kids, parents, lessons, and music

I wrote recently about my own experiences with complex musical pieces involving extended techniques, and how much the process of learning them challenged me at a very basic level. Today Kenji Bunch, my friend, colleague, and wonderful composer and violist wrote this on his personal Facebook page. I thought that it was well-written, timely, and very necessary. Enjoy. – Charles

I’ve been asked enough times by other parents for insights into how we approach teaching music to our kids that I thought I might write some thoughts down in case anyone finds it helpful. *Huge disclaimer: I don’t pretend to know any more than anyone else, and parenting remains a wonderfully nebulous cloud through which I’m cheerfully flying blind and constantly bumping into things. This is just something that has been working for us so far, so I thought I’d share.

1. It’s not about the music.

It’s about work. And work is… fun? Setting aside for a moment the discussion of whether or not what we do for a living is rewarding beyond the paycheck it provides, let’s define work as any pursuit that requires effort, determination, discipline, and sacrifice, and hopefully rewards us with a sense of accomplishment and pride and maybe with recognition from others. Kids want something to do, and they want to be good at it. Like the rest of us, they also want to take pride in their accomplishments and be recognized for them. We’re still only roughly a few generations into the era of so-called “useless children,” whose main task is to appear adorable and stay easily entertained, rather than, say, work on a farm, in a factory, or for the family business. When the “work” kids do isn’t done explicitly for monetary gain, (thanks to child labor laws), it might as well be engaging, challenging, and labor-intensive.

2. It’s all about the music.

My parents never asked me if I wanted to learn how to read, and they didn’t wait to see if the English language was the one I would naturally choose as the best fit for my personality. They made those decisions for me based on the practicalities of the environment they were bringing me into, and the resources that were available to them. Even though musical literacy is no longer valued in our society writ large today, it can still absolutely be treated as an essential life skill within the culture of our households, and can be introduced early enough so that our young kids will just accept it as a way of life for their family. Before they turned three years old, our kids had been told many times that ours is a family of musicians, and so we practice music every day. They now thrive on keeping their daily practice streaks going (currently at 250 days in a row and counting). Whatever career path they end up pursuing, being a musician will always be a core part of their identity. 

Waiting around to see if it’s something kids somehow naturally take an interest in when they’re a few years older is a pretty effective way to ensure that it won’t be.

If our kids are frustrated or resistant to their musical studies, it doesn’t mean they’re not cut out for music and we’re ruining the experience for them; it just means they’re frustrated, because things that require work are often frustrating.

3. Kids don’t quit; parents do.

Parents often tell me they don’t want their kids to start lessons only to have a bad experience that will turn them off music. Or they’ll want to find a new teacher because they determined their current one “wasn’t the right fit.” Or they’re concerned that the music instruction isn’t “fun” enough for their kids to enjoy it. To me, this approach undermines the notion that music is work, and a way of life. We don’t debate whether math class will turn our kids off of numbers; we assume they’ll buy into the idea that it’s a necessary skill to develop. Opening the door to quitting works against the development of resilience and perseverance and sells our kids short, which brings me to my next point:

4. Our expectations for our kids are usually too low. Except when they’re too high.

As I said earlier, kids want to be challenged and are happy when they have to work at something. They can also take on more than we usually ask of them, and can do it at an earlier age. The kind of school music instruction kids typically receive in grades 2-3 should be introduced in kindergarten or earlier. If our kids are frustrated or resistant to their musical studies, it doesn’t mean they’re not cut out for music and we’re ruining the experience for them; it just means they’re frustrated, because things that require work are often frustrating. They can also take criticism- not everything is a “good job!” We can call out subpar effort just as freely as we can praise good work.

However, there are times we burden our kids with unreasonable responsibilities and expectations. Parents lament that their kids like music but don’t want to practice. Why would they? Why would kids want to drop whatever they’re doing and go practice an instrument by themselves? Are they being punished? What are they supposed to work on? 

I think daily practice is the time when our kids really need our parental guidance, or at least our companionship. Even if you don’t play music yourself, just sitting with your kids while they practice, to witness both their triumphs and setbacks, to hear their frustrations, to share in the process, makes a world of difference. Yes, it takes time and is yet another thing to plan in your already overburdened schedule. But if it’s not worth your time, how can you expect it to be worth your kid’s time?

Again, these are just some thoughts about this stuff, humbly offered here by a parent/musician/teacher who is passionate about it. I guarantee a full refund if you think this is nonsense. Thanks for reading!

Kenji Bunch represents his hometown of Portland, Oregon as “one of the leading American composers of his generation, best known for amalgamating traditional American musical forms.” (Oregon ArtsWatch) While conservatory trained at The Juilliard School, Bunch infuses his music with folk and roots influences achieving an authentic and seamless blend of classical and vernacular styles which has inspired a new genre classification. “Call it neo-American: casual on the outside, complex underneath, immediate and accessible to first-time listeners… Bunch’s music is shiningly original.” (The Oregonian) Sly, irresistible grooves pepper his work, revealing a deft ability to integrate hip hop, jazz, bluegrass, and funk idioms. With rich, tonal harmonies and drawn-out, satisfying builds, Bunch’s music has wide emotive appeal that easily lends itself to dance and film. Over sixty American orchestras have performed his music, which “reache(s) into every section of the orchestra to create an intriguing mixture of sonic colors.” (NW Reverb) Recent works include commissions and premieres from the Seattle Symphony, the Oregon Symphony, the Lark Quartet, the Britt Festival, Music From Angel Fire, Chamber Music Northwest, the Eugene Ballet, and the Grant Park Music Festival. His extensive discography includes recordings on Sony/BMG, EMI Classics, Koch, RCA, and Naxos labels among others. Also a outstanding violist, Bunch received both Bachelor and Master of Music degrees in viola and composition from the Juilliard School and was a founding member of the highly acclaimed ensembles Flux Quartet (1996-2002) and Ne(x)tworks (2003-2011). Bunch currently serves as Artistic Director of new music ensemble Fear No Music, and teaches viola, composition, and music theory at Portland State University, Reed College, and for the Portland Youth Philharmonic.

Kenji’s website is www.kenjibunch.net.

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