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Is Your Child Ready for Private Lessons?
By Marcia Passos Duffy

In this age where lessons are widely available for every passing whim imaginable, it is wise
to pause before pushing your child prematurely into private lessons.   

Mozart may have started composing music at the age of three, but each child is different --
and each kind of instruction is also unique -- and sometimes too early a “push” can
ultimately be a turn-off that can last for many years.  

“Just because your child is talented does not mean he is ready for private classes,” says
Michaela Chelminski, artist and owner of the Peterborough Art Academy on Depot Square in
Peterborough, NH, who teaches private and group art lessons to children five to 12.   

Those kids who excel at an early age may be better off kept in group lessons, Chelminski
notes: “Private class may take out their own motivational inspiration direction they are
having … too early private instruction can often stunt their own (artistic) development … in
a group every child can develop at their own pace.”

But ... Sometimes Private Lessons are Best

There are, however, instances of when private instruction at a young age is the right thing to
do.  

“Many years ago I had one child at the age of six who wanted more than anything to take
private lessons,” says tennis instructor Sue Doyle, a certified US Professional Tennis
Association instructor who teaches private and group lessons at the at the Keene Racquet
Club and the Keene Country Club in Keene, NH.  Doyle says that her first instinct was to put
the child in a group because of her age, however, the little girl’s passion for tennis so
impressed Doyle that she did take her as a private student.  She instructed the girl for many
years and student has recently graduated from college (where she competed) and continues
to take lessons with Doyle.

“But children like that are the exception,” notes Doyle, who said that group lessons are the
ideal way to introduce lessons to a child who will enjoy the camaraderie of her peers and be
less intimidated and pressured than the intense one-on-one instruction.

Timed right, however, the advantages of private lessons are great. “The student gets that one-
on-one individualized attention,” says Doyle, who added that the student can learn a lot
more in one hour of private lesson than a group lesson.  “The sole advantage is for the
student who is excelling beyond what group lessons can provide,” she says.  

Chelminski agrees:  “It is for the student who is going beyond his or her peers.”

Private or Group? How to Decide

So, how do you know when your child is ready for private instruction?  Professional
instructors and experts say the same thing:  It depends.  There are a lot of factors that go into
making the decision and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with chronological age of the child.  

You want to make sure that your child has the passion and will be able to stick with the
lessons -- and, most importantly have fun!  

Remember, private lessons and equipment is a big commitment in terms of your time,
energy and money.  The bottom line is that you, as the parent, know your child best.  You are
the best judge to determine if your child is ready.  

Here are some tips to help you know when the time is right:

1. Make Sure Your Child is “Mature” Enough

This does not necessarily have to do with age.  While music instruction for very young
children is limited to violin and piano (most other instruments are not sized for children
younger than eight), experts say private instruction readiness is more about mental, physical
and emotional readiness.  This kind of readiness is linked, in a general way, to chronological
age, but among children there is a wide variation.  

“Private instruction is based -- among other things -- on how well the child can concentrate
with another adult for a half hour,” says Carmen Buckley Reynolds of Keene, NH, who gives
private flute instructions to adults and children, who herself started taking private flute
lessons when she was in 6th grade.  Music lessons, in particular, do require a certain
intellectual readiness to avoid unnecessary frustration when attempting to read notes.  

For music lessons, in particular, look for the ability to say the alphabet, count to 20, and sit
for at least 10 minutes at a time.  (There are exceptions to this of course: non-reading children
have been successfully taught music lessons using the Suzuki Method, where children can
learn piano or violin by ear).  But in general, children should be able to understand and
follow basic directions, demonstrate a certain amount of fine and gross motor skills (based on
the type of instruction), and they need to be enthusiastic about learning!

If the child is already taking group lessons, consult with the teacher for readiness cues:  “If I
see the child is really good and if I make suggestions over a period of time and he takes them
and understands and keeps using what I told him.  Then I know he is ready,” says art
instructor Chelminski.  But remember that keeping your child in group lessons for an extra
year or so does no harm and in fact may do a lot of good if your child is very young.

2. Wait Until the Child has Outgrown Group Lessons

If your child has clearly excelled above and beyond the scope of the group lessons this may
be a cue to start thinking about private classes.  “You know the student who will eventually
need private lessons,” says Chelminski.  These are the kids who are always ahead of the
other students in class.  “When you get to the point when there is no chance of progressing
and they need individual attention, yes, then it may be time,” she says, although she rarely
recommends it for children under the age of seven for her art instruction.  

Still, proceed with caution.  Pulling a child out of group lessons needs to be done tactfully or
the child may misinterpret the reasons for the private lessons.  “You need to send the
message that the private lessons are because they are doing so well … otherwise children can
misinterpret it to mean that they are not talented and need extra help,” says Chelminski.

3. Examine Your Own Motivation

Is your child asking for the private lessons -- or are you pushing for it? (Mind you, this can be
sometimes be very subtle and you may not even be aware of it!)  Pushing kids to excel at
something always backfires.  “Parents ought to examine their own motivation,” says flute
teacher Reynolds. “Sometimes I get parents who really wanted to play an instrument as a
child,” she says.  And often children, who want to please their parents, unknowingly
comply.  

So, examine your own motivation for wanting your child to take a lesson:  What do you hope
to achieve by sending your kid to private lessons?  Do you want to create the next Olympic
athlete or create a miniature virtuoso?  The motivation behind any private lesson is to bring a
lifetime enjoyment of music, a sport, an art.  This is, incidentally, the goal of most good
teachers.  Private lessons ought to be able bring out and nurture the natural gifts, interests
and talents in our children rather than forcing them upon them.  

4. Be Aware That Private Lessons is a New Level of Commitment

Are you willing to help your child daily to practice?  Do you have the time?  If you aren’t
actively helping, are you willing to keep him company while he practices if he wants you
there?  Are you willing to commit the money and necessary equipment for your child to
excel?   You need to prepare yourself for this – this does not mean you are standing over
your child at every moment like a stage mom, but you need to be there to support and
encourage your child whenever possible.

Your child also needs to be aware that there are different expectations that come with private
lessons.  This is not necessarily in the form of increased pressure or stress – but a
commitment and seriousness that comes with one-on-one instruction.  “There is a lot more
responsibility, more use their memory … yes, it should be taken seriously,” says Reynolds.  
“They should be expected every lesson to show up prepared, like doing your homework.”  
However, if the child is passionate about the lessons, this actually comes easy.   “This is only
hard when children are being ‘made’ to take lessons,” says Reynolds.  

But be careful about adding too much pressure warns Chelminski.  “Private lessons are
always working with what we have … If you put too much expectation you are putting
pressure.  Pressure on a child is not good and is an impediment to learning.”

5. Pick the Right Teacher for Your Child
When children are young (under 12) what matters most is that the teacher is a warm, loving
and patient, who understands and likes children.  Save the high-powered instructors for
when the child is older and her own passions take over and needs that kind of direction.  

If your child is already in group lesson the obvious choice is to ask the teacher if he gives
private lessons.  Always ask for a demonstration lesson (some instructors will give this
lesson for free) to find out if the teacher is a right fit.  “It can sometimes be a trial and error
process,” says Reynolds who does offer demonstration flute lessons.  

Second, make sure the professional has a good reputation and is good with working with
children, advises tennis instructor Doyle.  “You need to find the person who clicks with your
child because this can be a long-term relationship,” she says.  “And get references.”

But don’t get too hung up on finding the “perfect” teacher.  “There’s a saying that success is
99% the student and 1% the teacher,” says Reynolds.  “Ultimately, it all comes from the child
and the teacher is just the guide.”

This story originally appeared in Parent Express.