I was drinking my afternoon iced mocha on a bench on the San Diego State University campus where I work when I heard the most beautiful harmonies. I looked up and saw two young girls walking toward me, maybe 14-15 years old, singing a vaguely familiar pop song. They were at the head of a pack of young men who were all carrying electric guitar cases and drumsticks. The smaller of the two girls was singing lead and strumming the unamplified electric guitar slung around her neck. The taller was providing the vocal harmonies. They were lovely girls and a teeny bit self-conscious, singing and strumming and striding along the busy path. But what I mainly noticed was that they were having so much fun. They were bursting with the kind of joy that springs from a favorite song and the power of being a part of that song ~ with the joy that is a naturally occurring inclination, arguably a genetic predisposition, in just about every age and every culture of human beings. And I thought, as I often do, that nurturing that joy should be the paramount goal of music lessons.
I found out later that this group of happy kids was on campus attending the Power Chord Academy’s Rock ‘n Roll Music Camp. They were coming from a music lesson. And they had been so inspired that they couldn’t stop singing and playing even as they made their way across campus to return to their dorm rooms. Why is this so surprising? It shouldn’t be. Children are universally drawn to music. There’s some pleasure response that is programmed into our genes. Yet I know that most kids leave their piano and clarinet lessons wanting to get as far away from their instruments as possible. Playing music becomes a chore sandwiched between dusting and taking out the garbage. Kids have to be forced to “practice” something that is a natural, primal source of happiness and satisfaction.
Obviously, I’m targeting conventional, typically classically-based, music lessons ~ the kind most of us adults reading this went through. The kind where the principle goal is to learn to read musical notation and your first “pieces” are limited to the simplest versions of the least interesting of the classical repertoire. I do believe there are valuable mental and cultural gains that are attained with that approach. But unless the pupil is a budding Mozart-style wunderkind who came out of the womb humming Rachmaninoff concertos, I think it’s an excellent way to squash the passion and rob a child of her chance to really experience the wonder of music, the elation of being a participator and the exhilaration of being a creator musically.
The most important goal of any music lesson should be to provide the student with the ability to play the music they love and to create their own music. In a single piano or guitar lesson a child can be taught two or three chords and be singing along to a simple version of a favorite song within 30 minutes. There is no need to insist on “practicing”. She’ll be dying to learn more chords so that she can play more songs. And by the time a child has five or six chords under her fingers, there are few who won’t feel that urge to write something of their own. We have a natural drive to create and to participate musically. Why do we countenance a style of music lesson that kills this natural joy?
If you’re looking for a music teacher for your kids, think about what your goals are. If your goals are strictly to provide mental exercise and the ability to play Hayden sonatas, then you’ll have no trouble finding qualified teachers. But you also have a very high chance of producing a grown-up who gives up her instrument and any form of musical study by the time she leaves home. If you want a child who connects with music, who will exercise her creative muscles, and who will develop a lifelong avocation, perhaps even a passion, then find a teacher who will help her to play music she loves and will give her the tools to create her own music and to discover new music loves. Find someone who will focus on ear training and chord theory and supplement with music notation reading. Someone who will encourage them to play the music they already love while introducing them to the wonders of Beethoven and Jobim. “Discipline” and technique are inevitable with this kind of guidance. And joy, too. Did I mention joy?