Saturday, November 21, 2009

Kids and Music Lessons--Free Advice! (Babble)

As a violin teacher and owner of a music store, I get asked all the time about when or if kids should start playing an instrument.  In case Babble readers happen to have those same questions, I thought I’d take a moment to share my thoughts and opinions.

The first question I get from most people is:  “How do I know when to start my kid on an instrument?"

When the kid asks.  Interest is the first indicator of talent.  Some kids see a cello and they just know that’s what they want to do.  It speaks to them.  Depending on how old or responsible the child is determines how deeply you can dive in, but if they show an interest, do something.  Find recordings, see live players, go to a music store and let them touch whatever it is that got them excited.

As a player and a teacher I have to say the most important thing is that it has to be the child’s idea.  That may sound obvious to a lot of people, but having taught children who were forced into violin by a parent, it’s not obvious to enough people.  There are lots of ways to expose your child to music, like by going to concerts and visiting friends who play, and certainly getting him or her involved in some kind of lessons or class if he or she asks for it, but performing is not necessary for appreciation. 

Forcing children into something as difficult as violin will often turn them against it.  I once asked a boy with a lot of talent during a sample lesson with me if he even wanted to play violin.  He was so openly hostile with me at every turn, and he looked me right in the eye and said, “No!”  I asked him what he’d rather do, and he said wistfully what he really wanted to play was guitar.  I took his mom aside and told her there was nothing wrong with guitar.  Guitar is wonderful.  She was really perplexed because he was good at violin and felt it was her duty to make him continue.   I told her it seemed to me that there was no joy in it for him.  If that was true, what was the point?  If guitar made him happy, what was wrong with letting him use his talent there? 

Now, I have also been approached by parents with kids (usually in the twelve to sixteen year old range) where the kids wanted to quit, but had nothing else to replace it with.  I grilled a girl once who wanted to quit piano about what she would do with that time instead.  Basketball?  Pottery?  Chemistry?  Ornithology?  No, she admitted openly she wanted to just lie around and watch TV.  I told her whiling away half-heartedly at piano was better than nothing so she should keep playing until she found her passion. 

But for the most part, try not to project your own musical hopes onto your kids.  I let Aden beg me for a violin for a year before I was sure she really meant it.  Mona plays because she wants to be like her sister and I know once she’s old enough she will jump ship for trumpet.  Which is fine.  I can’t help her with trumpet, but I’ll support her as best I can when we get there.  (Quinn likes being like his sisters, and since I own a violin store he’s got a 1/32 size to play with, but he isn’t ready for lessons.)

Which brings me to the next question:  “How young can they start?”

Depends on the instrument.  Violin and piano primarily involve finger dexterity, so you can start as young as the child is willing.  I have a violin in my store that’s a 1/64 size in case there is ever a one-year old with the maturity to handle it, but violin in particular is only limited to the abilities of the child.  Other instruments that involve using your mouth, such as clarinet or trumpet, you need to wait until closer to age nine generally.  From what I understand from my wind and brass friends, the structure of your jaw, etc., play a role that requires you to be more developed, plus there are no fractional sizes that are an appropriate weight or size.  That’s why you don’t see prodigy trombone players, but you do see teeny tiny violinists or pianists at talent shows and on TV.  As I said, Mona has been eyeing the trumpet since she was really small, but she knows she has to wait.  In the meantime, violin uses the same clef, so at least she’s learning to read the right music and developing her ear.  We visit trumpets periodically, and she’s looking forward to turning eight because that was the magic age I said we could give it a try.

“Do you really need a teacher?”

Yes.  You really do.  I have taught too many people who had to unlearn some horrible habits to feel comfortable telling anyone to just mess around on their own at the start.  Bad habits on violin prevent people from reaching their musical goals and make the whole experience less enjoyable.  Violin is worthwhile, but hard.  There are a million picky things that you won’t catch by yourself without training.  Get a good foundation, then mess around all you want.  It’s less frustrating that way.  If you are lucky enough to have strings offered at school it’s a great way to start, but to really advance it’s good to have private lessons too, and use the school experience as a supplement.

“How do you find a teacher?”

Most music stores, if they don’t offer lessons on the premises, usually have lists or business cards of teachers.  Ask around.  Talk to parents who have kids who play.  And ask for a sample lesson!  You need to find a teacher that your child clicks with.  Don’t be afraid to switch if it isn’t right.  I know some parents who never keep their child with a teacher for more than a year or two just because they want him or her to experience different instructors.  Sometimes talented high school students are even up for giving lessons at a much cheaper rate, and that can be a good deal for everyone.  Once you start looking actively, you’ll likely be surprised at just how many musicians and teachers there are in the average community.

“What about Suzuki Method?”

