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Playing For Life – How to Keep a Child Engaged in Music Lessons From Early Childhood Through Teens
How many parents have given their children years of music lessons, so that one day the child announces: “I quit!”
It can be heartbreaking for the parent, not least because of the thousands of dollars they may have invested in lessons and instruments.
But inevitably, years later, the former teenager will say, “I should never have given up the violin (or cello or viola)! I wish my parents had made me stick with it!”
Having been a music school director for the past ten years, and a parent of three children (an 8-year-old, a teenager, and an ex-teen), I’ve seen this happen again and again. So I’ve made it one of my main missions to create an environment that keeps kids in music, from toddlerhood through adolescence. Here are some of my most powerful techniques for keeping kids engaged and passionate about their music.
1. Start young – on the piano. I have found that children who start with piano and then enter my violin or other stringed instrument class always do better than children who have had no early piano training. The violin and other stringed instruments are difficult, because of the many aspects that need to be focused at once. It is also physically challenging. Piano is much easier for pre-K children to understand. Once the student already has a basic understanding of music, including reading notes, rhythm and practice, they are freer to focus on the technical challenges of the stringed instrument. I now require children to take my beginner piano class and encourage parents to continue those lessons until they start my violin class.
2. Don’t go alone! How many parents sign their kids up for private music lessons, only to have them refuse to go because they don’t know anyone? However, the same child will participate in almost any activity if at least one friend is present! Beginning group music classes can be a lot of fun for the younger set, and especially ideal for children ages 3½ to 5½, depending on their maturity.
3. Children who play together like to play together! The more opportunities children have to play, the more they will improve. In addition to private lessons, once the child qualifies, we place them in a performing group. At our school, graduates of our beginner violin class will enroll in private lessons and in our training orchestra. More advanced players enter our more advanced children’s orchestra. Older students are encouraged to join regional youth orchestras. Ninety-nine percent of the time, after the initial thrill of playing an instrument wears off, it’s the band playing that kids will be excited about. Children love to be with other children! Participation leads to more practice, especially if the conductor or music director relates well to the children.
In addition to private lessons and orchestra, many participate in our chamber music program. I started the chamber music program with four kindergarten girls who knew each other from the orchestra. After a few months of playing together they called themselves bff (‘best friends forever’) they have been playing together for 3 years now. They have performed for us at our congressman, senior centers, local schools and even at our local farmers market. What I found is that the kids in the quartets were developing faster and playing better, so I decided to form more groups and a chamber music program.
4. Keep them in the spotlight! It’s rare that a child doesn’t thrive on being enveloped in the warm feelings, positive attention, and sense of accomplishment they feel after a performance, (not to mention the camaraderie with their fellow performers). Whether performing in a studio recital, a solo competition; or with their youth orchestra at Carnegie Hall, performances are key to keeping a child interested and improving their playing. The vast majority of children who only take private lessons, and have no performance opportunities, will eventually lose interest and drop out.
5. Stay positive! When in doubt, don’t yell, berate, belittle, or threaten to drop out of class. None of the negative stuff works, and will just lead to more frustration for you and your child. Even when it feels like your child is not meeting your or the teacher’s expectations, stay positive. Your child may just be going through a rough patch.
To get through it, with little ones, offer small rewards for daily or weekly exercise. It could be a sticker or a trip to the toy store. In their teens, you can relax their practice schedule if it seems like too much of a burden. When my teenage son decided he wanted to give up the saxophone, his teacher suggested he practice just five minutes a day. He did this for more than a year, continuing to participate in various orchestras and jazz groups. It worked! He continued to play the saxophone through high school and received a major music scholarship to college. Although he has decided not to make music his career, he continues to earn money with his instrument through teaching and concerts.
6. Summer and school holidays are a great time to get ahead! Instead of taking a break from music lessons, the holidays are actually a great time to get ahead. It’s an opportunity for life-changing musical adventures or simply to accomplish a lot. Enroll your child in a summer music program that offers something different in the way of lessons and orchestra or chamber music. For teenagers, there are many programs away from home, in beautiful settings in the mountains or the countryside. The more your child improves, the more he will enjoy playing and the more he will feel good about himself. It is the child who is left behind who will want to stop practicing or worse, quit.
7. Do not exceed the schedule. Although we want our children to be complete, it is better that their psyche shines in one thing. And if that thing is playing a musical instrument, there will be tremendous benefits. Skill on a musical instrument sets them apart from their peers. They will begin to identify themselves as musicians, which is great for their self-esteem. Proficiency in a musical instrument – especially strings – will help with applications to art schools and programs, and eventually, colleges! Most colleges have orchestras with many seats to fill. It usually needs a lot more violin, viola, cello and bass!
8. Stay committed. Staying committed to your child’s music education can be the hardest part of raising your child, but I can say from first-hand experience, it’s worth it! The experiences your child will have as a musician will shape his life (not to mention his brain) in a way that cannot be duplicated any other way. Music promotes self-esteem, teamwork and good study habits and has shaped the lives of many young people in the most profound ways.
Taking all of these steps will make it much more likely that your child will have a lifelong appreciation for their instrument and for music.
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