In the last two posts, I have pointed out some weaknesses in the way music is usually taught in our culture. Today I want to give you some thoughts on how to overcome those weaknesses.
First of all, I am not recommending that you ditch private lessons and classical music entirely. The study of classical music will help your children learn to read music better and it will help their technique. Those are not the only things that they need to learn but they are important things.
That being said, in spite of the numerous people that are telling me I am wrong, replicating classical music is not going to make your child a functional musician. There are deficiencies in that approach; two important things your child will not learn are how to improvise and how to play by ear.
Improvisation simply refers to the ability to create music in real time. Normally, it occurs within a defined framework. In other words, the musician is given some information about what to do but is not told every note to play. Congregational accompaniment is a great example; a pianist playing from a hymnal has to read the four vocal parts, analyze them in real time, and create an accompaniment that works with those parts.
So here is my advice about introducing your children to these skills.
1) Start early
Improvisation is not rocket science. If your children are smart enough to read music, they are smart enough to start improvising. Here is an example: almost all children will learn to pick out a melody by ear even before they start piano lessons. That is a start down the right road and should be encouraged.
Not only would I encourage them to do that but would actually give them assignments in that area. Later on, you can help them learn to start adding harmony to those melody lines and eventually, they will be playing well by ear.
2) Get a teacher with the right attitude
I overheard a conversation recently where a student was telling someone that when she told her teacher that she wanted to learn church music, the teacher refused because “classical music was the only music worth learning.”
You will find that many teachers scoff at improvisation and playing by ear. They think that classical music is the only music worthy of teaching. They don’t know any better so don’t get mad at them and don’t try to convince them of your point of view. Save yourself some time and grief and just find another teacher.
3) Focus on theory and especially applied theory
Most piano students occasionally work through theory books with their teacher. That is OK but not sufficient. Theory only becomes useful when it is applied to music. Once you use it to understand how music works, it is enormously powerful. Ideally, a child uses theory to understand music. For example, when they play “Moonlight Sonata,” they should be thinking that the first chord is C#m.
Again, this is not normal thinking but your child is capable of it from an early age. Theory is the key that unlocks the doors of music. It makes reading music easier and it makes composing and improvisation easier.
4) Get them playing in church but skip the pressure
Encourage your children to play as much as possible. Sign them up for offertories. If applicable, get them into the church orchestra as soon as they start playing. No one is going to hear them anyway. They need to learn the skills of performance (which are quite different from the skills of music).
Don’t make it a big deal. Don’t treat those performances like recitals and especially, don’t treat them like competitions. Church music is not perfect; if the adults are not perfect, don’t expect your children to be.
Encourage your child to play their own arrangements and music sometimes rather than the ultra-polished arrangements that you might buy in the store. They won’t be as impressive but they will get your children used to improvisation performance.
5) Encourage your children to listen
Listening to music is underrated. Part of a good music education involves listening to great music. I can look back at my childhood and see that a key component of my musical development was listening to a set of records of a concert pianist and trying to copy his style on the piano.
Find your children some good music to listen to, especially in their area of training. Make listening a requirement just like practice.
The goal is that when your children get to college, they are already well on their way to being a functional musician. It is absolutely possible for that to happen. It just takes a bit of focus.