Setting a Strong Foundation: The Musical Child Pyramid

October 3, 2018 Barbie Wong

     “Help! My son really hates practicing piano!”

     “My daughter’s music teacher says she shows great talent but she hates playing the flute. Should we continue with lessons?”

     “My child used to love playing the violin but now she wants to quit. What should I do?”

I hear these cries from parents quite often, and I totally understand. As a parent, I know how hard it can be to raise a child who is playing a musical instrument. As a teacher, I am privy to so much more. What I have discovered through my own experiences, music teacher training, extensive research into books and articles, and interviews with amateur and professional musicians, is that there is a solution but it is not obvious.

I tell parents about the importance of creating a musical environment so that their child can first develop a love for making music, then make sure music lessons are going smoothly and then finally practicing becomes less of an issue. Sadly, that’s not what most parents want to hear. Most parents want me to tell them something they can do to fix the problem right away. What they don’t realize is that their child’s difficulty with practicing is usually a symptom of the problem, not the actual problem.

The best way to solve this problem is to begin from the root. One must fertilize the soil so that a healthy musical plant may grow tall. What parents are seeing are weeds that are crowding out musical development and joy. Cutting off the tops of these weeds will not magically create a sustainable practicing situation. Instead, parents must first cultivate a musical family life. Then, add a great music teacher. Once those two elements are in place, music practicing can flourish.

I created the Musical Child Pyramid to demonstrate the importance of first establishing a family life that is rich with music. Parents must bathe their child in music by playing a lot of music at home and taking their children to attend live music events. They must also enjoy music themselves, modeling a behavior that their children can imitate. After all, “children tend to be impersonators than listeners” noted Nancy McBrine Sheehan. Providing a musically fertile foundation will then allow any seed that drops in there to sprout vigorously.

The largest part of the Musical Child Pyramid is devoted to the musical family life. That is where most of a parent’s attention must be continually focused throughout the child’s life. Just because a parent nurtured their 5-year-old’s musical environment does not mean they can stop taking their child to hear live music or listening to music around the house when that child turns 14. If anything, the teenage years are even more important for nurturing the child’s environment. It just needs to be done differently. What works for a toddler will not always work for a teenager.

The middle part of the Pyramid involves music lessons and builds upon a musically rich family life. Once a child has listened to a lot of music and enjoys making music in an informal setting, a teacher can enter the scene. This teacher, however, must be a warm and patient person who truly enjoys working with children. As observed by researcher Benjamin Bloom in “Developing Talent in Young People,” parents of concert pianists made sure that when these concert pianists were young, their first teacher taught in a way that continued the playful interaction with music while setting standards and expecting progress. Thus, music lessons must be guided by a knowledgeable and nurturing teacher. If there is not a good fit between the teacher and student, the parent must make it a priority to find someone who is a good match. Otherwise, music practicing is inevitably doomed. Who wants to practice an instrument when lessons are terrible? No one.

Once a thriving musical family life and music lessons are in place, a child can play with joy. This results in music practicing that is easier and often done with delight. If you haven’t done this yet, give it a try. Just as Shinichi Suzuki noted that “the potential of every child is unlimited,” so is the potential of every parent. If you are a parent, begin today and play music that you love. Share with your child the kind of music you enjoy and go from there. Step by step, you can build a solid musical foundation for your child right in your own home. Remember, the love of music can not be grown overnight. It must be cultivated through joyful and playful interactions with music every day.