Children: Jingled bells and jangled nerves: Are drums and keyboards valuable learning tools, or an excuse for a sanctioned racket? Madeleine Marsh joins experts old and young to judge the ensemble of musical instruments on sale this Christmas

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FROM their earliest years, children are encouraged to be musical. We play music at them in the womb, sing to them from the moment they pop out, and take them to baby music classes as soon as they can shake a rattle. And, as current toy shop displays demonstrate, we buy them musical instruments for Christmas.

For young children, musical instruments can be enormous fun, allowing them to make a dreadful but sanctioned racket. For parents, they have the attraction of being both popular presents and learning tools, spiced up with a little self-sacrifice: unless you are hard of hearing, to give a toddler a musical toy is truly a generous gift.

It can also be an expensive and complicated one. Alongside the traditional (and still very popular) drums and xylophones, there is now a range of electronic instruments and mini-keyboards targeted at children, from as young as three. Some can appear intimidating to adults: even if you can't play the piano, you know what one looks like and what noise it makes. But an electronic keyboard can imitate anything from a harpsichord to a xylophone, and provide you with rhythms from rap to rumba, all at the press of a few buttons; touch the demo pad and the instrument will even play by itself.

'What they can provide is almost infinite variety,' explains Julian Colbeck, professional keyboardist, writer and parent. 'Generally speaking, you aren't going to buy a toddler a clarinet or a violin, and you can't expect a kid to get serious with a conventional musical instrument until they are five or six at the earliest. But from pre-school days, mini-keyboard toys can provide instant access to different types of music. Many come with an accompaniment section built-in - ready-made songs and sounds that you can play along with, like a band in a box. They immediately introduce the very important idea that music is fun.'

Synthesisers are already used in schools, and if manufacturers such as Yamaha have anything to do with it, it is a trend that will grow. Yamaha, one of the world's leading makers of musical instruments, takes an active and not entirely philanthropic interest in music education.

According to the company's marketing manager, David Jones, portable keyboards not only offer an enormous range of musical functions, but - being smaller and usually cheaper than pianos - can give more children a chance to play an instrument: 'If you can have one piano between 30 pupils, or 15 keyboards, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out which is best.'

Peter Hewitt of the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music in London does not see the case for electronic keyboards as so clear-cut. Though the department's school-age students have access to a highly sophisticated studio, training takes place on orthodox instruments.

'There is no substitute for the real thing,' he says firmly. 'Electronic instruments are limited because their sounds are pre-set - with a conventional instrument, however, it is you who controls the tones and creates the sound.'

If the sound is pre-programmed, whether Mozart or a monkey is playing the notes, their tone remains the same. On more basic keyboards, although you have a volume knob, the keys are not touch sensitive: thump them or stroke them and they will sound identical. 'Nevertheless,' admits Hewitt, 'in conjunction with traditional instruments they can play a valid role. They are great fun, helpful for exercising the imagination and good for composition.'

Neil Hoyle, chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, says one big advantage of electronic keyboards is that they do not go out of tune. 'Better a good quality keyboard than a bad quality piano,' he says. And Hewitt agrees: 'If money is limited, one would probably go for the electronic model - but it would be far better to pay double for a wonderful orthodox instrument.'

Though every Luddite nerve in your body might strain against this new technology, it is hard for a parent to ignore it. One of the advantages of buying a young child a good mini-keyboard is that it can provide a simple introduction to the musical potential of electronic instruments - for both your child and for you.

Yet even at this very basic level, quality is important. 'There is a great danger that the cheaper instruments with horrible sounds will sour the ear,' warns Peter Hewitt. 'If children get used to a poor quality noise, it could be seriously damaging to their musical development.' And it is potentially equally threatening to the ears and tempers of parents.

So how can you tell what is a good instrument and a good toy? We gathered a selection of children's musical instruments, both traditional and electronic, which are readily available in toy shops and chain stores. A small group of predominantly pre- school testers was recruited, plus some adult contributors from Making Music magazine, all of whom are professional musicians and spend their time either using or reviewing rock instruments. While they checked the toys for musicality, the children played and generally kicked them about, showing in their own emphatic ways which they preferred.

