A reader recently asked how one goes about cultivating an interest in music in children, apropos of this post of mine from last week in which I noted that The Daughter has this year taken up the string bass. Some thoughts on that:
:: I suppose that making an instrument a simple requirement might work -- "You're taking piano lessons, Johnny, so suck it up and practice your Czerny!" -- but that also runs the risk of backfiring, in the same way that forcing the reading of Shakespeare on eighth graders can permanently stunt their desire to read the Bard (or see his plays).
But music is such a useful thing to learn. It doesn't always seem useful, though, which is part of why music is always one of the first items on the chopping block when school budget cuts happen. In addition to simply enriching one's life if one can appreciate music beyond whatever the "pop crap of the day" happens to be, music can also be a good path to the learning of discipline and work that might not reveal itself in other pursuits. It's a lot easier for a kid to understand why it's important to practice scales over and over again than it is for them to understand why they should have to do 40 examples of the same math problem in a single night. (Or, maybe not. I rarely did all of my math homework.) So how to encourage it?
Well, one general rule can be adapted from the usual advice as to how to raise a good reader: it helps if the parents read themselves. A kid who grows up surrounded by books and who regularly observes her parents reading and taking pleasure in reading is exponentially more likely to enjoy reading herself. Likewise, a kid who grows up surrounded by music will, I suppose, by exponentially more likely to take at least some kind of passive interest in music when the time comes.
This doesn't necessarily imply that the parents have to play an instrument. Just having an environment in the home where lots of music is heard helps, and the more diverse the music, the better. I remember hearing, as a small child, music from classical to Broadway to country, and more. Music was a standard feature in our home, so it was perfectly normal.
Now, I was also predisposed to see music as a respectable activity by virtue of my sister's constant practice of piano and, eventually, the French horn. (I even remember, very vaguely, the place we bought our piano from. I don't recall a whole lot, but it was in Portland and we rode upstairs in an immense cargo elevator.) Even so, I didn't decide that I wanted to play an instrument on my own until my school band teacher, Mr. Beach, summoned me to the band room to inquire as to my interest. I thought, "Hey, why not."
It was fifth grade when Mr. Beach recruited me for band. After one year of French horn, I switched over to cornet/trumpet, and I played that for a further two years before I finally decided that I actually wanted to be good at the damned thing. So after about two-and-a-half years of bring in band, I finally saw the virtue of practice. It takes time. Practice is drudgery, right up until the moment of epiphany when a music student realizes that practice is nothing more than playing for an audience of oneself. But up until that, getting me to practice was like getting a kid to enjoy bathing. My parents had to order me to practice every night.
As for The Daughter, she simply announced last year, either just before the school year or a few days into it, that she wanted to play an instrument. We'd occasionally made the suggestion to her before, with a "maybe someday" answer, but we never forced it. She knew that The Wife and I both played instruments in our youths, and she's been around music all her life, especially in church. I figured she'd show an interest sooner or later, and she did.
So that's my advice: don't try to force music on your kids, but surround them with it. The rest will take care of itself.