My Musical Gift Guide for Preschoolers

  My son, Christmas 2013

My son, Christmas 2013

Here's a collection of instruments that range from happy little stocking stuffers to big gifts that create a real "wow" factor for your kids on Christmas morning.  My selections may skew toward the noisy side, but there's nothing quite as joyful as a preschooler feeling empowered buy the big sounds they can make! 

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Kazoos

You can find packs of cheap kazoos at any party store, though I find this whimsical set to be particularly irresistible!  

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Maracas

This pair of Hohner maracas is sized just right for the preschooler's grip. 

 

 

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Harmonica

It's shiny, it makes a big sound, and it comes with its own case. I think that checks all of the boxes! Just make sure to buy one in a key that makes sense for you. If you or a family member play the ukulele or piano, you may want to buy a harmonica in the key of C. If you play the guitar or other string instruments, you may prefer a harmonica that is set in the key of G.  

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B. Toys Symphony in B

This toy is SO. COOL. Your child is the conductor of this orchestra and can mix and match the musical arrangements for fifteen different songs.

I love that this toy exposes kids to such a variety of instruments and encourages them to be more active listeners. Anecdote: after having the toy for a while my then-two year old son and I were listening to music and he was having fun identifying all the different instruments he heard, saying, "Mama, that violin is so pretty!" 

You can find Symphony in B on Amazon and on eBay. You might be able to find the new version of the toy in-store at Target, but it's no longer listed on their website. 

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Junior Drum Set

This last item is not for the faint of heart! Square footage is at a premium here in the Bay Area, so I understand not everyone has the space for one of these babies. But if you do, I highly recommend one of these babies. Rhythm and tempo are the foundation for music, and drums are a terrific first "real" instrument for kiddos. Plus, it looks stunning under the tree and is such a hit when friends come over for playdates! Just make sure to include a pair of noise-reduction earphones and kid-sized drumsticks! 

Three-piece drum sets are another option, but I'm partial to the five-piece sets that include high hats. The kids and I had fun learning how to play by watching thislisa's drum lesson tutorials on Youtube.  

 

This post contains affiliate links.

My Musical Gift Guide for Babies and Toddlers

  my daughter at 7 months old

my daughter at 7 months old

 

Here are a few of my favorite instruments designed for the littlest musicians:  

 

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Egg Shakers

Baby's first instrument! These Nino egg shakers can be grasped by even the tiniest of hands and are so satisfying to shake that even big kids and adults enjoy playing with them. In fact, we bring them on our road trips so we can jam in the car! 

 

 
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Hohner's Baby Band 

This cute set of rattles includes a mini rainbow shaker, a maraca, a rattle, and a cage bell. Hohner's Baby Band is well constructed and is listed as safe for ages 3 months and up.  

 

 

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Drums

So many parents are drum-averse, as if not having them will somehow make their children less noisy. I say, it's better to have them banging on a drum than on their siblings, or any of the other things I don't want them thrashing! These bongos from Remo are a fun option that also work for preschoolers and older kids. 

In my experience, kids don't get quieter with age, so if your kids make too much noise, drums or no drums, a pair of these may save your sanity— try a pair for each noise-maker in your house, plus a pair for you (they say they're kid-sized but they fit my adult-sized head just fine). 

 

Pots, Pans, and Anything Else that Makes Noise

Remember banging on old Tupperware containers and pots and pans as a kid? Those still work! This cute play set of pots and pans from IKEA works in a play kitchen or in the family band. Pair it with a wooden spoon or wooden mallets plus any plastic food storage containers, bowls, lids, pots, or pans you may have floating around the kitchen. And if you don't want to share your real stuff with your little one, a quick trip to the thrift store is all it takes to supply your toddler with an entire kitchen-themed orchestra!  

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Get to Know Your Ukulele (Free Printable)

Get to Know Your Ukulele (Free Printable)

Oh, man. I love a good printable! They're great for kids (we use them on road trips all the time), and I enjoy creating free downloads to share here on the blog, though so far I've focused on creating printables for kids. But these Get to Know Your Ukulele printables are handy for all beginning ukulele players— kids and grown-ups alike.

Updated: MY UKULELE AND TUNER RECOMMENDATIONS

Updated: MY UKULELE AND TUNER RECOMMENDATIONS

An update of my original post from 11/29/2016. My tuner recommendation remains the same, but I have updated the ukulele section. 

So you've signed up for lessons? Yay! This is so exciting! Now let's make sure you have what you need to get started. There are really only two things you'll have to bring to the first lesson: a digital tuner and a ukulele. This post includes my recommendations for obtaining those items with only a modest initial investment. 

