Part III: What every parent needs to know about music lessons

Is your child playing the wrong instrument?

In general, access to a music teacher often dictates the instrument your child takes up. There are pockets of Ireland where the classical accordion and Irish harp are primarily played for example because there are musicians who teach these instruments there. In most cases though the piano monopolises the music educational landscape because it seems that there are piano teachers in most communities. Having access to a particular instrument does not mean your child will connect with it however; children can be completely curious and be moved by music, but do not seem to enjoy playing an instrument as much. Your child may be playing the wrong instrument.

Some instruments take longer than others to produce a pleasant sound, while other instruments are physically demanding and might not be suitable for a particular child. Alternatively, your child may not be curious about that instrument. To put it in context, your child might be an enthusiastic sport spectator but when it comes to playing sport, they may connect with one over another. Similar to music lessons, you are likely to engage with the sport that is available in your community only to discover at university say (where there are more opportunities to join sport clubs), that you are far more interested in basketball than GAA, or rock climbing than rugby.

In my situation, the piano was the only option when it came to music lessons and for this reason it was my first instrument (though I played the tin-whistle in primary school and with local trad. musicians). I attended a secondary school where music as a subject was taken seriously and where there were many opportunities. I got to take up the violin, a love affair that continued for a couple of years after I left school. In 2015, my desire to be able to play music frequently for myself was burning very strongly but bringing my piano up to Dublin wasn’t an option due to renting. I played around with the idea of returning to the violin. During this period though the cello kept springing to mind and I was listening to a lot of cello music. I became more and more curious about the instrument. Before committing to buying a cello and to lessons I enrolled for an intensive lesson in Walton’s School of Music. This meant I could have a one-off lesson on the School’s cello; I did and I was hooked. Four years later, I still wonder how I worked in music for so long without having played the cello. Despite having played the piano for many years, really enjoying it, and having gained a great level of proficiency, it was not until starting the cello that I feel I found my instrument; his name is Elgar by the way. On reflection, it could in part be influenced by where I am in my life: learning as an adult with extensive background in music is obviously different to learning as a child with little background. Perhaps I am imposing this positivity on the cello, nevertheless, I have found the instrument that suits me at this point in time.

For younger children, pre-instrumental group music classes introduce various instruments and sounds. The NCH in Dublin runs workshops for babies, children, teenagers, and families. Try a one-off lesson on an instrument in Walton’s School of Music (or in a school in your locality, if this option is available) or sign up for an introductory group class in your local music school for a friendly introduction to an instrument.

If none of these options are available to you then ask yourself:

  • what type of music does your child respond to?
  • is there a lot of guitar, voice, bowed strings, percussion etc?
  • have they spoken about a particular instrument in the past?

It’s not their thing

We all have had that one teacher that we remember, the teacher that inspired us, the teacher who really made you love the subject. It is unlikely though that everyone in the class felt exactly the same way about that one teacher who inspired you.  And it is no different in music lessons. Sometimes the content of the lessons is not the problem, the teacher gets on with everyone, and your child has learned a lot; they just don’t look forward to the lessons or are somewhat indifferent to them. In some cases, it might be that the child and teacher do not click. It might be that the instrument does not excite them. Alternatively, learning an instrument is just not their thing.  If their feeling of disinterest is ongoing, it might be worth exploring other hobbies.

I once taught a student who played a number of sports; he also partook in clubs such as chess and computing. He resisted the demands of lessons and found it difficult to motivate himself between lessons; in truth, I also was running out of ways to motivate him. His parents made an agreement with him: he would see the lessons to the end of the year and them drop the piano. As summer approached, he was talking about music next year. I reminded him of the struggle it had been the previous nine months. I suggested that if he continued music lessons he should not do grades, but to my surprise he still wanted to do grades. I spoke with him and his parents about the situation, explained that music lessons did not seem to be his thing, and to think about whether he was willing to put effort in next year, otherwise I felt the struggle might continue. The student decided that sport was definitely what he really wanted to concentrate on and make time for. He made the right decision because he no longer had this stress in his life, and he did not rule music out for the future. Had the lessons continued, I fear he would be one of many people who reflect negatively on their piano days. Although I believe music requires effort, I don’t believe that effort should be associated with stress or dread.

You have read, parts I, II, and III of this blog where music lessons have been broadly considered: what to expect, steering clear of misconceptions, discovering an instrument that suits you, or if music lessons suit you. In the final part (29 September) I will reflect on success stories and why engaging with music lessons is worth the effort.