A new Suzuki mom asked a question on Suzuki chat about whether or not her 3 year old's progress within the method was worth all the practice when she'd heard that older student generally progress much faster needing fewer lesson to make the same progress. Then on the Well Trained Mind forums another mother was asking whether it was too frustrating to begin a 3 year old in formal music lessons.
The various answers given got me thinking about a number of things. I think there are pros and cons to starting at different ages so each family needs to take them into consideration.
Many people claim that a 5-6 year old will progress much faster than a 3 year old beginning lessons and maybe for the average child that is the case. This seems to make sense due to the increased maturity, longer attention spans, and improved manual dexterity. But there are a number of 3 year olds who progress as quickly or more quickly than the average 5-6 year old. These kids are playing concerti by 5-6 years old. They may have progressed very quickly if they started at 5-6 but they wouldn't be where they are at 5-6 if they hadn't started early and kids beginning at 5-6 years old are not catching up to them until many years later as they all hit that time when kids really begin to decide whether or not music is a major force in their lives. So then one wonders whether or not it is important to be playing concerti at 5 years old or later in ones life...probably not important in the sense that music education is not a race; however, I think there are other benefits to beginning music instruction early.
Haley does not know her life without music and daily practice in it. Music wasn't something we had to make room for in her life because she has always done it as far back as she can remember. The habit was formed very young. She also knows that she can learn to do anything with practice. Wow, is that an important bit of knowledge. She practices like crazy anything she wants to learn whether it is a cartwheel, a song, writing...whatever. She's a determined kid who's found the path to mastering anything she wants to accomplish.
Also, I have read studies that claim perfect pitch occurs more frequently in children who begin ear training at 3 years old than in the general population.
Another benefit is the time spent and relationship built pursuing a common goal. I treasure all the time I have spent with Haley practicing her violin. At first it was 10-15 minutes here and there and all her practice was fun and games. I got very good at breaking every large technique into smaller, more easily accomplished parts and use that skill in many other areas of our lives.
One final benefit, at least for Haley, was helping her work her way through her perfectionism. Initially, Haley didn't want to try anything that might take more than one attempt. She'd roll on the floor or talk about everything in the room just to avoid anything she might consider difficult...meaning anything she might not get the first time. Through her play and practice she began experimenting with her violin and learned that it was okay to make mistakes and sometimes those "mistakes" sound really cool. I also frequently repeated the mantra, "we practice to make it easier!" Now she has no problem improvising or trying anything.
I am not saying that early music study is for everyone. Some may be too frustrated by progress. Unless you can enjoy the process without worrying about the progress, early music study is not for you. For some people, resources may be limited. Time and money are definitely needed. In those early years, it is best to be able to sit with your child to practice whenever they pick up the instrument. Also, music study is not inexpensive...I can't think of any activity kids do at the higher levels that isn't expensive so that is relative.
All in all, it has been a worthwhile pursuit in our household. We are enjoying the ride!