Your child turns five and <gasp> you have yet to choose the instrument that they’ll spend the next 12-plus years mastering.

Like many parents, we’ve arrived at that music lesson moment. Yes, my kids have strummed along with dad and pounded the keys around TOwn (remember the Play Me, I’m Yours pianos pictured above?) But how to get them fully on board that musical train? Is our future Mozart too young to start? Or did we miss the boat? What if they’re showing no interest? Should we force it?

I put these questions to Leslie Dawn Knowles, mother-of-five and one of only a handful of violinists permanently seated in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s first violin section. The violinist, violist, mandolinist, singer and actress grew up in a musical family and started playing violin at four. But she says that while some three- or four-year-olds are ready for lessons, most are up for the challenge much later.

“It is important to take each child’s personality and development into consideration rather than chronological age,” she explains.

Knowles has mentored and coached students of all ages and has even travelled across the country introducing young people to violin as part of Strings Across the Sky, an organization that focuses on teaching in First Nation, Inuit and Metis communities.

She suggests singing as a good start to help develop an ear for music. And for those keen to get the kiddos going early, she says that “exposing babies and young children to music, especially live performance, paves the way mentally and emotionally, long before they might otherwise have the required physical skills to actually play an instrument.”

There are so many benefits. Whatever the instrument, it is well known that music is very good for developing fine motor skills. But there’s more. A new study by the University of Vermont College of Medicine found that music training aids emotional and behavioral maturation.

Researchers analyzed brain scans of 232 healthy children ages six to 18, specifically looking at brain development in children who play a musical instrument, and found that it accelerated cortical organization in attention skill, anxiety management and emotional control.

So how to encourage this power of music? Knowles offers these tips:

  • Listen to music at home.
  • Attend performances.
  • Let kids fall in love with that one piece of music to inspire them to spend the time needed practicing it.
  • Make it a social activity and get them playing with others very early on.
  • Don’t discourage an instrument because of its size.
  • Piano or keyboard is fairly accessible and you don’t have to worry about playing in tune as keyboard instruments help provide the correct pitches. (Knowles got her grandson a toy grand piano when he was just a toddler.)
  • Wind instruments usually come later just because of lung capacity required. And percussionists start as babies (like one of her sons.)
  • Let someone else teach. You may be an expert musician, but many parents find it very difficult to teach their own child.
  • Get your school involved. TSO’s curriculum-based one-hour concerts for students are designed for primary, junior, senior and French language students.
  • And as children get older, they can aspire to the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, a high-level orchestral experience for talented young musicians aged 22 and under.

So get out and inspire your little musicians. Knowles and the TSO perform PIANORAMA, part of the Young People’s Concert series, on Saturday, February 7 at 2 and 4 pm. Young pianists from across Toronto will join GRAMMY® Award-winning pianist Emanuel Ax and the Orchestra to perform Saint-Saëns’s playful piece, The Carnival of the Animals among other selections. TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian will conduct. There will be special activities by the Toronto Zoo a half-hour before the concert. Tickets range from $20 to $32.