Music Lessons 101by Shira Gilbert
/ September 1, 2012
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As summer wears on, I’m anxious to register my two children in music lessons. At ages five and seven, they are in the ideal window to start structured study, having acquired good reading skills along with the ability to sit still for a decent amount of time.
Music is a priority in our household. I’ve taken the kids to Kindermusik classes and concerts since they were young, classical music plays on weekend mornings, and a Yamaha upright holds court in the living room. How do I continue giving my kids the best opportunities to appreciate music? How can they choose an instrument that takes advantage of their individual talents? My son is very social (maybe guitar?) and on the loud side (trumpet?). An avid chess player, he can be focused and cerebral too. As for my daughter, I have a hunch that she possesses some inherent musical gifts: she tinkers endlessly at the piano, loves to listen to her music collection, and has sung in pitch since she was a baby. Looking for advice, I turned to three friends and professional musicians.
Reuven Rothman is a double bass player who performs with several ensembles, including The Theatre of Early Music and Montreal Baroque Orchestra, and co-directs Allegra Chamber Music’s popular Bach Before Bedtimeseries. He is looking for a piano teacher for his older son, age six, and feels that his three year-old, who likes to “play” Rothman’s guitar and piano, may be ready for ukulele, a handy precursor to guitar. Rothman strongly believes that the child has to be part of the decision process. He ended up starting to learn guitar at age eight after rejecting the “lame recorder lessons” his mother signed him up for without asking.
Sara Laimon is Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs and Associate Professor of Piano at McGill’s Schulich School of Music. I’m completely in awe of her daughters—ages 13 and 9. These two poised girls already form a beautiful-sounding duo. Both started lessons several months before kindergarten, already well trained in music appreciation—not to mention sitting quietly—by having attended their mother’s concerts from an early age. They study violin and cello in the Suzuki method. “Originally, I had a negative bias about Suzuki, thinking that it would be mechanical,” says Laimon, “but I developed an incredible appreciation of the progression of material. [Suzuki] believes that any child can learn musical language the same way they acquire language skills.” I find this a comforting idea. Parents should be forewarned, however, that Suzuki requires an enormous amount of commitment from the whole family. Even if you don’t actually learn the instrument along with the child (a traditional part of the approach) parents must attend every individual and group lesson. No dropping the kids off and running to do errands here!
Another mother to a young string musician is Louise Bessette, a Professor of Piano at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal. Her 12 year-old son is a talented cellist. Even though Laimon and Bessette are pianists, none of their children are studying the piano. Bessette says that, for her, this was deliberate. “It was important that he play a different instrument, to avoid competition or pressure,” she explains. Bessette’s son chose cello on his own at age five at his Université de Montréal École des Jeunes class, which encourages children to try out a number of instruments. Unlike the Suzuki method, this class teaches students to read music from the start, something Bessette feels contributed to her son’s ability to read all three clefs that can appear in cello scores with ease. Now, he plays competitions, often accompanied by his mother at the piano.
What about finding a good teacher? I am keenly aware that making the right match can mean the difference between success or failure. Frankly, I still blame my inept piano skills on my odd, thickly-accented German teacher, who made us do “zircles” with our fingers. When I took voice lessons, however, my singing teacher became an important advisor and confidante throughout my teenage years. “Talk to people, definitely meet with the teacher, ask to sit in on a lesson,” Laimon advises, “Spend time talking with the teacher about his or her philosophy. If they are using Suzuki, find out how open they are to introducing other materials and find out when they introduce reading. It’s so great to be exposed to as many styles as possible.” Bessette also feels that parents shouldn’t be intimidated about trying out a teacher for a lesson or two, and recommends summer camps or programs where it can be “wonderful to work with a different teacher.”
Once the child has settled in with a teacher and a new instrument, how can a parent keep them on the right path? Practicing is always a struggle, according to Laimon: “Unless you’re a little bit pushy, your child won’t develop self motivation because they won’t get to the level where they will experience a sense of accomplishment.” Above all, though, Rothman stresses that “it’s got to be fun.”
Are you a parent with perspectives on music and children? Share your experience with our readers! Email editor[at]scena.org with ideas for this column.
Question of the month
My husband and I both love classical music and listen to it regularly. Our children have been in piano lessons for 5 years but they have not developed any interest in classical music and quite resent practicing. How do we get them interested and see the value of continuing piano lessons?
- Denise Lai
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