Friday, June 05, 2009

Serves me right for not being musical.

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.


Thee Earl of Obvious said...

Thank you. Your advice is very much appreciated. I only wish classical music was as easy to ingrain in kids as is Rock music. Seems the 5 year old has no problem pretending to play a rock solo on an air guitar but when I play the classical music; nothing. At least he is not rolling his eyes at the sound.

I think need to play the classical at every opportunity to counter balance the prevalence of rock.

Roger Owen Green said...

Apropos Billy Shakes: I was just watching Dick Cavett talk with Jonathan Miller (link from Evanier's site) and Miller suggested that children NOT read Shakespeare but just be exposed to the performances; the reading can come later. Maybe that applies to music as well?

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

Good Point Roger

I brought the kids to a local greek festival and they were enthralled with the dance performance. But, I am sure if I forced them to listen to the music though they would not have been receptive.

fillyjonk said...

One of my friends, who is a sociologist, says she thinks children wind up listening to what they are exposed to as a child.

I don't have enough data points to say yay or nay to that, but I do know my parents played music a lot - neither one actually played an instrument, but we had a good stereo, and they had records ranging from Beethoven to Strauss to Gilbert and Sullivan to John Denver. I also remember listening to Karl Haas (may he rest in peace) on WCLV with my dad.

And to this day, I love music, and usually have either KING-fm or one of my Pandora "channels" going in my office as I work - which leads to interesting comments from some of my students (many of them seem to think you have to be "smart" to appreciate classical music, apparently).

I had good basic music instruction (I realize that now) in grade school; I actually learned to read music in school and learned a lot of the terminology and information about composers that now serves me well.

I also think making music lessons available but not mandatory might help. I played the clarinet as a child (until a particular sourpuss instructor implied that unless I planned on giving up every other academic interest and actively pursuing a career in music, I was wasting his time) and briefly took piano lessons as a teen.

And now, at 40, I have picked piano lessons back up - and rather than finding practicing the burden I did at 13, I find it a nice respite at the end of the day.