For years, I’ve acted like so many childless people, liberally dispensing advice to parents about how they should raise their children. In particular, I, like anyone else who has personally experienced the transformative power of making music, have encouraged anyone within eye- or ear-shot to send their kids to lessons.
But, now, I’ve been giving those lessons to 12 children, aged 6 to 17, every week. I’ve also been working with a children’s choir, largely made up of kids under age 10. And I’m no longer so sure about my advice.
Although it has only been three months, a mere short breath in the long continuum between birth and adulthood, it’s become so clear that following universal prescriptions for what is musically appropriate for young minds may be one of the reasons so many children grow up to never touch their musical instrument again.
It all came to a head this week when, after his second piano lesson, I had to ask the mother of a 6-year-old to please not bring him back to me.
The boy has no attention span, but learning any solo instrument requires a lot of attention. To get little fingers coordinated enough to play even a simple melody or strum a chord takes hours of careful repetition. It is the ultimate test of delayed gratification — a test that not all young humans can pass.
I suggested to the mother she try group lessons, perhaps Suzuki or a ukulele or recorder group, where children get positive reinforcement and encouragement from their peers (they wouldn’t recognize it as that, but the group’s adult leader can see it right away).
For example, Toronto violinist Moishe Hammer is successfully applying group dynamics in his Hammer Band, a free, after-school programme in the Jane-Finch area.
As I’ve mentioned before, singing can be especially rewarding, given that the instrument is built in. And a choir becomes the ultimate positive reinforcer.
Children with good ears help the group stay in tune. Those who read well become supports for those who easily get lost in the music. The strong voices become a support network for weaker ones, removing the terror factor from being a lone face exposed to a sea of expectant listeners.
On the other hand, I have a 6-year-old piano student who, after four lessons, knows where every note is on the keyboard, can play different notes and rhythms with both hands, and arrives each week with a focus and purpose that would put a marathon runner to shame.
I already know that he will be playing “real” piano music before the next school year begins.
There is a whole rainbow spectrum out there — of abilities, attention spans and interests — and matching a child to the right sort of music lesson or experience is the biggest challenge of all.
Because the education system (musical as well as academic) has to deal with so many different variables, and do it as efficiently as possible, streaming everyone through the same process is the easiest way to go.
We may not have that wide of a choice academically, but we have a lot of choices musically.
I sometimes worry that music teachers are not always entirely honest about a child’s suitability, because their livelihood depends on having a full roster of students. So it’s the parent’s duty to be fully attentive and aware about the relationship their child is about to have with music — not an easy thing to ask of anyone with a demanding day job.
Be prepared to realise that individual lessons may not be the right route for your son or daughter. Even if you dream that she could one day be a great violinist, a choir may be a more compatible environment.
Or, perhaps, he might be more temperamentally and physically suited to experience music through ballet or some other form of dance, using his whole body as an instrument.
None of this is easy. But working collaboratively with your child now can make the difference between lifelong love for or aversion to making music.
And don’t forget the unconventional — like the work of Australian music teacher Alec Duncan: