A question often asked of me is that of the earliest age at which
a child should start an instrument.
Opinion varies as to the most appropriate age and many factors have
to be taken into account, such as the child's emotional status and
his or her physical size.
Being something of a practical person at heart I tend to favour
the physical benchmark, based on the natural rule-of-thumb that
states that if a child is big enough to hold a particular instrument
comfortably then there's every chance that they'll have the emotional
capacity to play the thing.
By emotional capacity I don't mean the ability to leave the listeners
in tears at the beauty of their playing (more often than not they
get the same effect for entirely opposite reasons), rather they
have the wherewithal to realise that the thing they have in their
hands probably cost quite a bit of money and requires at least a
modicum of dedication to make it work.
Starting a child at an age below this rule-of-thumb carries quite
a few risks - not the least of which is the possibility that they
won't enjoy the experience and might forever after associate the
playing of an instrument with a thoroughly bad time. In other words
it could put them off for life, or at least until they're old enough
to realise they can do things their own way.
Another risk is that of the dreaded tantrum.
Oh yes, all parents will be familiar with that one. Their 'little
angel', normally quiet and placid - or perhaps a tad cheeky and
lively, but otherwise quite reasonable on the whole - suddenly turns
into an extra from 'The Exorcist' and becomes entirely and utterly
In itself this is quite an unpleasant experience for any parent,
but the whole thing takes on a new and terrifying dimension if there
happens to be an object at the heart of the tantrum...say a musical
instrument, for example.
I do a fair few 'tantrum-related repairs' each year, and the process
seems to run to quite a specific format.
When the call comes in from the parent there's very rarely any mention
initially of a tantrum. What usually happens is that the damage
to the instrument will be described and I'll suggest that perhaps
the instrument 'had a bit of a tumble' - at which point the parent
usually confesses that their child had a 'paddy' and took their
anger out on said instrument.
When the instrument's brought in there nearly always follows a semi-philosophical
discussion about the merits or otherwise of very young children
playing musical instruments, and a few kindly words from me with
regard to the importance of not making the damage too much of an
Obviously there's a need for every parent to let their child know
that trashing a couple of hundred quid's worth of instrument is
'not on', but there's also the need not to come down so hard on
them that they'll never touch the thing again.
Unfortunately, the damage done is often quite extensive - and thus
expensive - so a certain amount of wincing goes on at this stage.
When the parent arrives to collect the instrument after repair I
always get the feeling that there's a sense of resignation - something
every parent, again, will recognise I'm sure - inasmuch as every
parent wants to give their children every possible chance to progress
in the arts, but realises that there may never come a time when
those children say "Thanks for starting me on the flute all
those years ago - it made such a difference to me in later life".
Still, we can but dream - and I make every effort at this point
to reassure the parents that it really is worthwhile, and, occasionally,
suggest that they tell their child that is he or she trashes the
instrument again then 'Mr.Repairer' might come round and have a
stern chat. Sometimes scaring the bejeebers out of the little sods
is worth a try!
For one recent visitor to the workshop, however, my post-repair
chat resulted in a very unexpected revelation.
The client had brought in a particularly badly damaged flute - so
damaged that it was borderline as to whether it was worth repairing
or not, given that it's now possible to buy a surprisingly respectable
student flute for around £100.
What was made very clear at this point was that the client's child
had thrown a wobbly and given the flute a thorough seeing-to, along
with comments along the lines of "Ooh, she can be a proper
Miss at times, that one".
It was agreed to be just about financially viable, so I undertook
the work and called the client in to collect the instrument.
I pointed out the repairs, demonstrated the flute and handed over
the bill - at which point I did my usual "Ahh, kids eh? What
can ya do?" banter, but was stopped dead in my tracks when
the client blurted out that it was she, not the child, who'd thrown
a wobbly...and the flute.
To be accurate she'd thrown the child's school bag to the floor
in a 'lack of completed homework' related incident (that ol' chestnut)
without realising that the flute was enclosed in the bag.
Clearly the guilt had weighed heavily on her conscience, and my
post-repair chat was the last straw - the 'Telltale heart"
- and she had to 'fess up to her misdeeds.
I suppose I should have given her a stern lecture at this point
- but when she described the incident, and how appalled she'd been
when her child had shouted "Mum! My flute's in that bag!",
plus the resultant hefty bill, I figured that justice had been served
and the client had seen the error of her ways.
And just to make doubly sure, I told her she'd be the subject of
a Notes article....