And make them think it's their idea.
1. Play more, practice less
Albert Einstein said "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” There is a difference between skill and talent. Musical skills can be obtained by nearly everyone. Deaf, blind, mute, and physically disabled people can develop astounding musical skills. Music is who we are. We are kept alive by a beating drum, therefore we are drawn to learn music like an infant kicking its legs before he can walk. Musical talent is the combination of skill and God-given giftedness. The great news is that skill can trump giftedness to a point, if you work hard enough.
How do get your kid to work hard and practice? You must instill a playful curiosity and passion for music that drives them to experiment, discover, and create their own art. Early learning is rooted in play so if you allow your child to play with music, it will feel like a creative process instead of a chore. So, let them play freely. Let them play badly. Let them make mistakes. Allow them space to develop their own style of music. I promise you won’t need ear plugs for long.
2. Pick up an instrument
Did you play clarinet or trumpet in high school? Dust that thing off, or find a used instrument on craigslist. Have you always wanted to play guitar, but never found the time? Make time now. Watch YouTube videos, buy instructional books, or hire an instructor so that you can learn to read and play music along with your child.
Learning to be musically literate and playing an instrument is difficult; it takes humility to fail over and over again. Show your child that you are not above failure. Model tenacity, perseverance, and artistry and your child will follow in your footsteps. Your child may need to borrow your earplugs, but they will love laughing at your squeaky reeds and blasting horns. Teach them to laugh at their mistakes then learn from them.
3. Play together
Now that you are hopefully playing an instrument, no matter how poorly, try playing with your child. It might be hilariously off, but it will be fun. Play along with your favorite playlists together. If needed, warn your neighbors and arm them with earplugs or invite them over to play along.
Playing music together was once a daily occurrence in the average home. Many families also attended churches where hymnals were read and corporate singing was a weekly tradition. Since the dawn of the phonograph, television, and the internet, the act of playing music together has decreased significantly. We often want our music to be perfectly orchestrated, mixed, sung, played, and delivered directly to our ears at the touch of a button. As a result, music can seem like a commodity to be consumed, not an art to be created. We associate playing music with pressing a triangle.
Thanks to that little triangle we have access to a limitless amount of music. Expose your child to a larger variety of music and listen to something new every day. Don’t make fun of your child’s musical preferences, but introducing them to a musician who was born in the previous century would be a good start. Talk about musicians, not just the music. Do research. Where was the musician born? When did they begin playing music? What sort of obstacles did that musician encounter on his and her journey? Why do you like this musician and how does their music speak to you? Be sure to introduce your children to various genres of music, and tell your child who your favorite jazz musician, classical composer, or Broadway singer is. If you do not have a favorite, find one.
4. Play to master, not to conquer and cast
Just learning the notes is not enough. Avoid the mentality of conquering a piece just to cast it aside. Classical and pop musicians often spend years, even decades, perfecting their pieces. Find a specific song by your child’s favorite artist. Are there multiple recordings of the same song or piece? If so, how does that artist progress in their performance of that song? You may notice that the earlier performances are technically correct, but lack the depth of emotion that exists in the latter performances. This will demonstrate how the artist did not just learn the song, sing the song, and move on.
Your child should be building a repertoire not a graveyard of music books, so allow your scholar to take time to master his and her pieces. If your musician is growing tired and hitting road-blocks on a particular piece, ask your child’s teacher if they may take a break and revisit that piece later. I love reviewing older repertoire with my students as it gives them a chance to see their progress.
5. Practice positively
Never use music as a punishment. Yelling “go practice the violin” at your child when they are in trouble will not instill any sense of joy let alone artistry in their playing. Encourage your child to use a timer to reach their practice goal, but make sure you don’t hover while they practice. Yelling out “Oooops” at every mistake does not a mentor make. Since I am both my son’s teacher and mother, I avoid listening too closely while he practices. When he is having trouble, I ask if he wants help. If you are literate in one instrument, you should be able to help your child at a basic level with reading notation. If you feel you cannot do this, ask your child’s teacher for resources to help you become musically literate, or buy a book here.
You are your child’s biggest advocate, which means you should be an encourager not an adjudicator. Music should be fun. Tell your child how much you enjoy hearing them play and leave the critiquing to your child’s teacher. If you must say something negative, be constructive. Use your child’s teacher’s own words, such as “Miss Lori says to keep your eyes on your music.” It’s better for your child to progress slowly than to quit and lose everything he or she has learned.
6. Play creatively
I have never met a non-creative child; they do not exist. Some children are taught to ignore their creativity as they age and turn into self-labeled non-creatives. If you want your child to love music and therefore practice without complaint, they must learn to create their own music. We rarely give a child a piece of art and ask that child to replicate that art exactly, yet that is often the only way young musicians are taught. It is important for your child to be musically literate but make sure your child is not just a “paint-by-number” musician.
Challenge your musician to write their own endings to their assigned songs. Show your child a beautiful picture and ask them to write a melody that reflects that image. Is your child having a hard day? Ask them to channel that energy into their own song. Teach your child about musical themes. Who isn’t familiar with “The Imperial March” from Star Wars or Lois Lane’s theme from Superman? Encourage your composer to write their own themes for Pikachu, Minecraft, Minions, or even Elsa, she needs a new theme. This creative ownership will fuel your child’s passion for playing music.
7. Play frequently
I started teaching again last February and my son began taking formal lessons with me as well. Jameson was petrified of performing and begged me to never make him do it. We had two keyboards in the studio, but no acoustic piano. Once we purchased our upright piano, we could not get our children away from it. Jameson plays at 5-10 minute increments throughout the day. He sounds out music that he loves, or songs that he is learning from school. He plays new songs and old song; he plays without being asked. Since he plays so frequently, he discovered that his muscle memory takes over and that helps him play without nerves. Jameson played for my studio recital in June and said it was the best part of the summer.
Unfortunately, I did not give Jameson any other performance opportunities during the summer months so when we visited family he was too self-conscious again to play for our extended family. I encouraged him to give mini-recitals at home where he practiced being put on the spot and enjoyed the ensuing applause. Now, he plays for anyone. He plays for his friends, he puts on mini-talent-shows with my four-year-old daughter, he plays for grandma and grandpa via facetime, and he can hardly wait for the next recital in January.
Not every child will want to play music 20 times per day, but the goal is that they play more often. Learning an instrument is all about repetition and muscle-memory which is not only developed by the duration of play but the how often one plays.
8. Remember the why
Why did your child begin studying music? Was this your choice or his and hers? What is your motivation behind these lessons?
The why for me and my children is that art is restorative. To recreate is to re-create. In order for people to be healthy and happy they must find meaning, purpose, and love in life. All three of those goals are developed within art and music. I want my children to be individuals who unleash their creative powers to change the world by changing their world first. Playing music encourages children to be sensitive and empathetic to the world around them. When I remember the why I can let go of the forgotten quarter-rest or un-curved fingers, then I may encourage my children to play with music, not just practice it.
What is your goal for your child as a musician/artist?
What would you add to this list?
What would you take away?
Sometimes, Jameson plays backwards
Other times, bunny plays
They play before leaving the house,
upon returning to the house,
before breakfast, after dinner,
and often fight over who gets to play first.
I love the constant cacophony.