What’s the point of music lessons if my child won’t practice?

From time to time, parents of beginner (and more often than not, young) music students face a tough challenge: their child’s motivation to learn wanes to a gradual standstill. They no longer want to practice and it becomes a daily struggle just to get them to open up their music book that sits atop the piano collecting dust. Alas, dragging them to their weekly music lessons is as easy as drawing blood from a stone.

As a music teacher, I admit my bias when I say that quitting lessons, no matter the age, instrument or level of the student, is probably the last thing you’d want to encourage. Like anything worth achieving in life, it is important to keep children, or even teenagers, in music through the good times and the bad.

But, as some parents say, what if my child is just too young? Surely it would be better to wait until they are older, so they understand the importance of practicing and a good work ethic.  The answer may surprise you – it’s actually better if children start music at an early age.  In fact, the younger the student, the easier it is: “You can put the study of science on hold, but not with piano,” says renowned musician and instructor Ernesto Lejano, who teaches one of Canada’s best known pianists, Angela Cheng. Not to mention the cognitive and developmental benefits that has been attributed to learning music early on in life.

Even still, parents are often anxious to keep their children in music out of fear they may kill their child’s love for the art forever. Not true, says psychologist and author Dr. Susan Bartell of New York.  “Children often give up quickly when success isn’t easy or immediate,” Dr. Bartell explains. And, because music is just like any other academic subject, some students won’t be successful right from the start. Like in math or science class, children should learn to push past the frustration of not being instantaneously good at something – the reward of success will be much more appreciated once they accomplish their goal!

Dr. Bartell continues: “If you allow your child to give in to uncomfortable feelings that make him want to quit, you communicate that hard work and perseverance aren’t important. In fact, by not pushing your child, you deny him the opportunity to learn to cope with frustration, and eventually he will stop trying at anything.”

In other words, to allow a child to quit is to communicate to them that they are not capable of succeeding. Dr. Bartell suggests that if quitting is imminent, parents should continue with the activity until it reaches a “natural conclusion”, such as the end of a school year or term.

So, you’ve decided it may not be time to end lessons just yet. How can you encourage your child to keep going without forcing their interest?

Be patient

Rome certainly wasn’t built in a day, and Mozart didn’t become a virtuoso overnight! It may take some time for kids understand what practicing is and how it will make them a better player,  so don’t be too quick to assume that your child isn’t fit for music if they start losing interest after 4 or 5 weeks. The ebb and flow of enthusiasm will vary week by week; it’s important for parents to stay positive and encouraging even during those times where the student’s progress has stalled or hit a plateau.

Music students, especially young beginners, will need to gradually get into the routine of practicing their instrument. It may take 3 to 6 months for them to get settled into lessons. Don’t overwhelm them by asking for too much practicing – even 5 minutes a day is enough to build a good foundation of musical knowledge.

Be encouraging

Parents need to keep in mind that their positivity will inspire their children to be positive themselves. Be sure to use encouraging words and phrases during your child’s home practices. If you are sitting alongside them, avoid criticizing or giving negative feedback. If you feel your child just isn’t getting one part of a certain piece, scale or riff, explain to them the benefit of trying again and how they will become better after repetition.  Never assume or say they can’t do it.

Create the right environment

Along with creating a positive music education experience, it’s important to help create a supportive environment of inspiring peers and mentors where this student can turn to if they need help. If that environment or support network is not there, one doesn’t have much of a chance of getting through the (potentially tough) first months of learning the fundamentals! Additionally, make sure the physical setting where the student practices at home is warm, inviting and well-lit. Students will be more encouraged to practice at a piano that lives around a main part of the house (like a family room or living room) then one that hides in a dark basement or is tucked away in a spare bedroom.

Talk to your teacher

To get the most of music lessons, communication with the student’s teacher is key. If you find it’s a struggle to get your child to practice, mention it in the next lesson, and ask for advice on how to best motivate them. Chances are the teacher will be more than happy to offer a handful of tools – practice charts, games, prizes, etc. – that will help encourage practice time at home. Letting your teacher know of a student’s struggles at home will allow them to tweak their approach to how they instruct so they can get the most out of each lesson.

Advertisements

Some Kind of (Wonderful) Spark

Documentaries about music education are a rare find – though when you stumble across one, they have a way of tugging on your heartstrings.

Music, unlike other academic subjects (I’m thinking of you, mathematics), has such a universal, emotional appeal. Anyone and everyone can sense a connection to music. You don’t need formal training or years on the road or in the studio to have such deep appreciation for the world’s most beautiful language.

Enter Director and Producer Ben Niles, creator of ‘Some Kind of Spark’, a film documenting the lives of seven inner-city children attending a special music program at Julliard in New York City. (Mr Niles is no stranger to making movies – his latest film, ‘Note By Note (The Making of Steinway L1037)’ won top honors at the Sarasota Film Festival and was screened in over 30 countries in 5 different languages.)

‘Some Kind of Spark’  features the personal stories of these children and their teachers, shot over a two year period, beginning in 2010. It shows the powerful impact music can create, regardless of who you are and where you come from. It follows these kids inside the classroom, in their homes, and on stage.

