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Nurturing musical talent in children

The following was written by Donna Richardson about her experiences as a parent with 3 children who are involved in traditional music.   Thanks to her for allowing us to share here.

When I told my kids to “pick an instrument,” I never thought our lives would eventually become consumed by music. I was thinking a weekly lesson and a 30 minute daily practice. The thought of numerous lessons every week, traveling hours for those lessons, hours and hours of practice, performances, evenings at pubs, etc.never crossed my mind.

I am not an expert in nurturing musical talent in every child or even in my own. I am not even a musician.

So why read this?

There have been a few things I have learned and thought about over the years which you might find helpful. Each of my kids has a different level of interest and involvement in music so each has required a different amount of parental involvement and nurturing.

Why nurture musical talent?

There are many reasons for a child to learn music. Studies all over the internet link music study in young children, particularly games that involve sequential skills, rhythm, and pitch development, to improved math skills. Children who are highly involved in an activity like sports or music have something to be proud of and also something to lose which may lead to better behavior and grades in school. Learning to play a musical instrument is a skill a child can have for the rest of their lives for their own enjoyment and stress relief.

For the gifted child, academic subjects come easily. Many seem to know material before it is covered or even if they don’t already know it, they learn it in seconds. Learning to play an instrument takes hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Even when memorizing or reading music comes easily or they have an amazing ear, learning the actual technique necessary to master an instrument takes practice. Motor learning requires repetition. With a gifted child, for whom everything else comes easily, learning to play an instrument is an excellent way to teach them how to work hard and practice something for mastery.

Learning to play violin helped “cure” my daughter of her seemingly inborn perfectionism (yes, probably hereditary). Giving her time to fool around with her instrument, to experiment with new sounds and songs, gave her the freedom to see that sometimes “mistakes” can sound good or lead to new ideas. Seeing her favorite Irish musicians occasionally make errors in front of a crowd, let her know that everyone makes mistakes.

How do I nurture musical talent?

The specific answer to this is as individual as the child. My daughter’s violin teacher once told me we’d have to forge our own path as kids like her don’t come with guide books but I think that is true for everyone. Some things I have learned along our path have been…

Make music a part of your lives. This may seem a bit obvious but it is very important. Listen to many different styles of music, sing together in the car, and dance around the kitchen. Take your child to concerts. We’ve found so many free and inexpensive concerts featuring many music styles in our little area of the country. It always amazes me that more people don’t take advantage of them. Check around…local music teachers’ recitals, coffee shop open mic nights, Irish pubs, and churches are places to start. Kids will eventually learn to behave during performances with guidance but if you have to leave early, that’s okay especially if the show was free. Show your child you love music and it is important.

Introduce kids to a variety of instruments

Toy instruments are everywhere. Sometimes you can find an instrument petting zoo or visit a local music shops to try out different instruments. There are some great books like “The Story of the Orchestra” by Robert Levine that come with a CD of orchestral music and short clips of the different instruments playing solo. Talk about different instruments when listening to music with your child and see which sounds he likes best to determine which instrument your child might be interested in learning to play.

Let the child’s interest guide you on when to begin lessons. Many people want to know when they should start their child in music lessons. This is very individual and depends on attention, maturity, and fine motor development in the child plus available family resources.

If you have followed all of the above suggestions, your child may have developed a love of music and have their own ideas on which type of instrument she’d like to play. If your child asks to start learning to play an instrument, it’s not too young to begin lessons. Teachers using the Suzuki method start children as young as 2 or 3. With the Suzuki method, children are taught through play with the parent acting as a practice partner and making it fun. Other pedagogies start children at different ages.

Some instruments are more difficult for a very young child to learn because they aren’t available in fractional sizes (like a trumpet or uilleann pipes) so you may want to begin music instruction on a different instrument (like piano, tin whistle, or violin) until the child is big enough to play the instrument they prefer.

Find the best teacher for your child

I started to put…find the best teacher you can afford but that’s not always true. The best teacher for your child may not be the most expensive teacher in your area due to personality differences or teaching style.

Ask around to find a good teacher…music stores, music teachers at school, musicians, and other parents with children already studying an instrument will all make good resources.

Who do musicians in your area take their children to for music instruction? Attend a prospective teacher’s studio recital and listen to how his/her students play from her earliest beginners to the most advanced students. Learning to play an instrument correctly the first time around is much easier than fixing poor technique…especially for a child who has practiced that poor technique really, really well. Ask me how I know.

Have a trial lesson with your child and the prospective teacher. See how they interact together. Does the way the teacher correct and praise work well with your child’s personality.

If you later find the teacher isn’t working for your child for whatever reason, discuss the difficulties with the teacher. It may be a matter of the teacher knowing what the problem is and trying to fix it…if not, then don’t be afraid to find a new teacher.

