“In a beautiful interrelationship between sensory and cognitive processes, the nervous system makes associations between complex sounds and what they mean,” writes Nina Kraus, one of the paper’s lead authors and director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.Scientists found that musicians are better than non-musicians at evaluating pitch and absorbing speech patterns in an unfamiliar language. In addition, kids who take music lessons tend to have a larger vocabulary and better reading skills than their non-musical peers. Music training can also help children with learning disabilities, who often have trouble concentrating in settings with significant background noise.
Ukulele, Guqin, or Accordion?
It can be tough to decide which instrument to start your child on. This is a common question among parents, and an especially daunting one if you’re not a musician yourself. To begin with, one of the most important considerations is practicality. Each instrument has its pros and cons, but there’s a reason why instruments like the piano, flute, and violin are popular choices for beginners. Some argue that the piano provides the best all-around music training, but takes a lot of time and patience to master. The flute is cheap, ultra portable, and one of the easiest instruments to learn. Violins come in a variety of sizes and are always in demand in school bands and orchestras. Some kids might be interested in Chinese instruments like guzheng, guqin, or pipa, but keep in mind that it might be difficult to find an English-speaking instructor for these.
Less classical instruments like the guitar, drums, and ukulele are also gaining traction among young learners and can be a viable choice, depending on what your child wants to do. If your budding musician plans to be part of the school band, there’s no use picking a less-common instrument like a contrabass clarinet or mezzo-soprano saxophone. These will be hard to find, even harder to buy sheet music for, and nearly impossible to slot into most school music programs in Beijing. If the instrument is bigger than your child, that’s also probably a bad sign. Some instruments, like the guitar and violin, come in various sizes or, like the French horn, have related instruments (such as the cornet) that can be more easily played by children. Whatever you choose, be sure to buy the right size for your child; kids cannot “grow into” instruments the same way they can with clothes.
Budget and Brand Names
Instruments can be expensive, but music students living in China are lucky to have a huge selection of affordable starter instruments at their disposal. That being said, it’s essential to research instrument models and brands before hitting the shops to find the best one for your budget; starting music lessons on a substandard instrument can be extremely discouraging for your child. The best people to ask for advice are musicians, music teachers, band directors, and salespeople at reputable music shops. You might also be able to buy a second-hand instrument through www.thebeijinger.com or Yahoo groups like Beijing Mamas or Beijing Cafe, but have a teacher check it over before starting lessons.
Big brand names like Yamaha and Selmer make quality instruments that consistently meet or exceed minimum standards set by various music education organizations. However, it’s not necessary to buy the most expensive model for a starter instrument, nor is it vital to stick to brand names. In fact, “cheaper” doesn’t necessarily mean less well-designed or manufactured. Again, your child’s music teacher will be the authority when it comes to specific brands and models. In the end, choose the instrument that sounds and feels best for your child.
Where to Buy
Beijing has two major areas for instrument shopping, each home to dozens of music stores: Xinjiekou Nandajie on subway Line 4 and Gulou Dongdajie on Line 5. Xinjiekou is the bigger of the two and has a large selection of both Western and Chinese instruments. You’ll find a large selection of classical instruments such as strings (violins, violas, cellos) and brass and woodwinds (trumpets, saxophones, and flutes). Simply wander up and down the street until you see the instrument you want. Big brands like Yamaha are available, as well as locally-made handcrafted instruments. Feel free to try everything out, including the array of exotic Chinese instruments; shopkeepers are more than happy to hand over the bow or mallet to you. Sales clerks are generally friendly, not too aggressive, and eager to answer any questions you might have; however, bring a friend if your Chinese isn’t up to scratch. There is some room for negotiation, but this is no Yashow Market. Generally, the instruments are of decent quality and the sellers know this.
Gulou Dongdajie – particularly the area around Jiaodaokou – is a great place to pick up rock instruments like acoustic and electric guitars, drums, bass guitars, and keyboards. You’ll also find accessories like amplifiers, speakers, microphones, drum sticks, headphones, and more. There’s much less selection than in Xinjiekou, but the area is younger, artsier, and has lots of nice cafes for some post-shopping TLC. Be sure to try out the instrument, especially if it’s been sitting out in the display window; heat and dryness can do a nasty number on wood instruments.
A Buyer’s Checklist
Here are some things to look out for when purchasing an instrument:
Check for scrapes, dents, repair marks, and general wear and tear. Any kind of physical damage can affect the tone and build of an instrument.
Ask if there’s an option to rent. Some stores have a rental scheme with the option to buy at a later date. This is a good idea for kids who want to try out an instrument before committing to regular music lessons.
Ask if you can trade in instruments for the next size up. Some instruments, such as violins, require switching sizes as the child grows; some stores allow you to trade in the old instrument for the next size up and pay the price difference.
If there’s a practice area in the shop, make sure to have your child try out the instrument or ask a salesperson to demonstrate its sound.
Find out whether spare parts are readily available for the instrument, brand, and model that you’re purchasing. Is the shop itself able to make repairs? If not, ask for a referral.
Ask what kind of guarantee the shop or manufacturer offers on the instrument.
Be very careful about online purchases. Always consult an expert beforehand and make sure to buy from reputable brands or dealers. In addition, check that the guarantee, repairs, and return policies are fully explained on the website.
A Guide to Buying Quality Instruments
This downloadable PDF guide is produced by the UK-based Music Industries Association (MIA) and contains lots of practical information about buying different kinds of instruments.
Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory
To find out more about the effects of music learning on the brain, check out Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. The majority of the center’s publications are available for free as PDF files.