“But I don’t know music.”
Sometimes when I hear this statement come out of the mouths of parents whose children are just starting to learn about music, I want to climb on my soapbox and preach to the world.
After expounding on this subject the other night at dinner, one of my former students — and a well-known and talented writer in her own right — opined that I should publish these thoughts about music, children, the family, and the role each plays in childhood development.
First of all, I am well-positioned to expound on this subject. I’ve been a musical performer all my life . . . well, since I was 2 ½, which is as far back as I can remember. I’ve been a credentialed music teacher in the public schools for more than 30 years. During this time, I have given private piano and voice lessons to countless students.
So, here are my thoughts on music and the beginning student.
First and foremost, there is no denying the profound positive effect studying a musical instrument can have on the development of the brain. It has been proven over and over in countless studies. Google it. Or look up on YouTube the Ted Talk, “How playing an instrument benefits your brain,” by Anita Collins.
You want your kids to be brighter? Have them learn a music instrument.
So, let’s say you’re a parent who’s decided that the time is right for your child to learn a musical instrument. Here’s what I, the teacher, want you, the parent to know.
- Learning a musical instrument should begin early, before they start school, if possible.
- The child’s interest will directly respond to your interest and involvement with their lessons. You do not need to be a musician yourself. Sitting in on their lesson is a start. Just being there. Also, you should not expect a child to practice by themselves. Suzuki (the great violin pedagogist) says, “You never send a child to practice, you TAKE them to practice.” A little caveat here: In more than one instance, it has been a grandparent who has had the time and interest to attend the child’s lesson, and, sometimes, practice with that student at home.
You may protest that you know nothing about music, or the piano, or the violin, or whatever the instrument might be. You don’t need to. If you have paid attention during their lesson, you can say, “Didn’t I hear your teacher tell you to . . .. whatever?”
You can check their assignment book and see if they are covering all the assignment. You can sit with the child and say how good it sounds, or that seemed a little rough, let’s do it again, or let’s try it a little slower or faster, or that’s my favorite piece you play, do it again for me.
Just the act of you spending a few minutes of your time focused on their activity will pay off in huge dividends. It says to the child that first of all, what they are doing is important to you, and secondly, learning music is important to you.
And this brings us to another step in my soapbox. Practice. For very young children, I would rather see them spend ten minutes twice a day, rather than an hour on Saturday. The consistency of doing something every day is what builds the muscle memory that will allow them to progress. As the child progresses, the practice times can be increased according to their attention span.
Also, after the child has established a practicing pattern, you may be able to lessen the time you sit with them in their practice. It would be better to err on the side of remaining after you are needed, rather than the other way around.
And yet another step in my soapbox: Music should be viewed as part of a child’s total education. You don’t say to a child, “Let’s see, there’s history, math, English and science. I’ll let you wait until you’re old enough, then choose which one you wan to study.”
Nor do you think that you don’t want him to do his homework in any of those areas because it might make him ‘hate’ that subject. I can remember my husband (a well-known music educator) saying that it would so annoy him when a teacher wouldn’t allow a student to come to music practice because they were behind in their math homework. He always wanted to send a note back to the teacher that the student wouldn’t be allowed to come to math today because they were behind in practicing their instrument.
That goes right along with using musical activities as punishment. “The student did something bad today so he won’t be allowed to come to band.”
Many times it is that very student for whom music is the one success in their day.
If they want to try different instruments, give them a timeline. “Okay, you take piano and practice for X amount of time, then we’ll see if you want to try a different instrument.”
Whatever works in your family. Maybe it’s for one semester, one year, or until the child is 10. In our family the kids were told that they would take lessons and practice every day until they were 16. That might or might not work in your family, but you need for them to have a specific time for evaluation, so when they reach that point there is a feeling of accomplishment and success.
When students get a little older, say 4th grade or so, and musical instruments are offered at school, they may want to both play piano and start an instrument in band and or join choir. Good for them! One most certainly helps the other.
I admit, every child and every family is different, but I believe the principles remain the same.
Even so, you may have some real-world experiences in this arena that you would like to share. I’d love to hear them.