Here’s where my own personal opinions will probably get me in trouble.  Suzuki supporters tend to be very vocal, but I’ll say what I think anyway.  I’ll start by pointing out that any child with talent and enthusiasm will probably thrive using almost any method, as long as he or she gets exposed to all the skills needed to succeed.  That said, I have issues with strict Suzuki method.  Now, most people when asking about Suzuki are really asking about violin or piano for young children.  They don’t know specifically what Suzuki means, just that small children they’ve heard playing it sound great. 

And they do!  Suzuki materials are wonderful, I use the books myself when I teach because they are affordable and universally recognized by other teachers and students, but in traditional Suzuki method players learn to play by ear before they learn to read music.  The concept is that we learn to speak before we learn to read language, so in music we should rely on our ears first, and our eyes second. 

Maybe in certain circumstances that works, but from my observations, it leads to problems.  You can play many instruments like guitar without reading music and it may never matter, but to play a violin family instrument and not be able to read music easily can be a disaster.  I have met more musicians who took Suzuki method than I care to count who told me they played through high school and then finally had to quit because the stress of not being able to read the music made the whole experience too unpleasant.  And some of these people play beautifully!  But reading was such a low priority early in their education that they never developed a comfort level with it to make orchestra or chamber ensembles possible.  If no one played their part for them first so they could hear it and try to commit it to memory, they didn’t know what to do.  And who has the time to memorize the entire viola part to a Dvorak symphony?  My own practical experience playing weddings and concert halls tells me that reading is essential to having the most opportunities open to you as a string player. 

Does that mean you should avoid signing a child up for Suzuki lessons?  No.  Because Suzuki generally involves work in a group and that can be a lot of fun for kids and if the teacher is dedicated and nice it will probably be great.  But tell the teacher you want to make sure your child will learn to read music.  Even a lot of classes listed as Suzuki are often hybrids and the teachers incorporate reading earlier than is traditional for the method.  Some people call themselves Suzuki teachers because they have the specific training for it and they know people will know that means they teach children, but it doesn’t mean they actually teach that way.  Ask, and go with what seems reasonable to you.

“Should I buy or rent an instrument?”

At my violin store I usually recommend for anyone in a fractional size or just starting out that they rent at first.  It gives you a safe way to try it out for a bit and see if it’s even something you want to continue.  If you plan to use a small instrument for a really long time because you expect to pass it down to other children, then it can make sense to buy one, but otherwise I don’t see the point in getting saddled with small violins that you don’t know what to do with later.  See what kinds of programs your local stores have.  Lots of places have buy back programs or rent-to-own opportunities.  There are also some online companies that rent to anywhere, so if there isn’t a store in your area that rents there are still ways to get started. 

Just as with teachers, though, don’t feel you can’t switch.  Just because you get sucked into one store’s program and have some kind of discount available doesn’t mean when you’re ready to buy that you shouldn’t look elsewhere.  Ask a teacher to tell you if he or she thinks an instrument is good enough; is it easy to tune, is it comfortable?   You can’t tell everything by the price of an instrument, but obviously the more expenisve it is the more likely it is to have fewer quality issues. 

That said, violins under $200 tend to scare me.  Most of the outfits I rent retail for about $450, but there are certainly decent ones out there for less if you look.  Most people looking to buy a full size violin when they move on from renting tend to budget between $1000 to $2000 for their first decent instrument. That’s considered cheap in the violin world, so be forewarned!  (The ones I build myself cost around $4000.)  Also, not that it isn’t possible to find a good instrument on ebay, but I’ve never seen one walk into my store.  People find crazy things that they think were a good deal and then bring them to me to fix up, and most of the time it would have been cheaper to buy something in town that already worked.  Craigslist can be a better way to go sometimes, since it’s local and you can see the instrument and possibly even take it someplace to be looked over before you buy it. Students need something reliable that is in good enough condition that they aren’t fighting it all the time.  I’m amazed how often adult students in particular are willing to assume odd sounds they make when practicing are their fault, when many times it could be the instrument itself.

So those are the most common questions about starting music lessons that I get.  (Not counting the most common one which is “Do you give lessons?” and the answer to that is I’m not taking any new students right now.  That was one of the things I had to give up to be home with my own kids while Ian is away.  I had the most wonderful studio of little viola students in the Progressions program at the Milwaukee Youth Symphony, but my own kids need me more right now, so I resigned at the end of the last school year.  I miss those kids, but the new teacher they got to replace me is excellent, so I know the kids will do well.)  I love music and I love helping other people get involved in music so I’m always happy to field more questions if anyone has any.

Making music has been one of the great joys of my life.  Watching the greatest joys of my life make their own music has been astonishing.  I’m sure I’ll cry at every recital.  (Even if Mona switches to trumpet.)

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