Teachers, Parents, And Other Experts Sound Off About Kids & Music

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything. The Beatles didn’t become the Fab Four with raw talent alone; their willingness to practice endlessly – along with access to instruments and locations in which to hone their talents – took them from good to great.

Parents dreaming of the next little Mozart or McCartney often shell out big bucks on musical instruments and lessons, only to become frustrated when their child doesn’t feel like practicing or loses interest completely. Some parents, like Amy Chua, Yale professor and author of the controversial memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, believes children should be forced to practice regardless of how they feel. But even Chua had to revise her thinking – while her oldest daughter played piano at Carnegie Hall, Chua’s intense methods backfired with her youngest, who defiantly traded her violin for a tennis racket.

With school music programs being cut, more families are looking to private lessons if they can afford it. In today’s economy, that can be a stretch. And instruments themselves can be expensive. Then there’s the time factor: it’s hard enough to get children to finish their homework, much less practice an instrument.

Orland mom Anna Murray has a background in music, starting with the bass violin, and then cello for several years as a child and teen. Her husband also plays in a band. Murray encouraged her children to practice music, but only one of them still actively plays. One son took trumpet lessons in school from grades 4-6. Although trumpet was originally her son’s idea, he had no real interest in practicing. Murray’s 7-year-old daughter took free private piano lessons for six months, but also lost interest.

The son who remains the most committed began playing self-taught guitar a few years ago, learning a few basics from his dad and grandpa. “He is always playing it,” says Murray, “we can’t keep him off of it.”

Murray explains her approach to commitment and practice. If the children have signed up for school music lessons, practice becomes part of their homework before free time. They commit for the school year, and have option to change instruments or stop playing at the beginning of each school year .

“I don’t think kids should be forced to take an interest in any activity – music or otherwise – that they do not want to do,” Murray says. She adds, “As far as music goes, I am a firm believer that music plays a vital role in one’s life.” She mentions that even if her kids aren’t taking lessons, she makes certain that they are still exposed to a variety of musical genres through listening to music at home.

Graham Wickham, owner of GH Wickham Violins in Chico, has worked closely for years with teachers, kids and their instruments in Oregon and California. “The value of music in a child’s social, mental and artistic development has been widely established,” says Wickham. “Being a right-brain activity alone makes it valuable. So much of education is left-brain oriented that it is important to stimulate the right hemisphere.”

Matej Seda, teacher at the Violin Tree in Chico, says, “Many children find a place of calm and creativity in their violins. Others find a new way to connect with family and friends, through family bands and jam sessions. And all young musicians benefit from improved reading skills, stronger vocabulary, an easier grasp of advanced mathematics like geometry and calculus, enhanced memory skills, and advanced critical thinking skills.”

“Music education is a perfect complement to academic education,” says Jacob Carr, music teacher at Blue Oak School in Chico. “Children should engage in instrument training. It aids children in the ability to create. It gives them something safe to struggle against and overcome. It teaches them so many things that are important to the human condition, such as how to be part of a group, keep in a rhythm, improvise within boundaries, shine on your own, and persevere even when things are difficult.”

Music Logic teacher Gitta Brewster shares her knowledge of piano study.

Carr believes the instrument should be age-appropriate. “My one-year-old drags his drum around the house,” he says. “Sometimes he pounds on it, sometimes he stands on it. It doesn’t matter, because it’s teaching him that he is safe making noise. I think children should begin a formalized instruction of an instrument around the age of eight. Some kids are ready early on, and you’ll see the signs. Some kids aren’t ready until ten. Sometimes, a good indicator is how they are writing and drawing. If a child has the small-motor movement for clear letters, it’s a good indicator that they can finger a fretboard, or draw a bow.”

“Daily practice seems to be unarguable,” says Wickham. “Playing a musical instrument is a cumulative motor skill, and motor skills require daily exercise in order to achieve progress. Listening to recordings of the music you are playing is invaluable.”

Wickham acknowledges challenges of music practice, including time, lack of parental support, and even too much parental interference in the practice routine. Virtually all students reach a point where they want to quit. Wickham stresses that overcoming that hurdle is crucial. “I cannot tell you the number of adults I have talked to who quit music when they were young who wished their parents had made them continue their musical studies,” he adds.

“We make our kids eat their vegetables, wear a coat when it’s cold, finish their homework, and clean their rooms,” says Carr, “they don’t like doing it, but we know it’s good for them.” He adds, “If a kid is losing interest in making music, something is wrong. Change it up!  Let them pick the music for a change. Make it fun.”

Wickham believes qualities ensuring success include love of the instrument, strong parental support, a good work ethic, having an instrument in good repair, and opportunities to share music with other supportive family members and friends. “Music is both a gift received and a gift to be given,” he says.

Carr suggests keeping instruments accessible at any time just for kids to pick up any time they want. “The more that instrument gets into the hands of a child who chooses it to be there, the greater the success.”

Parents often discourage children by being too critical. “I recall one parent that ended a child’s love of music by listening very closely to her daughter’s practice sessions, correcting and commenting on her playing the entire time,” Wickham says.

“If the child isn’t enjoying their instrument, don’t get angry at the kid … change the process,” Carr recommends. “Let them change to something else that will make them happy. That’s the beauty of instrument rentals, people!  And don’t fret about how many piano lessons you paid for, none of that knowledge goes to waste. Instruments are very much like foreign languages. The first one is the most difficult, but after that you get the hang of it. Music exploration is extremely valuable.”

Desiree Gonzalez
About Desiree Gonzalez

Desiree Gonzalez is an author and a mother of two in Chico.

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