The Truth About Music Lessons

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At some point when a child is very young, many parents consider pushing the kid into music lessons. This sometimes results in a year or two of piano or violin under a private teacher — and then nothing comes of it. I’ve seen this for years. The 1st-year class starts with 50 kids and it is cut by half by the 2nd year, and so on until there are only a handful remaining.

The parents begin these lessons with great enthusiasm and then it all wanes in time. Rather than become a great musician, the child then becomes yet another exhibit in the appalling spread of astounding musical illiteracy of our time, and hence the popularity of garbage music in all areas of life.

It’s not enough that you can hardly find any place to dine that doesn’t assault your ears with 20-year-old rock “classics,” or, if it is a “high-brow” place, attempts to entertain you with the random pseudo-profundities of drug-addicted saxophone players in recordings made in the early bebop years.

No, it doesn’t stop there. Stumble into just about any church on Sunday and you will see what I mean. One of the great cultural achievements of the West — the once-great music of the Christian liturgy — has been reduced to embarrassing, childish, lobotomizing musical gibberish.

The failure of music education in the earliest years is a major factor here.

So what goes wrong? Most parents start kids on playing an instrument too early, particularly if violin is the instrument of choice. They hear from the Suzuki teacher that three years old is a fine age, and start them with a or ever 1/10th size violin. They don’t make progress for a year, and the kid drops out. The parents are relived.

The problem here has to do with expectations. There is nothing wrong with starting very early but there will be very little progress for years to come. And you have to expect this from the beginning. The truth is that whatever progress the child can make between 3 and 6 the same child can match in a few months starting at the age of 7.

So there is nothing wrong with holding back a bit. This is especially true for piano. The child is just not ready until the age of 8 or so. There are exceptions, but the main point is not to get into too much of a hurry here. And if you do start early, prepare for a long haul of very little progress. The earliest years are the best time to learn to listen to good music, not seriously attempt to play it.

Why do parents want to start the kid so early and push them so hard? Here we must discuss an uncomfortable topic, and it deals with the core problem of music education today: the parents themselves.

Parents have this view of their children that is wildly distorted. It begins with the assumption that the child is the most special, most spectacular, most talented child who has ever been born. How can the parents know this? It must be the case because the parents gave birth to the child, so their high estimation of themselves is transferred to the child.

The only issue for parents is discovering precisely what the child is brilliant at. It could be sports. It could be engineering or math or maybe modeling or some other glamorous thing.

At some point, the parents imagine that the child might be the next Mozart or one of those child-prodigy Japanese violin kids who is playing with a major symphony orchestra at the age of 9. So the parent tries music lessons as a means of discovering whether this is true.

When progress is slow and intermittent the parents give up in frustration. They are often pushed into this by the child himself, who is evidently not enjoying the violin or piano as much as he did at the age of 4, when first starting. So rather than push through the first major hump, the parent gives up.

“Violin wasn’t really his thing.”

“Piano just wasn’t right for her.”

Why? They also have a tendency to blame the teacher, or, more likely, they conclude that music isn’t somehow inside the child. He or she is not a “natural talent,” which, in today’s way of thinking that disparages hard work and diligence and merit, is the only kind of talent there is.

But it is an incredible myth. It’s true that some people have a greater aptitude for music than others, but high aptitude is no guarantee of accomplishment any more than being “tone deaf” is a sure guarantee of failure. The truth is that no serious musician has ever achieved anything in absence of grueling work stretching over many years. Endless hours of practice is what it requires, and amazing intellectual and emotional convulsions are part of it as well.

Not understanding this, and believing that all greatness in life should be a snap, parents pull their kids at the slightest appearance of anxiety or difficulty, and attempt to put them on paths that will more readily reveal their underlying genius, which parents take for granted if only because the child shares their gene pool.

And that’s the end of the great foray into music. Or perhaps the child will pick it back up again in junior high, where the child will learn to play trumpet or drums in order that he or she can be exploited by the football team in high school to provide junk music during the half-time show, blatting horns and pounding drums. It’s unclear whether this teaches any music at all.

