First published in Victory Review, May 2000.
As a music teacher, I often talk to parents who are considering music lessons for their kids. They list off the benefits that learning to play an instrument can bring: having fun, nurturing their child's innate musicality, giving them a creative outlet they can enjoy throughout their lives, encouraging discipline and confidence, etc. All are things that any parent would want for their child. But some parents forget to ask a most important question: "Is my child genuinely interested in music, and in music lessons?"
If they are, then lessons may be a good thing to try, to see if they like it. Then other important questions arise: "What style(s) of music do they like? What instrument? Would they prefer a male or female teacher?" Parents need to ask these questions and to respect their children's needs and wishes. After all, this music thing is for their enjoyment and enrichment, so let them choose what they enjoy.
And if the answer to the first question is, "No, my child isn't genuinely interested in music lessons," then let it go. If they try it but don't like it, let it go. Let them devote their time and energy to something they really want to do. The "real world" offers up enough drudgery and frustration that we don't need to make kids take music lessons because it's "good for them."
Some parents worry that their child won't be able to play music for the rest of their lives if they don't take lessons when they're young, as though childhood is the only window of opportunity for developing musical ability. While it's true that kids' brains are wired so that they learn more "organically" than grown-ups do, it's never too late to take music lessons. Many adults have great fun and success learning to play music, and there's something very powerful about an adult student's conscious desire to play music, their conscious choice to pursue it. Know that if your child doesn't want to take music lessons right now, it's no big deal, no big loss.
But there will be a price to pay if a child is made to take music lessons when they really don't want to. Some parents may think (and some even say to me) that their kids will "thank me for it later," but believe me, they won't — they'll resent it. Every episode of nagging, arguing, punishing, or otherwise antagonizing them about lessons and practicing will just make them resent it more. And while they're practicing music, they'll also be practicing all of their feelings about the situation, and about you — and what they practice, they'll learn. Sadly, what should be fun becomes a battle front, eroding the trust, mutual respect, and good will between kids and parents. And ironically, it's often the folks who were made to take lessons as kids that later give up playing music altogether once they get the chance.
I hope I don't seem negative about music lessons for kids. On the contrary, as a musician and music teacher, I believe strongly in helping kids explore and learn about music. It's a wonderful thing. But let it be their wonderful thing, because they think it's wonderful, because it brings out the joy and wonder in them. If it doesn't, help them to discover whatever it is that does. Let music be an area in which kids get to practice making their own choices. We want them to grow up to be satisfied, self-directed, self-respecting adults, and this will only happen if they're treated with respect when they're younger and allowed to make meaningful choices. And of all things, music should be about choice.
So, to summarize: Don't force kids to take lessons. Don't nag, bribe, or punish them into practicing. Don't criticize their efforts or their mistakes, or get overly involved in their progress. Don't compare them to other people. If they want to stop taking lessons, let them, and don't judge, shame, or label them for it.
Do let kids make choices. Do let them play the instruments and styles they're really interested in. Do support their interests, in music and anything else, and be a resource for them to pursue those interests. Do be there for them, encourage them and empathize with them. Do let them move at their own pace. Do take opportunities to make music with them. Do let their enthusiasm rub off on you.
© Copyright 2000 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.
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