This post is written by Kari Richmond, a music teacher, friend, and mother.
Have you thought about giving your child a musical gift this holiday season?
As a musician, mother of two, and Music Together teacher, I’m happy to offer some thoughts to help you choose a musical gift that your little one can truly enjoy.
Parents in my classes often ask about appropriate instruments for their small children, along with questions about when to start formal music instruction, etc.
I’ll never forget the moment after one of my classes when a mom asked me where she could possibly find a child-sized sousaphone for her 3-year-old son. A quick search on the internet turned up nothing on child-sized sousaphones, unfortunately.
This question really made me think about instruments for little ones. The sorts of instruments that I see in children’s stores are often poor quality (most instrument “sets”), or seem a bit too complicated (accordions), too fragile (steel drums), or flat-out poorly made (most children’s “xylophones”).
And back to thinking about my budding Sousaphone-player… most children under the age of 6 are not ready to receive serious instruction on a wind instrument (particularly a very large one). String and percussion instruments can sometimes be a bit more accessible for small children, but you probably don’t want to put a good quality violin or snare drum in the path of a toddler or preschooler. Cheap instruments are usually lacking in tone quality and durability, and the frustration of broken or bad-sounding instruments can quickly “turn off” a child to musical play.
I share the Music Together philosophy (and Jean’s philosophy with visual art!) that children learn so much more efficiently and joyfully through open-ended play and self-guided exploration than they learn from sit-still formal instruction. Just as young children benefit from open access to good-quality art supplies and mess-making space, they also benefit greatly from free access to good quality, durable musical instruments that they can explore and make nice sounds on without formal instruction.
So what are some good options?
Musical Gifts for Kids
Disclaimer: This is by no means a definitive guide! It started out as an e-mail response to a specific parent and turned into an epic article attempting to encompass most of my family’s experiences with musical instruments.
Real brass instruments (trumpets, trombones, tubas, etc) and woodwind instruments (flutes, oboes, saxophones, etc) would be problematic for the typical kiddo under age 7 or 8. I wouldn’t hand one of those to my 9-year-old without close supervision. These instruments require reasonably mature lungs and diaphragm, plus finger coordination to play them AND reasonably mature behavior to take proper care of them.
Fortunately, there are some lower cost wind instruments that can make nice tones fairly easily (once your child gets over the initial excitement of being able to make Very Loud High Noises) and will also teach your child to control her breathing, facial muscles, and fingers simply through her exploration and discovery of the instrument.
Professional quality recorders can run up into the $100s of dollars and be made of exotic wood, but you don’t need that. You can find quite decent instruments for less than $10 online. Start with a simple plastic or resin soprano recorder, which will sound like a flute. I’m told a recorder with German fingering is easier for children to learn than one with Baroque fingering. You can find two- and three-piece instruments, but for a young child (ages 2-6), the simplest one-piece instrument is sufficient… and you won’t have to worry about losing pieces.
Other fun options for small children (ages 1-6) are harmonicas and kazoos. Great stocking stuffers: relatively cheap, but fun to explore. You can often find these easily at your local toy store, but do spend more than $5 on a harmonica if you want one that will last longer than a week. I prefer real metal to plastic for durability and the nice heft in one’s hands.
And what about one of these fun contraptions? A saxoflute! You build your own wind instrument in any number of configurations—what a great way for small engineers to get their building fix AND be able to make noise afterward!
Piano and keyboard:
Some of my piano teacher friends might give me the stink-eye if they read this, but I think for young children, cheap little keyboards from yard sales and/or box stores can be fun and valuable from a musical play and exploration.
Both of my children have gotten hours of fun and invaluable self-teaching by playing with the different “drumbeats,” tonal voices, and other features of their inexpensive Casio keyboard. They’ve taught themselves how to play familiar songs in various keys and even started exploring harmony, all on their own. My 9-year-old still enjoys it, though he now spends more time playing our actual piano.
