Along With A B C, Teach Do Re Mi

In Plato's time, children weren't considered educated unless they could play a musical instrument. That standard has been relaxed somewhat, but many parents still would like to make music a part of their kids' lives. How and when to start?

Experts say the earlier the better. "Children at a very young age have a tremendous capacity to learn music," says Corrina Marshall, director of the Early Childhood Dept. at Diller-Quaile School of Music in Manhattan. If your child is school age and in love with a particular instrument, you can simply find a private teacher. But for an earlier, more general introduction to music, look for a school with a special children's program.

The philosophy at New York's Mannes College of Music, which accepts kids as young as 4, is "encouraging them to explore their musical potential in an atmosphere of friendship," says Joan Behrens-Bergman, director of the preparatory division. In Mannes' pre-instrumental course ($600 for 30 weekly classes), children get the basics of theory. Tone-matching, in which they sing a played note, gives them a sense of musical pitch and intervals--the distance between notes. And Mannes favors the Dalcroze method, in which children respond to musical stimuli with body movement, learning rhythm and dynamics. Kids also experiment with various instruments.

KEEPING THE BEAT. At Diller-Quaile, toddlers as young as 20 months learn to keep a beat by clapping and tapping. They sing simple songs based on, say, a scale and one interval, learning to recognize the interval when they hear it. Next, they make hand signs that represent the interval. Then, they place macaroni on lines of a musical staff, using the pasta as "notes." Older children play with drums and bells, learning elementary meter. (For toddlers, it's $1,750 for 60 classes of 45 minutes.)

If your child asks to play a specific instrument, you should honor the request, says Mannes' Bergman. Violins and cellos come in tiny sizes, so 3- and 4-year-olds can play them. Often, they learn some form of the Suzuki method, which stresses rote playing. They can begin keyboard instruments at 5 or 6, when their hands have some reach. And most kids have the stamina to tackle wind instruments at 8 or 9.

The worst thing you can do, educators say, is push children to study an instrument because you think it's good for them. Lots of people remember unhappy hours of piano practice when they wanted to be playing basketball. That's no way to learn that music is fun.

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