Recent reports suggest that music study does more for your child than simply teaching him or her to play an instrument. Although it hasn't been conclusively proven that music study increases academic achievement, researchers have shown that those who study music do score higher on standardized tests.
As a result, growing numbers of parents would like to seek private music instruction for their children but find themselves stalled. How to find the right teacher? How to enforce practice times? How to get the child to want to pursue music? I've called upon my own experience and that of HGO's Director of Education and Outreach, Gary Gibbs, and our Children's Chorus Director, Karen Reeves, to offer some suggestions.
Piano lessons provide the best foundation for a lifetime of music study‹through playing the piano, children learn to read music and develop an understanding of music theory. Because they will be able to play simple melodies almost immediately, there's a payoff right away. Depending on the child, piano lessons may begin as early as age six or seven.
Choose the teacher carefully. Recommendations from other parents are the best way to assess a teacher's ability to relate to young students, but not a foolproof way. The teacher who was highly recommended by your neighbor may work very well with the neighbor's child, but not so well with yours. If your child is a highly focused achiever, you may need a different kind of teacher than your neighbor with the laidback kid. We recommend that you and your child meet with a prospective teacher first. If all goes well, a trial period will help you decide whether the teacher is right for your child. "Even adult learners do better when they like the teacher," says Gary. Karen adds, "It's even more important in private music lessons, when there's so much one-on-one time."
What if your child begins lessons and quickly loses interest? I think it's best for a child to understand from the outset that you expect him or her to stay with it for a certain time. Explain that as they improve, they will enjoy playing more. My three children took piano lessons knowing that I expected them to stay with it for three years, after which they could quit if they had no interest in further study. If three years seems too long (or short) a time, set a timeframe you're comfortable with. Karen recommends that a child study a minimum of three to four months and perform in a recital or concert before being allowed to give it up. The performance opportunity is key. "Children need some opportunity to showcase what they've learned," she says. "Performing is the payoff‹it's the reason for all the hard work."
There are exceptions to every rule. Parents should be sensitive to what's going on in their children's lives, and sometimes a hiatus from musical study may be in order. Karen allowed each of her children to take a brief break from piano lessons. One had a conflict with a teacher; the other took a break because he'd committed to too many other activities. Both resumed their piano lessons willingly after resolving their respective situations. By the way, that brings up another suggestion: try very hard not to make your child choose between music lessons and other activities to which he or she is strongly attracted. The goal is to raise a well-rounded child with many interests and abilities.
Many parents are concerned about crossing the fine line between encouraging and pushing. "There are stage mothers just as there are Little League dads," says Gary. It's certainly possible to push too hard and end up with a child who resents being forced to study music. "In my experience," he adds, "the ones who end up hating it are the ones for whom music study is outside the context of their lives. They don't see their parents enjoying good music, they don't attend the symphony or the opera. Parents need to demonstrate the importance of music by including it in their family's activities."
Make music part of everyday life. Play good music during dinner instead of watching television, build a CD collection of a wide variety of music, attend age-appropriate musical events. Try to appreciate‹or at least refrain from criticizing‹music your child likes. Sitting in on an occasional lesson with your child will show him it matters to you, and you'll get a clearer idea of how you can support the teacher's efforts.
Raising musical children shouldn't be difficult, unless you're bent on your child becoming the next Lang Lang. True, your child may actually turn out to be a piano prodigy...or maybe not. Regardless, music lessons are an investment that will pay handsomely in lifelong enjoyment and enrichment.
David Gockley is the General Director of Houston Grand Opera.