Kids and Music

This is where I post things for parents. I’ve been fortunate to have taught a number of kids over the years that have developed into very good, sometimes even great musicians. Teaching kids can be a little different than teaching grownups. Of course for the younger set I have to deal with fidgeting, short attention spans and things like that. I’m a pretty patient person so I deal with that pretty well. I’m also pretty good at joking around with kids so they are at ease and they come to like the interaction we have during a lesson. The key thing I have noticed in my 25 plus years of teaching kids, is that parental involvement in the process is the single best predictor of musical success. Below are some of my thoughts about teaching kids that can be important for parents to understand.

Why having your child learn a musical instrument is a good thing

Learning to play a musical instrument can be very rewarding for a child. What starts out as an awkward endeavor, becomes easier and more fun over time, as fine motor skills develop and a better understanding of the structure of music is acquired. Developing these skills helps children gain confidence and self-esteem.

But I think what’s most important is that it gives a child a huge head start on a skill that will most likely be an important hobby, and in some cases even a profession that they can enjoy forever. One of the most important things about playing music, especially an interactive form like bluegrass is the social rewards of playing with other people and building friendships that last a lifetime. We live in an era that can be very isolating, with children (and adults) spending more and more of their time in front of a screen of one form or another, and less and less time interacting with people. The bluegrass community has informal jams in houses, pizza parlors, and at festivals and camps all across the country. Most musicians I know watch way less TV and spend more time with friends than your typical non-musician types. This, I think, is a good thing.

Why learn bluegrass?

I think bluegrass is one of the best forms of music for kids, whether banjo, guitar, fiddle or mandolin is the instrument of choice. It stands along with blues and jazz as one of America’s truly indigenous music forms. Bluegrass is, at its root level, a very simple music. Most songs are three chords and the basic melodies are quite simple. There are instrumental pieces and singing pieces and it’s easy to learn to play along with others. But what makes bluegrass so good for kids is that the complexity level can grow right along with the learning. Perfectly fine bluegrass can be played in a very simple style at the beginning, but as a player advances many more layers of complexity will come into play. Speeds get faster and faster, improvising begins to take shape and elements of blues and jazz take on more importance. The most advanced bluegrass musicians are some of the most technically proficient musicians in the world.

Bluegrass is a very social form of music. I like to get my kid students together, when they’re ready and have them jam with each other, or even occasionally perform. Fortuantely I have a pretty successful program so we’re able to get a good number of young students playing together on fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin and even bass. All the social interactions of sports minus the competitive edge.

I have never undertood the focus of the public school system on having kids learn marching band or classical string music. Very few students continue on with this music and many of them end up wanting to learn more practical music later in life. There is a movement by the International Bluegrass Music Association to get public schools to offer bluegrass programs, but it’s is very early in their efforts and there is certainly a long way to go.

What I expect of the parents?

The single most important determinant in my kid students’ success in learning to play an instrument has unquestionably been the support and involvement of the parents. My once-a-week contact with a student isn’t enough to develop and sustain their interest in music and children are very reliant on their parents to put all of the elements in place.

Of course this begins with the parents finding them an instrument and a teacher but it certainly doesn’t end there. Once lessons are in place and the child is beginning the musical journey there is much more for the parents to do. Here’s a list of what I would expect from dedicated parents.

1. Set realistic practice goals and remind them as needed. Okay, there’s a fine line between reminding and nagging so parents should be careful how they go about this. The big question is always, “How much should they practice?” This isn’t an exact science here – the parents must exercise judgment and wisdom in the matter. For ages 5 to 7, it could mean as short as a few minutes a day, later 15 minutes a day and then 30 minutes. This is more dependent on the kid’s maturity than age though. When my mandolin playing son was 6, he was good for 20 minutes a day, 5 or 6 days a week. When my guitar playing son started at 7, I had him play only 2 – 5 minutes a day maybe 5 times a week. Of course, after he learned to get some music out of the guitar he wanted to practice more and more because he was excited about it. At age 11, my daughter upped her practice time on banjo and guitar to 1 or 2 hours a day. Again, she was excited by her progress and she wanted to play more.

2. Make it a positive experience. The old adage, “Practice makes perfect” applies here, but this can take some sensitivity from the parents. The overriding goal must be to keep practicing from feeling too much like drudgery. When my own kids started, I paid close attention to their mood and I’d delay, shorten or even cancel their practice when they were too tired or hungry to effectively practice. There were times when after only a couple of minutes I’d grab their instrument and say “Okay, that’s enough for now” when I’d see the frustration build. More important than anything else is to keep frustration to a minimum and keep it as fun as possible. Don’t stress over a bad day or a bad week. The great thing about learning as a kid is that they have so much time in front of them. My daughter learned very little in the first nine months and I kept it very low stress. Eventually, she gained confidence, found it to be fun and now she’s very proficient.

