Part IV: what every parent needs to know about music lessons

It’s worth the effort

For a number of years, I have had three students with very different levels of ability and different reasons for taking lessons. Let’s call them students A, B, and C.

Student A is shy, late teens, and first took up music as a child by joining an introduction to piano group class, which I was teaching. Student A’s parents wanted to help them get out of their shell. Student A is dedicated and has ability even though they do not necessarily ooze passion for playing music; they do listen to a lot of music and enjoy the experience. This student has embraced theory, sight-reading, aural work, researching background to different eras and styles, listening to different versions of pieces, and applying all this knowledge to any given work they are playing. Unlike many students who choose to stop music lessons after their leaving certificate, in particular when not pursuing it at third-level, student A wants to complete grade 8, on which they are currently working. It’s easy to work with student A because they connect all the pieces of the puzzle and see that puzzle as interesting. Naturally, we can’t cover everything in each lesson, but they maintain work on all areas so that when we are in a position to address scales, or theory for example, we have something concrete to work on. They have developed skills to the extent that they are able to digest a piece of music by themselves and get a good sense of the outline when reading it at sight. This student will be able to draw on their knowledge for their leisure.

Student B was signed up for music lessons, like all their siblings, because music is considered an important part of their development. Student B’s attitude to music seems to be neutral (they neither love it nor hate it), but I would go as far as to say they enjoy the challenge. Student B’s parents take my feedback on board and they expect B to work. Student B does work and incorporates practice into their routine. Over the years they have developed good sight-reading skills, theoretical knowledge that they apply to their pieces, and more recently their aural work is developing very well. It has taken a little time for everything to fall into place but in the past two years their delight at the end of each lesson, when they have risen to a challenge and realise that their work has paid off, is easy to discern. Student B is a pleasure to teach and similar to student A, has acquired skills that enables them to approach a piece of music and think about it by themselves.

Student C is a child, mature for their years, who lives and breathes music. They do not always stay on track when it comes to how to practise (which is normal at a young age), but they do practise and engage with a lot of music outside of piano lessons. Similar to lessons with students A and B, teaching student C is an absolute pleasure as they embrace everything in the lesson. They show enthusiasm and curiosity about what is happening in the piece. They work out songs they like by ear and we work on the harmony to support them.  In the grand scheme of things, student C is in the relatively early stages of music tuition, a stage where it is not unusual for a student to plateau (although this is not limited to the early stages of tuition). Student C has reached a plateau. Recently we had a discussion about getting on to the next level. They know it means putting in work, which will include careful and deliberate practice, and trying a new approach to ensure their practice is effective. They also know that with this will come achievement which feels good, notwithstanding that they will be able to engage even more with music, something that they love so dearly.

Right now, it seems to me that student C will have a future in music or that music will be a huge part of their lives. Student C’s parents recognise their child’s passion for music, and they help their child to make the most of every musical opportunity. Student C and their parents realise that there are many facets to music tuition and each facet feeds into one another, while acknowledging that there are no shortcuts. Until recently, student C rejected the idea of written theory, so we always discussed theory by working out concepts on the piano and analysing what was happening in a piece they were playing. To my surprise, student C announced last week that they quite liked the idea of written theory to support their learning. Despite their enthusiasm, I am easing them into this very slowly by not overloading them with homework even though most of it is consolidating what they already know in practice. At the same time, being able to confirm what you already know in writing brings with it a sense of achievement as well as acknowledging music beyond the sounds we hear. I look forward to seeing how student C grows with music in their lives no matter what route they choose.

What have students A, B, and C got in common?

Students A, B, and C are different ages, have different reasons for taking music, and have different relationships with music. Yet, they have many things in common. They see music as a skill that requires work. They all work between lessons. Even if they cannot work hard all the time they do work consistently throughout the year. Because of this work, they have internalised music, by which I mean they instinctively connect theory, sight-reading, aural work, styles of music for example, rather than seeing them as separate entities. They display a curiosity for music, evident from their questions in lessons, which demonstrates that for them music is not an arbitrary exercise. They have understood that rising to the challenge can be time-consuming and difficult but also very rewarding. I have understood that despite the reason for taking music lessons and despite a student’s ability, a sense of achievement can be experienced by all. The parents of all these students communicate with me and take on board my feedback. In 20 years, my hope for them is that they will have more than just an exam certificate as proof that they once took music lessons.

On reflection

Thank you for reading parts I, II, III, and IV of ‘what every parent needs to know about music lessons’.  To wrap it up, I’d like to clarify my intentions behind writing it.

Before uploading my blog post, I sent a draft to some friends. It generated interesting discussion with those who are not working in the music profession: ‘it feels like you’re calling parents out on things they know they should be doing but don’t have time to follow up’; ‘if I didn’t know you, it could come across that you are suggesting that unless you agree with all of these things or take this approach you shouldn’t offer your child music lessons’; ‘after reading your blog post I might hold off on getting my child lessons’.  Of course, this is not a blog post about making parents feel guilty or discouraging people from having lessons (though in the case of my friend who will hold off on lessons for their child now, they felt it actually helped them to make a decision because they were uncertain about what to do). In response to reminding parents about what is involved in taking music lessons, I asked why spend time and money on an activity if you are not going to engage with it. I explained that even if you do sign your child up for lessons for reasons of better performance in school, for example, this won’t help them perform better in school if they do not work at the activity; you can sign up for gym membership but unless you go to the gym (assuming there is no other exercise in your life) you won’t get fit.

Discussion then led to how my friends took lessons growing up and how they only practised just before their teacher arrived, highlighting that part of their lessons was the last-minute rush to practise. I understand this happens, but I don’t understand how this could ever be categorised as an enjoyable experience (and also, see it from the teacher’s perspective too, it’s frustrating); the thing is, it wasn’t an enjoyable experience for them. Signing a child up for lessons, in particular if you had them, may be an automatic response. From my perspective, signing your child up for lessons to give them the opportunity is brilliant, but it could have a negative effect if they do not want them or if there is no real engagement with the lessons. It would seem to me that the point of lessons is surely to give children a wonderful opportunity, but too often that opportunity turns into resentment for music.

This blog post is about helping to prevent music tuition being associated with negativity or stress. It is about avoiding misconceptions about music tuition ‘ruining’ the fun in music. It is about encouraging people to take responsibility for their learning. It is about raising awareness of what music lessons entail. It is about debunking myths around music education to help you and your child make the most of your time and money, while encouraging music educators to have discussions with parents and students.

So, if your child has taken a formal route in music education, remember not to underestimate your role in helping them settle into lessons, even if you have little or no background in music. To help your child progress in this context, encourage them and engage with the teacher.  In a world where we want immediate results, it is worth remembering that there are no shortcuts in developing a skill, no matter what your goal in music is, or what the skill is. Why not use music lessons, if for nothing else, as an opportunity for your child to learn about commitment, dedication, perseverance, challenges, and reward. These are important lessons in life (as students A, B, and C have hopefully realised). And remember that putting in some effort will enhance the fun.

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