Beyond Fun

Teaching Children to Love Music

This past week, we had the joy of taking one of our sons to his very first ‘real’ clarinet lesson.  He had the opportunity to try the clarinet as part of his school band program in 2018 and wanted to continue, so we did want all parents looking for an instrumental teacher do: use the all knowing Google. After much searching, we found a teacher who was close to us who seemed to fit what we were looking for.

Our son practicing his clarinet

To be honest, I had some doubts after the first trial lesson at the end of 2018. I was questioning if this teacher was right for our boy, but, after much thought, we decided to give this teacher a go, after all he had all the things we were looking for: he is a professional on his instrument, spoke calmly to our son, saw his potential and emphasised good technique.

After his second meeting with the teacher, my doubts re-surfaced. What was it that was missing for me and that made me doubt (and quite possibly would make other parents walk after the very first lesson)? It was the ‘fun’ element that was missing.  While the teacher encouraged our son to work on good technique, was patient with him and gentle in how he nurtured him through his exercises, the expectation as a parent that our child would be playing all those ‘fun pieces’ was quickly vanishing before my eyes.  Upon questioning the teacher, he said to us – “I know your son doesn’t need those things. He already reads music, as he learns the piano, he already knows the first few notes on the instrument so I don’t need to work on that, what he needs is for me to teach him to be an excellent player – he has potential”.  He also told us that if our son wanted to practice those ‘fun’ pieces at home he could but not at the expense of technique.

Here is the thing – despite being that piano teacher who also emphasises technique, note reading and musical playing over ‘fun’, as a parent, I had the same expectations as every other parent. I want it to be ‘fun’ for my son because I want him to ‘love it’. But this is where the misconception about learning a musical instrument lies.  The notion that ‘fun’ equals a love of music, which will fuel the desire to become a better musician, this is simply not true.  A child could be having ‘fun’ on their instrument and simply going nowhere as they cycle round and round the same level of material, lacking the foundations to master anything beyond elementary music.  Eventually, the child becomes bored and either quits or the parent becomes frustrated with the teacher and moves on to the next teacher in the hopes of finding someone who will make it ‘fun’ for their child.

So, if music lessons are not ‘fun’, how do we engage children so that they will love music?  We lay the right foundations. ‘Fun’ is a very temporary fix to an underlying problem; it can cover over poor teaching practices in order to attract a student.  Good teaching practices will engage a child in musical learning without the need to bribe them with quick fix songs or other tricks. Learning through the establishment of solid, and real, foundations will encourage children to play (enquire and discover), practice (develop their technique and note reading skill), nurture passion (by exposing children to a wide variety of quality music that they will learn to love – if students have never heard great music, how will they know it even exists and that they might like to play it themselves), and, give purpose (through goal setting) to the learning of music.  These big 4 P’s, I will cover more in a later blog post. 

As a parent, when I shift my expectations in line with the values I have as a teacher, all of a sudden, my head is nodding along to my son’s new clarinet teacher, and the results even from the first two lessons are apparent.  Not having set ‘fun’ pieces to learn via rote, my son played his clarinet and also experimented. Through this play, he learned to reach higher notes on his instrument, his tonguing has become more fluent and I don’t have to ask him to practice – he just does it.  I see his love for the instrument growing as he discovers what he can do. His determination develops as he has become more diligent with working on his technique and his desire to be better grows.

All of this does not mean we need to throw ’fun’ out the window in lessons – I love seeing our students play songs they really want to play – but the focus should always be on teaching our students the skills to be proficient on their instruments by emphasising note reading, musical understanding, excellent technique and solid aural skills.  If we get these foundations right, those ‘fun’ songs will be showstoppers. A child should be able to walk out of their instrumental lesson and apply the skills that they have learned in that lesson to another piece of music that uses the same skill, or even to create their own piece of music.  Children should be encouraged in their practice sessions to explore repertoire beyond the fun pieces and even beyond their set pieces and technical exercises. They should be encouraged to develop their skills; in doing this, they will master their first pieces, and this mastery will provide the motivation to learn and discover more about music, which will in turn fuel their love of music.

Our students engaged in learning music