3. Keep the instrument and lesson sheets or books easily accessible. I always go the extra mile with this. We always leave the instruments out of their cases, hanging on the wall so they’re really easy to pick up. When they are in the cases because we’ve been out with them, I immediately unpack them and hang them up. I also monitor the tuning and make sure they’re in tune enough for practicing. With electronic tuners, ($23) even non-musicians can tune instruments. Make sure to have extra picks (if needed) around.

4. Have music playing around the home or in the car as much as possible. If your child is learning to play bluegrass, it’s essential that they hear bluegrass as much as possible. Learning music is very similar to learning a language and we learn language much faster when we’re immersed in it. Much of what I know about music and bluegrass was never taught to me. It didn’t need to be, because I acquired it naturally through listening. Make sure to have a stereo in the living room and use it whenever possible. Don’t rely on your child to turn it on. Most kids aren’t that proactive. My kids love to play computer games, so when they play I often have bluegrass playing in the background. This does require investing in CDs, but check out local libraries. They often have a number of bluegrass and old-time CDs. Visit my recommended album lists. Also consider satellite radio, which has an all-bluegrass station, or internet radio, especially Pandora as I mention here.

5. Play with them if possible. This can be a huge help. It certainly made the difference for my own kids. Of course if you don’t play, make sure to take an interest. Listen to them play, show them off to family and friends. Kids need validation, especially from their parents.

6. Keep them inspired. Take them to concerts, festivals, workshops: anything to get them inspired. How inspiration happens is a total mystery, but almost every musician has a story about how they saw some musician or band that just set them off. It can be very random. Mark O’Connor, the fiddling prodigy, saw Doug Kershaw on TV when he was seven years old. Chris Thile’s dad took him (at age 5) to a show because a friend asked him to come and hear a music called “Bluegrass”. Now he’s the greatest mandolin player ever, at age 22. Others were surrounded by musical parents or had a friend introduce them to the music at a jam. You can’t predict when or where it’ll happen but you can surely increase the odds that it will. The Redwood Bluegrass Association, which sponsors concerts in Mountain Veiw, has been generous enough to allow all of my students under 18 to attend their shows for free.

7. When they’re ready, have them play with others. For most kids in the bluegrass world, this usually means playing with grownups, or traveling long distances to find other kids, but my students are lucky in that I have a fairly successful bluegrass program for kids established right here in Palo Alto. And I do occasionally offer a Kids-Only Bluegrass Jam Class.

Which instrument should I start my child on?
There are lots of opinions on this one. For various reasons, piano, violin or guitar come up most often as good starter instruments. These are all fine to start on, but I don’t think it matters very much. I’d rather have kids pick the instrument that excites them. In answer to those who say a child should start on this instrument or that, remember that the music backrounds of great bluegrass players are as different as can be, and as you might expect, many of them started directly on the instrument that made them famous. My advice? Don’t overthink this issue.

Having said that, here’s my take on the pros and cons of the bluegrass instruments:


These have the advantage of being small, but they do require a little more left hand strength generally than guitar. But with very careful setup, including light strings, it should be fine. I’ve started quite a few kids (including my son) on mandolin as early as age six and at that age, with some practice, they usually don’t have trouble pressing down the strings. One trick for this, should it be an issue, is to tune the instrument a whole step flat for the first few months, which will reduce the string tension quite a bit. If for no other reason, I think mandolin is a good choice because so it’s so much less common, which can make a kid feel special.


It’s easy to get smaller guitars these days, so size isn’t an issue. I start my kid students on steel string guitars and they do require some finger strength, but if the guitar is carefully set up and has light strings, most six year olds, in my experience, can learn just fine. One trick I use is to keep a capo on the guitar, so the reach down the neck isn’t as far. I’ve had young students keep a capo on the 4th fret of a Baby Taylor guitar for a year before removing it or moving it back to the second fret.


Similiar issues as guitar, except finding smaller instruments is harder. But most important is light weight, since banjos can be very heavy. The Deering Goodtime banjo is a good beginner choice because it’s light and they come set up easy to play. Banjos do have long necks which can be hard to reach down, but like guitar, a capo at about the fourth fret will shorten it so that most any kid can reach fine. Banjos are generally easier to press the strings down than a guitar, but still they must be set up carefully to be as easy to play as possible. And like mandolin, I think banjo is a good choice because there are so few kids playing it.


This instrument is more physical than the others, and should probably not be started before about age ten or so. It’s best to go with a half size bass until a child is 13 or 14, depending on their size and strength. Bluegrass bass is more physical than the other instruments, but conceptually it is easier to play. This is a good choice for a kid who isn’t going to dedicate as much time to practicing but still wants to be part of the bluegrass scene.


