Learning an Instrument

Of my three children, one is learning the piano and one is learning the violin.  As for myself, I learned the piano when I was a child and managed to finish Grade 8.  I was the only one in my family who learned an instrument.  My siblings were not interested.  The reason why I wanted my children to learn an instrument is because I want them to be able to appreciate music and because I think everybody should have an avenue of expression, be it through dance, art, music or writing.  Since I am more familiar with music, I let my children learn music.  I also sent them for art classes and even dance classes, just to see where their inclination lies.  Those didn’t last long.   However, music becomes the default because it is easier for me to coach them.  Since the piano is my instrument, it becomes the default instrument that I let my children learn first.

The difference between learning an instrument now and learning an instrument during my time is that parental involvement is more important now than before.  When I was learning the piano, my parents didn’t have to do anything except to provide the instrument and pay the fees.  The learning is strictly on me and my teacher.  My mother certainly didn’t have to help coach me at home.  She could not even if she wanted to because she herself did not learn to play the piano.  The case is very different these days.  I find myself having to coach my children in their practice.  Sometimes I wonder how mothers who do not have any music background can wing it.  It is almost expected that the mom (or dad) has to be a kind of “assistant teacher” at home.  If there is a problem with the child’s playing, the teacher raises it with the parent and the parent is expected to make sure the child practises correctly at home.

I digressed.  What I wanted to write is actually my opinion for some of the questions I get from friends around me regarding the learning of instruments.

Question : How do I know whether my child is interested in music or not?

My Opinion : There is no litmus test to this.  In my opinion, music appreciation is a very innate thing.  Most babies and toddlers will jump around, dance and move with music.  As long as it is something that they enjoy, they will be interested in it.  I guess the real question that the parents want to ask is actually “How do I know whether my child is interested in learning (a certain instrument)?”  These are two very different questions.  As I said, most kids, in fact, most people enjoy music.  Adults enjoy all kinds of music.  Mostly pop music, I guess.  That’s why things like iPod sell so well.  Even my eldest, who is not learning any instrument, and whom I jokingly call a philistine, enjoys music and will drum along with the beat and rhythm.

As for whether a child is interested in any particular instrument, I think the best way to find out is to let him try it.  Sometimes, this involves a bit of risk-taking.  For instrument such as the violin, the initial outlay is small and you can always get a 2nd hand instrument  quite cheaply to let your child try out.  For the piano, most parents hesitate because the cost is so high.  At some point, one just has to bite the bullet, take a risk and make the decision.

Question : I really don’t want to spend all that money to buy a piano.  I am not sure if it is a short-term interest or not.

My Opinion : I used to work in a music shop and once heard my piano salesman colleague answered this question.  I think his answer makes a lot of sense.  He said that if a child came home and told the parents that he found school boring and didn’t want to go to school anymore, would the parents allow him to quit school?  Likewise, if the child said that learning the piano was boring, should the parents let him quit?

I guess his point was that learning an instrument is a commitment.  And I agree with him totally.  One way to mitigate the cost issue is to buy a second hand instrument, or borrow one until you are very sure.  There are many children who quit learning prematurely and their parents are likely to sell the instruments.  Look out for these resale instruments.  You don’t even have to get a very good one.  What is needed is just a decent instrument in good condition.

Question : I want my child to enjoy music so if it is not fun for him/her to learn anymore, I will not force him/her.

My Opinion : At the risk of sounding rather Tiger Mom-ish, let me get straight to the point – learning an instrument is not “play” and “fun”.  It is not like your other enrichment classes like art or Speech and Drama, or Music and Movement, where things are meant to be fun or “learning through play” and all that.  Of course, there is a place for all that Play and Learn stuff, especially for very young children.  This is where you get all the group classes that teaches basic music appreciation and all that.  But you might as well accept the fact that after that initial 2 or maybe 3 years, things will not be so much “fun” anymore.  Learning an instrument, as I said earlier, is a commitment.  It is a discipline.  It is a lot of work.  The learning itself should be enjoyable.  Music is, after all, a beautiful thing.  The sound an instrument makes should delight your soul.  However, a lot of hard work is involved here and there is no way you can get away with it.

Here is where I totally agree with Tiger Mom (Amy Chua).  A child cannot enjoy something she is not good at.  In order to be good at something, she has to work very hard to perfect her skills.  However, most kids will not, on their own accord, want to work hard at it.  Hence, it is up to the parent to make sure that the child diligently work at practising so that she can become good at the instrument.  Only after she gains a certain level of competency can she truly start to enjoy the instrument.

The initial years of learning an instrument can be very dreary, although I think things are much improved now, with more palatable music scores catering to the taste of little kids.  In order to play nice pieces, one has to have a certain level of skill.  To gain that certain level of skill takes years of drilling and practising, playing boring stuff like finger exercises and scales.  While doing all that, the child still gets to play music but probably the more boring, uninteresting stuff, although as I said, things are much better now.  Even playing nice music takes practice.  It is really no fun to be stumbling through a piece of music.  Even a child knows whether he plays well or not.  After stumbling and stumbling all the time, he will think he is not any good at it and quickly lose interest, when in fact, there is nothing wrong with him except perhaps a lack of discipline and practice.

