Parents of musically gifted children may have little direction, and typically seek out music instruction locally, through word-of-mouth referral, and where it is affordable and convenient. Some teachers may be accomplished musicians, some may be retired music educators, some may have been teaching privately for years. However, what works for one child may not work another. Just as some classroom teachers follow a structured curriculum and have difficulty accommodating the needs of gifted children, many music teachers adhere to rigid views of what is acceptable pedagogy. They insist on following a strict format of study, don't know when to hold back, and may not recognize when a talented child needs a push.
Photo courtesy of Clark Young
Recent articles have highlighted the emotional and cognitive benefits of music instruction and long-term effects of musical training on the brain. And while most would agree that learning an instrument has a positive impact, finding the right teacher for your child can be a challenge. Specific qualities exhibited by excellent music teachers have been outlined here, but what is also essential is the teacher’s appreciation of your child’s developmental, emotional, and motivational needs.
Here is one example of what can go wrong:
Sara's parents responded to their five-year-old's sense of rhythm and interest in piano by requesting a lesson at a large, well-known music school in the area. The school had fairly rigid expectations - requesting payment up front for an entire nine months of lessons, without regard for whether the child established rapport with the teacher or sustained interest in practice. Sara's mom asked for a trial lesson and Sara was assigned to a young woman, who initially told her to wait in the hallway, along with a group of other parents. Since she had a musical background, though, she insisted on attending the session, so she could assess the teacher's approach and see how Sara responded to the lesson.
The teacher asked Sara to play something, since Sara already had some rudimentary understanding of musical notation that she learned from her parents. When Sara did not follow some additional instructions on the page, the teacher asked her what a particular word meant. Sara became quiet and said nothing. Sara's mom had to remind the teacher that Sara was five, was still in pre-school, and could not read words like that yet. When asked how future lessons might proceed, Sara's mom was informed that she would not be permitted to stay in the room, despite her own past musical training. The entire experience was a disappointment and they did not return. Sara's mom kept searching, and eventually found a lovely, experienced private teacher, who was highly attuned to the developmental needs of young children.
What happened to Sara and her family occurs much too often. Many parents without a musical background may be afraid to assert their feelings and concerns, and go along with a stale, uninspired, and often developmentally inappropriate approach to learning. What should you do when searching for a music teacher for your child?
1. Recognize your child's temperament and developmental needs
Each child is different. However, a six-year-old clearly requires a different approach than a teen, and a good teacher will appreciate this. Wise teachers know how to capture a child's interest, instill motivation to practice, and help your child set reasonable goals. Anything too demanding will result in resistance. Anything too simplistic will be viewed by your child with skepticism. Even young children sense when a teacher's expectations are out of sync with their abilities.
2. Stay attuned to what is happening during the sessions.
Music lessons are not like classroom instruction. Don't let a teacher keep you out of the room. While you should respect the teacher's authority and not interfere during the lesson, you also need to see what is working, what your child is expected to learn, and how he or she responds. Find out what you can (and should not) do in between sessions to help your child with motivation and practice. As your child matures, you may need to step back a bit. But remain involved, particularly if when seeking guidance should your child choose a college or career path in music.
3. Notice signs of resistance in your child
Just like in school, your child will convey signs of boredom, frustration, and disinterest in music instruction. This might be expressed through lethargy, avoidance, anxiety, and even melt-downs when practice becomes too overwhelming. Be alert to any signs that your child worries excessively about disappointing his or her teacher, or feels ashamed of a poor performance. Some resistance may be due to normal avoidance of hard work, but it also may be an indication that your child is not getting what he or she needs from the lessons.
4. Keep expectations in check
It is difficult to contain your excitement over your child's blossoming success. How you respond to this as a parent, though, can impact your child's motivation, drive, self-confidence, and potential to rebel. It is just as essential to find a teacher who understands these dynamics and refrains from any coercion, pressure, excessive criticism, or shaming. Music teachers are always correcting and reframing what their students need to change in order to improve. But this must be offered in a respectful, upbeat and encouraging manner. Children who feel excessive pressure to excel or shamed for their mistakes, even if these messages are not overt, may develop perfectionistic standards, low self-esteem, and fear of failure. They may push themselves relentlessly and become increasingly anxious or avoid taking risks, and give up completely.
Supporting, encouraging, and nurturing a musically talented child can be a challenge. There are few resources, and no clear roadmaps for parents. Finding the right teacher takes time and effort. Don't necessarily settle for the first teacher your meet, or the one your neighbor's child likes. Keep searching until you find the right fit. Your child's needs also may change over time, and a new teacher might provide the right motivational boost as your child matures. You also may benefit by finding (or starting) a group for parents of young musicians, who can offer ideas, resources, and support. Most of all, enjoy this wonderful journey with your child!
(With a grateful shout-out to Myanna Harvey and Wendell Hobbs - great music teachers who started my kids off in the right direction!)
A similar version of this article was previously published in Parent.co.