While Wham might be giving out hearts at Christmas willy-nilly, I can tell you that last Christmas, two of my daughters did not receive any.
It was the first year that my husband’s family decided to ‘secret Santa’ each child’s extended family Christmas gift. The price limit was set and we went on our merry way, relieved to only have to buy for one niece or nephew each.
Being passionate about music, quality toys, and education, I bought my two-year-old niece a beautiful wooden toy instrument. It was a cute, colourful and perfectly intonated xylophone. This was a perfect example of an ‘age appropriate’ instrument. It was high quality, perfectly tuned, fun and easy to play, and has a myriad of benefits for her brain and body.
As it turned out, her parents had drawn the names of two of my children; my four and two year old daughters.
They were also gifted instruments, however, nothing about them was age appropriate (or sanity-appropriate).
Both of my girls were given ‘playable bagpipes’ 😮
Now, let me preface this by saying there are no hard feelings here. While these gifts were bought partly to get a rise out of me, they were genuinely gifted thinking my girls would enjoy them. Not being at all musical themselves, the two gift-ers probably had no idea how difficult any type of bagpipes are to play, let alone $50 ones from a toy store. “Playable” is not an adjective I would ever use to describe these, erm, instruments. The worst part was that I had not one, but two of these dang things.
I am proficient in many instruments, including some woodwind. While I’ve never played bagpipes before, I figured I would at least be able to get a sound out of them.
I guess, technically, ‘cow giving birth’ is a sound. It wasn’t a nice sound, nor did it sound anything like actual bagpipes. However, if we’re ever required to provide sound effects for a play that’s set on a farm, we’re all set to help out. 😂
Which leads me to the objective of this article; choosing and gifting age-appropriate instruments.
I’m not going to dive into the benefits of children playing instruments. I’d be here all day, and you can already read about that here. Sufficient to say, there are many.
First of all, a child who can shake or whack, is a child who can have fun playing with instruments. Instruments for the ‘shaking and whacking’ stages are drums and percussion. Once a child can confidently get the sound happening, you can work on keeping time. Try clapping or tapping along with a familiar song. Just remember that playing the instrument, having fun and engaging with music is the most important thing. If your child can’t grasp the concept of keeping time, don’t worry!
Once your little one has slightly better control of their hands, it’s time to look at Pat Bells. These require a little aim to pat the bells and produce the lovely sound. Each one is colour coordinated to match the accompanying sheet music, creating the perfect foundation for note reading. These not only train the ear, they teach listening, musicality, hand eye coordination, and are a heck of a lot of fun to play. Buying a good quality set means they’ll last through generations.
Another good option for this stage is something like a xylophone or glockenspiel. These are played in the same way but are made from different materials. A xylophone has wooden keys while a glockenspiel has metal. Mallets are used to tap the keys that are set out in the same formation as a piano.
Once your child is developed enough to blow a steady, controlled stream of air, you could start to look at wind instruments. Something simple and fun like a slide or train whistle is a good place to start. Just remember to order some ear plugs as well! Unfortunately, primary school music programs have given a bad name to the old recorder. Most of the problem there is that children play cheap, plastic ones that produce a horrible sound regardless. Wooden recorders sound hauntingly beautiful and are a highly beneficial early instrument.
Finally, a slightly older child could look at learning a guitar. A common complaint among parents is that an electric guitar also needs some sort of amp/speaker and cabling. They’re also heavy, big, and can get expensive. A great beginner option is the Loog mini electric. It comes with everything built in, is available in different sizes and colours, and has low string action to be gentler on soft fingers. Guitars are a great way to not only train the ear and enhance coordination, but also to teach about chords, melody, rhythm, and the different patterns and formulas within music.
When choosing any instrument, the most important points are:
Is it in tune/correctly intontated? This means that when you play a note, it is accurately creating sound waves at the right frequency. To get all technical, the sound of the ‘A’ key towards the middle of the piano is created by sound waves vibrating at precisely 440 hertz. This will always play that particular ‘A’ note. Each note in existence has its own sound wave value that, when produced, perfectly plays that note. It’s imperative that whatever instrument it is, it is in tune. If it’s not, you will mis-train the ear. This can be a big problem!
What materials is it made from? This is not only a factor for quality but also sound. The main difference in an entry level instrument (for example a flute) and a professional model is the material it’s made from. Well made, high quality instruments not only last a long time, but also sound the best.
Does that child have the right skills to be able to play that instrument? For example, something that needs to be blown is harder than someone that needs to be shaken or hit.
Finally, with instruments, you get what you pay for. If it seems unusually cheap, it’s for a very good reason. Cheap instruments are harder to play, harder to sound good, and lead to frustrated children who give up on music.
The next time you want to buy an instrument for a child, first of all give yourself a high five. What an excellent choice you’re making! Just remember my little ones and their “bagpipes” and let that help guide your choice.
Written by Joanna Predo, author, long-time music teacher and musician.Joanna spends her days negotiating with book printers, stealing time at the piano, and cutting the crusts off sandwiches. Before creating her own tribe of little people, Joanna worked as a jazz singer and pianist for many prestigious clients around Brisbane. She played her first song on the piano at age 2, sung her first jazz number publicly at age 8, and taught her first piano lesson at age 14. Joanna has dedicated most of her 33-year life to the in-depth pursuit of music, and says she is constantly humbled by the fact that she has been selected as a vessel to carry it.
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