Thursday, March 20, 2008


A couple of moms and I have gotten together and asked a local music teacher (who is a genius but really hates being photographed) to teach recorder to a small group of kids. The kids are just starting out, so we're learning things like tonguing and hand position, as well as basic music stuff like beat and rhythm. Today was our second class. It's way too easy for Big One, although he has agreed to participate when we start playing songs. And it's way too hard for Little One, because the other kids are older than he, even though they're also beginners. So it's not a good fit for either of my kids, but it's really, really fun to have a music class for kids in my house.

I've been thinking about where one draws the line when it comes to allowing a child to guide his own learning. Nine times out of ten, I think kids make the right decisions, and I believe that it's really important to build curriculum based on their needs and interests. Not just important; essential.

But music is a place where I'm not so sure. For me, music is like learning math or a language. Reading music is part of being an educated person, and learning to play an instrument is an essential aspect of a child's education. For me. It is akin to what some families feel about sports, I think: that there is so much important stuff to learn in the process that a child's education is lacking without it.

And learning to play an instrument requires practice, which requires discipline. It requires that you work through a difficult patch because you are reaching for a goal that is somewhere beyond the moment you're in. It's often not fun. In fact, when you're really sweating it out through a technical passage, it can be downright frustrating. What child would choose that?

When Big One first started to play the recorder, it happened because his music teacher at school noticed that he was really ready for it, but his class wasn't. So he started private lessons. This was four years ago, and along the way, I've reminded him to practice, over and over. I've also sat with him through figuring out difficult passages, helped him with reading new and tricky rhythms, and helped him persevere when he was frustrated to the point of tears. He is now at the point where he works these things through on his own, and does it for the intrinsic reward, but it was a long road to get there. If I'd left it entirely up to him, I don't know that he ever would have.

I never let him quit because he's really good at it, and that was evident from the very beginning. My thinking (which I shared with Big) was that some people are born with an ability to do some things easily and well, and those people have an opportunity to live their lives as artists. Mind you, I think an artist could be a painter, a musician, a scientist, a writer, or even a teacher: it just means someone who is doing for a living what they really live for. I told him that because he has a chance to live his life as an artist, he has a responsibility to develop this talent.

Little is anxious about learning recorder in a way that Big never was: he has daily evidence that learning an instrument is a lot of work. We may have to look into soccer for him.


Granna Judy said...

But Big was musical from the time he was a very small child or even before, and I do not see that Little has been that way to the same extent. Soccer may be his thing in a way that music is not. I'm glad you're letting them follow their interests and abilities, and then encouraging them to continue. Seems like just what you need to do.

At the same time, I do think a grounding in music is a good thing for a kid, so I hope Little takes to recorder, at least a bit!

Ipo said...

very interesting post. i may need to think of this one for a day before my thoughts really gel... i'll get back to this one.

Maria said...

Enjoyed your post! I think music teaches us so much, really. On many more levels that we know. Not only in terms of figuring out something difficult but in terms of sheer mathematics. Music is math. Music is creative. Music is all about visual, gross and fine motor skills and on and on...

Tara said...

You are one very wise Mama. I try to let Tess decide as much about her education as possible because I think it's important. I often catch a lot of heat for it, but it seems to work out best for us, so that's the most important thing.

Ipo said...

I’m back, bare with me because this is long and I hope makes sense. This is a great post – really made me think about what I think is essential for an education and a lot of other things as well. Without getting too wordy… and keep in mind these are just my thoughts, which are not black & white, just my thoughts.
Education as a whole… When it really comes down to it, if I had to pick what is truly essential for an education it would be learning to read. If one can read one can learn/teach themselves anything else they need/want to whenever they want to. Do I think that learning more than reading is good, of course I do. It is ideal, it is the goal, but not truly essential.
Also, do I think that children should guide their own lives/education? In general, yes, specifically, kinda. I think that children should be offered different experiences & subjects; music, language, sports, history, science, social justice, etc. A general knowledge of the world is ideal, there’s a lot to be said for a well-rounded person. But I also think that who a child is should be honored as well. If a parent can truly honor and meet their child for who they are, which is sometimes hard, the more whole that child can be. That also goes for adults.
When it comes to what is gained from a specific experience/subject… So many things in life have great benefits, but I don’ t think that one gets the full benefits from anything forced. And with most things, there is more than one way to get the same result. If a child doesn’t resonate with music they can learn and absorb the benefits of music from other experiences. I know that I gain much more from a learning experience if it comes out of interest or necessity rather than “just because”. Does this mean that I let my daughter do whatever she wants and not require her to do anything – NO. But I keep required things real basic – contributing to the family chores, being thoughtful, respecting her self and others, etc.
The other area of this post that I really enjoyed thinking about was the idea that if one has a certain natural talent/ability that it is their responsibility to cultivate that – I just can’t swallow that one. I see your point, lost potential and all, but maybe that is more about ones own desires. I had a great musical talent in my youth, was very, very good at flute. I had the opportunity to attend a performing arts high school that was an hour bus ride from my home and that just wasn’t appealing to me. If I had followed that path I could have ended up going great places in the musical world. I played for a few more years and haven’t played since… lost potential? Whatever… it didn’t feed me anymore, the passion had passed and I know that I got out of that experience what I needed to. Some projected idea of what could have been is irrelevant because another path was taken.
And when it really comes down to it, do I think that there is a right or wrong answer to all of these ideas… not really, just different choices with different outcomes.
Anyhow, great and thoughtful post, thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to see/hear you and Big O play some day and catch a soccer game of Little O’s, or whatever path you all take.

elsie deluxe said...

I don't think there's a contradiction here. I think you developed your music to a point, and then decided not to continue. That's okay, and (I hope) it would be okay with me if Big decided to stop playing. At this point, I've told him that he would need to really convince me with some robust reasons if he wanted to stop playing recorder--which sort of makes clear to him that stopping is an option if it's really not doing it for him anymore. He has never asked to quit.

You worked at it long enough to get to a point where you were offered an opportunity. I guess my point is that these opportunities come along when kids are young, mostly, and if he doesn't work at it now, he won't get that chance down the road.

Ipo said...

isn't parenting wonderful, allows us adults to think deep and hard about how to best guide these precious beings, and to discuss with others...