By Laura K. Cowan
If you have never had a kid leave trombone spit on your floor, you haven’t really lived. Seriously though, parenting kids through music lessons can be a unique and rewarding experience. Music lessons really teach kids a different set of life skills than they could get from any other activity — from self-awareness to fine motor skills to better listening and introduction to meditation. Today there are tons of options that fit every family, schedule, and kid.
People often discuss when to start their kids on music lessons with me, partly because my daughter loves piano lessons, and partly because my in-laws are both music teachers in Ann Arbor. When my daughter asked after voice lessons, they said she was too young, and this got me thinking. What is the right age for different types of music lessons, and how do you know when your kid is ready? Fortunately for kids in Ann Arbor, there are many choices around here for music lessons of every kind, so I set off to ask some local teachers about the right timing and prep, and some unique and fun options, for music lessons at every age. The answers I got were expert and professional. This town is chock full of amazing music teachers of all kinds.
First of all, is it ever too soon to start your kids on music lessons? For the basics, no. Tiger moms rejoice. There are fantastic options for exposing your kids to the wonderful world of music, even from birth.
From the Get-Go
Robin Robinson, founder of the Music Together programs for kids, Robinsongs in Ann Arbor, teaches children as young as infants in her group music classes off of Miller and North Maple in a new dedicated music studio. Her programs for children combine play-based musical activities, songs, rhythmic games, and a cozy family environment with parents participating to support their kids in discovering enthusiasm for music. It might sound simple, but Music Together programs are research-based classes that allow children to teach themselves through discovery of music. The classes feature structured but varied song programs, from the weekly welcome song to a carefully designed arc of activities and singalong fun, ending in a peaceful goodbye song. Through the class, the kids get their bodies moving and are welcome to call out and participate in each activity as much or as little as they choose. I visited a class for infants and pre-K at Robinsongs and was surprised at how friendly and welcoming yet polished the program was.
“The most important thing is your participation,” Robinson told the parents, “then the kids are more likely to be engaged.” Honestly, the only downside I could see to this is that these classes require a lot of energy from moms who might sometimes need a bit of a break from playing with their kiddos. But the structure of the activities was superb. “It’s not about performing,” Robinson assured everyone.
Children grinned and sang along with the call and response of different rhymes through the class. One child sat on Robinson’s lap, comfortably going back and forth between Robinson and her mother. Another cheered as a song ended.
Beehives buzzing, tickling, counting, and callback rhythms all feature in Music Together classes. For older kids, there are drum circle rhythm classes that are age appropriate once the kids develop the right foundational skills. I thought this was a pretty cool alternative to piano lessons for kids with a taste for drums. Even the infant and pre-K classes allow kids to explore maracas, shaker eggs, and rhythm sticks to play along with the music.
The most impressive thing about Robinsongs is that the organization features multiple professional teachers, and Robinson herself is quite proficient in everything she does. This is not a thrown-together mommy hangout. Robinson has a degree in musical theater from the University of Michigan and worked in New York before returning to Ann Arbor, sings professionally, plays guitar, is exceptionally friendly, is great with small children, and runs her own business. On the second week of this class I visited, she already knew all the dozen children’s names in the pre-K class. You can see her passion for children and her work in everything she does.
Timing Is Everything
What is the right time to start music lessons that teach kids to read sheet music, and where do you start? For piano, former Ann Arbor Piano Teachers Guild president, local teacher, and my intrepid mother-in-law, Heidi Cowan, said it varies by teaching method. Traditional teachers like Mrs. Cowan say it’s often a good idea to start around kindergarten or a little after. Even age seven to nine is a great time to get going. Though, Mrs. Cowan told me, Suzuki method teachers like Ann Arbor veteran Renee Robbins would have a different approach. I sat down with Renee Robbins to ask her about her decades of experience starting kids on the piano, and she confirmed what Mrs. Cowan had told me. Robbins also is a former president of the piano teachers guild, and a long-time favorite teacher on the West Side of Ann Arbor. In her teaching method, children begin by hearing rhythms and melodies in music, and reading notes on the page comes at a later stage. That means, they can start as young as preschool.
My gracious and easygoing father-in-law, Dr. Bruce Cowan, plays clarinet and saxophone in professional ensembles, and also teaches woodwinds lessons. He told me that he starts kids at ten years old, because the size of their bodies needs to be big enough to hold a woodwind instrument and their fingers to cover the holes on a recorder or clarinet.
