PARENTS, KIDS, & MUSIC--a starter guide

I have worked with music my entire life, in education and in performance, with all ages, from little kids to the elderly.  I’ve had years of formal training and I can say, without question, that the music experiences I had as a kid with my parents still influence me every day, they impact on me in ways my formal training never has and never will.  And the music experiences I continue to share with my own, now grown, kids bring me infinite joy. 

When you share music with your kids, you give them a powerful message.  When your kids see you singing out, dancing with abandon, or drumming with commitment and passion on an empty oatmeal carton, you’re giving them permission to do the same.  You’re providing them with a model for joyful behavior that will nourish them throughout their lives.  You are not just saying to them, “Be free, don’t be afraid.”  They get to see you living that joy, then they get to share it with you.  As Mom or Dad, you have the opportunity to empower your kids in ways no music teacher can.  Understand, I’m all for formal music training when that’s right for the kid.  I’m just saying that music with parents is something altogether special. 

To give your kids a good start with music you need…

  • A love of music!
  • A love of fun!
  • To love playing with your kids!

You DON’T need…

  • A sense of pitch
  • To think you have a sense of rhythm.  Everyone has a sense of rhythm.  If you can breathe, if you can walk, you have a sense of rhythm.  You may not think you do, but trust me, you really do!
  • Formal music training
  • To be a “good” singer, musician, or dancer

It’s best if you…

  • Stay POSITIVE. Do not pass judgment on your own or your kids’ abilities.  Family music time is not a time for “grades.”  If no one’s getting hurt and nothing’s getting broken, it’s all good!  
  • Stay POSITIVE. Do not say things like, “I can’t sing, dance, play, (whatever).” “I have no sense of rhythm.”  “I don’t sound good.”  It’s the joy of the experience that matters, not the quality of the music produced.  And certainly, do not say these things to or about your kid!
  • Stay POSITIVE. Do not pass judgment on different kinds of music–let your kids make up their own minds. 
  • Stay POSITIVE. Let go of preconceptions.  Have fun exploring with your kids! 