The film also acts as a chilling reminder about the decline of money invested in music education in US schools over the past quarter century.  (It’s not much different here in Canada, unfortunately) This trend, Niles notes, is not looking good for future generations:

[It’s] compromising our children’s education and jeopardizing our culture. Low-income children-children who also tend to be from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in the performing arts-are missing out on the immense value of music training on a child’s development. Children who study music do better on standardized tests in both math and reading and are more likely to go to college. And music programs are proven to be an effective tool in keeping kids off the streets and preventing teen violence. Through music study they learn many life skills such as problem-solving, self-discipline, creativity, empathy, compassion, and the value of hard work. Not to mention that many students-including the poor, the disadvantaged, and the emotionally disturbed-who might otherwise be unreachable can often be taught through the inspiring power of music. (http://www.somekindofspark.com/)

As an independent film, the film’s producers will not take money from Julliard to help fund post-production costs, citing that it is not meant to be a promotional tool for the world-renowned school. It’s aim is to squarely raise awareness about the powerful influence music can have on our children’s lives.

To raise money for this project, Niles’ team has put in place a few online campaigns to garner support. One is backed by Women Make Movies, which allows any donation to be tax-deductible. There’s also an online campaigned featured on  Kickstarter.com.

So, music friends, if you are in a position to donate, please do! Any amount is appreciated. It’s a project we can all feel good about.

Happy New Year! Why learning music should be your resolution for 2013

This time of year is often a period of reflection and looking upon new horizons; deciding  what didn’t work last year and what to improve, or start, in the next twelve months. Joining a gym, spending more time with loved ones, or pushing yourself up the career ladder are all common resolutions heard around the water cooler. Another popular one? Learning how to play a musical instrument.

Interest in learning music often peaks at this time of year, as people seek to expand their skill set or start something new. No matter what age, learning a new skill can have great benefits, both cognitviely and emotionally. As neuroscientist Nina Kraus discovered recently, learning about music can facilitate getting better at other things, and in ways that can last a long, long time.

A number of her studies conclude that:

Musical experience has a pervasive effect on the nervous system. Our recent articles show that lifelong musical experience enhances neural encoding of speech as well as music, and heightens audiovisual interaction. Our work suggests that musicians have a specialized neural system for processing sight and sound in the brainstem, the neural gateway to the brain. This evolutionarily ancient part of the brain was previously thought to be relatively unmalleable; however, our studies indicate that music, a high-order cognitive process, affects automatic processing that occurs early in the processing stream, and fundamentally shapes subcortical sensory circuitry.

So, go ahead and pick up that instrument that you’ve always wanted to learn — its never too late — and as you can see, the benefits may be more than just becoming a better or happier or more fulfilled person. There is no better time than now to take on something new. 

Happy New Year!

(Source: http://www.soc.northwestern.edu/brainvolts/projects/music/index.php)

Is your child ready for music lessons? 5 signs to look for

As a music teacher, one of the most common questions I am asked is “What age should my child start music lessons?”

Surprisingly enough, kids can actually start formal music training as early as age 3, when their brain circuits start to mature and are ripe for learning music. Studies have shown that learning music as young as this can increase brain development and cognitive power.

No matter, you have to take each child and situation on a case-by-case basis, as all children have different learning styles, interests and goals. Here are a few things to look out for when deciding if your child is old enough to take the plunge into formal music training:

Actions speak louder

Observe and listen to your child attentively. Could they be displaying an interest in music that they don’t yet know or how to verbally express? Are they running around the house dancing, singing or creating rhythms on their own? A full-sized instrument (such as piano) may be too intimidating for them; your child may be comfortable with creating sounds and rhythms using familiar object and toys. This could be an indication that they enjoy music and would appreciate lessons.

Is there interest?

Young children who display a natural fascination for music will soak up lessons faster than those who display no interest at all. Look for signals that your child enjoys listening, dancing and creating music on their own. Do they talk about music? Do they ask questions about sounds, make comments about different tones, pitches and timbres? The more they display an inclination to music, the better suited they will be for classes.

Talk about it

Talk to your child! Discuss with them how music lessons work, what is involved and what they need to put in. Explain the benefit and necessity of consistent practice and how it will make them better over time. A lot of young students love making music and hearing sounds, but they can fail to understand that music lessons, like regular school, require a little bit of effort to make it enjoyable and beneficial in the long run. If your child is okay with putting in the effort to learn, they may be ready to go!

Be supportive

Even if, as a parent, you have no background in music or the arts, it is important to lend support and encouragement to your child if they are keen on taking lessons. Even when a child doubts their own abilities, stay supportive and remain positive; explain that hard work is necessary but the benefits far outweigh the costs. If they do well, praise them! Let them know you are proud. It is important that your child knows they have a network of support so they will want to continue to learn.

It should be fun!

Never, ever, force a child to learn music if they absolutely do not want to. This will only lead to a waste of their time and yours. Keep in mind, if a 4 or 5 year old displays no interest in music, that may not be the case a few years down the road. Starting a child too early is music can have adverse effects and ruin any love they could develop for that particular art if they are given the time to express it on their own, at a later time. First and foremost, learning to play an instrument should primarily be enjoyable. If your child isn’t enjoying it, then perhaps it isn’t time just yet.

It’s not an exact science to determine the proper age for a child to start taking formal music lessons. As a parent, it’s up to you to determine if your child is ready based on what you’ve seen and the inclinations of each child.  If you don’t think your son or daughter is ready for formal music lessons, try joining an early music education program which focuses on fostering a love of music, rhythm, and self-expression. By exploring how different instruments sound, and how music makes them feel, your child may learn to appreciate music more than they realized!

No matter what the scenario, age, or instrument, the most important thing is that your child’s experience with music is fun!