“About middle school they graduate up to brass and larger instruments, like coronets and trombones,” he told me, “and then bass clarinet or tenor, alto clarinet or euphonium or tuba.” Dr. Cowan also said that band leaders in town have lots of training about when to start kids at different ages on early instruments and then transfer them over. Since the public schools provide instruments to try in elementary schools, there isn’t such an expensive outlay at the beginning to try an instrument. Children are graduated to higher quality instruments as well as larger ones. Dr. Cowan said, “Generally, by high school, if someone is serious in this town, they want to be playing on a professional grade instrument by sophomore year.” But, he said, that’s relatively easy to make happen with all the orchestras and groups kids can join through their school careers.
Gari Stein teaches early childhood music classes similar to Robinsongs, but her setup is a little different. She tells me:
Classes are geared for babies to five and are based in the richness of traditional folk music with a format specifically designed for very young children that covers all elements of music making. Enhancing listening skills, an important component, is emphasized throughout the curriculum. Snack and art experiences are provided with time for independent instrument exploration. Music For Little Folks is a little community with space for adults to chat and connect.
KinderConcerts are an additional free series of performances that expose kids to different kinds of music. They are hosted by local libraries, from Ann Arbor to Dexter to Chelsea and Ypsi, and are sponsored by the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. KinderConcerts combine classical music with jazz and other genres. Guest musicians engage children in follow the leader, dancing with scarves and other props, and end in a lullaby.
Besides hosting KinderConcerts and teaching Little Folks Music classes, Stein also runs a unique class at the Ann Arbor YMCA. Nurturing Baby and You: Music and Support is a group specifically designed for infants and babies. Stein said:
“Being with these precious little ones is a joyous experience [that] fills my heart and nourishes my soul. And it’s not just for the little ones. Connecting with the grownups is a bonus; an ice cream sundae with whipped cream on top. All children are born with the potential to be musical and music speaks to every child. Simply by singing and dancing together, we nurture that potential. No expertise needed. Childhood need not be rushed. What’s the hurry?”
I admit I love her attitude about relaxed and nurtured learning, even though I benefited from an ambitious practice schedule when I played piano from childhood through early college. These days as a mom I’m more cognizant of the pressures kids face, and I, like many other moms, am looking for balance and a workable schedule for my kid that teaches her positive reinforcement and hard work in a peaceful context. There’s plenty of variety in what people want for their kids’ music education, but the pressures of being a kid today seem to be a growing concern among parents, and a factor in Gari Stein’s relaxed family approach. She told me:
“Many years ago, one of my moms from Sing With Me said, ‘This class reminds me that there is still peace and calm in the world...’ Even after all these years, as I look out on the cuddling families and the smiling faces, there is this moment in time when there is peace and calm and all is well with the world. A beautiful warmth washes over me. Every time.”
I have to say these days I really resonate with that. Like many parents, I’m looking for ways to create peace in my family life and make space for gentle learning, to buffer out some of the harshness of the world. “These are challenging times,” Stein said. “A simple song can slow things down, and instantly transform a cranky environment into one of calm and peace. It is a tool readily available in a frustrating situation and will help us get through transitions.”
There will always be plenty of kids who love music and are self-motivated learners, and they thrive with Renee Robbins’ piano lessons. “I started playing piano when I was three,” she told me. “My brother played the violin, and my mother played music.”
What’s it like to be a piano teacher for more than 50 years? Robbins is the kind of teacher who doesn’t just teach piano. She loves her students and not just teaching music but “exploring the messages it teaches us, what meanings and emotions come through a piece.”
Robbins starts teaching children to learn piano by ear at a young age, then starts them reading music about the same time Heidi Cowan recommended: somewhere between five and eight years old, depending on how they’re progressing and their learning style. “Usually within a year or two of beginning to read [music] they really read,” she said. Learning to read music is a “very gradual process, and differs a lot with different kids.”
“The kids who do the best have families who play music, not necessarily professionally,” Robbins said. “They like it.” She has a problem with parents who put their kids in music lessons to increase their brain power but don’t do it themselves. This is a great point. We all know the mom who insists on her kids packing in music as well as academics, but even if that is effective for enhanced academic success and self-discipline and creativity, how many of these parents invest in themselves the same way? The majority of Robbins’ students have parents who play music. She seems enthusiastic about the continued boom of families who want their kids in piano lessons. Even after all these years, she’s still plenty busy at her studio. You can see from talking with Robbins that she is deeply invested as a teacher.