  • Start now.  The younger your kids are when you start doing music with them, the less likely they are to complain!
  • Let them hear you sing along with the radio, CD’s, TV, kids’ music, adult music (as long as there are no kid-inappropriate lyrics), any recorded music.
  • Don’t worry what you sound like.  The kid can’t tell the difference.  Your attitude will create a lasting impression. Your skill level, whatever it is, will probably be loved or be completely forgotten.
  • Dance along, too.  If the kid is little, pick him/her up, with a bigger kid, let him/her stay on the floor, hold hands and dance with the kid. 
  • Play along, tapping on your body, clapping hands, tapping feet, etc., and encourage you kid to do the same.
  • Find stuff around the house you can all use to play along.  Anything you can strike, scrape, or shake without hurting yourself or breaking anything is a percussion instrument.
  • Get some kid-friendly instruments and encourage your kid to explore all the different sounds they make.
  • (Shameless self-promotion) Play along with my music video or ANY YouTube VIDEO with this play-along app.  8 sets of sounds, 13 sounds per set–drum kit, Latin and African sounds, fun monster, unicorns, fairies, laughing FX.  You can play with headphones, so–great activity for when someone wants to make noise in an otherwise quiet setting.  Free for all, donate if you can to benefit kids with cancer and other illnesses.  CLICK HERE TO PLAY ALONG.
  • If you have any real instruments around the house that the kid can play without breaking them, introduce your kids to these instruments and encourage him/her to explore them in a safe way.  Be patient.  It can be a revelation to a kid to push down on a piano key and hear a sound come out.  Whatever the kid plays may sound awful to you.  It doesn’t matter.  The kid will learn by exploring and experiencing the joy of making sounds.  If the kid can’t handle the instrument safely, replace it with something he/she can play freely.
  • Don’t limit yourself to “kiddy” music.  Expose the kid to a wide variety of sounds.  Explore.  There’s no reason kids can’t respond to lots of different kinds of music.  Share your own faves, then keep exploring, it’s good for both of you.
  • Encourage the kid to join in, in any possible way.  Then don’t judge.  Remember, as long as no one’s getting hurt and nothing’s breaking, everything is good.
  • Sing and/or dance on your own, without any recorded music.  Your own music is just as wonderful to your kid as anything recorded.  Then encourage your kid to join in.  Dance and/or sing with the kid.
  • Make up your own songs, from scratch, or use a familiar song as a starting point.  Lots of kids’ songs and folk songs have places for plugging in lyrics to suit the kid, the situation, the mood, or something happening in your life.  For example, “This is the way we wash the clothes, wash the clothes, wash the clothes… early Monday morning,” easily becomes, “This is the way we brush our teeth; eat our peas; sing a song; pat our tummies, hug our mom’s…”  And Monday morning can be changed to any time.  Possibilities are endless.  Give the kid a chance to help you come up with ideas.
  • Kids love songs with their names in them.  I’m a pretty good songwriter, but when I was a new mom, up at 2:00 AM with a colicky baby, I sang these lyrics to the tune of “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore”–“Joshy Mike’s a great big boy, and we love him.  Joshy Mike’s a great big boy and we lu-uhv him.”  Variations were endless–“Joshy Mike’s so big and strong…  handsome and sweet…  going to the zoo…” and on an on.  Josh loved it, he even went to sleep once in awhile, and when he got older, he would ask for the song.  (When he was much older and learned that the melody was from “Michael Row…”  he was actually kind of disappointed!  He assumed I’d made the whole thing up just for him!)  When the kid is old enough to offer suggestions, include him/her in the “writing” process, modeling the process, giving choices, suggestions, letting the kid take it over more and more. 
  • Let go of cliches.  Kids dance fast to slow music and slow to fast music.  They’ll stamp their feet to classical music, and do ballet to rock.  It’s all good!
  • Know when to pull back and leave room for you kid to take over the musical experience. 


  • Remember that kids make up songs that don’t rhyme, have no melody, and often, make no sense.  They dance fast to slow music and slow to fast music.  They’ll stamp their feet to classical music, and do ballet to rock.  They can repeat the same song over and over until it makes you nuts.  It’s all good!  Let go of your own preconceptions and cliches and be glad your kid is comfortable exploring, and you’ll help create an environment that nurtures creative activity. 
  • Volume is often a problem for parents.  Many parents want kids to make music quietly.  When the kid plays softly, the parent says, “Beautiful!”  When the kid is loud, the parent disapproves.  This can be incredibly frustrating to a kid trying to express him/herself.  Try and make opportunities for your kids so they can make whatever sounds the like without having to don’t have to edit themselves.  So they can play out, as loudly and as wildly as they want to play. If you absolutely need the kids to play softly, instead of making a value judgment–soft play = beautiful play, make a game of it.  Say things like, “Can we play like a mouse?  Can we make the sound of snow falling?”
  • Try to avoid value judgments.  Ask the kid what he/she thinks of his/her music.  Ask what she is trying to make.  Let the feedback come from the kid. 
  • Just have fun!  Your shared joy will create a lasting memories for your both, and create touchstone experiences that will serve the whole family, year after year. 


