So You’re Thinking about Giving Your Kids Music Lessons
Let’s be clear. There is such a thing as talent and a drive to make music. Some kids start rhythmically banging on pots at age 2 and comping on a toy piano at 3. Playing almost anything vaguely resembling an instrument is so in their blood and in their fingers that they would rather do that than anything else. Music is as much their way of expressing themselves as language. A day without music is a day without sunshine. If you have such a kid, you don’t need an article like this one. She’ll play whether you support her or not. He’ll play, no matter the condition of the instrument or the availability of a teacher. They are one in a million and they are wonderful. Give these kids an instrument and some lessons and get out of the way.
Most kids, however, don’t show such early promise. In fact, some kids who seem tone deaf when they are young develop into talented musicians. A clumsy beginner may develop amazing skills with time and practice. Ambivalent 8-year-olds may become devoted to their instruments when they figure out that it’s possible to be in a rock band or that the school marching band sometimes gets to go to a football bowl game. As they grow, many kids find that music is a way to express teen angst, calm anxieties, and soothe the troubled mind and broken heart. During socially awkward years, it’s a way to fit in, to stand out, and to relate to others. Not everyone can be a virtuoso but, with some effort, just about everyone can become reasonably competent.
The decision to provide lessons and support isn’t a minor one. It means a financial commitment for parents as well as a commitment of time and energy for both parent and child. Is it worth it? Making a clear decision up front about your goals and what you are willing to do to reach them can save everyone a lot of stress.
First, be clear about where you stand. Are lessons a way for a child to experiment to see if she wants to learn or is musical competence a family value? Do you care what instrument your child plays or are you really willing to let him decide? Is making time for practicing a priority or do you think it’s enough to fit it in when you can? Your answers to these questions will inform your attitudes to the whole enterprise and will be reflected in how seriously your child takes her progress.
In Elaine’s family, for example, learning an instrument isn’t really a choice. She plays piano. Her husband plays the drums. It’s not unusual for a Saturday evening get together with friends to become a jam session. “We see teaching our kids how to make music,” says Eaine, “as part of our responsibility as parents. The kids have a choice about what to play but we want them to learn the joy – and the self-discipline – that comes from mastering an instrument.”
Sarah, another parent of young teens, has a different view. “Why make a kid who hates the clarinet stick with it?” she asks. “We expect our kids to give anything they beg for an honest try for a season or 6 months. Then they can decide whether or not to continue. Our system gives them some experience to base a decision on and prevents a certain amount of flitting from one thing to another.”
Neither of these parents has a corner on the truth. What they have going for them is their clarity. They have thought through their approach to music lessons and have communicated it equally clearly to their kids. Elaine doesn’t pressure her kids to play. She doesn’t have to. It’s simply a fact of their family life. Sarah has set up rules that allow for experimenting with new things but also provides some structure so that embarking on a new direction is taken seriously.
If you do decide to support your kids in becoming musicians, there are some ways to ensure more success for them and less stress about it for the whole family: