Rethinking music lessons

I am frequently asked how to select a music teacher for a child, primarily because my husband and I are classically trained musicians and have enrolled our kids in lessons for years. Daughter K. took to piano at a VERY early age — she started private lessons at 3.5 years and has been going strong since. Son B. started on piano also early, at age 5, but struggled — surprise surprise, it turns out that boys don’t develop finger dexterity until much later than girls.

So we decided to try violin with B. — probably the hardest instrument you could ever play! Why? Two reasons: 1) it would be hard for sister K to pick up and 2) both mom and dad know how to play it (although neither of us really enjoyed it that much). While B. took to it at first, it became evident that he really didn’t like the sound of the violin — which is understandable, since who would like a high, out-of-tune screech?

We returned the rental violin and having learned from the previous experiences, let him decide what instrument he wanted to play. We were adament that he play **something** musical and after thinking about it, he decided on the electric guitar.

Now, mind you, my classically trained ear and mind rebelled initially at the thought of my son playing the electric guitar. But then I quickly realized that I shouldn’t be so close-minded about the type of music he should learn. After all, music is music isn’t it? So I put my plan into action with the goal of o getting my son totally excited about his new instrument instead of dreading it.

We trotted off to B Street Music in San Mateo and picked up a starter guitar set. B. has been strumming on the guitar for the past three weeks and got to the point where he was **begging** to have a lesson. He couldn’t get the guitar to sound the way it did on the songs he liked and was eager to learn to play chords. Ha, Ha! Part one of my plan was going pretty well!

He went to his first lesson with his dad last week and I was thrilled to learn that he came back not only knowing how to tune his guitar but also now knew three chords, enabling him to play actual songs! He’s been diligently practicing the chords every night — we’ll see how long this keeps up.

Part Two of my plan is this — I want my son to really love music, and to understand what a great gift it can be. But not at the cost of making him suffer through tortuous lessons. I have a guitar-playing colleague at work who had some great words of wisdom — that there is no one right way to play the guitar, and if we didn’t end up liking our current teacher, that we should keep looking until we find one that worked well with my son’s style.

Bear with me through one other anecdote about my daughter. Her teacher suggested that she participate in the piano competition at the San Mateo County Fair this summer, especially since K. enjoyed performing so much. She played her pieces well, but it was clear that the other students were much more accomplished and spent a LOT of time practicing every day. Afterwards she commented that she “was the baddest” and I could see that she was disappointed. I took her in my arms, told her how incredibly proud that she got up there and played, and that she did her best, which was all anybody could ask her to do. I also said that she had other things in her life that she enjoyed doing, like swimming, biking, singing, and gymnastics, that meant she didn’t practice as much as they other kids. I emphasized that if she wanted to play the piano better, we could practice more. She hasn’t taken me up on the proposition and remains to this day a very balanced, happy girl that plays the piano well (if not always perfectly).

This got me to thinking even more about why we push our kids to be musical. Is the goal of lessons to become a world-class musicians? Or was the goal of the practicing and lessons to develop a deep love for music? In discussions with K.’s music teacher, we’re beginning to emphasize a balance of perfecting pieces with understanding the meaning behind the music, and also, composing creative songs built on a solid theoretical understanding of music. The process has helped me completely rethink the purpose of music education in our lives.

This has been our scattered journey into the world of music lessons.

And oh, I’m getting my son earphones for his birthday next week — even though he’ll get better, I’m not sure I’ll always appreciate his form of musical expression!

Cross-posted on


~ by charleneli on September 19, 2006.

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