Researchers have found cognitive, developmental, emotional and social benefits to learning to play an instrument. If learning to play one instrument benefits a child, should parents encourage their children to take on more than one instrument?
A musically motivated child
Drum beats, piano notes and bassoon tones resound through the Dingwall home in Wilmington, DE. Andrew Dingwall began piano lessons at his parents’ suggestion when he was 5 years old.
“To quell any requests of quitting piano lessons, we had a fun family rule that he could trade the piano keys for car keys when he learned to drive,” says Andrew’s mother, Beth.
At age 9, Andrew asked to add drum lessons so he could participate in the elementary school band. At 15, Andrew noticed the bassoon and added it to his lessons.
“He has a goal to learn one instrument from each of the instrument categories,” says Beth.
A fine-tuned balance
“The most important factor in identifying a student’s readiness for a second instrument is their time,” says Cheri Astolfi, dean of The Music School of Delaware in Wilmington, DE, where Andrew takes lessons. She adds, “Studying two instruments requires two times as much time for practice or at least 30 minutes more each day for the second instrument. Students who study more than one instrument should have good organizational and time management skills so they can continue to grow on both their principal and secondary instruments.”
Studying multiple instruments — or any instrument — may not be for every child. In a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers from Northwestern University found that to gain the cognitive benefits of music lessons, students need to be actively engaged. In other words, adding another instrument when your child doesn’t practice the first one isn’t going to benefit him.
Timing and orchestration
If a child has both the interest and time, adding a second instrument can enhance her education, provide enjoyment and offer more opportunities to participate in school and community music groups. But when and how to introduce instrument lessons?
Says Astolfi, “I personally believe that a student should be playing an instrument for at least two years before she adds another instrument to the mix.”
Meridee Winters, founder and director of the Meridee Winters School of Music in Ardmore, PA, recommends a child start with the piano, which kids often begin at age 6 or 7 but can start as early as age 4 or 5.
“The way the piano is laid out, it’s like a template for everything else,” says Winters. “When a child reads and plays piano music, he’s playing more than one note at a time and learning rhythm and melody, and obviously that would translate easily to other band instruments that are mostly one note at a time.”
For the child who simply enjoys music, “Any second instrument that enhances the enjoyment of music in the child’s life is appropriate,” says Astolfi. Selecting an instrument from within the same family as the first (for instance, adding a second string instrument when the child already plays the violin) is easiest, but the second instrument need not be from the same family because so many musical concepts apply to all instruments.
Ultimately, a student who plays multiple instruments should enjoy doing so. Last month Andrew turned 16 and became eligible to “turn in his piano keys.” He “adamantly wants to, and will, continue his piano study,” says Beth. “He is having fun! That is the primary reason for instrument lessons in our house. Andrew has developed a great passion for music and has made many new friends.”
Susan Stopper is a frequent contributor to MetroKids.