Music Lessons for Children – Parent’s View

two young piano students holding musical looking balloons
Time for some fun!

Hello, Ms. Ritter. I read your blog post on the “Differences Between American and Russian Approach of Learning Piano.” It was very thought provoking. I want to share my opinions with you about music lessons for children.

I have always been fascinated with different cultures and ways of doing things. I also think because of the Internet and easy international travel, we are more exposed to different cultures than ever before. It is easier than in previous generations to take ingenuity and the best from different cultures. That allows us to provide our children with greater opportunities and perspectives than when we were limited to the narrowness of just one culture.

My Perspective on the American Method

As a generalization, I see Americans treating music learning as just something for their kids to do. Many people I know and see are happy with what I would call mediocrity. They just want their kids to do an activity or play an instrument, and quality is not a driving force behind that decision with music or other activities. Perhaps it is just for fun or something to do to pass time or put on a college application. I see parents get incensed at the idea that their child should be expected to practice every day, and, like you pointed out, a common thought about this is “they are not trying to be a professional.” I believe this could also have something to do with our current school system. Most of these parents expect their kids to excel at school and study hard; they do not accept mediocrity in academic pursuits. But music? That’s an extracurricular activity, and it is not as important as math, language, science, or good grades. If they put the effort in music, it takes away from effort in school somehow. I have had several parents ask me for music teacher recommendations, and when I explain what is expected by my children’s music teachers, they brush it off as “too serious” and not what they are looking for. (Believe it or not, the too serious part is in response to my saying they are expected to practice every day.) I think they are looking for is a fun teacher who will spend 30 minutes a week with their child, and even if their child doesn’t feel like practicing at all, somehow he will progress and be cute at the recital,
the grandparents will be thrilled, and that is good enough for them. Maybe school already takes so much time and is so much pressure that they can’t imagine applying the same expectations for an after school activity? Perhaps it’s age related as well. My kids are still rather young, so maybe they only consider the pursuit more “serious” in the teen years? I’m not sure as I have not had the experience yet.

My Take on the Russian Method

My impression of the Russian method (from the much more limited experience I’ve had with it than you) is that while the training and results are excellent, it is very serious. Fun doesn’t seem to be in the vocabulary, literally, as you pointed out.  I see the Russian style as very high expectations, nothing but your best effort, but also, very little (if any) praise for a job well done. If it is the best that is expected and you are doing that, it is not worthy of praise because it was expected anyway. I have also experienced it as heavy with admonishment, which applied to an American child can break the spirit. (“Thin skin” – they are not even used to constructive criticisms, so admonishment seems downright barbaric to them.) Perhaps the thought is that if you commend the child, she will get comfortable in the job she is doing and not strive to do better? Or would get some kind of inflated ego? That’s my speculation, I’m really not sure. The training is superb, but the cost can be high, and the thought seems to be excellence at any cost to the child. I have heard the ruler slap thing as well, but I can say yelling at a child is probably just as damaging.

I am not surprised you encountered somebody that wanted to quit altogether. I am in that struggle with my oldest daughter right now, and it brings me to tears. She takes violin lessons with Russian piano teacher. She once loved violin so much, and now I think she might want to smash it to a thousand pieces. I think her teacher is very Russian method, and, while she can play well from a technical standpoint, she has lost most of her love of playing violin. She thinks she is terrible at it even though she makes progress. (She can’t see it and doubts herself.) She is a “pleaser” personality and feels she can do no right by her teacher, so why bother? A little bit of encouragement would only serve to make her work harder – it is her personality. Sadly, there are too few violin teachers, and I can’t seem to find a good mix of excellence and joy for her.

We Say We “Play” Music, not “Work” Music

From a cultural and folk perspective, music is meant to be joyous and expressive, sad or sullen. It runs the gambit of emotions, but, after all, the phrase is to “play” music, not to “work” music. That is the key for me. You can turn anything enjoyable into drudgery. That is not to say hard work isn’t required to do even fun things proficiently, but it’s all in the approach – it’s a fine and delicate balance. I believe there can be excellence without making something joyless.

Ideas on Music Lessons for Children

Encourage a Child’s Natural Creativity

My opinion of the two schools of music playing is that one lacks excellence/high standards and the other lacks creativity. Why must it be one way or the other? From a pedagogy standpoint, this interests me greatly. I have often wondered why whimsy and composition are not encouraged and nurtured in young musical training? Kids are overflowing with creativity, which I feel is driven out of them on the path to adulthood (in almost any culture). Why is composition treated as a separate entity – why wait until university to study composition? Why isn’t it encouraged from a very young age, like note reading and ear training? Isn’t it much more difficult to attack that as an adult, rather than learn it in the fabric of language from early childhood? Composition could serve to make classical music accessible to children: What was he feeling when he wrote this? Why did he write it this way instead of that? Next time you are feeling sad/angry/happy, write a song, and show it to me. What musical elements were used based on those feelings and why? Can you find similarities in classical compositions for these feelings you’ve expressed in your compositions?

Include Music to which Children Can Relate

Why is contemporary and popular music treated as inferior? If you can spark an interest and meet the child where they are at, you can build from there. Even a rigid, traditional repertoire can be learned alongside something more easily accessible to children, which is often the popular music they are surrounded with in their daily lives. This is usually offered to very young children only, when they play Twinkle,  Twinkle or something like that. Why can’t music be related to all phases of childhood, not just the very young? This is just my opinion, of course, but I think classical music is not easy. It’s not easy to relate to without a certain maturity. You can hear this when a 10 year old plays Beethoven. They can make all the right notes and rhythms, they can enjoy the melody, but they don’t understand or relate to the music in most cases, and it shows. Many children can, for instance, relate to the music in the Harry Potter films. They understand it. It speaks to them and is relevant to the present and their lives. It’s much more accessible for a certain aged child.

