By Lars Jensen, Guitar Tutor
It isn’t all fun, and it’s never really easy, but learning to be a musician is often touted as one of life’s most rewarding adventures. By the time the decision is made to begin lessons, wise parents (even if not musicians themselves) will impress upon their children that becoming a musician – even given very modest ambitions – is a life-long learning experience, which starts with a long series of baby steps.
Sometimes, it’s difficult for a child to accept that the chosen instrument is not a toy (nor a fashion accessory), and instant gratification is not a realistic expectation. Soon the question appears – “Can the music teacher carry the entire burden of keeping alive the student’s interest in playing music, through all the hard work needed to develop the necessary skills?” Well, sure, this happens occasionally, but realistically, one should assume the parents have important roles to play in the process. These are one veteran music tutor’s ideas about what makes the successful music student tick, and how to prevent stalled ambitions from taking a toll on your child’s self-esteem.
“He comes from a musical family.” There’s no denying the advantages implied by this statement, but no one believes musical families are the only source of successful musicians. Parents who are musicians themselves will find many of these points self-evident; others probably less so.
Success enhances self-esteem, failure erodes it
Sounds so obvious, but I’ve seen a lot of evidence that many parents don’t see the risks involved in sending their kids to music lessons, without adequate support. It’s common among children to identify quite strongly with the notion of becoming a ‘cool’ musician, so if their accomplishments in music lessons aren’t very impressive, anxiety might become serious.
We’ve all heard people say, “I hated music lessons. My parents made me practice endlessly!” Yet most accomplished musicians will give credit to their parents for providing the essential active encouragement that motivated them to establish an effective daily practice routine. Let us not diverge into the many, many reasons for it – trust me! DAILY practice (20 minutes is enough, at first) is the universal standard, since millions, no, billions! of musicians have proven it most effective, for hundreds, no, thousands of years. Shortcuts? That’s why music tutors exist.
Some parents actually try to avoid the most obvious self-esteem booster: the gift of an instrument. The giver, usually a parent, sends several important messages by means of this act of generosity: 1. I’m willing to risk making this (just possibly expensive) purchase, because I believe in your ability to make it worthwhile, and 2. The instrument, the satisfaction of learning to play it, and also the responsibility to make good use of it, all belong to YOU. The resulting thrill should be redeemable for a promise to practice diligently! Those who inquire whether the school or tutor can provide a loaner instrument are longing for the good old days – it’s not common practice anymore. Perhaps more important, they’re taking a risk – that their child won’t notice when some classmates’ parents have made this very appropriate gesture of good faith before the lessons commence.
It can’t be denied – every music tutor has seen the sad looks on the faces of former students, who have given up in frustration. How could I have inspired them more effectively? we wonder. Yet it always seems reasonable to suspect that the individual was simply not adequately prepared to face the challenges of learning an instrument – going back to a time long before the tutor could have had any influence.
Exposure to performing musicians is essential
A close view of a live performance is best – that’s real inspiration! It’s doubtful any age is too young to begin this process. Videos (TV or other) focusing on musicians playing instruments are also good. Listening to recordings without any picture is surely useful, but music-as-wallpaper alone really isn’t enough to make it sink in, that musicians actually must possess skills in order to produce that fascinating sound.
Think about the images seen on video, which nowadays form a large part of the conceptions most kids have about music. Most pop music performances on TV feature only vocalists and dancers, and the details of playing the instruments are obscured from view. It’s my belief that frequent exposure to this sadly impoverished representation of live performance is largely responsible for many kids’ inability to form effective goals, as beginning musicians.
Promotional photos and videos of popular musicians (especially rock bands!) are invariably designed to emphasize “we’re COOL. We never listen to teachers, parents, etc.” That image is irresistible to the rebellious nature of kids, and all too often, they’ll interpret it as license to be lazy about practicing their instruments. But the truth is, most of those bands play their instruments quite proficiently. They had to learn their skills SOMEWHERE, and practice them for some years, before they would ever have the opportunity to set foot in a professional recording studio, or on a concert stage. It doesn’t happen overnight! Tutors constantly remind their students of this undeniable truth, but without reinforcement from parents (especially BEFORE lessons begin!), it often falls on deaf ears.