The role of the parent is to help give that push to make sure the child practises well.  This is where it is like school.  E.g. if the kid comes home with bad maths results, what would a typical Singaporean parent do?  Get more assessment books for the child to practise until he is good at it.  Do we say : let’s quit Maths, it’s too difficult?  Of course not!

So if you are still thinking that you do not want to impose a boring activity on your child, then I think you should not consider letting your child learn an instrument.  All is not lost because for young children, you can still send them for group music appreciation classes.  Just because a person does not learn an instrument does not mean the person cannot appreciate and enjoy music.  For older children, there are other avenues where music can become part of their lives, e.g join a school band (though still need to practise, but probably less so and probably more fun), or learn to strum a guitar.

Question : At what age should my child start learning an instrument?

My Opinion : One can learn an instrument at any age.  I am just starting to learn the violin, along with my little one.  However, the reality is that the later you start, the greater the handicap.  Hence, it is always good to start young.  How young really depends on whether the child is ready, and whether the teacher is willing to take in a very young child.  Most places will accept violin students from 3 years and up, and piano students from 4 years and up.

Question : How often should the child take exams?

My Opinion : Less is more.  Exam is really not that important.  It would be really sad if the objective is just to take exam at every grade, quickly achieve a Grade 8 or Diploma and be done with it.  The child ends up doing mostly 3 exam pieces every year, and knows nothing else apart from exam pieces.  It is a waste of money and time and whatever qualification achieved is really a sham because the kid knows nothing else apart from exams and more exams.

So how many exams should a child take?  I think 3 or 4 would be about right. The time that you free up from not having to prepare for exams can be used to play such a lot of other music and learn about more things at a leisurely pace. Music is so much more than exam.  The child gains from a more well-rounded music education and is truly “qualified” when he get his Grade 8 or Diploma or even higher qualifications.

Question : Violin or Piano? (Or others?)

My Opinion : It is entirely up to you and your child.  As I said, piano is a default with me because I already own a piano.  My #3 learns the violin because I am kind of sick of doing piano with two kids, so it is more for variety’s sake.  There were other considerations involved but those were unique to my family and my children.

Question : Group Class or Individual?

My Opinion : Depends on the child.  Some kids thrive in a group setting.  Others don’t.  My #3 dislikes a group setting.  On the other hand, I think a group setting helped sustained the interest for my #2 for a while, until he felt confident enough to take on individual lessons.  Bear in mind that the progress may be a bit slower for a group class setting.

Question : How Do You Know When To Quit?

My Opinion : This is a question that nobody can answer but yourself.  Just like you don’t go into a marriage thinking about divorce, you don’t start learning an instrument thinking about quitting. That said, there will be children and parents who give up.  I was one of them.  I started my #1 on the piano when he was 5, at a group class.  It was the Yamaha Junior Music Class.  He was more interested in meddling with all the buttons on the electone, generally fooling around than actually learning.  I took him out of the class before we even finished Book 1 because he was getting too disruptive in class and I was getting too fed up with him.  When he was in Primary 1, his brother started the same class and he suddenly asked to learn the piano again.  We sent him for individual lessons after he told us that he was very sure he wanted to learn.  The whole thing lasted but for 9 months before he quit again.  He didn’t like to practise.  As I said, it is a rare child who would be totally motivated to practise.  However, after months of dragging him through practice, and hearing how he played, I concluded that classical piano was not suitable for him and agreed to let him stop.

Please don’t ask me how I know for sure it is right to stop.  It is really a judgement call.  Sometimes, the kid just goes through a phase of not wanting to practise, but after that, will be quite happy to practise again.  This sort of situation does not call for a complete cessation of lessons.  You just have to bear with the grumbling for a while and wait for the phase to pass.  Many children actually do not really start appreciating music and the instruments they are playing until they are around Grade 5 and above.  That’s when they gain certain competency and start playing nice music, you see.  That’s also about when some of them grow up and gain certain maturity to appreciate feelings and expressions.  So you probably need to be mentally prepared to “drag on” at least until this stage and if the “relief” does not come, perhaps, you can consider letting your child quit.

That said, if your child, like mine, clearly does not seem to be very musical (especially in terms of classical music), then there is not much point to let him go on.  For my “philistine” son, as I said, he still appreciates music.  It is just not the sort he gets through classical piano or violin.  I am encouraging him to pick up the guitar when he is old enough to play chords on it and he is actually more interested in that.  Not the classical guitar though.  I think that would be equally out of his league.

What if the child is actually quite musical but just hates to practise?  There are ways to motivate the kid.  Sometimes you need the carrot, sometimes you need the stick.  Sometimes it is about what makes the child tick and sometimes it is just bearing with the tantrums until the phase is over.  You can find out from other moms what they do to motivate their children.  Find ideas.  Be creative.  Sometimes, the solution is just to take a short break and revisit the piece again.  There are just so many ways to explore. The bottom-line is try to keep things positive and less of a fight.  The kid may take twice the amount of time to achieve something but at least he is getting there comfortably at his own pace rather than giving up altogether.

What you really don’t want to do is to allow your child to quit on a whim, and then pick it back up again, then quit again, and then ask to start again, and so on.   I think this just encourages the child to be impulsive.

The rest of the Questions

Such as which teacher is good, which school is good, which programme is good, who or what do I recommend, etc, these I will not answer because they are very subjective and it is best you do your own research and find what you are happy with.



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