To Parents of Young String Players and Other Fledgling Musicians:
So your child has decided to learn to play a musical instrument! For you as a parent, your life as well as that of your child is about to be changed forever – and for the better.
Recent studies in brain imaging demonstrate that children and young people who play a musical instrument when they are young end up happier in life; they possess sharper concentration, come to have a greater sense of self-achievement and self-worth, gain better mathematical abilities and listening skills, and as adults turn out to be more disciplined and successful in life. And, they come to possess a skill that creates in them an appreciation for music of all types and genres that stays with them through adulthood.
But as a parent of a fledging hobby (or maybe even an aspiring professional musician), there are challenges ahead for you and your child. This article by Debbie Vogt who lives in Wayland, Massachusetts (and which appears below with her permission) is cogent and succinct in giving you an idea of what lies ahead as your child begins playing an instrument. Though written specifically from the perspective of a parent of a string student, many of the comments apply just as much to a parent whose child has selected another musical instrument.
“The Notes that Followed Middle C”
While at a local coffee shop recently a young mother rushed over to me to excitedly share that her 8-year-old was going to start playing violin in the new school year. As this mom knew, my 21-year-old daughter started playing violin at the same age and is now in her senior year in college as a violin and music education student. This mom’s excitement over her child choosing to play an instrument was not lost on me and in the brief moments of our conversation, the joys and challenges of guiding my child through her first musical experience rushed back to me.
All too soon the curtain fell when the mom said, “But as soon as she doesn’t like practicing
anymore, I’ll let her quit.” This is a common refrain from parents of new musicians and it’s one that I’ve heard on numerous occasions as I’ve guided my own three children through their musical experiences. As my daughter continued to play violin throughout her elementary, middle and high school years, I came to learn that other parents thought she played well because she liked practicing. This could not be further from the truth. She played well because she practiced, not because she liked to practice.
Our town’s elementary school offers third graders the opportunity to choose a string instrument to play throughout the school year. My now college senior came home the first week of third grade with a glow about her as she told us at dinner about the violin she’d seen at school, how beautiful it sounded when it was played by the teacher and that she wants nothing in the world more than to be a great violinist. Hearing her talk about being a musician lit up her face in a way we had never before seen, and her enthusiasm quickly became ours.
Up to that point, ours was not a musical household. The only thing my husband and I played with any regularity was the radio. Regardless, we had an 8-year-old who could think of nothing in that moment other than playing the violin and I wanted to help her to be the musician that she wanted to be. Thinking that getting my child from where she was to where she wanted to be musically took no more effort than making a checklist, we rented a violin (check), bought the required book (check), acquired a music stand (check) and unwittingly set off on a life-changing journey for us all.
Not surprisingly, my lack of a musical background meant that my ability to help my child was going to be my musical challenge. Somewhere in life, however, I had learned to identify middle C on a treble clef. This is the same clef, it turns out, that violin music utilizes. From a single note, I began my journey as a music parent. Thirteen years later our family’s musical journey presses on as I continue to exercise the lessons I learned when my life went beyond middle C.
Lesson 1: Playing music is HARD! The previously foreign shapes and symbols on an endlessly striped page mean that your left hand should be doing one thing while your right is doing something completely different and the resulting sound should be something less than painful for your audience. Practicing also means that you don’t just play that measure once, you play it again and again as muscle memory plays an important role in learning to play music. When frustration sets in, remind your child that what they are learning is difficult but that they are up to the challenge.
Lesson 2: Flattery will get you everywhere. My daughter always practiced in the living room while I prepared dinner for our family. When I heard her finish something the likes of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, I’d rush out of the adjoining kitchen and say something like, “Did you just learn that? You just learned that and played it so beautifully?! I can’t get over you!” Cue beaming child. I’d head back to the kitchen knowing that I just bought myself another 5 minutes of practice. Lather, rinse, repeat. Daily. Help your child to appreciate their successes regardless of size and they will start to see them, too. Learning to play music is a marathon, not a sprint.
