Q: My child started the clarinet in fourth grade as part of a school program. Now, a year later, she wants to switch instruments. Should I be firm and have her stick with the clarinet or be flexible and let her explore?
A: This is a common situation with no set rules. I always suggest that parents first try to find out what is motivating the student to switch instruments. Many times children choose their first instrument for the wrong reason. Often it is a social choice rather than a musical one.
Another factor comes into play, too. Once they begin playing the instrument they sometimes realize that they do not enjoy either the physical act of playing the instrument or the role it plays in the band or orchestra. I remember choosing to play the French horn in fourth grade because it had a cool looking case. What was I thinking? I soon realized that I did not enjoy the role of the instrument. In elementary school band the French horn is usually relegated to supportive roles such as playing harmony and accompanying parts. I wanted to play the melody or at least something a little more flashy, exciting and up front. It’s important to realize that instruments have personalities just like our children; matching the two should be a consideration.
I also recommend giving the final decision a little time. Is this something that the child keeps harping about (no pun intended) or does the issue fade away after a few weeks? Sure, we want our children to find something and stick to it but sometimes it is better to make a switch. It is also important to remember that, more often than not, children go through a variety of musical experiences before they find the one that speaks to them the most. Once you’ve identified the root of the request, trust your child’s judgment in this situation and be supportive.
What’s the worst thing that can happen? They make a mistake? It’s not a bad way to learn another important life lesson and it gives parents another "teachable moment," which is so valuable. In the end we want our children to have successful and meaningful musical experiences, so let’s understand that our children have just begun their musical journey. Be supportive and trust the process—if we do a good job of parenting we will be able to help them through these important decisions.
This month’s question reminds me of a wonderful book, The Remarkable Farkle McBride by John Lithgow. It is a story about a boy who goes on a musical excursion through instrument after instrument after instrument until he realizes that his calling is to be a conductor. Check it out at your public library. Lithgow also has a CD, "Farkle & Friends," which includes the story with full orchestral accompaniment along with some zany songs performed by Lithgow. Both are highly recommended.
CELEBRATE THE DIFFERENCE, by Terri Hendrix, Wilory Records, $15, www.terrihendrix.com; ages 7-10.
Terri Hendrix, a singer/songwriter from San Marcos, Texas, has released her first CD for kids and it is outstanding. It features clever, childlike songs coupled with hip, adult-friendly musical arrangements.
Musically, it is all over the map, gliding smoothly between Texas swing and folk rock. It even features a wonderful hybrid of sorts with a funky banjo set to a techno beat in "Get Your Goat On."
Favorites with my students at school include "Celebrate the Difference," which uses the animal kingdom as a great metaphor for looking at people and "First Place," which encourages kids to "Walk like you’re in first place / Talk like you’re in first place / Run like you’ll win first place / on the track of the human race."
You won’t find this recording alongside the Disney soundtracks at your local retail outlets, so go to her Web site, listen to some samples of the songs and buy the CD directly from her. You will feel good about supporting independent music and you will add a great recording to your children’s musical library. And if you are like me, you will be impressed enough with her adult music to buy one of those CDs, too.
Fred Koch lives in Lake Bluff with his wife and son and is an award-winning music educator, children’s musician and producer. His Web site, www.BestChildrensMusic.com, helps parents, teachers and librarians select quality children’s music. The Web site also includes an archive of all Koch’s past reviews published in Chicago Parent. Please e-mail notes, questions and comments to email@example.com.