Music lessons – when and how?

28 Oct

n my entire life I only have one regret: I gave up piano lessons somewhere around 4th or 5th grade. That in and of itself doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but music is huge in my life. HUGE. My music collection easily tops 400 CD’s. I am convinced that I could have been a world-class conductor, or film score composer if my life had moved in that direction. I feel it in my soul. I speak the language. I understand intimately the art and the science. The only thing I can’t do is MAKE the music itself, and there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t feel that loss. Music is an inextricable part of my DNA. It feeds my soul, nourishes my mind – and provides some EXCELLENT opportunities for dorking-out.

I want that for my kids; and if I’m able to infect them with the love of music that I have, I want them to be able to do one better. I want them to have what I don’t have. Whenever they feel the need I want them to be able to sit down at a piano and tell everyone in the room what their souls are saying in a way that I can’t. Lately we have been thinking a lot about when and how to give that gift to my kids. Piano lessons are the obvious first step in a formal relationship with music, and we’re seriously considering whether it’s time to make that happen for my 5-year-old. But more important than the formal relationship with music is the intimate relationship, the emotional relationship. If they don’t love it, there’s little benefit to enforcing regular practice and lessons. The LOVE has to come first, and even if my kids never learn to make the music themselves, if I’m able to pass on to them the love of music that I have, that’s gift enough.

Certainly a measure of musical aptitude can’t be taught, or learned. It’s innate. It was always there for me. I can remember at an incredibly young age vocally harmonizing with the vacuum cleaner as my mom cleaned the house. If that seed is there, there are things you can do to nurture it, to foster it – help it grow. When I look back at my childhood I can piece together the progression of influences that ultimately informed my relationship with music. Of course, times are different now and I’m constantly trying to figure out how to translate my childhood musical experiences into today’s world for my own kids.

It started with a little Fisher Price record player (yep, vinyl) and a few records. There was a Tchaikovsky record that someone would put on at lights-out. The first track was his Piano Concerto 1, in B flat minor, an amazing piece to drift off to sleep to. At the same time I also had a recording of Disney’s “Peter And The Wolf”. I remember listening to the record and flipping through the accompanying picture book. The genius of that work is that it actually gives a child their first “formal” musical education. It connects the dots between music and the emotions it tries to communicate by pointing out how different instruments represent the personalities of the different characters in the story: the lazy clarinet for Ivan the cat, for the bird Sasha a flute “waaay up high,” a bassoon for Grand PaPa, kettle drums for the hunters’ guns, etc. After that came 1981, “E.T. The Extraterrestrial”, and cassette tapes. The Tchaikovsky record got swapped out for the soundtrack, and for at least a year solid I fell asleep to John Williams’ masterpiece. It wasn’t much of a leap from the lessons of “Peter In The Wolf” to realizing how John Williams uses various “themes” to communicate emotion in his scores (as illustrated exquisitely in his colossal magnum opus, the entire Star Wars musical portfolio). So by the age of 8, between Tchaikovsky, John Williams, and Walt Disney I had a better musical understanding than most adults how music could perfectly communicate feeling and thought using different instruments, tempo, pitch and/or variations on a musical theme.

The other thing I had was a damned stubborn streak – the exact same stubborn streak that my daughter has. The epic battles between me and my mother over practicing the piano were as much about someone else MAKING me practice as they were about anything else. I remember the actual moment when I figured out that I was wasting my time if I wasn’t going to practice. As much as I loved making the music, at that age my chief resistance to practicing was because someone was telling me I HAD to practice. I gave myself a choice: practice regularly and concede to my mother that she was right, or give up piano lessons out of stubbornness and concede victory to nobody. I chose the latter, and have regretted it for the rest of my life. I’m anticipating the same pig-headedness from my female clone, 32 years younger.

Regardless, the time is fast approaching when we need to open the door to formal music lessons. The benefits are obvious and it’s going to happen, the only question is when. There are a dozen factors that play into the decision, not the least of which is her age. We’ve asked around, looking into when other parents started their kids on the piano and asking piano teachers when they think kids should start. Parents seem to indicate anywhere between 5 and 7 years. Most piano teachers we’ve asked have said that starting as late as 7 is fine. One music teacher who played very large in the musical development in MY life (who I met in 7th grade), who I have immeasurable respect for, to whom I will owe a debt of gratitude for the rest of my life, says that you should start your kids on formal lessons as soon as they know their ABC’s (3 years old?!?). The real factor, at least as I see it, is the child’s ability to sit down and focus for a solid half-hour, two or three times a week. Some kindergarteners have it, some don’t. My daughter has it, but only when she’s REALLY into what she’s doing (there’s that pig-headed, stubborn streak). Then there’s all her other activities to take into account. Between soccer, dance class, kindergarten, swim lessons, and various social obligations, this girl’s schedule is pretty blocked out. I worry about OVER scheduling her. After all, 5-year-olds need downtime; my daughter more than most.

It’s a very narrow needle to thread. We don’t want to miss the boat and get her started too late. But we don’t want to extinguish the flame before it’s even lit by loading on too much too soon. For the moment we’ve decided to wait. We’re still settling into kindergarten, there’s a trip to Disneyland and Christmas looming in the next few months, and a brand new baby brother coming not too far off after that. Between those things and her regularly scheduled activities, I’ve got to believe that’s about all the stuff a kindergartener can handle on her plate at one time. Perhaps we’ll do it next summer, when she’s 6 and the dust has settled from the new baby.

I’d like to put the question to YOU, readers. What do you think? How soon is too soon? How late is too late? How and when did you get your kids into music? How and when did your parents get YOU into music? Did it work, or did it have the opposite effect? Your comments would be most welcome. I would genuinely appreciate your perspective and a healthy discussion on something that is very, very important to me.

-Dork Dad

2 Responses to “Music lessons – when and how?”

  1. Anonymous October 28, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    I haven’t commented much before because I didn’t want you to feel as if you were being stalked by your mother’s friends. I do enjoy reading your blogs very much.
    That being said, I am a musician (still) as an avocation, playing violin in our local symphony. I love it and am glad every day that my parents made me practice – and didn’t let me quit when I wanted to once or twice.
    When to start lessons is a question that everyone answers differently. Some parents start very young – others let the kids choose (when school music starts? When a piano moves into the house?)
    Sounds to me like YOU need a piano and lessons again. It’s never too late.
    In the meantime, sing songs in the car whenever you go anywhere and play all kinds of music at home. Let the kids choose how they relate to it – be it by dance or singing – or asking to learn that piano WITH you!

    • Mother of Dork October 28, 2011 at 6:23 pm #

      Friend, the parents that exposed Dork Daddy to classical music at a very young age, and piano lessons as a school boy, saw to it that their Dork son had a piano, AGAIN, as an adult when he expressed dismay over those lost years of lessons. Even supplied a special teach it yourself lesson series. Dental school, new Daddiness and a broken hot water heater demolished THAT plan.

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