I found a brilliant reading program that paired the classic novels with contemporary fiction books that children could easily relate to. Both books had similar themes. It was a great way to expand on what’s easy (contemporary fiction) and work in something classic that relates to it. It fosters understanding and appreciation of the classics in a very profound way.

I cannot tell you how many adults I know that took music as children and could not wait until the day they could play a song they enjoyed (popular, contemporary) only to find it was discouraged by their teachers. Many never stuck it out long enough to find their own joy in music as adults. That saddens me greatly. What was it all for?

Perhaps this is my American bias and upbringing, but I see childhood as a very creative, fun, whimsical time where children play “how to be adults” without the same responsibilities. They are free to make mistakes and have a soft landing and grow and learn from those experiences. My grandparents were European immigrants. As a child, I had a typical American upbringing but also some of the European ways because of how my parents were raised. I do see that Americans have praise for everything and an “everybody wins” approach that I don’t agree with. It does not prepare children for the real world. I’m not sure the European way is necessarily better. I do think it can be a bit harsh. Children are expected to be little adults, but children, physically, psychologically and emotionally are not little adults.  If you grow up exclusively in that culture, it’s just how everything is done. But if that culture is applied in an American setting, the results can be disastrous as the European way by contrast is seen as very admonishing. Living the mix, I think there is gold in finding a happy medium between the cultural styles. Further, music, unlike many other pursuits, is unique in that it is a one to one relationship between student and teacher. The teacher has the opportunity to cater lessons to the individual. It doesn’t have to be a “one size fits all” curriculum. That greatly increases the chances of success if the teacher can seize the opportunity. I greatly respect that you do just that.

Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Well

My own philosophy with music and other things is that anything worth doing is worth doing well. My children wanted to play musical instruments and I agreed. I want them to enjoy it and hope they will always have music in their lives and play as adults. At the same time, if they commit to doing something, it’s just that: a commitment. You get out what you put in. It is fun to play music, but nobody said that practicing every day would be fun. If that fun song you really want to play is challenging and requires not only practicing the song, but practicing the scales that song is based on, or hand position, or what have you, that requires effort and work to reach an end goal. Music lessons for children don’t all have to be fun and games to be rewarding, but this is also a lot to do with mindset. It may look fun to twirl around and around as a ballerina, but you don’t start out knowing how to do that and it take a lot of exercises and practice to achieve those goals. If you want to do that, you will work hard, if your parents want you to do that, you might work hard, but not for the right reasons. If I am going to pay and drive and support my children in their efforts to study music, it is an understanding that they do their part which is to practice. I don’t force them to practice, I don’t punish them with practice, I’ve made it the culture of our home that if you want to take lessons, you have to put in the effort at home because that’s where the real learning happens. It’s not as easy as I make it sound, they are not mature adults, they are children and we have had struggles. I can tell when they are just practicing to say they did it and not putting in the effort, we have had many talks about that. I try very hard not to make it a negative experience, I let them see for themselves they reap what they sow. that may take longer than me forcing a mandatory 1 hour practice, but the end results are much longer lasting lessons. The reward is when they see how their practice relates to their progress, then I am not even in the picture, they become self motivated. This is ideal.

Elza Succeeds in Finding Balance between Work and Play

I really love your approach and blend of teaching styles with music. The training is excellent, but it is also gentle and enjoyable.  My youngest daughter, your student, comes home from lessons with a big smile on her face. She is most often happy because you acknowledge that she worked hard at home and she understands that she is making progress and is proud of herself, she also knows what she needs to work harder on and it’s easier for her to see that with the balance of praise for a job well done. She does not often take your criticisms personally and usually doubles her efforts at home to fix something that was tricky for her so it is better the next time around. She has come home in tears only on a couple of occasions. We talked about why she was upset and what came out was enlightening. I asked “are you crying because you tried your very best and gave 100% in practice this past week and your teacher was harsh to you in spite of this? Maybe she just had a bad day/bad mood. Or are you crying because she knows what you are capable of and realized that you didn’t give your best effort in practice and she brought that to your attention?” Both times we had this conversation, she did admit that she wasn’t giving her best effort in practice that week and was sad to disappoint you, but also disappointed in herself. She then felt better and tried harder the next week with good results. That is the best outcome possible. She knows the expectation, you don’t let her get away with anything, but she also knows that you are kind, fair and interested in her success.

I wish I could send you more students, but most people scoff at the idea that I drive to Centreville for piano lessons when there are so many piano teachers in Ashburn (not quality teachers, but it is obviously not their priority). Sure, I wish we lived closer, but it is so worth it that E.  has such an outstanding teacher and I choose quality over convenience.  I’m glad we found you and thanks for being my daughter’s piano teacher, she really is having a lot of FUN and learning so much from you. 🙂

Cheers,
S.S.

2 thoughts on “Music Lessons for Children – Parent’s View”

  1. Russian children are amazing when it comes to Art, whether it is Ballet or Music. They seem to accept the fact that Art is part of their duty, however, I don’t understand how it is enforced on them or how it gets implemented/executed in the Russian culture. I do very well remember long long time ago, when my two boys were small. They took private piano lessons and they were both so good at it. They stopped practicing the piano when they got old enough to say “NO”, and we could not do anything about it then. If I have to guess, the Russian parents don’t have my problem…..possibly, the system is taking care of it for them.

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