Music Lessonby Susan Spier
/ September 3, 2003
Despite numerous writings about the demise of
classical music, (and with apologies to Mark Twain), I believe that 'reports of
its death are greatly exaggerated'. While school music budgets have
unfortunately been cut or substantially diminished, interest in studying music
has not waned. Parents still encourage their progeny to play instruments; adults
are active in amateur chamber groups and community orchestras; and there are
hundreds of music schools, summer camps, private teachers and group programs
catering to students of all ages and abilities. Classic Music is alive and
Reasons for studying music, both intellectual and
emotional, are overwhelmingly positive: it enhances the quality of life, fosters
personal development, and improves self-esteem. Research by psychologists has
demonstrated that music, even at an elementary level, stimulates the brain.
The Coalition for Music Education in Canada,
http://www.coalitionformusiced.ca/, a non-profit organization
dedicated to raising awareness about music and advocating its importance in the
school curriculum, offers documentation on recent studies. The quotes below are
from a study done by The Montreal Neurological Institute and McGill
" . . . even the sound of a child's voice singing a
simple song activated brain activity, linking different cranial areas.
Therefore, music does not have to be technically advanced or complex in order to
have an effect on the brain."
Personal motivation depends on your age and
perspective, the best being an innate desire to make music. Children may ask for
lessons because their interest or curiosity is piqued by a live or recorded
concert, or through a friend. Elementary school students love to bring their
instruments to school and share newly acquired musical skills with classmates.
Parents play a vital role by encouraging musical exposure at home. Some want
their children (often also active in sports or second languages) to experience
different options to see where a deeper interest lies; others appreciate music
as an important educational component and constructive creative
" . . . music not only produces feelings of
pleasure, but also effectively utilizes brain resources. Simply put, music acts
as a special 'fuel' that fires up millions of brain nerves that would otherwise
remain dormant and undeveloped."
Adults and seniors are excellent candidates for
music lessons that offer a break from daily activities, provide a rewarding
social activity, or are the fulfillment of a dream. "It makes me forget all my
troubles," said one of my adult students.
The McGill study confirms: " . . . during moments
of musical euphoria, blood traveled through the brain to areas where sex,
chocolate and champagne can produce feelings of contentment and joy – and
traveled away from brain cell areas associated with depression and
Another motivator for lessons is the availability
of an instrument. If the violin inherited from Uncle Arthur rekindles fond
memories, that may be enough impetus to give it a try. Karen Quinton, Head of
the Piano Department at the Royal Conservatory of Music Community School in
Toronto, as well as a substitute teacher in Newfoundland, discovered that only
two children in her regular third grade class were taking music lessons. When
asked if they wanted to try the piano, the entire class enthusiastically
responded, all eagerly awaiting their turns.
Peer pressure can also be a motivator. Introduced
to ensemble playing through schools, students may wish to improve their
abilities with private lessons or participate in outside examinations or music
festivals. The satisfaction and accomplishment gained from even such modest
achievements as performing in a recital can increase self-confidence and nurture
higher aspirations. One caveat here: exceptional talent will be evident to an
experienced teacher, but discovery of another "little Mozart" is as rare as that
antique violin turning out to be a genuine Strad.
Maybe this is your year to pursue lessons. Music
encourages use of your brain, provides you with a sense of accomplishment, and
more important – it's fun!
A few guidelines
Once you have decided on lessons, it is important
to follow a plan. It can take months to develop rapport with your teacher, and
honestly evaluate your interest, commitment and ability. If you just want to
"try it out," register near the end of a session, or take occasional lessons
over the summer.
The best age to start individual lessons is between
five and twelve. To benefit most, a child should have a grasp of basic concepts
(e.g. high/low), be able to count (and preferably read) and have a sense of
responsibility. Therefore very young children are better suited to group classes
focussing on songs and rhythmic movements. Available for babies, tots and
toddlers, these and specialized instrumental programs such as Suzuki often
require active parent/caregiver participation
(http://www.suzuki-music.com/ is a good starting point if you have
questions about this method).
Children learn at different rates and may be most
receptive at nine or ten, but starting as a teenager is certainly not too late
unless you are planning a professional career. Although practising may be
relegated to the back burner in favour of dating, it can resurface later – and
studying music can be "cool." Adults are most successful if they have played
previously, however little or long ago, and patience is required. Classical
training is the basis for other kinds of music, so if jazz is your bag,
traditional lessons are a good place to start. Other musical options are choirs
or appreciation courses.
Beginners often prefer to start on the piano: it
sounds acceptable immediately and incorporates both treble and bass clefs,
providing an introduction to harmonic fundamentals. Other good choices are
violin, cello, or flute, depending on your age and inclination (do you prefer to
bow or blow?) and most of these are available on monthly rental from music
stores. Other costs are music, a stand, strings, reeds, piano tuning, etc. If
you enjoy languages, why not try vocal training, which is also a wonderful way
to develop your ear?
The most important element in lessons is finding a
teacher. Regardless of prestige, qualifications, or specialization, without
empathy the novelty will soon wear thin, so seek someone with whom you feel
comfortable. Enthusiasm, trust and good communication are vital to the learning
process. You might prefer a school or feel more at ease with a private
instructor. Some even offer an introductory class without charge. The studio
should have space for a parent to observe lessons and be located in your general
neighbourhood if children are to attend lessons unaccompanied.
Prices depend on length and frequency of lessons,
teacher's qualifications, and the market. Ask about policies on payment, missed
or cancelled lessons, refunds, and inclusions: recitals, accompanists, and
ensemble opportunities. Group lessons are less expensive than private ones, but
do inquire about the group size.
When you consider the hours of pleasure you reap
from one session, you will realize that music lessons are a bargain. The joys
and rewards, particularly once you master the rudiments, will last a
Susan Spier lives in Toronto, where
she runs Creative Strings violin studio. She has taught at the Toronto
French School, and is a past Music Director at the University Settlement Music
& Arts School.