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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

6/2/2013 Parent and Child – Hand in Hand

Does your child have that magical musician gene? Probably not. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist but I taught private lessons for quite a few years in the 1970s and 1980s and I really only saw it once. The amazing thing about that story is that as far as I know that child failed to become a musician. I don’t often get fooled by a student and it is usually pretty obvious when one is trying to pull the wool over my eyes. She was a little girl of maybe six or seven and at that time I was going to the parent’s homes to teach. I thought that she was progressing quite well; in fact, she was one of my better students. After a couple months her mother told me that the little girl – I’ll call her Sarah – was not going to be taking lessons any more. It seems that Sarah was not practicing. Not at all. I was incredulous at first. She was so naturally gifted that she was basically able to pick up where we left off from each previous lesson and play the songs reasonably well with no intervening practice. I was totally taken in. I tried to persuade her mother to let her continue because she obviously really had the knack and had a high degree of what people would call natural talent. Mom said that she didn’t seem to enjoy it and that she wasn’t going to waste money on lessons until Sarah took it seriously. So much for the “musician gene”.

In every generation there will be a few Mozarts and Paganinis and Itzhak Perlmans and Anne-Sophie Mutters – players of tremendous musicianship and virtuosity. These musicians rise to the top because of some native natural talent coupled with exposure to great teachers and most importantly a tremendous amount of practice, determination and performance. I will also admit that there are a few people out there – not as many that you might think – with absolutely no real natural music talent. The bulk of us (and pertinent to this post most children) fall somewhere in between. I would say that we are talking 90 percent here. That’s where the title of this post comes in. I think that a huge, huge X-factor to the success or failure of a child to become an accomplished, happy and fulfilled musician is the attitude, nurturing and passion of the parent or parents. My experience is that 30 to 50 percent of the success or failure is from mom or dad. Wow, that’s not something that we often hear but I am going to stick by my estimate. Parents can add encouragement, enthusiasm, nurturing, access to tools and gentle discipline or they can add discouragement, self-doubt and marginalizing insignificance to the endeavor. Often, this is not their fault. If they do not themselves come from a nurturing and supportive home that encouraged achievement they may have difficulty emulating that for their kids.

Right now close to half of all string and piano students in America are of Asian decent. Ironically, those lands have no historical context for European classical music so this is a fairly recent phenomenon. That’s why, increasingly, you see Asian children in ads for classical instruments and instruction. Madison Avenue isn’t dumb. Those cultures now put a very high premium on children excelling at serious music and, isn’t it amazing, we are now seeing a generation of Asian master musicians. Either that or there are an awful lot of Asian and Asian decent children who just happen to have the “musician gene” and I find that difficult to believe. I find it far more likely that the parents are encouraging and nurturing excellence in their children.

Let’s get very practical here. There are some dos and don’ts for parents if they want their children to excel at music. Do say, “We are renting you an instrument because we want you to have an opportunity we never had as children.” Don’t say, “We are renting you this instrument because we want to see if you will continue or not before we waste good money.” Do realize that interest will wax and wane and it is the parent’s job to encourage in both the hills and valleys of enthusiasm. Don’t throw in the towel the second time or third time the child complains about practicing. Do find a shop that you can trust to supply a well set up and playable instrument for your child to learn on and not become discouraged. Don’t buy a $119 wonder off eBamazon because “they are all the same.” They are not. Johnny may not need the Mercedes of violins but he deserves a Toyota and not a Yugo, Pacer or Vega. Do offer gentle discipline in practice times unless it truly becomes apparent that the child just hates the instrument. Don’t say, “I am just going to let little Suzy decide if she likes this. It is up to her.” We don’t allow a child to determine if they are going to study math and science in school. Why should we apply a double standard with a musical education?

I had a teacher in high school that put a high priority on being friends with everyone in the class. It was more important to her than actually teaching us anything. We sat around and talked a lot but I did not learn very much. I believe that God made parents to nurture, mentor and train their children. This may not be as much fun as just being buddies with our kids but in the end they will really appreciate it. I’ve worked in half a dozen music stores and I’ve never heard a single adult complain that their parents forced them to practice. I’ve talked to many who wished that they had. Remember that music is a gift that we give our children but sometimes we have to help them unwrap it.

Keep encouraging,


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