Hence, the first step in a child’s music education has to be an attitude adjustment on the part of parents. You don’t make sure that the child learns math solely because you plan for the child to win the Nobel Prize. Right? There is a point to learning math even if the child doesn’t become a mathematician. This goes without saying. Why doesn’t it go without saying with regard to music?

So deal with it now: your child will not become a famous recording star, will not major in music in college, will not get a music scholarship, will not dazzle millions with astonishing talent. What he or she will gain is a great sense of art and the discipline that comes with learning something that requires more than surfing the net. Truly, people learn music today the same way they did in the ancient world. It requires mental discipline, diligence, and daily practice time.

To be sure, your child might become famous, but that cannot be the goal. It follows as an aftereffect of daily hard work. It cannot be the sole reason for music lessons.

There is another ingredient that parents overlook: their own involvement. There is no teacher in the world who can really teach a child to play an instrument. The most the teacher can do is be a guide and a source of weekly correction and assistance.

The analogy here might be the skill of walking. A teacher can provide a path, coach the student to stay on the path, explain how to walk well and correct for mistakes. But, in the end, it is the child himself who must put one foot in front of the other.

But no child of 8 or 10 or even 14 is prepared to do this on his or her own. The parent must be there to provide daily encouragement. This means more than blasting away at the child and demanding that he or she practice for 30 minutes per day.

A parent must take a detailed interest in the matter directly, learning music notation, noticing the way fingerings on the keyboard or the violin work, and understanding the task of the week. This ideally means attending the lessons along with the child — but not interfering in what the teacher is doing — or asking the child to reiterate the contents of this week’s lesson and the task ahead.

In violin, it means that the parent should get a violin too and practice with the child. To do this does not require that you already read music. It means that you learn alongside the child, lesson by lesson. This will provide the parent with the means to offer guidance between lessons.

In piano, the parent should also spend time attempting to play the first lesson book, which is not that difficult. This way the parent can empathize with the student and provide more sympathetic guidance along the way.

As for progress, it comes slowly and systematically and should be counted in years, not months much less weeks. A child learning violin will need to play 5 to 8 years before he or she is capable of providing a truly beautiful rendering of a simple piece of music. On piano, the progress is quicker but here too, you are in for the long haul. It will consume years of work and practice.

Parents today don’t expect this because we live in an age of instant musical gratification. The greatest performances of the greatest music are a few clicks away, often downloadable for next to nothing. Something that accessible seems easy. The truth is that learning to perform music is no easier now than it was in the ancient world. It is an intellectual process that requires vast time and effort, and there are no shortcuts.

As a culture, we are somehow less willing than we once were to put in the hours to make excellence happen. So why should we bother at all? Because learning music is a living metaphor for life itself. We live in an age with all facts at our disposal and every trick for learning technique is more instantly acquired than ever. In economic terms, the value of facts is declining while the value of true excellence in art is increasing. Those who understand what excellence requires will excel in the future, and music studies are the outstanding way to impart the ethic of hard work and tenacity to young minds. Also, the student who understands music will carry a gift throughout life: namely the capacity to distinguish true beauty and true quality from their imitations.

To recover musical talent in the young will also require a rethinking of the parents’ role in education generally. Ever since the state came to monopolize education, a culture has developed that regards education as someone else’s job. It is for institutions. The job of the parent is just to shove the kid in the front door and pick the kid up at the appointed time. This mentality has led to disaster in every subject, but it has hit higher forms of learning, such as literature, art, and language, especially hard.

It should not surprise that in an age of state-dominated education, people would not know languages, music, or literature. These require vast investment on the child’s part, and the close assistance of those who love them. States do not love. They run bureaucratic machines, and these machines tend to produce other machines.

So there is a way in which the praiseworthy goal of wanting music instruction for your child is a revolutionary act in the best sense. It amounts to saying no to the regime that puts down art simply because the regime cannot make art happen. But you can. To give your child an appreciation for art and assist in helping that child become not only an intelligent consumer of art but a producer also is a wonderful act of generosity.

Remember that it is not a gift that you can purchase or produce automatically, and nor is it a gift that yields its fruit in a short period of time. It requires great sacrifice and unbelievable work, but it is worth every bit of both.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org. Comment on the Mises blog.

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