The Power of Musical Role Models

February 3, 2024
February 3, 2024 Barbie Wong

Mozart admired Haydn; Elton John idolized Little Richard; Ray Charles imitated Nat King Cole for years until he found his own style. Accomplished musicians throughout time have looked up to musical role models, extolling their expertise and using that vision to fuel their music-making. Often, the veneration comes in the form of imitation. When Bruce Springsteen was a child, he loved the Beatles so much that he cut his naturally curly hair in a moppish style and practiced like mad on the guitar. Springsteen explained, “I didn’t want to meet the Beatles. I wanted to BE the Beatles.”

Once the fire of adoration has been lit, the young musician will be ready to do what it takes to become their idol. Often, this means consistent and sustained practice: the Valhalla of musical development, the one thing most parents and teachers hope for. Thus, what better way to inspire a child to practice than to help them find a role model? 

Shinichi Suzuki knew this already. Children learn through their senses, he told us. They not only imitate what they hear; they also imitate what they see. Having researched the lives of over fifty musicians, I have found two consistent factors in their childhoods that drove them to make music: hearing a lot of music and seeing others make music. Playing the recordings for our children is necessary, but not enough. We must also show them videos of musicians and take them to live concerts–in essence, exposing them to musical role models. The more that happens, the more likely your child will grow fond of these role models and, like Springsteen, want to be them.

Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, the mother of seven musicians and author of House of Music said it best: “Children need role models, an idea of what they can become, worlds they can inhabit.” Their entire family would spend long hours on Sundays watching videos of a variety of performers such as Itzhak Perlman, Maxim Vengerov, Marta Argerich, and Jacqueline du Pré. Sundays were a chance for them to debate who had the better tone, whom they liked best, and which performances they preferred. Each child learned to appreciate and admire a large number of virtuosos. Getting them to practice? Not a problem.

Here’s another example. When Taylor Swift was six years old, she worshipped LeAnn Rimes, who had been a child star singing country music. Rimes was twelve when she first secured a record deal and fourteen when she won her first Grammy. Swift explained why she idolized Rimes: “I just really loved how she could be making music and having a career at such a young age.” With the vision of being a child star emblazoned in her mind, young Taylor Swift practiced for hours. When she was eleven and still living in Pennsylvania, she convinced her mom to drive around Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee where she visited every record label and gave them her demo CD. Although nothing came from that particular trip, Swift eventually signed her first recording contract when she was fourteen years old. Like Rimes, the teenage Swift sang country music. To date, Swift has amassed twelve Grammys.

While most parents may not be interested in their child securing a recording deal, the most pressing concerns seem to revolve around getting kids to practice consistently and developing a positive and longterm desire to make music. Having worked with hundreds of parents, I have found time and again that one of the easiest ways to achieve this is to expose kids to musical role models. Here are some tips for making that happen and guidelines for watching videos and taking kids to see live music: 

TIP #1: Find musicians who are playing the same instrument as your child. Music practice can be incredibly lonely. When a child sees other people playing the same instrument, they feel less alone and likely even part of a group. In addition, it gives your child the opportunity to see what is possible on that instrument. When Elton John saw Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis perform live, he was astounded by their aggressive piano-playing and loved how they kicked the stool and stood up to play. In his autobiography Me, Elton John explained, “They made playing the piano seem as visually exciting and sexy and outrageous as playing the guitar or being a vocalist. I’d never realized it could be any of those things before.”

TIP #2: Expose your child to a variety of musicians, not just one. When your child sees numerous musicians, they will have more choices as to who they identify with most. Plus, seeing a lot of people play your child’s instrument continues to normalize that act. Your child is a part of a group of people who all play the same incredible instrument. 

TIP #3: Find musicians who are playing the same genre of music. When your child sees other people playing the same kind of music, it shows them that they are part of a group of people playing that particular genre. This can deepen your child’s love for that particular genre. Furthermore, your child also gets exposed to a wider repertoire of music in that genre, which can strengthen their musicality. Of course, I recommend exposing your child to a variety of genres as well. If your child is currently not very excited about playing their instrument, perhaps your child will stumble upon a kind of music that gets them really excited about music.

TIP #4: Find at least one musician who is similar to one aspect of your child’s identy. This could be gender, ethnicity, age, or a particular identity like being LGBTQ+ or liking the same things. For example, when my daughter Tenzin (a hardcore Swiftie) found out that Taylor Swift loves cats, she felt even more bonded to Swift because Tenzin also loves cats. My other child Aris is transgender and loves listening to Cavetown because the lead singer is also transgender. 

Once you know which kinds of musicians to search for, you are ready to dive into the world of videos and concerts. Here are some guidelines for getting the most out of watching videos and attending live concerts.

Let’s Watch Videos

Watching videos of musicians is the easiest and cheapest way to expose your child to musical role models. You can find videos on a variety of platforms like YouTube, Netflix, and Vimeo. Or, you can simply Google the musician or music ensemble’s name. Use these four guidelines to help your child get the most out of watching videos.

1) Watch videos together. Whenever possible, make video-watching a group affair. If only one adult and one child is able to watch, that is fine. When you watch videos together, you can talk about them later. This can be an activity that bonds you together. This also allows you to monitor what type of videos your child is watching. This is especially important for younger children.

2) Watch a variety of videos. That way, your child is exposed to various aspects of musicians. Here are the types of videos I recommend:

  1. Live concert footage. The next best thing to attending a live concert is to watch its recording. 
  2. Music videos. Remember MTV? Many artists are still making music videos, so it can be fun to watch these. 
  3. Videos of musicians talking about their lives or answering questions. Even though the musician isn’t making music, these videos allow your child to get to know the musician as a person. This helps your child see that all musicians are humans with thoughts and feelings like them. For example, my kids and I love watching a YouTube channel called TwoSetViolin, which explores classical music in a funny and silly way. 
  4. Cartoons. Many cartoons depict musical performances, and for younger children this can be captivating. When piano virtuoso Lang Lang was a kid, he became even more excited to play the piano after watching Tom and Jerry, the cartoon cat and mouse. 

3) Make video-watching a ritual. Incorporate watching videos into one of your family’s weekly activities. Once an action becomes routine, doing it will become easier and your child can look forward to it. Plus, you show your kids that you care about music when you prioritize this type of video-watching.

4) Set clear expectations. Videos can be highly addictive, so letting your child know how many or how long you will be watching gives them a sense of what to expect. 

“We will be watching three videos today.”

“We have twenty minutes to watch videos.”

Of course, setting these guidelines does not prevent your child from becoming upset when video-watching ends. If that happens, the best course of action is not to let your child watch more videos. I recommend empathizing and affirming their feelings. Some examples of words you can use are:

“It’s hard to stop doing something that is so fun.” 

“You want to watch more videos and it’s difficult to stop.” 

Then move on to the next activity. When your child sees that you are consistent with allowing them to watch a certain number of videos, they will feel better in the long run. Your video-watching routine then becomes reliable. They know what to expect and that is comforting to children.

Live Music

Nothing beats going to watch live music: you leave your house, travel some distance, and end up in a whole new world. You can’t do the dishes, clean your house, or do your taxes. Instead, you are in another space where other people are similarly excited to watch this performance. In short, you are in a land of fun.

Think of this as a field trip. You can look forward to it and talk about the performance weeks in advance. Here are some tips for helping kids getting the most out of their live concert experience:

1) Listen to the music. Hands down, the best way to get children ready and excited for a concert is to first listen to the concert music at home, weeks in advance. Kids love familiar things. Play the music a lot so that they can become comfortable with those sounds. I took my kids to a lot of operas when they were young and we listened to the music almost daily for about two months before the performance. 

2) Talk about the music. As we listened to the opera, I told my kids the storyline. I also told them what each aria was about, which was helpful because all the operas we listened to were in a foreign language. Eventually, my kids began recognizing certain arias. You can also talk about the instruments, musicians, what you like about the music or certain parts that have meaning to you. Getting personal about the music will help your child develop a stronger relationship with the music.

3) Make the trip fun. Figure out what would make the trip to the live concert special for your kids. My kids loved dressing up, so sometimes we would wear fancy clothing to the concert. Other times, I would bring a special treat like a chocolate bar that we would eat at intermission. You can also start a family ritual like wearing fun socks or eating popcorn on the way to the concert. 

4) Make it social. If possible, see if other families want to come to the concert or invite one of your child’s friends to join you. Kids love being with their friends, so this can enhance their concert experience. I once took my kids to watch a piano trio and they both invited a friend. We ate burgers beforehand and then after the concert, we walked to a local ice cream shop for cones. Everyone had a great time.

5) Have an out. Not all kids are ready to sit through a two-hour performance. Figure out what your child can handle and find performances that fit the bill. For instance, when my kids were young, I found concerts that I did not mind leaving if they were too squirmy. That usually meant going to free or low-cost concerts. I looked on the internet for local productions and found some great deals. For instance, a nearby opera company gave free dress rehearsal shows to school-aged children, so we went to a few of those. Also, our local symphony had kids’ concerts with tickets that cost as much as a latte. I have also brought paper and coloring pencils to concerts so that my kids could move their hands if they got antsy. 

Consistently exposing kids to musical role models can be a fun and engaging experience for kids. When kids are not excited about practice, sometimes the best solution is not to focus on practice, but instead to build from the ground up by saturating their environment with music. Helping kids find musical role models not only lays a strong foundation for their musical development, it is often a lot easier and usually much more fun for parents to implement. For kids, having a vision of who they could become is captivating and energizing. Let’s make that possible.


Charles, Ray and David Ritz. Brother Ray. Dial Press, 1978.

John, Elton. Me. Henry Holt and Co., 2019.

Raphael, Amy. “First, she conquered Nashville. Now she’s set for world domination.” The Guardian (31 Jan 2009): (accessed 30 May 2023).

Springsteen, Bruce. Born to Run. Simon & Schuster, 2016.


This is a reprint of the article that appeared in the American Suzuki Journal