These are all very valid questions and also important ones to answer, and you may get different answers from different people. My answers are based on 30 years of teaching experience and also talking with others who teach.
What's the best age to start an instrument? I believe that it's not so much the age as it is the child's readiness. Some children are ready as early as two, and others still aren't ready at five. Here are some things that I base readiness on:
- Does your child have an attention span of at least 5-10 minutes?
- Does your child have an interest in (a) musical instrument(s)?
- Does your child exhibit appropriate behavior so that he/she can be taught? (e.g., Are they so shy that they won't be able to work with a teacher even with you present? Are they so full of energy that they are unable to sit for even 5-10 minutes? Can they be taught to respect the instrument and not to throw or damage the instrument they are learning?)
Should I make my child practice? How much? I do believe that if a child is going to start an instrument, they have to practice. I think how much practice is dependent upon the child's age and level of expertise. Kids have many things they want to do during the course of a day, and they should have time to do some of these things. If your child is as young as two, I would suggest a 5-minute practice with parental involvement. At two, your child will need you for EVERY practice. You will need a good teacher who will work not just with your child, but also with you. You need to know what you should be doing to help your child. You need to be positive and encouraging!
As your child gets older, your involvement in practice will lessen. It SHOULD lessen. I've had several parents in my lifetime that I had to ask to leave the teaching room because they couldn't stop correcting every little thing that was done wrong. That is a sure way to make your child hate practicing and hate playing an instrument. They can't even concentrate on what they are doing because they are just waiting for your next criticism.
Should you MAKE them practice? I believe the answer to this is yes. If you are spending money for an instrument and/or lessons, children should learn the responsibility that comes with that. Also, how can they experience success if they don't practice? If they don't have success, they will not like playing the instrument. When I taught band, I wanted my students to stay for the year and to reach a certain level of expertise before they made the decision to quit. If they didn't practice and showed no improvement, how could they POSSIBLY enjoy playing the instrument? It is hard to enjoy something that you don't do well. You can't get better at it if you don't practice.
I usually recommend 15-30 minutes a day for my students, depending upon their age and maturity. I also recommend taking a few days off during the week. The practice does not have to be done all at once either. Practice can be 10 minutes here, 5 minutes there, or 30 minutes all at once. I also think it is better to have more smaller practices than to have one giant practice. Don't cram all the pratice into two hours on Saturday. You need to spread it out over the course of the week. Better to have 5 minutes on a busy day than nothing at all.
Should I get my child lessons? Can I teach my own child? I think lessons are very valuable. They give your child the chance to learn in a focused setting. They also provide accountability. If you know someone is going to be hearing you do something in a week, you are more likely to practice it and want to show that person that you CAN do it.
If you already play the instrument, it is possible that you can teach your own child. You may or may not want to depending upon how you and your child feel about that. Some children are willing to learn from their parents and some are not. Some parents have patience for something like this and some don't. Some very talented musicians are not good teachers. These are all things to take into consideration.
Do I need a smaller instrument for my child? It is very important that the instrument is the right size for your child. If it is too large, your child will develop bad habits and could even develop physical problems such as tendonitis. If nothing else, the proper size instrument is easier to play. Wouldn't you want to have the easiest to play instrument for yourself? Don't you want that for your child?
What instruments are good for young children? Depending upon the size and age of your child, certain instruments will be out of the question. For instance, your two year old will not be able to play a saxophone. At two, a great instrument is violin. It comes in very small sizes and there are classes made just for children this young. At four, a piano or a small size guitar may be just the ticket. At eight years of age, you might want to try the mandolin. At 10, maybe the banjo. By 4th or 5th grade, most children are big enough to start learning a band instrument.
Where can my child try out the instruments? When I have a parent ask me about their child playing an instrument, I encourage them to make a free appointment with me to show the instruments to the child and let them try them out. This way both the child and the parent have a better idea as to what the instrument sounds like, how large it is, how hard it might be, and how much they actually like it.
There are also instrument petting zoos. The Illinois Old Time Fiddler's Association just had one of these this past weekend. They had a number of different instruments available in different sizes for children to try out.
What should you NOT do? Don't just walk into a music store and start taking down instruments for your child to try. You won't be welcome there. A child needs to learn from the very beginning that if the instrument (or anything else for that matter) doesn't belong to them, they should ask. Many people are very particular about their instrument(s) and don't want anyone, no matter how experienced, to pick up their instrument(s). Most music store personnel will be glad to help you if you ask first. If they don't want to help you, see if you can make an appointment at another time or go somewhere else.
I hope this answers some of the most basic questions you might have. I'll be covering more topics about children and music later. Let me know what you think!