Of course, if your child wants to pursue formal piano study, you will eventually need to invest in a real piano or good quality keyboard with weighted keys. Many children are physically mature enough in their hands and fingers to begin piano study around age 6, but if your little one is still getting a kick out of exploring on his own and he sings all the time, there’s no rush. Before your child begins formal lessons, you want to be sure he is emotionally mature enough to sit still for a 30 minute lesson and practice at home.
Big guitars are hard for little kids to play! They’re a little hard for ME to play with my petite hands. If you don’t mind letting your toddler explore the $15 guitar you picked up at a yard sale, then that’s a great option.
If you want to start out with a good quality instrument that your 5-year-old actually has a chance of learning to play, you can look into getting a soprano ukelele. A 2-year-old could play with the ukelele; a 4- or 5-year-old might start to be able to be able to actually play the ukelele. Ukes make a sweet mellow sound, and they’re easier than guitars for several reasons. They only have 4 strings, verses the 6 strings of a guitar, and on a soprano ukelele, the strings and frets are place closer together – easier for small hands to manage. The synthetic strings are much easier on fingertips than the hard steel strings of a guitar. And the instrument is just smaller and lighter.
You can probably easily find a cheap $20 uke at your nearest big box store, but with a uke, you generally get what you pay for. If it’s for your 2-year-old, who is going to stand on it and sling it around, then $20 is probably the most you want to pay. If you want an instrument with decent tone and durability that will stay in tune (after the initial 2-3 day period of strings stretching out), you’ll need to pay at least $65.
Reportedly good ukuleles:
I’m a drummer myself, so these are my favorites! First let me say, you don’t have to have actual drums to enjoy some percussive music-making! I have a big plastic box full of pans, ice cube trays, measuring cups, and long-handled plastic spoons that I periodically hand out in my Music Together classes for a big “kitchen instrument” jam.
If you want to go for the real thing, hand drums are marvelous for small children to learn coordination and to explore sound, tone, and rhythm. I don’t like to give drumsticks to kids younger than 6. You just don’t need sticks to play a drum! The tactile experience of actually touching the instrument you’re playing is neurologically very important. There’s also just the safety issue; drumsticks and eyeballs do not get along! Infants and toddlers in my classes enjoy small drums that sit on the floor so they can play with both hands.
I’ve found that Remo Kids drums and Rhythm Club drums with synthetic heads are durable, make consistently decent sounds, and feel nice on the hands. I don’t like drums with shiny plastic heads – the tone quality is poor, and those heads dent easily. Drums with real skin heads can be tricky, as the tension and tone quality can change drastically with humidity and barometric changes.
These Remo Rhythm Club drums would be appropriate for babies who can sit upright to elementary school-aged kids:
For good quality hand-held drums (for ages 3 and up), I like the Remo Rainforest Drums, 8 inches or bigger.
If you want a drum the entire family can play together, check out these Gathering Drums!
For kids 4 and older, sturdy djembes are really fun. Little ones can sit in a chair and prop the drum between your legs, hang it from a cord around your shoulders, or even (within reason) lay it down on the floor and sit on it like riding a horse.
I’ve used the Remo rainforest djembe in my Big Kids classes (5-7 yr olds), and I always have the kids sit on the drums. These have held up very well!
Or a fascinating, lower cost option for little ones, the “bongo cajon,” which reportedly features a really wide array of sounds and can just sit on the floor in easy reach of your small one, as long as she can sit up.
Many families I know are striving to cut down on the amount of STUFF in their homes, so if buying an actual product is not your thing this year, consider giving your child the gift of musical experiences together! Present her with tickets to the next local symphony concert—a wonderful opportunity to dress up and do a “grown-up” evening on the town. Or, for lower cost alternatives, check out your local high school and university music departments. Most schools offer very low-cost or free concerts that are open to the public throughout each semester.
About Kari Richmond
Kari has been playing and teaching music since she can remember and founded Asheville Area Music Together in 2006. Kari is a dynamic and engaging teacher who creates a warm, fun classroom environment. In addition to her Music Together classes for the little folks, she teaches private piano and percussion lessons to students of all ages. Married to fellow percussionist Matthew Richmond, she is mom to 9-year-old Isaac and 4-year-old Cora.
Note :: You can read my interview with Kari on raising musical children here.
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