When my daughter was in preschool, she took piano lessons, which she appeared to enjoy — until she figured out where all the notes were on the keyboard and came to the conclusion that she didn’t need to learn anything else. A little later on, we bought her a half-size guitar. She liked to plink around on it occasionally but wasn’t motivated to go any further than that. Violin was a total non-starter. And despite having a beautiful voice and a good sense of pitch, she was reluctant to sing in front of people.
Then, in fourth grade, something clicked, and she discovered that she loved being in a chorus. Two years later, her shyness about singing has gone away, even when she’s doing it solo, and her confidence as a performer has grown by leaps and bounds.
All of this is just to say that there’s no sure way for parents or grandparents to predict what’s going to engage a child musically. For every kid who’s pulled like a magnet toward every instrument he or she encounters, there are many others (like my daughter) who aren’t certain what excites them most. But the fact that they are excited about music is something to support, and often that support requires trying out several options, until one clicks. When it does, a lifetime of pleasure awaits. With that in mind, here are 10 ideas for gifts that could help spur your child on to new musical heights.
A Starter Keyboard
You can’t go wrong with an entry-level digital keyboard, especially if it’s designed to make playing simple and fun. The Yamaha PSR-E363 falls squarely into this category, with 574 sounds — enough to fuel countless hours of experimentation — plus touch-responsive keys, onboard lessons, a downloadable songbook and 165 styles of auto accompaniment. It also offers a personal favorite feature: a central display screen that shows the staff position of every note being played, along with the location of middle C — a lifeline that can really help beginners when they get lost on the keyboard.
A Bigger Keyboard
The PSR-E363 has a lot going for it, but it only has 61 keys and they’re not full-size. If you feel your child is ready to move up to something that’s closer to a standard piano but still has the flexibility and portability of an electronic keyboard, consider a model like the Yamaha PSR-EW300. It’s got a great feature set and it offers 76 keys, making it possible for budding virtuosi to play more demanding and far-ranging pieces.
A Starter Acoustic Guitar
Keyboards are nice, but what if the child on your gift list seems more like the pickin’-and-grinnin’ type? Based on my past experience as both a guitar student and guitar teacher, I strongly recommend that beginners start off using nylon-string acoustic models. Electric guitars require amplification, which adds an extra layer of hassle that beginners shouldn’t have to deal with, and nylon strings are much easier on the fingers than steel ones, leading to a kinder, gentler callus buildup. Your child should also play a guitar that matches his or her size. I once tried to teach basic chords to a seven-year-old boy on a full-size electric guitar, only to realize that his arms were too short to reach the frets. (It wasn’t a fun experience for either of us.)
Luckily, finding half-size or 3/4-size models shouldn’t be much of a challenge. The Yamaha CGS line of nylon-string acoustic guitars offers both, as well as a full-size model. In general, half-size guitars are best for ages 5 to 8, while 3/4-size is ideal for 9- to 12-year-olds, but you may want to see how the different sizes actually fit your child before making a commitment.
Compared to a keyboard or guitar, a metronome may not seem like such an exciting gift. But if your child has been struggling to play a piece of music without speeding up or slowing down, a metronome can help him or her reach that goal. Old-school pendulum metronomes like the Yamaha MP-90 continue to be a fine choice: they’re simple and durable and are available in a variety of colors, plus they have the added advantage of never needing a battery or a wall socket.
Or, for those who prefer something less bulky and more portable, consider a clip-on model such as the Yamaha ME-55BK. Alternatively, you can go higher-tech and pick from a number of excellent apps for smartphones and tablets. The Yamaha Metronome app, for example, features MIDI connectivity, the ability to selectively alter the volume for different subdivisions of a beat, and (for iOS iusers only) a Vibrate function that allows users to not just hear or see where a given tempo falls but to feel it as well.
The Joy of Being (and Staying) in Tune
Although being able to keep their instruments in tune may or may not contribute to your child’s love of music, it will definitely contribute to others’ appreciation of the music he or she makes. Clip-on digital tuners like the Yamaha GCT1 tuner make the tuning process easy and convenient. What’s more, although it has specific settings for guitar, bass, viola, cello, and ukulele, the GCT1 can be used with any instrument.
Starting on Winds
It’s just as customary for aspiring wind players to start on the recorder as it is for guitarists to start out on nylon string instruments … and in the right hands, recorders can actually sound pretty terrific. They’re also a lot easier to get a grip on — both literally and figuratively — than any other wind instrument, and for sheer portability, they’re hard to beat. The Yamaha YRS-24B recorder, made of ABS resin, is a school standard. My daughter owns one, and playing it in elementary school definitely helped her develop a better sense of pitch and overall musicality.
Drums with a Volume Control
Kids love banging on things, and eventually some become very good at it. But a lot of parents can have a hard time with the concept of supporting a family percussionist’s development, for fairly obvious reasons like noise, noise and noise. That’s where a set of compact digital drums like the Yamaha DD-75 comes in. It’s got eight touch-sensitive pads and two assignable foot pedals that can be used to play 75 pre-programmed kits and 10 custom ones your child can create from scratch. And there’s a headphone jack! Will wonders never cease?
Songs to Play
Okay, so your gift recipient’s got an instrument — maybe one of those mentioned above. Now what’s he or she going to do with it? Hint: Make sure there’s some sheet music handy. This is good advice whether the player in question is a beginner, intermediate or advanced; everybody enjoys learning a new tune or figuring out how to play an old favorite. It just so happens that Yamaha offers a wide selection of sheet music at its MusicSoft website. There are well over 25,000 items available, covering just about every genre imaginable, so you’re sure to find something for even the most finicky performer.
The App Zone
If your young musician is into tech, there’s certainly no shortage of apps and software out there. Sequencers, synthesizers, notation programs, digital audio workstations, you name it — these products just continue to become more powerful and easier to use. And they’re not just for the pros, either. Yamaha offers a wide range of apps specifically designed for beginners. For example, Playground Sessions is a piano learning program developed in association with legendary producer Quincy Jones. The free Chord Tracker app helps players figure songs out by analyzing the chord progressions of recordings, and Kittar (also free) breaks music down into phrases based on a given song’s structure. All three are remarkable in the way they approach the various pieces of the music-making puzzle.
Learning with Lenny
Watching my daughter progress through school has been further confirmation of a venerable truism: Great teachers make all the difference in a child’s life. The teachers she likes best are thrilled to do what they do, and they pass that feeling on to their students. So if your child is interested in learning more about music, its history, and all its many wonders, you should consider exploring DVD options that present that kind of information in a simple, easy-to-digest fashion …and you couldn’t find a better teacher than Leonard Bernstein.
From 1958 to 1972, the famous conductor conveyed his immense knowledge of and passion for music to millions of television viewers through his series of Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. The inspirational spirit of these programs shows no signs of diminishing over time. You can find 25 of them on a nine-DVD set titled simply Leonard Bernstein: Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. There are few better ways to pass an abiding love of music on to the next generation.