5 year olds vs 9 year olds – the differences in guitar teaching strategies.
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
When I started learning guitar at nine years of age, my teacher used the Mel Bay books to inspire my learning. These books show the student the different rhythmic figures and the location of the first few notes on the stave and on the guitar. There are pages on how to sit, how to hold the guitar, how to hold the pick and what the shape the fretting hand should look like. When the student combines pitch and rhythm at a steady pulse, ‘hey presto’, you have a tune.
When I started teaching guitar, I was asked to teach several very young children and quickly realised that these books are not suitable for children under 9 years of age. Teaching kids that young was not for me, so I developed a policy; I will not teach anyone under nine years of age. It’s a fine policy if you have the luxury of being able to pick and choose your students but if you can’t, what do you do? How do you teach them? I realised that if I wanted to teach children between the ages of 5-8 years of age, I could not teach them the same way that I was taught to play.
Throughout my years of teaching I, I have made some observations on the differences in the way five and nine-year olds learn, and developed some strategies.
Fine motor skills – One hand or two?
Between the two groups there is a marked difference. Nine-year olds can combine the actions of left and right hands without too much trouble, quite early. Five-year old’s need to work on dexterity. Their classroom teacher is working with them on their fine motor skills with activities like colouring in with pencils and cutting out pictures with scissors. Parents are trying to get them to tie their shoelaces. They are simple tasks with few expected outcomes. As a guitar teacher of a five-year-old, using traditional methods like Mel Bay, I’m asking them to combine pitch, rhythm, pulse, posture and technique. This is way too much for a child who can be struggling with the skills required to tie their shoelaces. Knowing this, I now present pieces to my 5 year old students with few expected outcomes. Like their classroom teacher, I’ve found that I need to narrow their focus and not ask too much of them all at once. I will allow them to develop the motor skills necessary for each hand before combining them and present them with pieces that will develop the actions of one hand at a time.
Cognitive skills – Patience is a virtue.
Nine-year old’s can generally associate symbol and sound and respond appropriately to written music. With limited training, a nine-year-old can be taught the name of a note on the stave, its corresponding position on the guitar and peppered with a few basic rhythmic figures, figure out how to play some basic tunes without too much trouble. By contrast, a five-year-old can be taught the name of a note and how to play it yet may not recognise it when it is presented in the following piece. With a little more patience extended to the five-year-old, they will come to recognise and respond to written music. However, you can’t simply state, “this is the note on the stave, and this is where it’s played on the guitar” and expect them to remember and act on that information as you would expect a nine-year-old to.
When teaching children to read words, classroom teachers don’t say to their young students, “these are the letters of the alphabet, this is how each letter sounds, now go ahead and read this book”, The five-year-old child learns to recognise whole words by associating a word with an object. They might not yet be able to sound out the word but can tell you what it is. Before my daughter started kindergarten, the school principal told the potential parent body their strategy for starting the children to read. He said, “A young child might not be able to sound out the word ‘McDonalds’ but upon seeing the golden arches symbol of the restaurant chain, the child knows what the word below the logo says.”
I’ve developed a similar approach in getting 5-year-olds to start to read music. I’ve associated musical phrases and rhythmic figures with the words to songs. Upon hearing the words, the child’s memory is triggered, and they can then readily recall and play the phrase.
The need for visual and imitative learning – Copy Play and Learn.
“Watch and Learn!” Imitating the actions of someone is an excellent way to learn not only for children, but for adults too. YouTube is a great example of this, ‘How to Videos’, showing people exactly how to do something is the main type of content found on the platform. It is a visual medium and goes to show how preferable visual or imitative learning is. With half the brain dedicated to visual processing, visual learning is relevant and important. Students of nine years of age and older are better able to cope with a set of instructions on how to play a piece of music. Those instructions take the form of written music. I aim to teach my young beginners to be independent note readers too, but visual and imitative learning is where I like to start. I have constructed many pieces for my young beginners where they hear and see me play a short phrase before imitating me.
One of the first pieces a Five year old learns.
Although this is a very simple tune, the young student has had to develop quite a few skills to play it. They include developing some finger dexterity, combining the actions of both hands, developing a sense of beat and rhythm, and recognising the positions of the notes on the stave and the guitar.
Teaching Chords. Visual learning is handy here too.