Taking the Kamaka Ukulele Factory Tour

We vacationed on Oahu recently and one of the highlights of our trip was taking a tour of the Kamaka ukulele factory. I mostly focus on the playing of ukes, so it was neat to learn more about how Kamaka's well-regarded instruments are made.

The tour began in the small main office area with a history lesson by Fred Kamaka Sr, who's in his 90s. We were all riveted as he chatted about the company's origins (it was started by his father) and the company's 100 year history of making instruments. The tour then moved on to the warehouse, where Fred Jr walked us through the entire manufacturing line. It was very cool to see how invested the Kamaka family is in the brand, with the company now being run by third and fourth generation family members.

Here are a few photos:

Wanna go? Tours are conducted at their factory in Honolulu, HI, Tuesday - Friday at 10:30 am. Check out their website for more info. The entire tour is free, and it's worth it just to get your picture taken with Fred Sr! 

  posing with Fred, Sr.

posing with Fred, Sr.

Incorporating Your Instrument into Your Decor

If you keep your ukulele in its case, it's likely to stay there. But that's not where you want it! If your ukulele is out and ready to be picked up at a moment's notice, you will be so much more likely to play it. So, let's talk about the important stuff: how to display your instrument when you're not playing it. There are two basic options— stands and hooks— and they're both easy.

 

Stands

An ukulele stand (affiliate link) is an easy way to display your instrument. There's no installation required and it's portability makes it great for those who are unsure of where they want to set-up their instrument.

 my desk, aka where the magic happens

my desk, aka where the magic happens

I have a home office where I prep for lessons. I'm also working on an exciting new project, so I'm constantly playing when I'm working at my desk. It only makes sense for me to keep an ukulele available for strumming here. 

 in my living room

in my living room

This pineapple uke sits on a stand right next to the TV. We also keep a banjo, a guitar, and a banjo-lele in the same room, on floor stands. We spend a good chunk of time in this room, and I keep all of our kid instruments in one of the fabric bins in the bottom of the picture. Having multiple instruments out and accessible makes impromptu jam sessions easy. The TV might get turned on once or twice a week, but the instruments get played daily!

 

Hooks

The age of your children is an important consideration. If you have very young children, you may want to keep your instrument up high! 

There are a variety of wall-mount hooks (affiliate link), and they are pretty simple to install. If you're handy, you can even make your own! I love how the instrument hooks in the picture above have been painted to match the wall color. My only concern with a room like this is that you don't want things to look too precious or perfect. After all, the goal is to play, not just admire! 

I love how these instruments were able to fit in this living room. They're so cute stacked vertically like this! 

Doesn't the guitar look great against that grey wall? 

This last room looks like heaven to me! If you can pull off a wall of instruments, go for it. Think of the family jams you could have in that home! 

Before you buy: Identify when and where you're most likely to play. Then do your best to keep your uke in that room— whether that's the play room, the living room, a bedroom, or even near the kitchen. If you're unsure, or if you're having a hard time making time for your hobby, experiment by moving your uke around. Sometimes the simple act of relocating your instrument is all it takes to get you in the habit of playing more frequently.

How are you displaying your instruments at home? I'd love to hear about it!

Super Simple DIY: Easter Egg Maracas

Last week I was tasked to come up with an activity for my son's kindergarten class. I was looking for a quick, non-messy project the kids could do easily, and a friend shared this idea with me: easter egg maracas!

This is a great all-ages crafts. I'm obviously partial to music-related crafts, and it was a convenient way to use up the surplus of Easter eggs we had acquired this year. The kids all seemed to enjoy making the shakers and then playing with them on the playground afterward, and I had just as much fun as the kids did!

You can find several versions of this craft on Pinterest, but they're all about the same. I followed the version posted on the blog Made Everyday with Dana

 

Supplies: 

  • Plastic easter eggs (the small ones work best)
  • Popcorn kernels (rice, dried beans, or lentils would work, too)
  • Plastic spoons 
  • Washi tape (Amazon affiliate link)

Instructions:

  1. Fill a plastic egg with popcorn kernels. 
  2. Nest the egg between two spoons. 
  3. Secure the maraca by wrapping tape around the egg and spoons (little hands may need assistance). You can opt to tape just a few key spots, or go crazy (like my kids did) and wrap up the entire instrument in washi tape. 
  4. Shake it!

 

Considering how easy this project is, the maracas make a surprisingly satisfying sound and would work perfectly at your next family jam

Family Jam Time!

Today my daughter and I had our first play-along jam session in a long time. I recommend them to students all the time, but I hadn't realized we had fallen out of the habit of it in my own home! 

 

What is a Jam? 