How the instruments compared

OUR panel of testers consisted of six children and three professional musicians. The youngsters were primarily drawn to instruments that looked like toys. For the adults, musicality was important. With keyboards, the closer they resembled real instruments the better; all the keys should play (the black ones should not just be for decoration) and you should be able to play more than one note at a time. The most important consideration when buying a young child any musical instrument is - quite simply - the noise it makes. 'If it sounds pleasing to you and pleasing to a kid,' says Julian Colbeck, 'then they will want to play it, and so will you.'

ELECTRONIC INSTRUMENTS

Kiddicraft Kiddi Piano and Berchet Baby Piano (both about pounds 10): These are identical in everything except colour. A basic eight-note keyboard - with demonstration song, and record/ playback facility which, according to the blurb, enables baby to create his or her own songs. Not with keys that are too stiff to play properly, it doesn't. Even adults found it uncomfortable to use; the children weren't interested.

Bontempi 'Disney Band' Electronic Super Keyboard ( pounds 22.99): Fifteen notes, fifteen programmed songs, eight special-effect sounds, recording and playback facility. 'Makes no real attempt to be a musical instrument or anything approaching one,' said Julian Colbeck. 'It's a piece of plastic in the form of a keyboard, with knobs on it.'

This is a good example of a bad electronic toy. It has an irritating and very loud sound with no volume control - a lethal combination. On the keyboard itself, the black notes (in this instance red) are purely decorative. Compared to all the other keyboards we tested, this was cheaply and flimsily made. The adults all hated it. For the children, however, it had one advantage that overrode everything: a picture of Mickey Mouse on the front.

Hohner Electronic Keytar ( pounds 17.95): Shaped like a guitar, but with no strings - notes are played by pressing buttons on the neck, and it comes with 16 pre-programmed songs and a singalong microphone. According to the manufacturers, this sells between 20,000 and 25,000 models a year. Its colour and decoration make My Little Pony look tasteful, and it sounds like it looks. 'I quite enjoyed its hideous atonal racket,' Jon Lewin, guitarist and editor of Making Music, admitted. 'But it could scarcely be described as musical.' More importantly, five-year- old Scott was not impressed. 'Horrible,' he said. 'What is it?'

Playskool 'Sax-O-Fun' Electronic Saxophone ( pounds 21.99): Though shaped like a fat saxophone, it can't actually be blown - noises are made by touching the key pads, and the mouthpiece either did nothing or, when a particular button was pressed, turned into an unfortunately distorting microphone.

'I think you should at least have something that is based upon some form of reality,' said Julian Colbeck, 'and this is not. That's daft.' Three- year-old Jamie clearly agreed. He blew down the hole of the Sax-O-Fun, and when nothing happened threw it on the floor. Another complete failure as a musical instrument, with a sound like being hit on the head with a teaspoon.

Playskool 'Kid Keys' Electronic Keyboard ( pounds 27.99): This fared better with both groups of testers. It looked like what it was - a basic baby keyboard - with a respectable range of functions, delineated for non-readers with the use of symbols and colour; click the dial to the violin drawing and it makes string noises.

'Reasonably musical,' said Julian Colbeck approvingly, 'and it's got some tones that aren't completely revolting. There's a volume knob, you can change the speed of the backing songs, all the notes play. Yes, that one's OK.' Parents liked the concealed volume limiter (so they could pre-set loudness) and the automatic switch-off facility, which saves batteries. The children played on it quite happily.

Casio Sound Kids KS-01 ( pounds 39.99); KS-02 ( pounds 79.99); KS-03 ( pounds 129.99): These keyboards were the most successful with everyone, children and adults alike. In a sense this is not surprising. Not only were they the most expensive, but Casio is not a toymaker but a respected musical instrument company which, as Julian Colbeck noted, 'basically invented the concept of home keyboards'. The keyboards are well-designed, extremely sturdy (as the child who jumped on one proved) and packaged in appealing primary colours. 'They look like toys but sound like musical instruments,' said Colbeck. 'They marry music and fun without sacrificing either.'

The KS-01 has 32 keys, simple basic buttons, and its sounds can be changed by inserting one of 10 chunky plastic picture cards; to make the KS sound like a piano, slot in the card with the piano picture on it. 'A kid could get the hang of this in two minutes,' said Colbeck; or as it proved, even less. When his parents and I were out of the room for 30 seconds, nine-month-old Cameron managed to turn the keybord on and press the demo button. We returned to find him happily jiggling about in time to the music.

The two more advanced models are still easy to use, but come with microphones and a more sophisticated range of functions, offering an expanding and friendly introduction to the potential of a keyboard. The KS-03 even has a 'Sample' pad, which enables you to record any short sound (from a handclap to a snigger-inducing raspberry), and then play tunes with it through the keyboard. Three-year-old Abigail mastered this almost immediately and then proceeded to stroke the keys with glazed and adoring fascination as the instrument endlessly repeated her name. A big hit with both the kids and the adults, but also a blow to the bank balance.

Mini-key portable keyboards by Yamaha - PSS11 ( pounds 44.99); PSS21 ( pounds 64.99); PSS31 ( pounds 84.99): Black and serious, covered with buttons and tiny writing, these were not toys so much as junior versions of adult instruments. They were sophisticated, high in quality, jam-packed with functions and required some serious manual-reading before they could be used, even by

the experts.

'Though these are very impressive, I think they could be a bit intimidating,' said Colbeck. 'Because these instruments are writing-based, a kid would need to be at least six or seven before he or she could even begin to understand them, and by then you're getting to an age when they could begin to play a full-size instrument.'

Though very competitively priced, these models definitely belonged to a different market. The smaller children automatically skirted round them because of their grown-up 'do not touch' look. Ten-year-old Joanna (already learning piano) enjoyed playing with them but found their small size constricting. 'I think it would be better if it had more of a keyboard,' she said of one of the smaller models.

Kawai Personal Keyboard MS20 ( pounds 39.95, pounds 10 less in some shops): Slightly more approachable because of the use of primary colours and larger symbols, this was was still a fairly adult instrument, although its price made it appear a real bargain.

Casio SA-8 Mini Keyboard ( pounds 19.99): Casio also produces a number of Junior as opposed to children's synthesisers, from pounds 19.99. 'This one works quite respectably as a keyboard,' said Colbeck. 'All the sounds are quite pleasing, and it is quite reasonably priced.'

DRUMS AND PERCUSSION

Hohner Mini Jazz Drum Set ( pounds 9.99): one bass, two side drums, cymbal and drumsticks; Bontempi 'Disney Band' Drumkit ( pounds 29.99), bass drum with pedal, two side drums, cymbal, drumsticks and drumstool: Geoff Nicholls, professional drummer and drum writer, tried out both. They looked wonderful, particularly the Disney model, which has a real Fifties charm. They also made a surprisingly high-quality noise: 'They've both got great sounds,' said Geoff. 'The drum tones are really nice but they are completely useless because of their instability.'

Josh, aged two and a half, cannoned into the Hohner kit, which instantly fell apart, sending its sharp-edged cymbal spinning across the room. 'Completely ridiculous,' tutted Geoff. 'The Bontempi's more solid, but I still don't think it would get past Boxing Day.'

All the children loved the drum kits and fought over them all afternoon. The girls managed to play them without making them fall apart; Abigail departed announcing firmly that she wanted the Bontempi kit as her present from Santa, with both her parents cursing me for having turned their delightful little daughter into a drummer.

Early Learning Centre cymbals ( pounds 4.99), sleigh bells ( pounds 2.99), glockenspiel ( pounds 3.99), drum ( pounds 5.99), castanets (99p); Hohner tambourines ( pounds 3.99- pounds 5): We tried a number of percussion instruments (cymbals, bells, tambourines, glockenspiels, single drums) from the Early Learning Centre and other companies, including Hohner. They all did what they were supposed to do; the kids had a great time playing them; and, at prices ranging for 99p to about pounds 6, they would make good stocking-filler presents.

Kiddicraft 'Mr Tambourine Man' (about pounds 17): More expensive but in the same genre, this combined six basic percussion instruments - drum, cymbals, xylophone etc - in the shape of a man. It was so popular with Josh that he cried when someone tried to hit it with a drumstick, covered the figure up with a blanket, and guarded it closely all afternoon. We were, therefore, unable to assess what it sounded like, but he obviously found it captivating.

Chicco Xilopiano ( pounds 17.99): Amy, also two and a half, was most struck by this: 'I want it, it's MINE]' It combines eight-note xylophone and baby 'manual piano' in a well-designed, brightly coloured and sensibly solid toy. Adults and parents liked it too.-

Comments