Training young musicians – Part 1

I am far from an expert on how to develop children into good musicians.  As a matter of fact, I have changed my mind on this topic a few times.  But here are some thoughts that some of you might find useful.

I started taking piano at the age of eight, and for many years, I practiced for 30 minutes a day pretty much every day.  My parents did not force me to practice more and while music was a priority, it was not our top priority as a family.

Today, things are very different.  Many parents start their children younger and make them work harder.  I know young children taking multiple instruments and practicing an hour a day or more per instrument.  In some cases, if the child has lots of talent, it pays off.  Many child musicians today are far more advanced than they were when I was a child.  But for children of average ability, taking that approach can be frustrating and damaging.

Since most children are average in ability and will never be professionals, I am often skeptical of the motives of a parent that is bound and determined to force their children to practice as much as a professional does.  I judge high school competitions and what I see there tends to make me want to go in a different direction.

In fact, I started my son David on the piano later than his friends and have never pushed him very hard.  I expect him to work hard and be conscientious when he is practicing, but if he wants to stop after 30 minutes, that is fine by me.

My second, Kelsey, likes music more and is a money performer.  By that, I mean that she tends to do better in performance than she does in practice.  As a performer myself, I know how valuable and rare this quality is (largely because I do not possess it myself).  I did not push her at all the first year, but now I tend to push her a bit more.  And when I use her in concerts, I often throw things at her in the spur of the moment.  I want her to handle performance as naturally as swimming. 

I happened to be watching the Annie Moses Band on PBS earlier this week and it reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with Robin Wolaver, the mother of those musicians.  She was talking about Kelsey, what she should be studying and what my time investment should be.  I got tired just listening to her and actually got a little turned off, wondering if the work could be worth it.  

Robin and her husband are fabulously talented musicians and songwriters
but they gave up their careers to focus on their children.  I believe
that Robin worked with them every single day.  Eventually, it paid off
of course, but on the other hand, their children are blessed with enormous natural talent.

Regardless, she made me uncomfortable simply because she was more committed than me.  That is a common problem with humans; we do not like to be reminded that some people take things a bit more seriously than we do.  But she got me thinking, and I changed from a very hands-off approach to somewhere in the middle of the road and could be persuaded to go further.

In the end of the day, I think the most important factor to consider when deciding how much to push your children is their talent.  Don’t buy into the theory that hard work will overcome lack of talent because it will not.  Both talent and hard work are essential.  And don’t be the judge of your child’s talent; get multiple opinions from people who are qualified and objective. 

Even if your child is not overly talented, music lessons are not a bad idea in moderation, and there are benefits.  Robin says that children that are involved in music are smarter. She is probably right, but another advantage is that teaching children to practice conscientiously is teaching them to work.  I grew up on a farm where I worked from an early age and held fairly significant responsibilities before I was 10.  My children do not have that opportunity, so I see music as a pretty good substitute.  Hard practice in any discipline will teach the same thing though, so you might as well pick a discipline that your children excel in.  There is nothing overly special about music.

Another fact to consider is that you do not have to be a slave driver from the beginning.  The reality is that students starting piano in high school catch up very quickly to students that have been playing from the age of four.  Numerous professionals started playing after childhood.  That is why it is so silly for parents to compare the progress of their children against other children.  If your child is in Book 1 while your neighbor’s child is in Book 2, who cares?  The difference between Book 1 and Book 2 is minuscule.  Don’t worry; just focus on teaching your child how to practice conscientiously. 

Let’s say that your child has enough ability that you want to push them on piano.  What should they study and who should they study with?  I will give my opinions on that in my next post.