I’m a great believer in the importance of having music in one’s life. This month, music educator Michael Barry explains what music can do for kids in “Be-Bop Babies”.
My parents were not at all musical, but they made sure that my sister and I took piano lessons. Because I’d always listened to my older sister play, by the time I was 5 years old, I was picking out tunes on the piano by ear, and by 6, I was taking piano lessons, too. Though I enjoyed playing, I hated practicing, but my mother forced me to do it: I’d have to practice 45 minutes each day before I could go out to play. She would always say, “You’ll thank me some day,” and “Just wait and see how friends will gather around the piano when you play.” I quit taking lessons in tenth grade after years of complaining about practicing, but a year later, I missed the piano, and came back to it of my own accord for a final round of lessons. Today, playing piano gives me great pleasure. My mother was right: I am grateful that she made me practice.
Because of my experience, I wanted to do the same for my sons. I had also read the studies about how early musical training creates more complex hard wiring in children’s brains. So both kids began piano lessons around age 8 and I made sure they practiced every day. I think you have to put a certain amount of time into practicing piano before you can enjoy what you are playing, so I was a task master and nagged them every day to sit down at the piano. My older son became quite proficient before he quit at age 15; today he still sometimes flies through something he learned years ago. My younger son quit at age 13 and has never looked back. Though he has no regrets about quitting piano, he is glad he can read music, as now he’s interested in learning guitar from his dad. But both my kids tell me that my pressuring them to practice made piano a chore and made them want to quit.
My husband, who teaches middle school band and gives private guitar lessons, believes that most kids who want to learn music will practice on their own. But if a child is not practicing, parents should sit down with their child and come to an agreement about practicing. The child should figure out when he has time to practice so that it becomes his responsibility to do what they’ve agreed upon.
Both our boys, however, admit that they wouldn’t have practiced at all or learned to play if I hadn’t forced them. So I have to admit that I’m kind of stumped about the right way to get kids involved in music. You just can’t predict how your kids will react. Sometimes, all the pressure and discipline will pay off, as it did for me, and other times, it will backfire as it did for my sons. Some kids naturally take to music lessons and love practicing, but these are the exceptions, I think.
Considering the benefits, however, it’s worthwhile for parents to try to get their kids involved in music even if they don’t show outright interest. And you do need to make sure they practice, but I’d advise you do it with a lighter touch than I did. As with any garden, you can never be sure what will bloom, but you need to plant the seeds and nurture them. If your kids discover that they love music enough to work at it, they’ll have a precious gift that will last them a lifetime.