Being a music parent is a balancing act, an exercise in encouraging and guiding a child in practice and performance just enough to improve their skills and grow their love of music, but not so much that it leads to burnout, pressure, or returning an instrument to its case forever.
Music parent and author Amy Nathan interviewed more than 150 music parents, 40 professional musicians, and many parents of professional musicians in an attempt to demystify the best way to raise a musician — second-chair trombone or future pro.
She discovered some truths:
• It is hard to do, and parents — even professional musicians who are also parents — often feel like they’re not doing it right.
• There is no one right way to raise a musician.
A lot of frustration stems from the act of getting a child to practice. And even the best of the best, such as Boston Pops Conductor Keith Lockhart, admits trying to cut corners.
“When I was a kid, my parents had a kitchen timer on the piano. I would always surreptitiously take 5 minutes off it, as if they couldn’t tell time and know that. Maybe they just set it up an extra 35% so I could lose some,” he laughs.
Growing up in a family of non-musicians — both parents worked for IBM — he says his mother and father were “pretty strict” but “they weren’t trying to turn me into the next Carnegie Hall prodigy.”
“I was always coming to music because I loved it, not because somebody was telling me I had to do it, which is an important thing,” he notes.
Yet children need to practice to improve and many are not self-motivated enough to consistently sit themselves down on the piano bench or pull a chair up to a music stand. Nathan notes that a variety of methods — from direct orders to a laissez faire approach — work, it just depends on the individual child.
“Many parents changed their methods over the course of raising their kids,” she reports, citing findings in her recently published, The Music Parents’ Survival Guide. “Some of the strict parents loosened up and some of the laissez faire parents really tightened up. They all produced musically interested, musically skilled youngsters. If you’re attuned to the needs, the personality, and the learning style of your child, a variety of different kinds of approaches can work.”
Despite the fact there’s no one right way of raising a musician, there are a number of guidelines parents and pros recommend to make the experience more fun for a family:
1. Make practice consistent and regularly scheduled. “It’s not so important it is long,” says Lockhart, who has an 11-year-old who plays piano and cello, and a 5- and 3-year-old “just starting to get interested.” “Even 15 minutes, but 15 minutes every day at the same time.”
2. Set practice expectations from the start. “When you start an instrument, you have to sit down and talk to the student and explain how this is like playing a sport,” says Vanessa Mulvey, a music parent, flutist, and faculty member of the Longy School of Music of Bard College and the New England Conservatory of Music. “Anybody that’s good at playing a sport, they don’t just do it once a week, they do it on a regular basis. Learning a musical instrument is like learning any sport, but on a micro level. Explain this is what you expect and this is what it takes to get better.”
3. Find the right time. “Pick a time in the day where there’s a lot of energy, even if it’s before school if you can,” Lockhart says. “A time when they’re fresh and can look forward to it as opposed to another obligation at the end of a long day. Fifteen minutes of really good, concentrated energy for a 6-, 7-, 8-year-old is an immense period of time.”
4. Spread out longer practice times. Longer practice times for older or more experienced students can be split up across a day into smaller chunks to make them more manageable, Mulvey notes. “That can make it fit into kids’ busy lives better and keep their attention,” Nathan adds.
5. Be consistent with lesson attendance. “If you can’t get to a regular lesson every week and cancel, that is very hard for a student,” Mulvey says.
6. Frustration is normal. Practice is rarely anyone’s favorite because, frankly, it’s hard. “The problem is when you’re first learning something, the frustrations outweigh the rewards,” Lockhart says. Mulvey interviewed trumpet great Wynton Marsalis, who shared his observation: “Of course kids don’t want to practice, because when you practice you’re working on things you can’t do.”
Adds Lockhart: “It’s very easy for a child early on in studying any instrument to feel frustration, and turn around in 6 months and say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ As we all know when we get older and wiser, there is nothing worth doing that doesn’t take application. You have to push past those moments of ‘I would rather be doing something else.’”
“Just because kids don’t want to practice doesn’t mean they hate music and want to quit and go on to something else,” Nathan says. “Kids not wanting to practice is absolutely as normal as the sun coming up each morning.”
7. Ensure your child knows how to practice. “If students don’t know how to practice or they’re not sure, just make a note in their music,” Mulvey advises parents. “[Teachers/instructors] can give them different strategies, because there are lots of strategies to learn things, it’s not just repetition over and over and over. Let’s find out: What are the challenges in this little measure? Is it finger changes, the air, or the embouchure? Once we identify that we can fix it, rather than say, ‘OK, I’ll do it again and maybe I’ll do better this time.’ It’s a really good lesson in problem solving.”
8. Give it a year — at least. Mulvey advocates that a child commit to at least a school year before thinking about quitting. Have this discussion and make this requirement clear before lessons begin. Lockhart argues for 12 to 24 months: “Until the point where they start getting some rewards back and say, ‘Wow, I really did that.’”
And it takes a while to get to that level, he notes: “The problem is, when you’re first learning something, the frustrations outweigh the rewards. I think in general we let kids off the hook too easy these days. We don’t teach them the necessity of sticking with something until you get results. If I had a nickel for every adult who comes up to me and goes, ‘Well, you know, I played trumpet for a couple years and then I stopped and, boy, I wish I kept doing that.’ The parents are the only ones who can really make you keep doing that.”
9. Go watch live music. “If they can get out and hear different kinds of music they might hear something that really excites them, see a performer that really connects with them, and that will give them a vision for what they’d like to do,” Mulvey says. “Maybe they’d like to play that piece or style of music, or see the instrument used in a different way. I have students who come every week for lessons but they never get to see it in practice, it’s only in school or in their lessons. It’s so important to get out there and see different instruments and lots of styles of live music.”
There are many opportunities to see free, live concerts across the state, from local music schools to community performances. If your schedule is tight, even attending just half a performance is enough to inspire, she says.
10. Remember, this is supposed to be fun. “Music should be fun for kids,” Nathan reminds. “That’s the basic idea. It’s the parents’ job to figure out how to engineer the situation so that the fun stays in the music even though learning to master your instrument requires a lot of hard work and regular practice. There are ways to keep the fun in it so it’s not a chore.”