Daily practice

Again, here let the child’s interest guide you as to length of practice and how a practice session progresses but daily practice is important. In the beginning, it is important to establish a routine. If practice begins daily, it has a better chance of becoming a habit and non-negotiable like brushing your teeth. Sure, some days they might practice just a minutes because of time constraints, illness, or disinterest but it still shows the child the importance of practice.

Make practice fun and engaging especially when the child is young….charts, games, challenges, prizes. An abacus with the challenge of doing 100 repetitions of a certain passage in a week was one of my daughter’s favorite things. Other favorites included practicing in different rooms of the house, in front of a mirror, or outside in the yard or making her own flashcards with each piece she had to work on and another set with each technique issue she needed to address then letting me guess which technique she had chosen to work on as she practiced the piece. Edmund Sprunger’s book “Helping Parents Practice: Tips for Making It Easier” is filled with great ideas if you don’t think you are creative enough to make it fun.

Practice to make it easier. This phrase has been my favorite throughout my daughter’s violin “career.” I am sure we all have heard “Practice makes perfect.” or “Perfect practice makes perfect.” I think perfectionism can be a problem for some children. They know how they want to sound but it takes time for them to achieve their goal. In the beginning, whenever my daughter found she could not do something on the first try, she balked. She’d talk to her teacher about anything that popped in her head or lay down on the carpet in the lesson room (it was a cozy carpet). Taking the pressure off of her with the above saying, then breaking the task into smaller, more easily accomplished tasks and letting her know it was okay if she couldn’t perform it perfectly because we were working to make it easier, eventually taught her she could learn to do anything she wanted to through practice whether it was learning to do a cartwheel, a math problem, or play a challenging violin piece.

Praise the work, not the child or their talent

A child has no control over what she was born with. My daughter has a good ear. She learns and memorizes quickly. Praising her for those things does nothing but feed into perfectionism. What happens when another child comes along who learns more quickly or plays better? Instead, I praise her for things like completing 100 repetitions of a skill or for putting in 4 hours of practice on a given day. Those are things she does have control over and can change. When she performs, I praise specific aspects of the performance…her intonation in a spot I know she worked hard on, her phrasing, her vibrato, etc… My daughter works best if I do not discuss a performance with her the day of. I do not go over anything she is working on by telling her to remember this or that. All her work is done during practice in the days leading up to a performance so one the day of the performance, I simply give her a hug, tell her she’ll do great, and let her go. When she comes off the stage, she gets another hug and specific praise on those specific things she did well. If she forgot to do something or made an error, I don’t bring it up. The performance is over. Why dwell on anything negative?

If your child likes to perform, find them opportunities. Whether it is in front of a line-up of stuffed animals or in front of a crowd of people, kids who enjoy performing need those opportunities. From the very earliest time, even when all she knew was how to hold her violin in rest position and bow, my daughter was involved in small performances. Nursing homes, group classes, relatives, favorite stuffed animals, or Lego men…are all wonderful first audiences. Working on something for a performance encourages a different mindset than simply learning the piece. More focus goes into the details if a piece is going to be performed.

Pushing versus nurturing

Progress in music is as individual as each child. Please be careful to avoid comparison with other children even within your own family.

The Suzuki method worked wonderfully for my daughter and our family but I tend to dislike the prescribed order of pieces in the method. It seems one of the first questions we were asked when meeting new Suzuki friends was “what piece are you on?” It seemed sometimes it was to see what the kids had in common but sometimes it was to establish a “pecking order.” Telling someone what piece your child is working on really tells them nothing about how your child plays that piece which is the important thing with learning to play an instrument. Enjoy each piece your child is working on. Enjoy the process and show your child moving ahead from piece to piece is not as important as learning to play well.

There are days when practice is not what my child would chose to do but usually I only have to tell her it is up to her whether or not she practices. I think she wants to know she does have a choice in the matter. We often discuss her long term goals and whether she is happy about the way things are going with her music…what she likes and doesn’t like about it. I think pushing or nudging a child to get over a hump and keep working toward their long term goal is sometimes necessary and not a bad thing. When kids are young, they may not know how to reach their goals or they may not have the drive every single day to work hard.

To me, the difference between nurturing and pushing comes down to whose goals are driving the process. Is one working to meet the child’s goals or their own parental goals for their child by living vicariously or projecting their desire for praise or their idea of success onto their child? Sometimes the line between each is difficult to establish and requires a bit of soul searching.

If your child develops a passion for music, nurture that passion in whatever ways work for your family. We (and some of our good friends) do some things others might consider crazy to nurture our child’s musical passion…miles of driving, travel all over the country and outside the country, downsizing our home, giving up our own interests and family vacations, not to mention the costs involved. Some families might decide what we do isn’t for them. I make my decisions by asking myself…if my daughter decided to quit tomorrow, would I feel we had wasted our time/money on this or were there other benefits besides music.