When you think you might maybe perhaps possibly want music lessons for your child

"I'm not sure if my kid is ready for lessons."

"I don't know anything about this - how do I know which instrument he'll like?"

I've written before that I don't think it matters that much which instrument you choose. Nor can I really be much help in that area - having never desired to play, say, the flute, I am utterly mystified at what would motivate someone to do that (and my mother is a flautist). Unfortunately, there is no personality test that will tell us which instrument will suit a particular person.

A satisfied customer.In an attempt to deal with some of this uncertainty, parents will request a trial lesson. However, the purpose of a trial lesson is not to see whether a child is ready for lessons or whether he will like the instrument. A one-time trial lesson is solely to determine whether you like the instructor. I guess some logistical aspects of the decision might be taken into account such as drive time, parking, noise level, and studio appearance, but these are secondary when there is a great connection with the teacher. Trial lessons don't provide much insight into readiness or interest.

What then, are you to do if you don't know whether your kid is ready for lessons? There are a few options.

When in doubt, wait. There is no harm in waiting. The critical period hypothesis for language and music, which suggests that children develop their aptitude before age six, does not mean that after age six learning language (and music) is hopeless. Rather, it implies that if children aren't exposed to language during the critical period, they're in trouble. Research is ongoing as to whether this applies equally to music, but chances are your kids have heard enough melody, harmony, and rhythm to have a lifetime of enjoyment ahead of them even if you wait until second or third grade or later to start them on formal lessons.

Group classes. Private lessons are not necessarily a big commitment - you pay a month or a semester at a time. However, it's a huge implied commitment: "We are going to spend the next seven years supporting our child as she develops mastery of the violin." There will be highs, lows, and plateaus. The relationship your child will have with her teacher is unusual - intense one-on-one time with an adult who's not a family member. In some cases, the teacher practically becomes a family member, which can present a challenge when it's time to move on.

If you're not quite ready for all that, I don't blame you. Group classes are a great alternative at any age: you can get a surprisingly in-depth experience at a fraction of the cost of private instruction. If you discover that the class isn't your cup of tea, you have fixed end points at which to bow out gracefully. Also, you can try a few different classes in order to explore different instruments and styles in a cost-effective way.

Short-term enrollment. If you're pretty sure that private lessons are what you want, you can do a trial for a specific amount of time. The important thing is that you decide ahead of time as a family what your commitment will be, rather than quitting when things get rough. This type of trial accommodates the student's needs, but not whims - it's a great way to hold a child accountable while still allowing for a change of direction.

Go all in. No matter what option you choose, do not hedge your bets. Fully expect your child to succeed, and you increase the chances of that happening. Assuming he'll quit after six months, likewise, will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. None of this, "we aren't renting a sax until he's sure he wants to do this!" The average ten-year-old is not equipped to weigh the implications of his decision. You make the call, and then give your child the support and encouragement he needs...and give yourself a little grace when it seems like the whole thing was a terrible idea.

The bottom line: You can't really go wrong, as long as you are being the grownup and owning the choice you make on behalf of your child.

Guitars are all the same, and all different

Many people have the misconception that it is better to start lessons on an acoustic guitar and then "graduate" to an electric guitar. Or, they assume that playing an acoustic is vastly different from playing an electric. It's not, although there are different techniques involved.

The difference between acoustics and electrics is like the difference between pencils and pens. In a pinch, either will do, but there are distinct advantages to one or the other in certain situations.

For example, you'll do crosswords and calculations in pencil, but sign your name with a pen. Likewise, you'd play "Blackbird" on an acoustic, but "Back in Black" on an electric, although it is physically possible to play each song on any guitar.

Also, when it comes both to musical instruments and writing implements, there are variations in technique that are minor for the beginner, but significant for the expert. A professional illustrator will be a master of certain shading techniques that can only be accomplished with pencil; hand-addressed invitations require specialized skill with a calligraphy pen. An acoustic guitar can be strummed vigorously and percussively in a way that the electric can't. Meanwhile, electric guitar makes use of string bending and lots of sustain (think "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton) that is virtually impossible to achieve on the acoustic.

As a beginner, a student can explore the guitar starting with whatever instrument is lying around. The fact that there are so many different kinds of guitars (and sounds that can be made on them) is part of the mystique of the instrument.

Choosing an instrument - maybe not that big a deal?

When I first started out as a teacher, people would call and say "My daughter wants to play guitar" or "I'm enrolling both of my kids in piano." But when my school started to take off as a multi-teacher school (as opposed to just my own teaching studio), people would call and say, "We want to get involved with your program - what instrument should we pick?" I was thrilled to see this sign that our little music community was having an influence in the larger community. But in spite of the fact that I have played and taught several different instruments over the years, I have no idea what makes me want to play a particular instrument or how to go about choosing an instrument for someone else.

Maybe it's like deciding how many kids to have. There is no wrong answer, and even if it is the wrong answer (surprise!), it ends up becoming the right answer anyway. Or, you never even bring up the question, and so the idea of a wrong answer is moot.

The basics of learning an instrument are the same on every instrument even if physical techniques differ. It's like learning French for a few years and then switching to Spanish. True, the three years of French study became a dead end, but you developed your skills of language learning and can now apply them to Spanish.

Likewise, though you might awaken musical skills one one instrument, once you master the physical techniques of another, you can express yourself musically with it. Playing an instrument is simply translating what you hear (or see) to a physical interface, and the ability to "speak" this language continues to grow no matter what instrument you study.

So what do you do as a parent? Do you choose an instrument for your kid? What age do you start? When do you allow them to quit or switch instruments? Honestly, I don't know - it depends on your family culture.

You know what? It's like romantic love versus arranged marriages - given the right conditions, either can thrive, statistically speaking.

Whatever you do, be fully committed to whatever instrument you choose, during the period of time that you're enrolled in lessons. The main thing that contributes to enjoying music lessons is success, and the main thing that contributes to success is a good practice routine. For most kids, even the instrument they are so excited about will be gathering dust in a few weeks without that solid routine.

Given the right routine, a good result is possible on any instrument - and if it doesn't click the first time, switching isn't the end of the world.

Guitars are like shoes.

You can get by with just one (or one pair). But once you open the door to having more than one, you can end up with twenty and still find situations for which nothing you have is quite right, and a new purchase is required.

Guitarists with GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome, per my father who’s got it bad) must always strive to make peace with the fact that they will never have enough guitars, and simply enjoy both the process of researching new guitars and the music they make with the ones they’ve got. And if you’re in the unenviable position of being the parent or a spouse of an individual with GAS, just take the same approach that you would buying shoes for a seven-year-old boy: at first just get something that fits the vast majority of situations, knowing that no matter what you get, it will quickly be outgrown, worn out, or otherwise outmoded.

Wearing Nikes in church = playing “Sweet Child o’ Mine” on a $100 Washburn acoustic. Don’t worry, your birthday is coming.