Teaching Children About Music

When I was about nine years old, my mom purchased a Steinway upright piano and hired a music teacher to give me and my brothers lessons a couple of times a week. My brothers, twins one year younger than me, bailed out within a couple of months; outspoken, kinesthetic learners, they could not suffer the boredom of music theory, although they enjoyed banging on the piano and coming up with tunes of their own.

I, the amiable-analytical INFP type, felt bad for my mom and wanted to make her happy; so I held on for the long haul, seven years of misery that taught me nothing about music and were only able to produce passable Für Elise and Le Lac de Côme performances.

Over the years, I had three or four piano teachers, but whether I was walking to their house for lessons, or they came to ours, I always had this sinking feeling of being a failure. Music just never clicked for me, and not only did I not learn it, but it contributed to making my whole self, not only my music-playing part, feel inadequate and stupid.

My last piano teacher — a middle-school music teacher whose claim to fame, in my eyes, was recommending excellent stereo components when we upgraded from a cheap turntable to a full-blown stereo in 1984 — kept saying that I would do well in music because I was good at math. Yeah, about that, had he seen my math grades? Then again, even then I suspected he kept coming because he needed the money.

I didn’t even know how bad I was at music theory until, one day, one of my high-school classmates — who ended up working in the music business — heard me play the piano and asked me to write down the major and minor musical scales. I suspect he had a band and was testing me out. Right, you really want to have me playing the keyboard in a band. I sat down at my desk and dutifully wrote down the scales; surprisingly enough, I sketched the major scales correctly, but botched up the minor ones. That request made me realize how little I knew of music theory, even after all those years of lessons.

Interestingly enough, my interest in playing the piano picked up after I stopped the lessons. I wanted to play Italian pop evergreens, the music of Baglioni, Venditti, Cocciante, Tozzi, Battisti. I sat at the piano every afternoon, and taught myself to play those songs. Still no talent, mind you, but I practiced far more than I had ever done before.

And I loved it.

We all have far greater chance at learning something if we are interested in it, if something sparks the motivation to do it, to undergo the mental effort it takes to master a subject. And we have far greater chances to succeed if we do it in our younger years because no other period of our life grants so much free time to practice.

So how do you spark your children’s interest in music? You want to make it as natural as possible; you want it to mimic the way children learn to talk. No parent in their right mind would pull out a grammar book to teach a two-year old to talk. It develops naturally. The grammar is first picked up by example; the formal training starts later. It turns out that you can teach music the same way, with methods like Suzuki, developed by Japanese violinist Shin’ichi Suzuki, and the Orff Schulwerk (schoolwork), developed by the German composer Carl Orff.

People living in Chicago have access to the Suzuki-Orff music school. All others can work with the local chapter of the Suzuki Association.

The goal is to make learning music as natural and enjoyable as possible, to make it interesting and fun for our children so to spark their desire to practice it on their own.

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