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Playing For Life – How to Keep a Child Engaged in Music Lessons From Early Childhood Through Teens
How many parents have given their children music lessons for years, only to have the child announce one day, “I’m quit!”
This can be heartbreaking for parents, especially since they may have invested thousands of dollars in lessons and instruments.
But inevitably, years later, the former teenager will say: “I should never have given up on the violin (or cello or viola)! I hope my parents force me to do it!”
As the director of a music school for the past ten years, and the parent of three children (an 8-year-old, a teen, and a pre-teen), I’ve seen this happen time and time again. Therefore, I make it one of my main tasks to create an environment in which music is accessible to children from childhood to adulthood. Here are some of my most effective tips for getting kids engaged and enthusiastic about their music.
1. Start small – on the piano. I’ve found that kids who start at the piano and then move on to my violin or other string instrument classes always do better than kids who don’t have early piano training. Violins and other stringed instruments are difficult because there are so many things to focus on at the same time. It’s also physically challenging. For children in preschool, the piano is easier to master. Once students have a basic understanding of music, including note reading, rhythm, and practice, they are freed to focus more freely on the technical challenges of stringed instruments. I now require children to take my beginner piano lessons and I encourage parents to continue taking these lessons until they start my violin lessons.
2. Don’t go alone! How many parents have signed up their children for private music lessons, only to refuse to go because they don’t know anyone? However, the same child can participate in almost any activity if at least one friend is present! Group introductory music lessons can be fun for younger children, especially for children aged 3.5 to 5.5 years, depending on their maturity.
3. Children who play together love to play together! The more opportunities children have to play, the more progress they will make. In addition to private lessons, once a child is eligible we place him or her in a performance group. At our school, graduates of our junior violin class take part in private lessons and our training orchestra. More advanced players enter our more advanced children’s orchestra. Older students are encouraged to join the district youth orchestra. Ninety-nine percent of the time, once the initial excitement of playing an instrument has passed, children will continue to be excited about playing as a group. Kids love being with other kids! Participation leads to more practice, especially when the conductor or music director is comfortable with the children.
In addition to private lessons and orchestra, many participate in our chamber music program. I started chamber music lessons with four kindergarten girls I met in orchestra. After playing together for a few months, they named themselves bff (“best friend forever”) and they played together for 3 years. They’ve performed for our MPs, senior centers, local schools, and even at our local farmers market. I found that the kids in the quartet developed faster and played better, so I started to form more groups and chamber music projects.
4. Make them the center of attention! There are very few kids who don’t thrive on the warm feelings, positive attention, and sense of accomplishment they feel after a performance (not to mention the camaraderie with fellow performers). Whether performing in a studio recital, a solo competition; or with their youth orchestra at Carnegie Hall, performance is key to keeping kids interested and developing their playing skills. The vast majority of children who only do private teaching and do not have any performance opportunities will eventually lose interest and drop out of school.
5. Stay positive! When in doubt, do not yell, berate, belittle, or threaten to drop the class. Negativity doesn’t work and will only lead to more frustration for you and your child. Even when it feels like your child is not living up to your or the teacher’s expectations, keep a positive attitude. Your child may have just been going through a tough time.
To get through it, with little ones, provide small rewards for daily or weekly practice. It could be a sticker or a trip to the toy store. In their teens, you can relax their practice schedule if it feels like too much of a load. When my teenage son decided to give up the saxophone, his teacher advised him to practice only five minutes a day. He did this for over a year, continuing to play in various orchestras and jazz groups. efficient! He went on to play the saxophone in high school and won a huge music scholarship to college. Although he decided not to pursue music as a career, he continued to earn money on his instrument by teaching and performing.
6. Summer and school holidays are a great time to keep going! Rather than taking a break from music lessons, the holidays are actually a great time to make progress. This is an opportunity for life-changing musical adventures, or just plain accomplishing a lot. Enroll your child in a summer music program that offers different lessons and orchestral or chamber music. For teenagers, there are many programs away from home in beautiful surroundings in the mountains or countryside. The more your child progresses, the more they enjoy playing and the better they will feel about themselves. Kids who fall behind will want to stop practicing or worse quit.
7. Don’t overschedule. While we want our children to be well-rounded, it’s psychologically better for them to excel at one thing. If that one thing is playing an instrument, it will pay off hugely. Instrumental skills set them apart from their peers. They will start to identify themselves as musicians, which will help their self-esteem. Being good at an instrument – especially strings – will help with your application to art schools and programs, and eventually college! Most universities have orchestras with plenty of chairs to fill. Often more violins, violas, cellos and bass players are needed!
8. Keep your promises. Committing to your child’s musical education can be the hardest part of raising a child, but I can say from first-hand experience that it’s worth it! Your child’s experience of becoming a musician will shape their lives (not to mention their brains) in ways that cannot be replicated in any other way. Music promotes self-esteem, teamwork and good study habits, and it shapes the lives of many young people in the most profound ways.
Taking all of these steps will make it more likely that your child will enjoy their instrument and music for a lifetime.
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