JACKSON — Children’s tiny hands have long kept them from playing the guitar until they reach the upper years of elementary school, but a Jackson music studio is trying to change that using a new type of instrument.
The Hole Note’s Lara Montgomery has introduced the Loog guitar to her slate of lessons, opening up the instrument to little kids. The newly developed product is a three-string version of the instrument with a narrow neck.
“The bottom age that I teach kids traditional guitar — generally speaking, you know, there might be exceptions — is about 10 years old,” Montgomery said.
With the addition of the Loog guitar, she teach kindergartners, and just a few weeks ago she started her first round of lessons for that age group. Four children signed up, including her 4-year-old daughter, Charity, and her 3-year-old son, Ryle.
Their instruments might remind the untrained eye of a ukulele, but they have crucial differences that allow young musicians to transition more easily to a standard guitar. First, a ukulele has four strings that are tuned differently than a six-string guitar, meaning the chords on the two are not structured the same.
That difference in chord structure means kids’ knowledge wouldn’t transfer as easily. Their fine motor skills would, but they would need to learn new chords and progressions to move from an ukulele to a six-string guitar.
Not so with the Loog. It uses the treble strings (the lower, highter-pitched ones) of a regular guitar, so the tuning remains the same, as does the fret spacing. That allows kids to learn scales and chords that transfer directly to a standard guitar.
“We try to get them thinking in terms of the same scale structures as a regular guitar, whereas with something like the ukulele that’s not possible,” Montgomery said. “It’s just a much harder shift.”
When Montgomery teaches lessons to older kids she uses the Albert’s Basic Guitar Method, a teaching framework for beginners that has been in use for over 50 years. Though she still uses that method with younger kids, she conceded the lessons are as much as about fun as they are guitar fundamentals.
The lessons are 45 minutes, and kids that age are unlikely to sit still for the entire time. Montgomery starts by having them strum chords for a while and maybe play a song like “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” The she has everyone
stand up and run around. By allowing the kids time to burn some energy, she hopes to make learning guitar enjoyable for them at a young age.
“Our whole studio is based on the philosophy that learning music should be very, very fun and being disciplined in a musical way actually is fun,” she said. “So we just felt these were a perfect fit.”
Class has been in session for three weeks, and the fun factor seems to be working. Montgomery sends her students home with the expectation they will practice a few times each week.
That hasn’t been a problem for 5-year-old David Munteanu.
“My son is singing music all day,” said his mother, Angela Splavnic. He “is always asking when he will go to music next.”
Splavnic’s husband, Anatolie Munteanu, took a guitar lesson (with an adultsize instrument) from Montgomery, and she has taken some beginner piano classes. Now it’s just a matter of time until they can start a family band.
“Everybody’s happy,” she said. “He’ll learn and they can play together.”
As a parent, Splavnic enjoys seeing her son simply enjoy his time in Montgomery’s lessons, but she sees benefits that go beyond amusement. Musical instruction helps in a number of realms that at first glance have little to do with rhythm and melody.
Splavnic said she thinks the lessons can help her son’s brain develop and give him organizational and fine motor skills. Decades of academic studies back up that belief, though researchers disagree on the degree to which music stimulates brain development.
Playing a musical instrument like the guitar requires the left and right hands to perform different tasks as part of a whole. That creates bilateral coordination in the brain, a term that describes the right and left hemispheres of the brain acting in concert. A study in the journal Experimental Brain Research found activities that facilitate bilateral coordination use more regions of the brain than those that require movement of just one side of the body.
In developing brains like those of the children in Montgomery’s classes, that brain activity creates neural pathways, avenues for thoughts and connections. The more times children do an activity like play their instruments, the more solidified those pathways become.
“The more brain connections that you have going on across what’s called the corpus callosum — which is that big gray matter in the middle of your brain — the smarter you are,” Montgomery said.
Several pieces of research into brain development and musical instruction have found evidence that such lessons create transfer, in which activity in one aspect of cognitive development has wide-reaching effects. “Near transfer” from playing the guitar might mean musicians have stronger typing skills and hand coordination, a fact that has been well proven in medical research.
“Far transfer,” skill development in unrelated areas, is harder to pin down. Studies often involve small numbers of participants, meaning the results may not indicate widespread effects. Still, musical instruction has been shown in some cases to correlate with increases in IQ and cognitive abilities like spatial awareness.
For young children in the Loog guitar classes, Montgomery is more focused on near transfer.
“I have them do a finger isolation exercise, and it’s hard for young children to move their second finger or the third finger without moving the other remaining fingers,” she said. “When you have your child doing that to learn guitar, for example, that skill is going to translate over into things like holding a pencil, and to things like tying their shoes.”
Music is often considered to be part of a well-rounded child’s repertoire, but learning to play an instrument can be difficult. The earlier a child becomes accustomed to concepts like rhythm and practice, the more likely they are to stick with playing.
Now they have the option to play guitar even earlier than before, opening more kids up to the neurodevelopmental benefits. That might create more young musicians, especially because the guitar carries a certain cachet for kids like David.
“We started with guitar because he wants to be a rock star,” his mom said.