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:
- Find the right teacher. Good teachers aren’t necessarily those who have a degree in music or who have a resume as performers (although some, of course, have both). Knowing how to teach children well is its own gift. Credentials aren’t as important as enthusiasm, warmth, and an intuitive sense about how to engage kids in the fun of making music. Instead of going to the Yellow Pages or making an Internet search to find a teacher, ask other parents. They will tell you who delights in their children and in the lessons. Then make an appointment for you and your child to have a sample lesson. Trust your own gut and your child’s response. If teacher and child click, good lessons are likely to follow.
- Make practicing a priority. Talk with your child about the need to practice every day or almost every day. (Some families allow their kids to take one day per week off.) Set aside a regular time where your child will get to play uninterrupted and establish it as a routine. Some kids do better with two short practices (like one before school and one after dinner) instead of one longer one. Talk together about what works best. Be willing to change the schedule if there is a special event but do make it clear (in the friendliest way possible) that it is an exception.
- Be an enthusiastic audience. Better yet, take on an instrument yourself. The Suzuki method (which requires parents to learn violin with their children) has it right. When music is something that parents and kids or siblings do together, it is more likely to become part of the fabric of family life.
- Encourage. Encourage. Encourage. Learning an instrument is sometimes difficult. Be quick to praise and slow to criticize. Tell your child how much you enjoy hearing him play. Point out her accomplishments during practice. Every now and then, ask him to show you how it’s done. Kids respond to parental approval and enthusiasm more than any material reward.
Music is a language. You don’t have to play it to appreciate it anymore than you need to understand French in order to enjoy the sound of it. The only instrument some kids want to learn how to play is their iPod. That’s okay. Musicians need audiences and fans who will attend their concerts and buy their music. Loving music doesn’t require participation in making it.
But becoming part of the conversation of music requires lessons, concentration, and practice. Kids take to it just as naturally and enthusiastically as they learn to walk, to ride a bike, or to read. It’s a natural extension of their curiosity and their constant growing. When parents care about learning an instrument and are an attentive and appreciative audience, kids develop another way to express and enjoy themselves.