Our jams are inspired by the play-alongs that occur in Music Together classes. We simply get out our kid instruments, crank up a song, and play along to the music! If you don't have a basket of instruments, break out the wooden spoons and pots and pans, and take a quick look around the house to see what else might be turned into a noise maker. :)

 

MM: Favorite Disney Songs for Family Jams

Since my daughter listens almost exclusively to Disney soundtracks, we were jamming to songs from Frozen, Moana, and Tangled. We had so much fun that I created a playlist for us to reference the next time. Wanna hear it? I've created the playlist in Apple Music/iTunes and Spotify

What's in it for the Grown-Ups

As a mom, I'm partial to activities that are stimulating for my kids AND me. I don't just do these play-alongs to humor my children. I totally get into them and probably get a little too carried away! But honestly, there's a lot that beginning musicians can get out of these jam sessions. 

Hone your vocals. 

The personalities singing these songs are very expressive and some are quite over-the-top, which I find to be great inspiration for my singing. Sing along if you know the words, and try to match the level of emotion and mood. 

Build up your endurance.

Beginning musicians can fizzle out over the course of a song (or songs). Playing along to recordings is great training for developing your stamina. The recorded music will carry you, which is easier than setting and maintaining a tempo on your own. 

Boost your mood.

One of the best things about music is its affect on our emotions. Singing whole-heartedly and shaking some egg shakers or buzzing on a kazoo can totally perk me up and turn me into a more joyful, peaceful parent. And that's something everyone benefits from. 

 

What's in it for the Kids

They have your attention.

There's a difference between watching your kids play and actually playing with them. You are doing something together, which makes the activity feel special. Jams are suitable for all ages and development stages, and it's a lot more fun than yet another round of Don't Break the Ice (or whatever your child might be obsessed with lately). 

Developing their musicality.

Rhythm is the most important element of music making, and your kids can learn a lot about music through this type of play. Just as you're striving to keep your playing in time with the music, so are your kids! It's so thrilling to see little ones sing along to their favorite song or bang a drum right on beat! 

Permission to be loud, Permission to be silly.

Jams are the most fun when you all let loose and get noisy. Kids love to see their parents be goofy, and this playlist is full of happy, upbeat songs that I enjoy as much as my kids do. I hope they are as big a hit in your home as they are in mine. 

 

Do you have a favorite Disney jam song that's not on the playlist? How are you making music with your kids? I'd love to hear about it

 

What Ukulele Should I Buy?

I frequently get asked for my advice on purchasing a ukulele. And in general, I recommend new musicians start off with a very inexpensive one! But what about when you're ready to upgrade? Honestly, I'm not the best person to ask. I don't really care what wood my uke is made out of, where it was manufactured, or how expensive it was! I just like to play. The instrument is simply a tool for the fun, and I don't get more enjoyment out of playing my "good" ukulele versus playing my $30 one. 

To back me up on this, here's a video of a man comparing his $1,000 ukulele to his cheap Mahalo ukulele (the same version I recommend on this blog post). Do you hear much of a difference? (I don't)

I suggest beginners first learn how to play on an inexpensive instrument, then have fun browsing music stores and trying out different makes, models, and sizes. Which one feels good in your hands? Which one has a beautiful tone? What's your budget? Those are all reasonable questions to consider, but there's no rush to upgrade. It's not the instrument that matters, it's what you do with it.

 

UPDATED 3/21/17: When I initially posted this, I should have gone into more depth on what's probably the biggest factor to consider when you're upgrading your ukulele— the size! The ukulele comes in four sizes and from smallest to largest, they are: soprano (sometimes called "standard"), concert, tenor, and baritone. There are pros and cons to each, but I think the most important thing to consider is the size of the instrument in relationship to the size of the player. Many players do well with the soprano/standard ukulele, but plenty of others prefer the size of concert of tenor ukes because the longer necks give your fingers more room to shape the chords. It's always best to try the instruments so you can compare what each one feels like. 

Want to read more? These links may be helpful as you consider your options: 

Ukulele Buying Guide from ukuguides.com

Ukulele Sizes from liveukulele.com

Happy strumming!

My Musical Gift Guide for Children

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If you have kid-friendly instruments around the house, it's easy to turn your ukulele practice into a family jam session! All of the instruments I'm recommending come from years of being tested in my own home. They've held up to years of use (and abuse) and still sound great! 

My All-Time Favorites Kid Instruments

When you think of rhythm instruments, you might think of drums. But really, there's an array of instruments that fit this category that can add dynamic sound to your family jams at home. Rhythm instruments are great because there's no learning curve. Odds are, your kid already knows how to bang on things, so all of these options work for babies, toddlers, big kids, and even adults!   

 

Tambourines 

Tambourines are an easy way to add a friend in to the mix. I recommend buying a "real" one versus a kids' version. The sound will be much fuller and that alone will make it more fun to play. And if it's too big for your child's hand, don't let that stop them from playing! Set it on the floor and have them bang on it as if it was a drum!    