I’ll use stickers to show finger placement positions for notes and chords especially for my young beginners. The fingerboard can get crowded so I will colour code my chords. A young child can respond more readily to a chord change by calling a chord (temporarily of course) the Yellow or Blue chord rather than E and A.
Repetition – It's not always forward, sometimes its sideways.
Referring to the Suzuki philosophy again, teachers not only ask their young students to move forward but to keep revising past pieces. While I also believe in the need to revisit past pieces, I have also developed a series of flash cards based on thematic material of pieces the students have previously learnt. Repetition helps reinforce knowledge and for this reason I think it’s ok for my young students to not only move forward but sideways as well. I find that using the same material in several different settings is very practical in teaching a five year old child guitar and I have a number of pieces in my teaching repertoire which reflect this. Of course, the act of practising is all about repetition too, and practice helps everyone.
Games, competitions, and concerts.
An impending concert or event can be enough reason for any guitar student to lift their game. However in between, musical games and competitions can be a great way to add variety and interest to a lesson.
Young children often learn best during play. As a change of activity for larger groups of young guitar students, I would have the class sitting in a circle with each member looking at a piece that they are to play. A class member would identify the first note and the person next to them would identify the second and so on. They would go around the circle till every note in the piece has been named. I would then start the activity from a different member, who would in turn have to identify a series of different notes. The goal is for the class to achieve their best time in naming all the notes correctly. The peer pressure to perform really centers the kid’s focus.
Another fun activity may include the Performance Challenge. I’ll select a demanding one or two bar part of a piece. This will become known as ‘the challenge’. Young children will play this repeatedly whist increasing their speed and accuracy. Their personal best score will be written on a chart so that their peers can view and rise to the challenge of bettering their score.
Whilst games and competitions might not be necessary for the musical development of older students, younger students thrive on them. Older students can be expected to be reasonably self-motivated to attain a goal, but younger students need extra stimulation.
Explain the obvious – sometimes it’s not that simple.
Sometimes five-year-olds don’t understand simple things that guitar teachers take for granted and older students understand easily. They may not understand that to produce a secure sounding note, their finger has to press the string firmly against the fret or that it’s the position of the note head, not the tail on the stave gives the note its pitch. Young children often think that the notes of written music appear at random and don’t initially make the connection between the position of the note on the stave, on the guitar, and how notes are presented in alphabetical order.
I have written many pieces for my 5-year olds where the outcome of playing them is for the children to see that, as a string is stopped along the neck toward the bridge, the pitch rises. If the thematic material of the piece rises by step, then the note name advances by one letter name of the alphabet.
Reinforcing a learning point. Seeing the learning content another way.
To help reinforce the idea that pitch rises when the string length becomes shorter, I show my young guitar students a science experiment using water, air and a bottle. I show them that as the column of air inside the bottle vibrates by blowing across the top, it produces a pitch. By adding water into the bottle, the volume of air is lessened and so the pitch rises. The parallel here is that, as on the guitar string, when a vibrating medium is shortened, the pitch rises. I also need to explain to very young guitarists that when a phrase descends by step, the notes are in alphabetical order, but backwards.
The role of your student’s parents.
Nine-year old’s have learnt to make their own breakfast, and perhaps catch the bus to school all by themselves. They are becoming more responsible and rely less on mum and dad. Every music teacher knows how important daily practice is to improve and progress. Most nine-year-olds can reasonably be expected to be responsible for their daily practice routine. Very few of my older students have much parental involvement at all in their lessons or practice regime. The same can’t be said for five-year-olds. Practitioners of the Suzuki teaching method recognise the fact that parental involvement is very important. They insist on parents being available for their child’s lessons and work with them as a ‘home tutor.’ While I don’t insist on the same degree of parental involvement as Suzuki, I do try to have parents involved where possible. I have my lessons uploaded to YouTube and the parents have the links to them. They can review the lessons with their children if they wish.
Kids inspiring kids.
Having an older, more experienced student play for your students, can be inspirational, as indeed can younger students, but having someone available at the time you need them is not always possible. We are very fortunate to live in an age where inspiration is only a mouse click away on YouTube.
Thanks for reading. For more tips and tricks on teaching very young students the guitar, please see other posts in the website. And remember this adage; A child will value their lessons if they see them as being important, interesting, and pleasurable.
Author: Bryce Leader
Bryce is a teacher trained conservatorium graduate who has been teaching guitar since 1978.