A Little Pitchy, Dog

Last week John August wrote about his opinion that only piano or guitar should be taught to children. Obviously, that generated quite a bit of discussion, which prompted him to rebut. I followed a link in that rebuttal to Dave Nuttycombe’s comments  at which I left the following:

As both a long-time reader of August and one-time (horrible) juvenile clarinetist, I feel like I am qualified to comment…

I think August is sincere in what he wrote. I disagree with much of what he writes but I agree with what I think is one of his motivations: maximizing what musical instruction children get. There is certainly something to be said for starting children on an “easy” instrument where they’ll feel successful quickly. I assume that’s why my kids learned the recorder first and not something else. I’m happy to trust that the music teachers of the world know more about how to teach my kids music than I do.

I learned the piano first but switched to clarinet because I no longer found the piano interesting. I can’t accept that I would have been better off being forced to stick with the piano or not play an instrument at all. From what I’ve seen, schools already have more than enough of an emphasis on producing good little workers and could use more of an emphasis on producing well-rounded people.

Like most children, I had a fair amount of experience singing with others and the odd castanet or tambourine playing. But piano lessons were my first foray into actual instruction. After a couple of years, when I was about twelve years old, I switched from piano to clarinet, which I played for four years, including two years of marching band in high school. I did a stint with handbells and, like my father, sang in many a choir over those years. After university, when I could afford a Jackson and an amp, I took guitar lessons.

It would be unfair to give the impression that I gave up on playing musical instruments. Rather, I discovered empirically that I have no musical talent. The trauma of public performance taught me that I have no talent in the performing arts, but I also have no compositional talent when it comes to music. I attribute this in large part to my being a visual thinker, but tinnitus is something of hindrance, too.

I love music; I always have. I fervently wished I could be a musician and spent a lot of time trying to be one. But I eventually had to acknowledge that I am a music lover, not a music maker. As much as I wanted to be able to play music, I did not enjoy the actual playing thereof enough to overcome my inherent ineptitude to get to the tens of thousands of hours of practice needed.

I have no regrets about my musical journey. I had the opportunity to learn a little about music and a lot about myself. That I would rather read a book than play an instrument is no shame to me. (I can always listen to music whilst reading a book.) Focusing education solely on maximizing skills in adulthood feels like powergaming with our children. Sometimes it really is the process, not the product.

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2 Responses

  1. People have different talents, and I must admit I think it’s a good thing.
    Also, children tend to learn a subject faster if they are interested in the subject. So I would say if a child is interested in the trombone and wants to learn to play the trombone, and the parents can afford it, then let the child learn to play the trombone. It’s not the same to let them learn how to play the piano.

  2. I sang in choir in school and took private piano lessons starting in fourth grade. I never played in band, but performed in choir for years. Somewhere along the way I lost my voice, but I still love to sing in the car (by myself with the radio turned up). We learned recorder in third or fourth grade – I currently own a recorder.

    My husband plays guitar, as do most of our friends. We have friends who perform and write their own music. Many of the friends play quite a few different instruments, not just stringed. We have many happy memories of a friend’s living room full of people playing guitars, mandolin, banjo, recorder, violin, accordion (I know, but played well, it can be a lot of fun), and bass. They even played at one of the group’s weddings – 14 guys playing “even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you honey” to the bride … it was amazing!

    I tried to learn saxophone in high school through private lessons. I, too, am a visual thinker and stumped my saxophone instructor when I told him I did not associate music with letters, but fingering on the piano … it was challenging to translate those thoughts to saxophone.

    In college, I was friends with a bunch of music majors. I spent hours with them, going to concerts or just hanging out with a bunch of people who just loved to play music.

    All of this exposure has taught me an appreciation and understanding of music – it’s structure, it’s complexity.

    It would be sad if no one was exposed to a variety of instruments. That would be a chocolate or vanilla world – very boring.

    Learning music is not about mastering an instrument, it’s about learning to appreciate something else, to think in a different reality. My mom used to teach English and people used to be amazed that she taught diagramming sentences. But she explained, even though most of the students didn’t like it or didn’t really appreciate it, there would always be a few students who finally “got it” and sentence structure would “click” for them. That made it worth the two days of instruction (for those few kids), plus it made the majority of students think in a new way (it doesn’t all have to be the same kids!).

    My husband spends almost every Friday night going to “jam night” with many of the boys from our group of friends. It’s fun to watch the group try new instruments, learn new songs, and get together to play music and have fun – last night was our friends holiday party – an impromptu jam broke out (like often does) and 10 people were playing for about an hour.

    To us, music is not who is better than someone else, or who has the best instrument … music is friendship and something we can all enjoy and take part in, even if we aren’t actually playing.

    From the time humans first created organized sound, it was a way to express feelings – it is still that way today … that’s why rhythm is an expression of our heartbeat.

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