This is often the instrument of choice for kids. They do come in small sizes, they can be started through the school orchestra program and they do not require much strength. On the downside though, they require a fair bit of coordination and the sounds of a beginner are more harsh than the other bluegrass instruments. Personally, I think fiddle is a great choice for a dedicated student, but the other instruments usually sound better in the beginning. Since mandolins and fiddles are tuned the same, they use the same left hand fingering and many players double up on them.

My teaching philosophy with kids.

Above all, my goal in teaching children is to help them develop total musicianship. This means eventually getting them to the point where they can think for themselves on their instrument. There is currently a growing number of enlightened music educators who are realizing the old ways of teaching music is seriously flawed. When the piano or violin teacher down the street would place printed music in front of students year after year, having them regurgitate it back in endless lessons, kids generally never developed any of the skills regular folk musicians took for granted. They learned to read a musical language, but they couldn’t speak it. The problem with this kind of teaching is it doesn’t engage the creative mind or the ear.

In my lessons, students do learn to read, but it is only part of the musical process. As skills are learned, we engage the ear more and more. Songs are learned without written notes. Variations to pieces are learned in an organic fashion. And part of each lesson is like a two person jam, as I accompany on guitar and sometimes sing as we play together. Students are encouraged to learn to sing the songs too. As skills develop, improvising becomes more and more a part of the lesson.

One thing I have found through the years is that kids don’t need special dumbed-down children’s songs. I generally avoid the Raffi genre and feed kids the real deal. I try to help them get to know a little about the artists whose songs we are learning from, be it Ralph Stanley or Fiddlin’ Sam Long or whomever. Kids can be drawn into music by the emotional content of music, the same as an adult, if given the chance. Kids music, of course, is generally stripped of any of this.

Certainly an important part of learning to play a stringed instrument is developing technical skills, using the correct finger, hand and arm movements and postures. This is something I have paid a lot of attention to and have thought about the best ways to train these skills. Much of the lesson program I have developed for each instrument is focused on building skills in a graduated, orderly fashion. Properly developing newly acquired motor skills, and focusing on fluid, efficient movement is a major focus.

What age to start children?

This varies, of course, for each kid but I personally think age five is about as young as any kid should start, but some teachers do start them earlier. My three kids started at ages 8, 7 and almost 6, and I’d say each started at what was the right age for them. I did try my daughter at age 4 on violin, but it seemed too early. When she took up guitar at age 8, she was ready for it, although her first year she progressed very slowly. When at age nine she realized she could actually play some things, everything changed and now she is the most advanced bluegrass guitar player I’ve ever taught. On the other end of the spectrum, my youngest son, having watched his siblings learn, was ready shortly before turning 6. I intended to wait until he turned 6, but he insisted on learning a couple of months before that and he learned very quickly right off. The younger the child, the more important parental involvement becomes.

The flip side of this question is what age is too late – of course my answer is never! My grandfather, Earl Zentmyer, took up guitar at the age of 67, and he became a competent player. Nothing fancy, but he managed to accompany his own singing well into his ninety’s and even jammed at his 100th birthday party! But having said this, those who start as children clearly have a huge advantage as I have written about in “Why having your child learn a musical instrument is a good thing.”

Kids and singing.

At some point in the teaching process, I try to get my young students (and all of my students, for that matter) to sing as part of their musical development. This isn’t something most instrument teachers do, and is not something I included in lessons in my earlier years of teaching, but as the years have gone by, I have found it to be very helpful. Singing can help develop many of the skills needed for playing an instrument and greatly sharpens the ability to play melodies by ear (meaning with no written music). Singing also helps students learn rhythms much quicker. It’s not uncommon for students of mine to struggle with the rhythm of a song on their instrument, only to have it make perfect sense when they learn to sing it.

For most kids, it’s more fun to sing than just play. I have definitely noticed that it enhances a kid’s interest in music, and for some it makes the difference in sustaining their long-term interest in music. Singing isn’t for everyone, and I certainly don’t insist upon it, but when I have a willing student, it’ll eventually become a standard part of the lesson.

One great benefit of this is that if kids sing a lot at a young age, it appears almost inevitable that they will develop a very good or even great singing voice. Singing skills develop much like instrumental skills – to become really accomplished, it must be practiced often. My daughter Molly would be a prime example of the benefits of singing at a young age. She started with a small and unrefined voice, but after a couple of years of singing, combine with careful listening to bluegrass singers, she developed a voice good enough to carry the lead vocals on our duet CD.

While I’m not a voice teacher per say, I do give guidance and try to help students understand the nuance of singing bluegrass. I don’t take a lot of time for it in lessons, but I have played some part in developing a number of very good singers, mostly from getting them to sing regularly and listen carefully to great singers and giving them a few suggestions now and then.