Should your child go for music lessons?

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I had a very interesting experience at Mandeville today. Our annual ABRSM violin exams are about a month away, and this is the month where there are all sorts of “technique” or “masterclass” sessions for the students to attend.

Detour: I personally feel that the technique classes are not really necessary (they cost extra and are mandatory for all exam-takers) and what was taught in this group lesson should have been covered by students’ respective teachers in the first place. But oh well, I’ve gotten used to the high cost of going to a music school and it doesn’t mean I’ll put up with it forever.

What was interesting tonight was when some of the kids played the A:3 piece from the Grade 4 syllabus – Foulis’ Allegro ma non troppo: 3rd movt from Sonata No. 5 in A they played it rather lifelessly and a bit out of tune.

Now this was a piece I veered away from, because one look at it with its many trills and other ornaments, playing it during an exam was asking for trouble. The kids played it  with little interest, and the teacher asked them: “Do you like this piece?”.

The kids looked glum and shook their heads, and the teacher tried to console them by saying: “Perhaps your teacher thinks that the piece is good for you. But if you don’t like the piece, it’s very obvious from the way you play it!”

This scenario presents the crux of the problem with music lessons for kids. A lot of parents always wring their hands in despair – Should I send my children to music school? Should they take exams every year? What if I can’t keep up with other parents who have children graduating from Grade 8 piano when they’re only 12?

You can probably guess my position on this – stop trying to keep up with the Joneses.

I’ve been blessed with the unique perspective of being a parent who has to go through all these motions that the kids do, because I signed up for violin lessons as an adult.

Often I sympathize with my classmates (all below 12) because most of the kids don’t want to be in the class, and some of the stuff they have to learn is really not easy, even for adults. I envy the kids who are naturally musical and have perfect pitch, but these are rare occurrences. Most kids really find music class to be a chore, even if they don’t say it out loud.

Here’s some things we parents all need to think about before we put our kids in any music class.

1. Why take music lessons?

If you ask a parent this and ask him/her to think hard about it, they may not be able to come up with an answer they fully understand.

The common answers are probably “So my son can play music!” “So they can pick up a useful skill!” “So they might know if one day they can be a professional musician!”

The answers are all valid, but really, what is the value of a musical education? First and foremost, I believe it is for a person to appreciate music, more than just to play it well. One can always appreciate music by listening to it, but I think there comes a point where you want to be able to engage with the music as well, and that’s when the education begins. For me, it was wanting to engage, and also fueled by my desire to learn a new skill/hobby.

Most kids are forced into music classes without even knowing why, and some end up hating the instruments that they are imposed with. If a child loathes going for classes, then all is lost.

You might say, “But kids hate going to school too! So it’s the same thing when they go for music class. They’ll appreciate it later”.

Now general education is mandatory, and in SG, it’s actually against the law to stop your kids from going to school. Yet to compare music lessons to going to primary school is comparing apples and oranges. Everyone needs to learn their ABCs and Math to survive in the world, but music is not mandatory.

Music, like art, is rooted in appreciation first and foremost. Most people know that they might not be great artists or musicians, but at least they can enjoy great pieces.

Now if you know you can’t be an F1 driver, would you keep telling yourself that you should work towards it? It’s the same with music – many parents believe that their kids can become great, successful people in life if they happened to go for music classes, but appreciation does not necessarily lead to any other tangible result save for a happy spirit.

It’ll be awesome if all schools had music appreciation classes (in ACJS, we did) but you know the SG education system – if it can’t be tested, let’s not bother with it.

2. Why take music exams?

The most remarkable thing about going to a music school is how everything seems to be centred around taking exams. For example, for the past five months, I’ve been playing little apart from my three ABRSM exam pieces and scales/arpeggios.

It’s not a bad thing you know.

I’ve been taking lessons for nearly a decade (with a 3-year break in between to look after Isabel when she was born), and this G4 exam is only my second. I realized that I had to take the exam in order to benchmark my skill level, rather than playing “for leisure” all the time.

Doing the latter meant that I had little discipline to get certain techniques right, or even learn my scales. I wasn’t progressing at the rate that I was satisfied with.

The upcoming practical exam also encouraged me to take up a crash course in music theory, because I didn’t understand what my teacher was referring to when it came to dominant sevens, minor relative scales or clashing chords. The music theory classes are painful (so much homework!), but I truly appreciate them.

Yet so many parents make their children take exams because they think it’s the be all and end all of music education. For goodness sake, wake up your idea lah, if your kids have so many exams at school, why stress them further with annual music exams?

The most important thing is for kids to progress in music at their own pace, and as agreed with their music teacher. Music exams are a form of benchmarking current skill and experience levels, NOT simply a process that everyone has to go through at a fixed time schedule.

You’re not a lesser person if you haven’t gone for Grade XX by age YY you know!

3. What instrument to learn first?

Without hesitation, I’d tell you that kids should learn the piano first. Till today, I only know the violin and I’ve suffered for it – a lot of music theory is best taught using the piano. And I often have trouble reading the bass clef because the violin only needs the treble clef!

Scales are also easier to learn on the piano. If your piano is properly tuned, hitting the right keys always produces the right tones. On a violin, I wouldn’t know better because it’s all about the right finger position. So as a beginner, I could play a scale out of tune and not even know it until someone points it out.

Furthermore, in higher music education, violin students are required to know how to play the piano. At least that’s what my teacher had to go through.

4. Who’s teaching the class?

Parents always fret over this – is the teacher good or lousy?

I think it’s near impossible to tell unless the parent happens to be a musician in the first place. It’s not just about how nice or patient the teacher is – the ability to impart the right set of skills is paramount.

For example, my first violin teacher was really quite inadequate. He was exam-focused, and never ensured that I got my fundamentals of tone and fingering right. Till today, under my current teacher, I’m still fixing a lot of bad playing habits that were not corrected under the previous teacher and were allowed to become entrenched in my overall technique.

Goy often points out that there are many kids who don’t bend their fingers right when playing the piano, and that results in poor tone especially on high-end pianos. Again, it’s due to poor teaching techniques. But how can other parents possibly tell?

This is where I really have no proper advice to dish out. I’m fortunate to have married a wife with a music diploma, and to be also going through the same music education process myself. We can probably tell a lousy music teacher from a mile away.

What should really ring your alarm bells though, is when a teacher is not interested in helping your child improve his fundamentals, but simply doing enough to pass the exam.

Some teachers lack passion, and are in it only for the salary, and this is common across any sort of education. Your challenge as a parent is whether you’re able to detect these sort of teachers early on.

5. Is my child talented? 

Let’s face it, a normal kid with 1000 hours of practice could never best a musical genius with less playing time. Practice makes perfect but everyone has different aptitude and skills.

If your kid tries his best and still doesn’t do well in music, just move on and find out where his talent really lies. I personally believe everyone is talented in at least one thing – it’s just a matter of whether they’re given the opportunity to discover, and then develop it. Forcing them to continue music when their bandwidth or skill limits have been busted is not only unhelpful, it generates genuine resentment in the child.

That said, I really wish I was a musical genius instead of some adult with hands that are not long enough to play with ease Open-mouthed smile.  

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