Lesson 3: Learn their practicing currency. Discovering their practicing currency gives you a tool to use when there’s an objection at practice time. It’s possible that a child’s favorite thing about playing is performing. Watch your child before, during and after a concert. What makes him or her smile? Does your child enjoy the excitement just before taking the stage, or is it the bow and the applause at the end? Possibly it’s wearing the snappy black bow tie or the silky white blouse that is part of the standard performance attire, or maybe the thrill of performing for special loved ones in the audience. For my daughter, it was finding her family in the audience and then listening to us all the way home telling her how great the orchestra looked and sounded. So, when she was objecting to a practice I’d say something like,“ Remember when Grammy and Poppy came to hear you play last month? The orchestra sounded so great and we had such a terrific view of you up on stage.” I’d be bringing her back to this moment as I was nonchalantly setting up the music stand and taking out her music for practice. Without realizing it, she’d smile and start practicing having been just been reminded of why she plays in the first place.
Lesson 4: Practicing is a management skill. For a new musician, organizing a practice, even for 15 or 20 minutes can be overwhelming. Young musicians may know what to practice but not how to put it together in a way that helps them to be efficient in their task. Likening a daily music practice to my daily dinner preparation routine, I made ten music practice “recipes” on 3×5 index cards for my daughter. Each recipe card laid out what made up that day’s practice, effectively taking the planning out of practicing, and making the practice itself more productive. Each card totaled to 25 minutes, which was my daughter’s practice length at that time.
One card would read: 10 minutes scales, 5 minutes school music, and 10 minutes private lesson music. Another would list 10 minutes etudes, 10 minutes scales, and 5 minutes musician’s choice (anything the musician chooses – easy, hard, improvised) as that day’s practice. One card in the deck cut the practice down by 10 minutes. She’d choose a different card each day from the face down deck and when each card was used up, we’d shuffle them and start again. An inexpensive digital timer with a magnet stuck to the music stand and enabled her to start and stop the timer according to the directions on the recipe card. After a long day at school or a busy Saturday, the practice recipe cards ensured a solid practice without the mental stress of planning it.
Lesson 5: Persistence pays off. We had been forewarned by my daughter’s instructor that middle school was the hardest time to keep kids playing instruments as music now competed with school sports, clubs, and social lives. This was absolutely true. With an extra measure of determination, we kept up with her practicing, her private lessons and the recipe cards and middle school turned into high school. There is no easy answer here. Persistence is key.
Top 10 music tips for parents whose kids want to play but don’t like to practice:
- Always remember that “I don’t want to practice” is not the same as “I don’t want to play.” They really, really are not the same thing at all.
- Learning how to play music is hard, quitting is easy. Help them to see that they can do hard things and that they get to enjoy the reward of improvement, one note at a time.
- Set them up for success: Have music stand, pencil, timer, metronome, instrument accouterments (chin rest, rock stop, valve oil, etc.) at the ready for every practice. Be a sport every now and then and set up the stand, take out the music and pop open the case so all they need to do is to insert themselves into the picture.
- Be a supportive audience. If you can’t be in the room, be within earshot. You can’t compliment them if you can’t hear them. They want you to be listening.
- Praise their effort. Highlight what they do well, such as “Wow, I see that you are working on your hand position and I can hear the difference in your sound,” or, “I noticed that when you take a breath before you play, like your instructor suggested, your first note sounds much more confident.”
- Make music recipe cards. Use them for every practice. Update them, as needed.
- Allow them to be frustrated and help them to work through it. Tears may flow during especially frustrating times. That’s okay. Support them to work through it. Never offer or, [GASP] threaten, quitting as an option.
- Observe how they act before, during and after a performance. These moments may offer clues to how they feel about being a musician. When practicing is especially hard or frustrating, take them back to a musical moment they enjoyed and felt a sense of accomplishment.
- If the budget allows, get them some musical support – a professional teacher, a student mentor or a student practice partner.
- Don’t let their frustration become your frustration. Be the steady beat they need to do what they set out to do.
Deborah Vogt, Wayland, Massachusetts (2018)