Three years ago, my son decided he wanted to take violin lessons. We rented the violin, bought the books and found a teacher. Things did not go well. A few weeks in, it was a struggle to get him to practice. He was frustrated, I was frustrated and he barely lasted until Thanksgiving.
We have since changed instruments and, after some negotiation, have agreed upon mutually acceptable terms for his practice schedule. Now it's my daughter who needs a little nudge.
This month, as kids head back to school, many will be taking up an instrument for the first time, either with their school orchestra or in private lessons. Sometimes the results will be less than harmonious.
That's why we went to the experts -- parents, teachers and professional musicians -- to weigh in with their advice on how to help kids succeed.
Set the Stage
While many children will be starting their music careers within the school system, and thus have a limited choice of instruments, it helps if parents assist them in making the right decision.
Dorothy Rothman, director of the Thurnauer School of Music at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, tells the story of a little boy whose parents wanted him to play the violin. "I played a few notes on the violin and the little boy covered his ears," she says. "But his face lit up when he heard the lower notes of a cello."
To help students and parents identify the proper instrument, the Thurnauer School offers an instrument "petting zoo," a day when children can come and see, hear and sometimes even handle the instruments, and then hear them played at a concert performed by students at the school. Likewise, The Ridgewood Conservatory in Ridgewood offers the "Try an Instrument" program, three 30-minute mini-lessons with a member of the school faculty. Parents of children enrolling in a school music program can also use these programs to determine a child's interest level.
When it comes to teacher fit, Rothman says that all students must interview with her before they are placed with a teacher. She offers that sometimes opposites attract, "If a child is from a home with a great deal of structure, I might put them with a teacher who is a bit more flexible. But a child from a less structured home might do well with a teacher who has more of a plan."
Paul Capaccio, a Juilliard-trained concert pianist from Clifton, who teaches privately, takes it one step further, saying, "There must be a rapport between the parent and the teacher as well as the child and the teacher."
Right place, right time
Once a child has settled on an instrument, Capaccio encourages parents and students to find a designated location for it. George Roy of Glen Rock, whose son, Matt is an accomplished guitar player, composer and singer, (www.mattroylive.com) agrees. "Don't banish the instrument to another room or the basement," he says. "We've always had a few of Matt's guitars in our family room. Often, we will be watching TV or a movie and Matt will be playing, repeating a tune he just heard on a commercial."
Jan Caimano, associate director of the Ridgewood Conservatory, says that when a child practices is also an important consideration. "The time of day set aside for practicing is often just as important as the amount of time spent on the instrument," she says.
"You'll get the best results if you choose a time when your child isn't distracted, tired or rushed."
Capaccio agrees, "Practice may only be 15 or 20 minutes, if the child isn't distracted. A consistent time for practice helps develop the habit."
Rothman advocates daily sessions. "When you're learning something, you have to practice every day," she says. "If you're only practicing once or twice a week, the best you'll be is as someone who has practiced once or twice a week."
Lou Caimano, director of the Ridgewood Conservatory, puts it this way: "A small amount of practice time makes playing the instrument easy and fun. Conversely, playing the instrument once a week makes the task seem impossible and burdensome."
As the Caimanos' son grew older he began to practice before he went to bed. "His homework was done, he had finished the sport of the day and he was (for the moment) done eating us out of house and home," says Jan.
Keep It Going
And how can parents best encourage their kids to keep at it? Parental involvement seems to be the key. Al Greene, a professional musician, music teacher in Teaneck, and co-owner with his wife, Alice Leon, of the songwriting company thesongs4u (www.thesongs4u.com), suggests asking a child to play what he learned at his lesson.
Paul Capaccio concurs, "Encourage the student to perform for others – grandparents, other family and friends. Be positive and encouraging and never criticize their work."
Greene says that in addition to requesting a concert, he also records his son as he performs. "It can be a video camera, or just an audio recording. Our son's grandmother loves receiving recordings of his work and gives him positive reinforcement for a job well done."
Leon tells the story of her non-musical brother who would sit with his son while he practiced saying, "You sound good. I just want to sit here and listen to you."
Maggie McCormick, parent of an aspiring guitar player in Ridgewood, says that song selection is a major factor in motivating her son. "Matthew continues to practice because he likes the music his teacher picks out for him. His teacher works to find cool classic rock or current hits that are simple enough for Matthew to play, but also teach him what he needs to know."
"Classical teaching pieces are imperative for the development of techniques and fundamentals," says Capaccio, "but there is always room to introduce music that appeals to the child."
Let's face it, sometimes practice is hard, boring work and kids need some sort of incentive to keep going. As Jan Caimano says, "Very few adults would go to work without getting paid."
In this case, educators and parents suggest different methods for encouraging students to practice. Greene asserts that, "as an educator, giving prizes really works. And with my son, we play music reading games. After he gets six right answers in a row, he gets a reward."
Caimano suggests finding a "currency" that works for the specific child. "A special snack or a fun activity might work for younger children. With our son, a week of five good practices earned him extra television time or a video. As he grew older, a month of good practices might earn him a new computer game or a trip to a theme park. Establishing incentives helped our son become responsible for his own success."
Roy says that the best incentive for his son, Matt, was being a part of a performance-based ensemble group at the School of Rock. "Matt enjoyed sharing his interest in music with other kids. He could see how his group improved with rehearsal and he was exposed to other, older kids who were playing at a more complex level."
Rothman says, "Music is a social thing. In group classes and ensembles, children inspire each other. And they support each other when they are having a hard time."
Exposing a child to live musical events and concerts is also important. Rothman and Capaccio both say that children should be able to see the results of hard work and practice. Alice Leon says, "If a kid wants to play the guitar, let him watch Clapton."
In preparation for his son's trumpet lessons, Greene has been playing Miles Davis so he can understand how the instrument is supposed to sound.
Rothman asserts that many of the parents who bring their children to her lament the fact that they stopped playing a musical instrument. But if a child is determined to quit,
Leon suggests asking them to first push through for a few more weeks. In the end, though, she says, "It should be a challenge, not a chore."
All agree that children will ultimately follow what they are interested in, and that may not include playing a musical instrument. Says Rothman, "We musicians always need audiences. The important thing is that they have music in their lives in some way."