Sunday, December 19, 2010

Getting Started

Getting Started

I think it is safe to say that for learning any discipline belonging to music, the first necessary thing is a desire to do so. Once you have that desire the next step is finding someone who can help you along the way. But how to choose the right music-teacher? Its not an easy question unless you really know what you want to get out of lessons. So, before going to any free trial lessons or talking to any instructors its best to have the clearest possible image of what your goals are. When you know this, finding the right teacher for yourself (or your child) should be considerably easier.

Below are some general guidelines to consider based on the age of your child (or yourself). Also, keep in mind that this blog is primarily geared towards piano or voice lessons. I am not completely equipped to speak on the issue of bowed strings and for wind/brass instruments age plays a huge factor in getting started and many young and very young students simply don't have the blowing power to produce sound.

If you are the parent of a very young child (ages 3-5)

You will find some teachers who will take 5 year old students, but not many. In short, my opinion is that private lessons shouldn't really be considered for those under 6 years of age. My best recommendation would be to seek out some kind of class setting for youngsters. There are many wonderful group programs such as those taught through Yamaha schools as well as Koldlay and Kindermusic classes. These focus on games and simple music learning in a fun group environment that often includes parent interaction which is often very beneficial for all parties involved. It is not uncommon that by the end of a student's time in one of these programs they tend to move very quickly and overall do quite well in private lessons.

It might also be best to simply expose your child to art music as well as other cultural events. Children are very intuitive and it is amazing what they will pick up by watching a concert pianist or seeing a ballet. If you have the opportunity to allow them to experiment on a musical instrument this would also be a positive first step.

If you are the parent of a young child (ages 6-9)

Usually the goals for young children students of music are fairly straightforward; music is part of a complete education. To this end, it might be a good idea to ask the instructor if they are including the more “academic” concepts such as music history, music theory and repetition into lessons. Also (on the more general side of things), learning a skill such as singing or playing an instrument carries wonderful results in a young person's self esteem, and every parent wants that. This is also an age, however; where parents have to take a very honest look at their children and answer some fundamental questions: 1) how attentive is my child? 2) Is my child able to sit still for a half-hour? 3) Is my child easily frustrated? And, 4) how much help are they going to need from me in order to meet practice goals?

The purpose of these questions is not to discourage anyone, every music-teacher has had students who had very short attention spans, who couldn't sit still, got easily frustrated and could not practice on their own. In many cases students (with the right care and a good learning strategy) are able to overcome what might seem like an initial handicap, and very quickly, the skills they learn spill over into their other studies. It should also be kept in mind that every student has both strengths and challenges to face. The trick is to be very open with the instructor as to the difficulties you are having, that way the two of you can work out a plan for making music studies easier. Also, keep in mind that you really can't be too honest with the instructor, after all; nobody knows your child better than you and the more information her/his teacher has, the better lessons can be planned.

If you are the parent of a preteen (ages 10-12)

According to the World Health Organization; adolescence begins around age 10 (in its earliest stages) and ends somewhere around age 20 (source: From an educational standpoint, hitting the double digits means the beginning stages on the road to maturity.

In my opinion, goals for this age group should really be centered on empowering the student to take ownership of their educational journey and discovering that being self-motivated and self-staring yields very positive results (in addition to all of the other benefits listed in the above sections). For instance; instead of being told a story about the life of a composer, the instructor might recommend the student look up a biography online and have a discussion on the subject (rather than a lecture) the following week. Another consideration is that your child might have dreams of becoming famous and wealthy as a celebrity and she/he may want an educational experience which would prepare her/him for that kind of life. As an instructor, I am never really bothered by this, virtually every young person dreams of being famous, rich, beautiful and adored and this seems to be perfectly healthy behavior. If anything, this is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the amount of hard work it takes to master a task and let them know the road to stardom isn't an easy one.

If you are a teenager or the parent of a teenager (ages 13-18)

Much of what was discussed in the section on preteens pertains to the teenage student as well, except I would say it goes double for the older students. Teenage years can be a tough time for young people in general, but these days where kids are committed to not only music lessons but also sports, academics their social lives and finding time to take a breath, often practice time can take a back seat. Couple that with the fact that our sleep rhythms change in our teen years to favor staying up late and sleeping late and we see there is a potential for disaster when it comes to adding music lessons to the schedule. Students at this age should be (for the most part) wholly responsible for maintaining their lessons, they should be encouraged to keep their own practice logs, record their own playing/singing as well as share with their friends. They use these tools to self-assess and then discuss the findings in their weekly music lessons with their instructor in order to grow as students.

As far as goals go, students at this age are ready for relatively complex topics; advanced concepts in music theory or music history, perhaps composing or songwriting and support for any school ensembles in which they are participating. It is a very exciting time for those who have taken their studies seriously thus far, it is also a great opportunity for those to begin serious study as they are at the maturity level in their development to really understand commitment and individual responsibility.

For beginning teenage students of music: These students might feel left out or that they “missed” their golden age to start music lessons, especially if at the recital much younger students are playing more sophisticated material. For this reason, I would recommend a much more comprehensive approach to studying, one which focuses not only on traditional methods but also incorporates broader concepts such as improvisation and pattern-play which are usually too difficult for younger beginners. This can be a great confidence builder and often leads to development in skill that rivals those who have studied since early childhood.

If you are an adult learner

Adult learners are often seen by instructors as equals, in which case it might be good to come into lessons very honest about what you want to do. What are your long term goals? What are your short term goals? Is there a piece or a style of music you really want to learn? (keeping in mind it might be some time before you are ready to tackle it). In all, treat the relationship with your instructor the same you would treat any other professional relationship, commit to practice, listen to suggestions with an open mind and there is no reason you can't get everything you need from music lessons.

In the final analysis, please keep in mind that this is just a brief and very general list of advice I have given to parents over the years. Please don't hesitate to ask questions in the comment section and I will do my best to respond, especially if your issue has not been addressed.


For young learners

General development

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