I’m an average pianist. I play for family and church events, but I will never rock Carnegie Hall.
Despite my limited abilities, my older daughters are terrific musicians–one was concert mistress of her college orchestra and plays violin in two bands. The other is graduating with a music degree and already teaches piano and sings professionally. My youngest, 7, is learning the piano.
Other parents who are trying to get their kids into music have asked my husband and me how we did it. How did we get them to stick with it?
I used to answer, “They need to practice,” but realized it’s more complicated than that. Our kids’ success at music has more to do with our family’s attitude–that music’s not a frill, but a major part of life, and as important to learn as math or reading.
My children were immersed in music from the day they were born–I sang to them in the delivery room. Every bedtime had songs. We took them to outdoor concerts when they were babies and indoor concerts as soon as they could sit still. My youngest sits with me in the church choir. We want them to know music belongs to them.
Research has found that learning music helps children in other areas such as language development and using large and small muscles. A University of Toronto at Mississauga study found an IQ increase in 6-year-olds given weekly voice and piano lessons.
“It helps with math, it helps with cognitive recognition, it helps with memory, it helps with reading,” says Penny Snukst, my daughter’s piano teacher who has a master’s in music theory and has taught for nearly 50 years. “It helps them to be able to handle stress.”
So, how do you get kids to play and stick with it? Here are some practical tips:
1. Finding an instrument
If a child doesn’t show a strong inclination toward a particular instrument, start with piano since it gives you melody, harmony and rhythm. It is a building block for other instruments. Piano teachers recommend using an actual piano, not an electric keyboard. Pianos aren’t as expensive as you might think since you can get them free, or cheap, from thrift shops or estate sales.
But if you can’t have a real piano, a keyboard will do. Shut off the gadgets, though, until your child has the basics down. For other instruments, it’s best to rent until your children are sure they love it.
2. Choosing a teacher
Pick a human being, not a computer program. Get recommendations from people at school or friends. If it’s not working out after a few weeks, it’s OK to switch. You need someone you and your child likes.
Individual lessons are better than group lessons, but a group is better than nothing. You may decide to start with a group and find an individual teacher later.
3. Practicing isn’t a choice, it’s what you do
If you don’t practice, you can’t play, no matter how much talent you have. The great Louis Armstrong reportedly said that if he skipped playing for one day, he’d know it, if he skipped two days, critics would know it, and if he skipped three days, everyone would know it. For little kids, 10 minutes is OK to start, and if they’re digging it, that time will stretch longer. Snukst advises not even calling it practice, but just saying “play me a song.”
If resistance is very strong, you may want to try another teacher or another instrument.
4. Be patient
Listening to a kid’s first attempts at a musical instrument can be tough. Especially if it’s drums. Or strings. Or brass. So be supportive. You can’t walk before you run and you can’t play Bach before you’ve slogged through some screechy, scratchy attempts at “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” And following on this point …
5. Don’t worry about being perfect
In the old days, before recorded and broadcasted music became ubiquitous, lots of people played. There were music stores in every neighborhood. Now music has been de-emphasized in schools and people consume music more than they play. You don’t have to be a prodigy to play.
I make fun of my own singing and piano playing, but I’m OK when I practice. And I do, especially when my kids nag me. Because another great way to get your kids to play music is to stick your neck out and play it yourself. Then you can learn, and make music, together.