 

Egg Shakers

Babies get pretty thrilled when they discover that they can make music on their own! These shakers are a great size for tiny hands, and they make a surprisingly nice sound. Babies love to mouth them, but there's no danger of choking with these perfect-sized shakers. We frequently bring these on road trips so we can rock out to the radio on long drives. 

 

Jingle Bell Bracelets

These jingle bells are perfect for when you're singing holiday songs at home. They can be worn as bracelets or simply held in the hand to add a fun rhythmic element to your singalong at home.  

 

Floor Drum:

Babies and toddlers have a great time banging on this durable drum, and it's a little easier to stomach one (relatively small) floor drum than a full drum kit! It includes two soft-head mallets for playing, but it's just as fun to tap out rhythms with your hands. 

 

My Personal Favorite: Resonator Bells

These individual xylophone keys are fun to play all at once, sure, especially if you like to tap out melodies. But if you want your child to sound in tune with your ukulele, give them just the 1 and 5 tones for whatever key you're playing in (what I'm saying makes sense if you've gone through the Foundations beginner course!). For instance, if you're playing in the key of C, have them bang on the C and G bells; if you're playing in the key of G, give them the G and D notes to play.  

Baby-proofing note: the black tips of the little mallets have repeatedly fallen off of our sticks, so please be careful if you have a child who likes to mouth objects. 

Don't Forget About Hand-Me-Downs 

When you begin the Foundations beginner course, I recommend you kickoff your ukulele adventure with a cheap starter uke. In large part, this is because I want you to have a ukulele you can hand down to your children when you're ready to upgrade your instrument. You are their role model, and it's natural for them to want to play the same instrument you're playing. 

Why I Advise Against Buying Instruments in Sets

A set like the Melissa and Doug Band in the Box is a fine shortcut to building your at-home instrument collection, and if you already have one, great! Play with what you have! But in general, I recommend buying instruments individually so that you'll have more control over your instruments as well as higher quality materials and better quality sound. 

Ready to Jam?

Once you've assembled a few kid-friendly instruments, you'll need to find a good place to keep them! I recommend stashing them in a basket or bin in your living room or whichever room you're most likely to hang out in. When your kid instruments and ukulele are nearby and easy to pick up, it makes it that much easier to host impromptu family jam sessions! And that's kind of the point of all this, isn't it? :)

Happy jamming! 

What to Bring to the Lessons: My Ukulele and Tuner Recommendations

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So you've signed up for lessons? Yay! This is so exciting! Now let's make sure you have what you need. There are really only two things you'll have to bring to the first lesson: a digital tuner and a ukulele. Here are my recommendations for obtaining those items with only a modest initial investment.  

The Tuner

A good digital tuner is as important as your instrument. It won't matter how great your playing is if you're out of tune! My current favorite is the Snark SN5X. You can find it on Amazon Prime for about $10, and it has a big bright interface that makes it easy to tune up your uke. There are other methods for tuning instruments, like phone apps and pitch pipes, but I find the digital tuner to be the easiest, the fastest, and the most accurate way to tune up an instrument. 

 

The Ukulele

If you already have a ukulele:

Great! Make sure it's a soprano, concert, or tenor ukulele. Sopranos are also called "standard" ukuleles, and it's the small, friendly size you typically picture when you think of a ukulele. Concert and tenor ukuleles are bigger and have a slightly different sound, but sopranos, concerts, and tenors all have the same GCEA tuning, which is what we use for the course. The only ukulele that won't work for the Foundations course is the baritone ukulele, which has a different tuning. 

If you don't already have a ukulele:

Start with a cheap one. I recommend the Diamond Head and Mahalo brands. Both companies make really happy looking entry-level ukuleles that are available from Amazon Prime for around $30. Choose one in your favorite color or one that matches your decor at home! It doubles as a sculpture, you know. :)

Why I Recommend Starting with a Cheapie:

If you were just learning how to drive, you wouldn't learn on a Ferrari, would you? And it wouldn't make much sense to go car shopping if you didn't know how to drive, would it? How would you even know what to look for, or what features were important to you? If you buy an expensive ukulele, I think you're more likely to look at the instrument as a burden than a source of joy. You may feel guilty for not already knowing how to play it, or feel a responsibility to practice instead of viewing it as a source of fun. You won't feel that pressure if your start-up costs are low. 

Learn to play first. Then you can make an educated decision on what kind of ukulele you'd like to buy. And most importantly, once you've upgraded, please pass your starter uke on to your child, so s/he can play with you! 

Updated 3/2/17: I've received multiple requests for a recommendation that's a step above the candy colored Diamond Head and Mahalo ukuleles. If you'd prefer to invest a bit more in your instrument, Kala is a brand that makes several ukuleles with good tone and good construction in the $50-150 range. Happy strumming!