“No two people in the world are the same, so they all have different approaches to music,” she said. “Their families have different styles, which affect how kids learn.”
“Music is soul-filling,” Robbins tells me. “We’re not there to be better than someone else.” That being said, she tells me it’s unpredictable which students will stick with music past middle school. She believes it’s her job to probe what the kids love and what motivates them, so she can encourage them to keep motivated when music gets hard. Also, whether kids stick with it can depend on parent involvement, and how that works with a kid’s natural preferences. Suzuki parents often attend lessons early on and only gradually fade into the background of their kids’ studies, while with a more traditional piano teacher like Heidi Cowan, parents more often drop kids off at lessons and support their practice from a distance unless they have more musical training, which is sometimes a better fit for parents or kids.
Unusual Choices for Music Lessons
What comes after piano and basic music instruction? For the kid who isn’t going to sit still for piano lessons, or is too young to start an instrument, where can you go? Ann Arbor has lots of cool choices. As mentioned before, the public schools have great programs and direction for getting kids into orchestras and bands and helping them try new instruments at appropriate ages. For kids not in the public schools or who want something a little different, there are several “schools of rock” around town that teach rock band instruments like electric guitar, drums, bass, and the like. These schools pull kids together in rock band groups for practice and performances. The Ann Arbor School of Rock, located on Jackson Road west of town, and The Ann Arbor Music Center and Rock Band School, on Ashley near the heart of downtown, both offer unique rock band instruction and group practice.
Religious institutions in the area also provide opportunities for kids to sing in choirs, or in faith specific smaller groups. One of the best ways to get involved is to ask around any faith-based groups or theater and music performance groups for leads on private teachers who can recommend the right fit. Guitar lessons or instruction in instruments such as mandolin are available all over Ann Arbor at various studios, such as Oz’s Music, and can lead to other stringed instrument studies. Until the recent end of Herb David Guitar Studio downtown, it was possible to take sitar lessons. The new Ann Arbor Guitars, which took over the Herb David space on Liberty, still repairs guitars, mandolins, and other stringed instruments with expert skill. Shar Instruments on South Industrial is another great resource where parents can rent violins and violas and basses and inquire after private lessons.
Every teacher I spoke with agreed, however, that it’s important to start with foundational music training, which means an instrument such as the piano or violin that a child can start relatively young, and that will teach them to read music and count rhythms before they focus on complex instruments or group ensembles. Then they can branch out as their skills bloom and their personal preferences emerge. It’s uniquely rewarding to watch a kid discover music. I can see why music teachers in the area are respected for their decades of experience and high-level training. It’s a beautiful thing to see how much they love the work and love their students after so many years on the job.
For kids who stick with it, there are award-winning youth orchestras and bands at the public high schools. At Solo & Ensemble auditions teens can win medals for group and solo performances that test their developing musical skills, and at the Ann Arbor Piano Teachers Guild auditions kids push past their individual lessons to performance-level competitions.
I didn’t realize until I was an adult how lucky I was to have a friend in a concert pianist living next door as a kid, as well as world-class teachers available to me, even though I didn’t pursue music in college. As a student slightly awkwardly between the typical level of experience and what would be required to get into a higher end music school, I was blessed to have the option to take piano lessons for credit with a grad student at the University of Michigan School of Music when I was a freshman at U-M and an English major.
You have to look around a bit to find these options, but if your child keeps studying, these kinds of opportunities are everywhere in Ann Arbor. World-class violin instructors at the University of Michigan School of Music sometimes take on young students to mentor, which my husband took full advantage of when he was a kid. The University of Michigan also runs the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Northern Michigan, where kids can audition for the All-State two-week summer camp from an early age through high school, or attend longer programs up to full-time boarding school for arts and music. And then there are other camps and music schools and competitions to move on to.
First things first, though. Learning to read music and develop a lifelong love of rhythm and melody are some of my fondest memories of growing up in Ann Arbor, and ones I hope to pass on to my daughter. Like me, she loves to practice piano, but not play scales, and loves to improvise, but not in public. I hope to nurture her love of music in the way that’s best for her. It’s a tricky balance with everything kids have going on in their schedules these days, but it’s well worth some family time around the piano. Playing violin or harmonica or the piano together are some of our fondest memories together as a family.
More information about Robinsongs can be found at robinsongsforkids.com. Her email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information on Gari Stein and KinderConcerts is at little-folks-music.com. Her email is: email@example.com.
Renee Robbins can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.