So, you’re considering an instrument for your child to use at home? That’s great, and it’s becoming more and more common in these times of remote learning! This is meant as a guide and is not meant to compel you to buy an instrument if it isn’t right for your circumstance. See the last section of this guide for tight budget considerations.
Questions to ask yourself:
- How much space in your home are you willing to dedicate to an instrument?
- What’s your budget?
- Are we just using it for school or making an investment, (private lessons and/or long term use)?
- Does anyone else in the family play?
As a whole, the higher the quality of the instrument the child is playing, the better the experience and possible outcome. A higher quality instrument sounds better and gives the player better feedback on their playing. Developing a young musician’s ear is very important because it allows them to self-check and analyze their playing which develops the skills they will need as they grow into expressive composers. If it sounds right, it IS right, but if their instrument isn’t accurately sounding the notes that they are playing, how can they tell? At the same time, a higher quality instrument gives a more informative tactile response to the musician and this in turn develops their skills and experience in feeling the music.
Proper size, layout, and tuning are important regardless of the long term goals!
You may laugh, but a quality, comfortable set of headphones can be a real sanity saver. While we all can appreciate the beauty of a child playing an instrument, the nature of practice is that it is repetitive and after a while, everyone could use a break. The benefit to the student is that headphones will almost always make their instruments sound bigger and better than they really are, which makes them sound and feel bigger and better too!
A few things should be considered when it comes to headphones. If they are uncomfortable, nobody will want to wear them so invest a little more into something comfortable. Volume limitations should also be taken into consideration. There are many headphones that are manufactured with volume limiters for children. Protect their hearing! A child’s hearing is sensitive and easily damaged. Also consider multiple uses. While having a set of headphones for keyboard practice is great, they could also use the same set, in theory, for using during zoom classes or just watching a movie on a tablet.
Puro has a few nice volume limiting options, and the ones we use in class are AKG K-66 or similar. Note that the AKG’s have pads that go over and around the ear, which can be more comfortable but are not volume limited.
Keyboard / Piano
In my classroom, the student keyboards are Yamaha PSR-172s. They are VERY simple keyboards, but they are cost effective, (about $100) and take up minimal space. The ones I have in my classroom were installed in 2004 and are still working, which speaks to their durability. While the exact model is probably not available, Yamaha is known for their quality instruments. The thing I don’t like about keyboards like these is the many synthesized sounds available. I preach to the children that these are instruments and not toys so we should approach them as such. Unfortunately, these functions work against that ethos. The other drawbacks are lack of touch sensitive or weighted keys and very basic piano sound, making these “instruments” less a technical development instrument and more a music class device.
The performance electric pianos we have in the classroom as well as in the auditorium for use during concerts are the Casio Privia PX-160. There is a significant difference between these and the practice keyboards. For one thing, they do not have the synthesizer functions, but they do include several different voices. They include weighted keys that are touch-sensitive. It gives the students an experience similar to what a real piano feels like. They also have more keys, so they have a greater range of sound. The drawback is that they are much larger and typically heavier so they need a pretty permanent place to reside. They are also significantly more expensive, typically starting around $500. Even though we use the Casio’s in school, they are not the only brand. Yamaha makes similar models as well as Korg and other companies. It definitely makes sense to shop around as packages differ and the quality between the brands is typically pretty similar.
The ukulele is a wonderful option for every child. In recent years, it has begun shaking the novelty stigma which it has existed under. Indeed, the ukulele is beginning to garner the respect it deserves from musicians and music educators alike. Not only are there music programs worldwide featuring ukulele instruction, but the accessibility and flexibility of the instrument also make it a great option for children of all ages.
The advent of remote learning has once again brought the ukulele into my curriculum as many students have one at home. It only makes sense for me to embrace that and include it in my lessons. Though they hold their own musically, they also provide an accessible and fun introduction to fretted and strung instruments like the guitar. They have the advantage of being very forgiving on right-hand strumming technique, and the chords are the same shapes is on the guitar, only transposed a few steps. That translates to a small adjustment if the student is interested in adding guitar.
If you are interested in purchasing a ukulele for your child, I can highly recommend Lanikai ukuleles. I’ve used them for ukulele programs in the past at school and they are great. I recommend the tenor or concert sizes over the soprano. While it may seem that the soprano would be most accommodating of small fingers, they tend to be outgrown quickly and the tension on the strings Was looser in my experience on the Sopranos which created a strange tactile feeling for the students. Having a bit of resistance on the strings is valuable both for feel and sound and the concert and tenors are right in the sweet spot for that.
The models we used in school were the Lanikai MU-T (Tenor) and MA-C (Concert). These are reasonably priced instruments that will last a lifetime and unlike other “starter” instruments, they have the ability to grow with the musician and be played at a high level.
The guitar is a popular instrument for students and it is a very worthwhile instrument to study. The immediate benefit to the guitar is that students are typically inherently motivated to learn to play.
That said, I always recommend starting out on a ukulele because there is a significant benefit to the instant gratification that comes from that instrument. The chord shapes are very similar between the two instruments and it is a mere transposition in going from one to the other. Many times in starting young students on guitar, the approaches taken to use half chords to simplify fingerings. This abridgment is inherent on the ukulele since it only has four strings, Which has the added benefit of flexibility on developing right-hand technique. On the guitar, a student must focus on strumming only the bottom 4 strings while finding the chord fingerings. On the uke, they strum all the strings and focus primarily on the fingerings.
The guitars that I recommend for students starting out are nylon string 1/2 or 3/4 sized. Any guitar larger than that is challenging for young children to get their arms around and can be uncomfortable. Steel strings also are painful on beginning fingers, which can lead to a negative association which we try to avoid. One other option is an electric guitar, which does have steel strings, though the tension is far less, so there is not as much discomfort involved. You also can’t ignore the obvious cool factor as well as the fact that headphones can be used.
The guitars I have used in school are 1/2 size nylon string acoustic guitars made by Fender. Something like these. The general rule of thumb is that a larger person can play a smaller guitar but a smaller person cannot play a larger guitar, so opt for the 1/2 size versus the 3/4 if you’re not sure.
Getting A Deal
During this very difficult time, many budgets are stretched to the max.
Try reaching out to family and friends with older children, you just may find an instrument sitting in a closet doing no one any good.
How many rock stars have you heard of buying their first instrument second hand at a local shop? Go for it!