Once we had made the decision--or perhaps I should say fallen into the decision, because somehow it felt more like a compulsion and less like a choice--to put our then-three-year-old daughter into music lessons, the question was what kind. In music instruction, you kind of get what you pay for and you definitely get what you put in as far as practicing. You can luck out with a very talented high schooler who only charges you $10/lesson and has a knack for teaching and a child who loves to practice an hour a day, but for most of us that doesn't fall into our laps. The basic types of music instruction are:
1) Traditional lessons. You start these around age 6 or above, when the child has a grasp of reading and can therefore learn to "read" the notes right off the bat. This is how I learned, and I progressed at probably an average rate and after 7 years could pluck out a hymn with lots of practice and work really hard at the simplest Chopin pieces for a recital. I was okay, but I certainly didn't have the knowledge or confidence to accompany our high school choir or anything like that.
2) Suzuki lessons. These lessons start at age 4 or 5 (I recommend age 5 for boys). This type of music instruction is based on the idea that young children can learn music the same way they learn language--by hearing it and imitating it. Each day they listen to a CD of the pieces they are learning, so when they come to learn the next piece in the book they already know how it should sound and can learn by ear. The student has a private lesson and a group lesson each week, and there is a huge emphasis on regular performance. The Suzuki student can play impressive pieces at a young age and always has two or three memorized pieces they can play at a moment's notice.
One of the complaints about Suzuki instruction is that kids don't learn to read music. This has not been true in our experience. For the first year (age 4 to age 5) they are learning their first 18 or so pieces, the music in book one. Then they have a recital in which they play all of those pieces in order. Learning book one well enough to have your recital takes one or two years, usually. When that is completed, students begin to learn to read music from a typical note-reading curriculum while also moving on to Suzuki book two, which is much harder than book one but miraculously (it seems miraculous to the parent, anyway), they can do it. It takes a few years for their sight reading to catch up with the Suzuki pieces they learn mainly by ear, but around book three or four it does catch up. I'm not saying they can sit down and play any piece perfectly the first time, but then I couldn't do that with my traditional lessons either!
The other important piece of Suzuki instruction is that the parent practices with the child each day and attends each lesson. If you are a really good Suzuki parent you sit with your child and practice each piece with them, reminding them of what the teacher said and making sure the student plays it correctly. I am not a really good Suzuki parent. When my first child started taking lessons the week she turned four, I had a four-month-old baby to attend to during practice sessions. Now I have four kids in Suzuki lessons, and I am often making dinner while a child is practicing. On a given day I am 80 or 90 percent attentive to the youngest child, 60 percent attentive to two of the others, and not even present for the last child. That's life. But we muddle along and they are doing well in spite of that.
3) Yamaha lessons. I don't know much of anything about these, but my limited research indicates that for the first two years kids are only given group instruction, and then they move into private lessons after that. There is combined emphasis on ear training and note reading, I think. If I'm right in saying that they start out with only group lessons then I'd guess kids move more slowly than they would in Suzuki, but have a better ear than kids with only traditional lessons.
4) Early childhood music. There are kindermusik and similar programs for younger kids, from baby up to about six, and I love these classes. They are fun parent-child bonding, and they teach kids the basics of music (fast/slow, loud/soft, matching pitches, rhythm patterns, and the like). It's organized musical playtime you do with your child. All my kids took various early childhood music classes, and I think it set them up to do better in formal music instruction. But even if the child never takes formal music lessons, early childhood music classes are a great thing to do. I thought they were more fun and interesting than the mom-and-me tumbling classes we took.
Since you're probably familiar with how kids sound who take traditional lessons, I'll give you a few cases studies of how Suzuki kids play and let you draw your own conclusions. This first one is Bethany at 7 1/2 years, which means she had been taking lessons for 3.5 years. I love the glare she throws over her shoulder when the audience applauds between movements.
This one is Alison at the same recital, so she was 4 (almost 5) and had been taking for less than a year. I don't know why we let her play a piece that she didn't yet know the left hand of. But she's got poise and great accents where they belong!
And these are from a year ago. Alison at age 9, after 5 years of instruction.
Bethany at 12, having taken for 8 years.
Meredith's performance at last year's recital wasn't great, so somehow the only video we have of her playing is this one, from when she was 6. It's not a Suzuki piece, so this shows her sight reading level after 1 year of music reading (2.5 years of total instruction).
Up tomorrow: practicing tips. If you have any questions related to music and kids, send them my way and I'll try to answer them!