Developing fine motor skills requires frequent practice.
The weekly lesson is only long enough for the student to learn how and what to practice at home. Athletes and musicians are much alike in this regard – mastering the basic skills is impossible without lots and lots of repetition. The word is TRAINING. Success depends upon the ability to banish thoughts like, “all this repetition is boring,” and replacing them with, “I played that piece so much better than I did yesterday!” Again, a well-organized daily practice routine is the road every accomplished musician has followed. Without regular practice, muscle/neuron development (therefore advancement of performance skills) is typically much too slow, resulting in loss of interest. And if a classmate is practicing effectively, a comparison of their developing skills can be dramatic.
Reading musical staff notation is an essential learning tool. (Parents of guitar/drums/bass students, especially – take note)
Traditional musical staff notation is no less useful to musicians than reading words is, to everyone. Learning the skill to proficiency usually requires considerable time and effort, but every other learning process goes so much more quickly after this hurdle is overcome, and doors open that would otherwise remain closed. Yes, there are many fine musicians who are “illiterate,” but it IS reasonable to assume that virtually all of them are especially gifted individuals. FAR more numerous are those would-be musicians whose ambitions stalled, simply because their ability to memorize everything was inadequate. Think of it this way: Musicians who cannot read must walk, but those who can read are able to drive, to get to the destination. “Guitar culture” wants you to believe reading is unnecessary, though few would make this claim, where other instruments are concerned. It makes no sense - don’t believe it! Musicians who read well enjoy huge advantages over those who refuse to learn how, and – it can’t be denied – they get more respect from their peers and teachers.
If you happen to live in a culture, a community, where everyone learns music without reading, fine. Then the student has a model for progressing with this method, and no double standards (see above) to make them feel isolated. Keep in mind that successfully learning to play ‘by ear’ alone normally requires frequent interaction with other musicians, and most likely, much longer and more frequent learning sessions with teachers, mentors and/or others learning the same way.
The truly exceptional student will learn, under ANY circumstances
Occasionally, VERY occasionally, I get a new beginning student with exceptional abilities. His/her fine motor skills are already as precise as much more advanced students, instructions are understood and followed effortlessly, and they accomplish many basic skills in a few weeks’ time. Such students sometimes attempt to learn to play with little or no help from a teacher, and it’s not uncommon for them to accomplish quite a lot by that method. However, there are always plenty of reasons to believe that having formal lessons, *in addition* to the self-teaching activity, would produce far better results.
I’m amazed and delighted to see such talent, but I pause to think about how his/her classmates will view their own progress in music lessons, when the little genius’ prowess is displayed. I teach many classmates, in my international school practice, so I feel it’s part of my job to promote the notion that students with average abilities are excellent candidates for the goal of becoming accomplished musicians. From a mature adult’s point of view, it’s of course – how could it be otherwise? But kids usually don’t possess that degree of perspective, and so are easily discouraged, when comparing their own work with another’s dazzling talent.
Finally, how about those children who don’t quite qualify for the “average” category? It’s common to discover that a certain student’s fine motor skills are much less developed than those of other beginners – and this goes for students of all ages (other types of talent, or levels of intelligence, seem to have little correlation to level of dexterity). The hands just move more slowly, and less precisely. Here’s my feeling about the matter (after 5+ years teaching dozens of students): As long the student finds the challenges involved in learning the instrument engaging, and hopefully enjoyable as well, it doesn’t really matter if their accomplishments are very modest, and slower than others. For some, the ability to perform with steady rhythm may take years to develop, or even never come at all, but by no means should the effort be seen as a waste of time. Research into brain development in musicians makes it clear there are significant other-than-musical benefits to musical training – particularly if printed/written music is used – for example, in the area of right/left brain coordination.
Well, I’ve covered the most prominent issues – the ones I deal with daily. How to conclude? Here it is: Patience – a goal-oriented process – is among the music student’s most valuable assets. He/she should always be encouraged to take the lifelong view. Those who have experienced a lifetime of playing an instrument must certainly have set some goals along the way, and goals are best envisioned by examples set by others. So take your child to see a live performance this weekend!