Friday, March 4, 2011

The Ellen Effect

It seems to happen like clockwork, but every time a daytime talk show host (like Ellen Degeneres) features a young musical prodigy, the switchboards at the schools where I teach lessons light up like Christmas. I call it the "Ellen Effect" (it has a nice ring), when parents start thinking, Maybe my kid is the next... [insert a child-prodigy musician name here].

Sadly, very few people (myself included) are blessed with these amazing talents from such a young age, and those that are often pay a price for being the "wiz-kid." I am a firm believer that anyone can learn to play an instrument, and my livelyhood depends on young minds eager to play and enjoy music.

When the "Ellen Effect" sets in, parents tend to have wildly unrealistic expectations of what their wee one can accomplish. I've consulted with many a mother who is convinced she has a budding Mozart on her hands. To be honest Mozart is "Mozart" (playing concerts at 4, writing symphonies at 6) because this type of talent comes along very rarely (If ever in W.A. Mozart's case). Most of us are destined to play moderately well. The hope is that you enjoy doing it, otherwise what's the point?

After having to talk countless parents down from these delusions of grandeur, I thought I would write a few guide lines and recommendations for parents hoping to start their kids in private music lessons.

Age Appropriate Instruments:
I can't count the number of times a parent with a 3 or 4 year old asks me to teach their child to play guitar. The proliferation of cheap student guitars is a blessing and a curse. I whole-heartedly support buying a preschooler a guitar if it's within your budget (I'd recommend a ukulele instead), but they won't be ready for structured lessons until 7 or 8. Let 'em play and have fun, make a YouTube video of them rocking out, it'll be cute. Here are my recommendations for age appropriate instruments:

Piano- 4 years old is the youngest I will consider teaching. Half hour lessons are just about all they can take, I've even done 15 minute lessons. I wouldn't recommend bumping up to an hour until they are around 10 years old. You certainly don't want to turn them off by over rehearsing them.

Guitar- I have taught kids as young as 7 on the guitar, but it was a challenge. The guitar is exceptionally difficult in the beginning. The challenges you have to overcome just to press a single string down, combined with the pain and blisters can be very discouraging. It's not the way you want to start a child's musical journey. Buy a student sized guitar, and I say go with the steel strings although every music shop in Miami loves to sell people on classical, nylon string guitars.

Ukulele- This is my consolation for parents who just can't take no for an answer when wanting their 4 or 5 y/o to play guitar. The ukulele is smaller, has fewer strings, and because of the tuning has some very simple chords that make starting off easy. There are a lot of ukuleles out there that are really just toys and can't hold a tune, so be careful and ask at your local music store for help in finding a good instrument.

Brass/Woodwinds- I started playing the saxophone when I was 9. Before then I had taken recorder lessons at summer camp. Recorder brings back such vivid memories of elementary school music classes for so many people. It's a great starter instrument, but has it's unique challenges. I have a handful of 5 year old recorder students, any younger than that and those little fingers have a hard time covering the holes. From recorder it's an easy jump to most woodwinds. There's no really warm-up instrument for brass. I recommend 8 or 9 y/o for most orchestral or band instruments.

Violin- I have heard good things about the Suzuki method starting kids off as early as 3. I can't speak from experience, I don't know the method, and though I played violin and cello in 2nd and 3rd grade, I have long since forgotten how to play. It's smaller than guitar so I can see how younger kids could be successful playing.

Practice Makes Perfect:
As a teacher it always ruffles my feathers when a parent expects marked improvement in play when they don't support their child in practicing at home. The real learning happens when the student is left to perfect what has been shown in class. I have come to expect that my students won't practice, I think the alternative is the exception.

The first road block is often a parent who says, "I can't read music, I can help them practice." I like to counter this by saying, "If you expect your 4 y/o to figure this out, why can't you?" The second road block is the battle that ensues when you ask your child to sit down and practice. I always recommend a less is more approach. Practice for short bursts everyday. You'd be amazed at how much progress a child can make with just 5-10 minutes of daily practice. It is much better than expecting your kid to play for an hour the day before the lesson to placate the teacher. They will likely forget everything from this cram session. It's all about repetition. Set an egg timer and give a big hug when they're done.

Finally, if you don't work with your child, or value their learning they will loose interest. If you send them off to their room to practice, they'll be lost. They need a little "Jiminy Cricket" sitting on their shoulder helping them along. The parent who says, "I can't help them. I can't read music," is fated to have a child who grows up to say the same thing. If it's important that your child play music, now's the time to learn with them. Show them that you care enough to learn it too, or there will be a mutiny before too long.

The Mike Brady Wrap-up: Playing music can bring you a lifetime of joy. Studies show that it improves math scores and increases focus and attentiveness. It's good fine-motor practice for young fingers, but it can be hard to keep up with practice and motivate your child. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself, "What is the goal here?" If you are hoping to breed a child-genius, musical prodigy, you're in for a shock. It takes talent and hard work that 99% of us don't have or won't do. If you want your child to have fun and learn an instrument, find a teacher that is a good match for your child. If they come home saying they don't like the teacher, keep looking. Not everyone is cut out for teaching young kids how to play. I know many, many amazing musicians that make lousy teachers. I often say I spend more time redirecting behavior than actually playing in a 4 y/o lesson, but I expect that. Think about the last time you saw a 4 y/o give their undivided attention to a difficult task for a solid half hour. All in all, every child is different I have been amazed by very young students who take to music like second nature, and I have worked with high schoolers that couldn't put down their iPhone long enough to learn a chord. You get out of music what you put into it.

Kid's Quote of the Day: "Nick, Mr. Nick, what do you do in your real life?" Eryn asked during our afterschool music group. "Ah, this is my real life. What do you mean? What do I do all day while you are at school?" I replied. "Yeah that's what I mean, your real life." ~Eryn (age: 6)

1 comment:

Anne Deysher said...

I am impressed with your wisdom, Nicholas, although I shouldn't be. You are speaking from a lot of experience as well as a great background in early childhood education. I hope parents are listening (other than "tiger moms")