One of the strangest things about children is how quickly, instinctively and downright enthusiastically they take to music. You might struggle to make them do the things essential for life, such as eating broccoli or wrapping up in winter, but hand them a ukulele and you’re almost guaranteed to have an occupied child for long enough to clean your windows.
Of course the downside is that musical instruments can be expensive. Few would recommend letting a toddler have a fiddle with your Stradivarius, but even a solid wood piano can be brought to its knees by a set of jam-covered fingers. That’s where children’s instruments come in. They are definitely not toys, but are designed and priced with children in mind.
First there’s the construction. Because timbre and sustain might not be at the top of most children’s lists of considerations, kids’ instruments can be built a good deal more sturdily, with thicker wood, more strengthening members, longer-lasting strings and such like. Or alternatively, they can simply be inexpensive enough to be replaced if they do get bunged up with modelling clay or run over by a bike. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be looked after, and normal parental responsibility will apply, but the inescapable fact is that children are simply more clumsy than adults, and less able to see the consequences of their actions (in other words, to think of someone or something else to blame).
The second consideration is ease of use. This is really important, because if you present a child with too steep a learning curve, frustration is more likely to get the better of them. Ease of use can include anything from having gentler actions on keys, valves or strings to having the notes printed on the instrument itself at the appropriate places. The size of the instrument comes under this category too. Most instruments have smaller versions designed to be played by smaller fingers and mouths. If the instrument isn’t going to be a surprise, it’s definitely worth trying out in a shop first, just to make sure. It’s not unusual for children’s instruments to be less complicated as well as being smaller, for example keyboards might only have two or three octaves and could be monophonic or duophonic to make sure music learnt more methodically. Nowadays there are even electronic instruments which are programmed with lights to guide the fingers up and down the keyboard or fretboard.
Finally there’s the fun factor. Every educator of youngsters knows how important it is to bring enjoyment into proceedings, and music, although fun in itself, is no exception. This can be something as simple as having a vibrant design on the instrument – a jazzy pattern or lively pictures, for example. Instruments are available tied in with kids’ favourite TV and cinema shows, and the inevitable recognition can help overcome any initial barriers or misgivings.
So there are plenty of tricks to help kids to learn, or simply get interested in, music. Just think, with gadgets like these, maybe Mozart wouldn’t have waited till he was five before he started composing.