If I had to nominate an ideal age to start guitar, I would probably say seven. There seems to be general agreement on this among the teachers I know, and among parents too, judging by the number of new enquiries I get every year for pupils around this age.
Seven seems to be a sort of golden mean. You can start younger, but children’s hands (or minds) will often not be ready for the task. You can of course start later (you can start any time) but at seven you have time on your side.
You can learn things in depth and let them really sink in, and you can let things take as long as they take, rather than – as older beginners often do – trying to learn the basics in a day, in a headlong dash towards the Favourite Song.
Of course, no two 7-year-old pupils are the same, any more than two adult pupils are ever the same. Every pupil brings to their instrument a particular set of interests and knowledge, strengths and weaknesses, abilities and desires. And the teacher’s job is to get to know these, and work with them, to that pupil’s best advantage.
But nonetheless, there are certainly some general things that you can say about 7-year-olds compared to older pupils. For example, where music is concerned, their interests and tastes and aspirations will be less developed and defined, because those things take time and they simply haven’t been around that long. This is actually quite convenient for the teacher, as 7-year-olds are likely to be far more open-minded about musical style, and about what they do in lessons, than older children sometimes are. (It also places quite a responsibility on the teacher).
Another general thing you can say about 7-year-old guitar pupils is that there will be a lot of things that they are not ready for. Not many 7-year-olds, for example, will be able to make a chord ring on the guitar – the finger muscles and sinews are simply not strong enough. And even the few who can make a chord sound properly, are unlikely to be able to actually do much with it. (This is in stark contrast to older or adult beginners, for whom chords can make a fascinating introduction to the guitar and may indeed be the only thing they wish to learn).
If you are a guitar teacher who works with 7-year-olds a lot, it makes sense to plan activities which will bring their strengths to the fore, work around their limitations, and really stand them in good stead for a lifetime of music making. (And if you are a parent, it is useful to have some clear ideas as to what to expect and what not to expect from the first year of tuition – so although most of this blog series is addressed to fellow teachers, it is hopefully of interest to parents too).
I teach this age group a lot, and just for fun, I made a list of things that do (and don’t) work with young pupils as they set off on the guitar learning journey. I also tried to boil these down into some principles which I hope I manage to put into practice at least most of the time in my own teaching. I hope my observations will ring true with other teachers who work with young beginners, whether in schools or privately. And I do hope they are helpful for a novice teacher suddenly confronted with a seven-year-old beginner guitarist for the first time …
The next instalment is all about “gear”. Guitarists love gear! Some spend far more time thinking about gear than thinking about what they are actually going to do with it. What do they really need? And what do they totally not need? Read on …
In later instalments I will talk about choice of music, the techniques and skills to focus on with this age group, and ways of organising the lessons to keep things moving and enjoyable.