  • Do anything from the above list that the kid will actually still do with you.  This is more likely to happen if you have followed the very first suggestion and started while they are as young as possible, when they are too little to complain. 
  • If the kid will not do much with you, you should still feel free to do all of the above without the kid.  It’s good for you, and it’s good for the kid to see you do it.
  • Explore more formal music training if the kid is interested, either in a group or private setting.
  • As much as possible, let the kid choose his own instrument.  An instrument is a very personal thing.  Even if a kid can’t explain why he/she is drawn to a certain instrument, it doesn’t mean their feelings are invalid.
  • Check out prospective teachers carefully.  Pick a teacher who has good chemistry with your kid. 
  • Do not try to force a kid to practice.  I’ve never seen this work out well.  Usually, it’s a great way to get a kid to hate music.  The kid has to love music, love their instrument, so they are able to stay committed to and enjoy the hours and hours it takes for mastery.  That having been said, I would say that it makes no sense to keep getting lessons for a kid who won’t practice.  And that having been said, I suggest working with the teacher to set realistic goals for practice time.
  • Unless the kid or the teacher has specifically asked for help, give the kid some space.
  • Do not stand over a practicing kid and micro-manage his/her practice session.  I’ve seen parents ruin music for kids in this way.  If you’re worried you might over-step, step away.
  • Do not complain about noise when the kid practices.  That’s a way to make a kid kinda crazy–very mixed messages–you want the kid to practice, but you complain about the noise?  Doesn’t make sense, does it?  Set reasonable practice hours and try to create a space where the kid can practice as much as he/she wants.  Cheap sound-proofing materials are easily available online.  There’s no reason a kid can’t have a practice space that’s comfortable and livable for the whole family. 
  • Expose the kid to as many different musical experiences as his/her and your own interest level will support–live concerts, community music groups, neighborhood music, all the listening opportunities the media gives us. 
  • Let the kid gradually take over managing his/her own musical life, as much as he/she can.
  • But you can still do all of the fun stuff listed above!


  • When I was a kid, my parents made up songs with me, for me, all the time.  As an adult, I can still remember a couple of them.  From my current vantage point, I would say they were incredibly short and really not very good.  But it didn’t matter.  I loved those songs.  I still do.  In family music-making, the quality of the finished product could not matter less.  My parents made me really happy with their music.  They modeled being spontaneously creative and un-selfconscious.  I think this is one reason I became a songwriter.  Since I’d always seen people doing it, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t.  Making up songs was always something people just did.  And then I think I extended this to making anything up.  Please bear in mind that neither of my parents were musicians or writers.  Dad was a businessman, Mom sold crafts and jewelry.  Dad did play piano a little, very badly.  And I loved that, too, even when I grew up and became a better pianist than he ever was.  It was such fun for me to sing and him to clomp along at the keyboard, with these horrible, horrible accompaniments.  Even the dog loved it–he’d sit next to me, howling along, then he’d bring his snuggle pillow and curl up under the piano. My mom always maintained that she couldn’t sing at all.  She’s been dead for five years, and in my mind’s ear, I can still hear her voice, one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard.  And I can still hear her voice in mine, every time I open my mouth to sing.
  • I have used all the suggestions in this blog post with my own kids.  Previously mentioned Josh, at the age of 29, has finally acquired a sense of pitch, sort of (even though I, his mom, sing quite well!).   Josh has played viola all through school.  He still can’t hear when he goes out of tune, but he loves music.  Younger son, Aaron, now 27, has always had a very good sense of pitch.  He plays sax and flute and is probably the more natural musician of the two.  It doesn’t matter.  Neither of them work with music.  But we all love music, we all have a blast making music together, whether it’s singing in the car, playing our instruments together, going to a concert, or just listening.  At a recent family wedding, I asked my sons to dance with me and was thrilled when they both said yes.  We danced and played just like we did 20 or so years ago, when they were little guys.  I’ll never forget it.
  • I’ve used all these suggestions as a music teacher, with all ages of kids.  As a trained musician, I have a lot to teach the kids.  But I find that the more I stay true to the spirit of what I’ve written here, the stronger I come across, and the more the kids get out of the experience. 
  • Sharing music is about sharing joy.  Our lives and our kids’ lives are full of stress.  In these stressful times, it’s wonderful for families to have healthy, nurturing ways to unwind together.  It’s wonderful for kids to see their parents being free.  Trust your instincts.  Have fun with your kids, and sing one for me!

A web-based, FREE, app that lets you play along with our or any YouTube video.  A great take-anywhere, play-anywhere musical activity.


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