Give Your Child a Great Start on Guitar in the New Year

'Tis the season of new guitars!  Thousands of children are about to wake up Christmas morning to a guitar-shaped box under the tree.  Whether your child has been begging for the guitar for months or is about to be surprised, you are probably hoping that this first guitar will help fuel a life-long love of music and that he or she will reap the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of playing an instrument.

Here are some tips on how to keep that Christmas guitar in your child's hands for years to come.

Expect To Be Involved

It's fairly common that young beginners are genuinely excited about the guitar but easily forget about (or even avoid) practicing between lessons.  Guitar comes with a steep learning curve, and the very beginning is one of the trickiest stages.  The student has to learn basic movements with very specific rules (i.e., rounded fingers, on their tips, pushing hard with the thumb helping out) in order to make anything sound decent.  Once students learn the notes in open position and a handful of chords, they are in great shape to play many of their favorite songs.  But that can take anywhere from several months to a couple years, and they need some help to arrive at that point.  

In addition to the guitar, plan on providing your child with two more essentials for a successful start in music:

  1. a good teacher who knows how to work with children
  2. parental involvement in practicing, the degree of which depends on the child's age

It is the teacher's responsibility to work patiently through the fundamentals, mix in fun songs and games to keep things interesting, and lay out very clear objectives for practice.  The parent's role is to enforce regular practice between classes.  If the student is very young (6 or 7 years old), the parent should plan on being present during practice to help her stay on task.

Nandita, age 6, loves getting the hang of a new song.  Her mom stays in the room while she practices and helps out if she doesn't understand something.  

Make Playing Comfortable

SIZE - Be sure to get a guitar that fits your child's size.  He needs to be able to comfortably reach the headstock of the guitar with his left hand.  His right elbow needs to be able to rest over the larger curve of the guitar's body, and his right hand's fingers and thumb need to be able to touch all six strings easily.  

STRINGS - I strongly recommend nylon strings for young beginners.  Guitarists have to push down on hard strings with the tips of the left hand fingers.  Thin metal strings bite into young tender fingers and can make it hard to enjoy the music.  That's a tough hurdle to overcome when you are seven years old and just starting.  

Alvaro plays a three-quarter size guitar with nylon strings.

Remember that this first guitar is a starter guitar.  As your child develops more specific taste in music, he or she will become ready for a full-size guitar that matches his interests.  At that point, switching to an acoustic steel string guitar won't be a big deal.  But in the beginning, comfort can make or break a child's continuing interest. 

Require a Commitment

Getting a guitar for Christmas should come with a contract, signed by your child.  If your child has already been asking for the guitar, make sure that he understands that the guitar comes with a commitment to one year of lessons and five to twenty minutes of daily practice.  If you are surprising your child with a guitar, be sure to have the receipt ready and say you'll be glad to return it if he doesn't feel up to those conditions.

Choose a Teacher Carefully

Having a teacher your child clicks with really helps with motivation.  If your son is shy and creative, choose a gentle teacher who will make him feel comfortable and encourage his artistic side.  If daughter fantasizes about being a rock star, choose a teacher who performs regularly and has a “cool” demeanor that she will admire.  If your son is a budding classical musician or jazz enthusiast, be sure to choose a teacher who specializes in that same genre, as both require deeper knowledge to teach even a beginner well.  Browse teacher profiles together and get your child's input on which teachers look like a good match, both musically and in personality.

Take Weekly Lessons

A weekly thirty minute lesson, on the same day every week, works great for most young beginners. That ensures that they have enough time to absorb any new information and get comfortable with new material, but not enough time to forget important concepts.  The pressure of an upcoming class helps motivate practice time, too.  

Prioritize Routine

Curro practices weekday mornings before school.  Practice time is one of a few tasks he and his brother Alvaro need to complete in order to unlock video game privileges for the day.

Routine is more important than amount of practice time.  Many young beginners are bursting with natural enthusiasm for music, yet struggle to pay attention for a half-hour lesson.  As a teacher I usually break the lesson up into small sections and throw in some silly musical games.  Likewise, practice sessions for these young students should be very short.  Five to ten minutes daily will be plenty for most.  Practice time should be something they have to do, but making it short will help keep it interesting and fun.  

Set a specific time of day to practice and stick to it religiously.  Link practice time to a routine that already exists.  Examples that work well for some of my students are: right after breakfast, just before dinner, or before brushing teeth and getting ready for bed.  One or two skip days per week is fine as far as making progress is concerned.  However, many families have an easier time enforcing practice time if it is every single day.  Thus, there is never any question of if they need to practice or not – the answer is always yes. 

Isabella practices most days at about 7:45 in the evening, right before she gets ready for bed.

Set Specific Goals

The teacher should communicate very clearly with the student and parent what the child needs to accomplish each week.  Remind your child of his or her practice objectives before each session.  The objectives should be extremely clear about what to do and when the student is finished; for example, a certain number of repetitions or playing a small section without mistakes. If your child likes to goof off on the guitar, that's great!  Definitely let him explore and play around, but remind him that practice isn't over until he finishes the tasks outlined by his teacher.

Here is an effective, specific practice plan for one week:

  1. Change chords from Em to B7 seven times per day.  Remember that your 2nd finger on the 5th string does not move.
  2. 'Our Song':
    1. day 1: memorize the first three lines of verse 1
    2. day 2: memorize lines 4-6 of verse 1
    3. rest of the week: play the whole first verse from memory twice a day.
  3. Play 'Pentatonic Melody' three times a day: one time very slowly, concentrating on left hand finger numbers, and two times medium-fast. Try to play the fast runs a little bit faster each day.  

Create a Visual Record of Practice

Kids love having a visual record of their practice, like a sticker chart.  One possibility is putting a sticker on a calendar for each day of practice.  Another possibility is small, task-specific stickers.  Write the objectives for the week in a notebook, with plenty of space between each item. Using the example above, which has three separate tasks, you would give your child twenty-one tiny stickers, one for each task each day of the week.  If your child is too old or too cool for stickers, check marks are just fine too.  The important thing is that your child sees when he practices and equates practice with getting the hang of a song and feeling confident in his music.  

“Two examples of practice charts.  On the top is Isabella's practice log, where she puts a sticker down for every day she practices.  Below Isabella's log is an example using the practice plan above, putting one sticker down for each task, each practice day.”

Reward Music with More Music

If you want to reward your child for her dedication and musical growth, take her to a concert, buy her a new song book, or consider a new guitar for reaching a big milestone.  Be careful of non-music incentives for practicing or achieving music goals.  Rewards like money or gifts can distract from the internal gratification of learning to play a song and growing musically.  They can make practice seem like a chore that is done for the reward.  The principal reward for practice should be the music itself.  

Above all, don't worry about exerting a little bit of external pressure to practice!  Help with the discipline aspect of practicing is the best thing you can give your child at this stage.  Your child's interest will grow as she sees how she improves, and you will both enjoy the benefits when your child surpasses the beginning hurdles of chord changes and basic melodies.  At that point, she will be able to learn many of her favorite songs within a week or two, and will have a friendly and fun relationship with the guitar that will last her whole life.


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