different, and robust, view on the earliest age for a child to start: ‘I would say to a parent, if you like your child don’t give them an instrument before they’re five. There are some who can do it at four, but very seldom. In general the body is not strong enough before five to take up an instrument. The posture is unnatural – I would say unhealthy. An early age is for the benefit of the parent, not the child. If you start them at three or four, they will learn, but why do it? They have plenty of time.’
Sheila Nelson, whose work as a violin and viola teacher with young UK string players over many years has been inspirational to students and teachers alike, won’t normally take anyone younger than four. ‘I have started them at three, but that is more for fun than development,’ she says.
Six is the ideal age according to Caroline Lumsden, who launched the String Time programme for young beginners at Junior Trinity College of Music in London, and who founded what became the Gloucester Academy of Music. ‘I have started children at three, but it takes a lot of time playing open strings before they really get going. If they start at six at a slow pace I can always get a child to the Associated Board’s Grade 5 standard by the age of eleven. If someone came to me now with a two- or three-year-old, I would probably send them to a Suzuki teacher.’
There is, then, no general agreement on the question of which starting age is best. The answer depends partly on the different demands and approaches of the various teaching systems. But whatever the differences of opinion among teachers, there are good reasons for starting young, not least the fact that there is an awful lot to learn. As Howard says, ‘The earlier you start, the more years you have to develop.’ Szilvay reckons that starting at ten is possible, ‘but after that it may be too late, because the violin is such a virtuosic instrument that you need the years.’
Leddra explains: ‘Because music is a language, it is good to start sooner rather than later. Also, the child will never have known a time when they didn’t play the violin. It’s completely natural for them. And I have seen very young children able to develop sensational bow arms.’ Howard also points to the advantages of starting young from a purely physical point of view: ‘Bones and ligaments mature and set in shape as children get older, but young children are still bendy, like gymnasts.’
For Nelson, ‘There is no ideal age to start, because children develop quite differently in all kinds of ways, but later starters usually find it physically a bit harder, particularly if they are not good at things with their fingers.’ She might, she says, take on a ten-year-old, but would be less likely to accept someone at 14. Lumsden, however, knew two conservatoire students who didn’t start until they were 14, and both went on to do very well. ‘If someone really has the ability perhaps it is never too late,’ she says. ‘But there is such a huge amount of technique to acquire.’
It is worth mentioning that many of these teachers started fairly late themselves, although they had often been introduced to music earlier on. Howard and Leddra didn’t start until they were into double figures, and Nelson only started violin at eleven, after a thorough grounding in music at primary school and experience as a triangle player. So starting early is far from
an absolute necessity.
There used to be a good practical reason for not starting too young: the instruments were simply too big. Today it is possible to get violins so small that they could probably be played in a pram. At the other extreme, those interested in playing the double bass used to have to wait until they were older, and would probably learn another instrument first. Cathy Elliott, chair of the European String Teachers Association’s British branch, didn’t start playing bass until she was a teenager. Now, she says, ‘The starting age can mercifully be about ten years younger than it was when I was a child. But there is definitely still a too-small time to start. Around six years old is normally good, unless the child is very little – they should be able to play a tenth-size instrument.’ Elliott did have one very keen five-year-old who was so small that she had to sit him on an upturned waste-paper basket and lean the bass up against him. She told him to eat lots of Weetabix and come back in a year, which he did. But he still counts that as his first lesson.
Howard warns against choosing an instrument based on the size of the child, however: ‘If you choose really big children to play cello, you are really only choosing the ones who got big early. You can only hazard a guess at what size they will be when they’re older. And there are a lot of small cellists in the world.’
Along with the readiness and ability of a young child, and every bit as crucial, is the ability of the teacher. As Howard points out, ‘Too often you have professional players who are amateur teachers. On the whole they’re pretty disastrous, unless they have had some experience in teaching young children. Most of their knowledge of teaching comes from what they experienced at an advanced level, and if they started at a very young age themselves they won’t be able to remember it. Many haven’t a clue where to start.’
For a parent with a keen young child, programmes developed specifically for the very young with trained teachers (such as Suzuki and Colourstrings) or courses at junior conservatoires are obvious options, but only if they are within a realistic travelling distance. Otherwise, finding