Myths about beginning to learn a musical instrument

From time to time I have the opportunity to interact with other families who are trying to decide on whether to start music lessons for their children and how to go about it. Notwithstanding the enormous influence that Suzuki has had in dispelling some of these myths, many persist. In this post, I’d like to do my own myth-busting about children and learning to play a musical instrument.

None of the arguments for starting music lessons holds any value until parents understand the value of music in their children’s lives. The neurocognitive benefits of musical training are well-documented. And done well, learning a musical instrument early in childhood teaches a host of life skills that equip children to be kind, compassionate, patient, and persistent. I’m also wildly biased about music because I think that’s it’s a wonderful gift to children on its own merit.

“Forcing a child to take music lessons is a recipe for strife and hatred of music”

Well, that’s statement with which I’d agree. To a point. The problem with the claim as worded is the “forcing” part. Children and most of us adults have a natural oppositional stance toward expectations that aren’t immediately enjoyable. Skilled parenting requires adults to find creative ways of implementing expectations without explicitly forcing the child into compliance.

Growth

From a very early age, parents have to become inventive in order to set up habits that are good for their children. They play games with their children to get them to try foods that they might otherwise not attempt to eat on their own. They create fun rituals around bath time. None of these methods is explicit “forcing.” Instead, they are about reducing the friction of implementing reasonable expectations.

To understand the difference between the authoritarian style of forcing children to comply with expectations and the authoritative style of openly communicating family expectations, it may help to think about parenting styles on two axes, responsiveness (or warmth) and control. Parents who have a high degree of control but are receptive toward their children typically find ways of gaining cooperation through rational explanation and listening. The idea of forcing a child to take music lessons is an authoritarian concept. There is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting a child to study music if it is important to your family. But this also requires a high degree of investment in finding creative ways to make it enjoyable and rewarding. This the role of the authoritative parent.

One of the reasons that Suzuki’s approach to talent education is so successful with young children is that it capitalizes on the creativity of caring authoritative adults in a child’s life to create enjoyment around an intense learning experience. It only works when the parents are highly involved. Anything less than that begins to resemble “forcing” when the inevitable difficulties start to come up.

“Musical talent is mostly inherited anyway; and I have no talent”

Of course, musical ability seems to travel in families. Children of musicians are more likely to be musicians themselves. But that’s hardly definitive evidence of a genetic predestination. You have to take into consideration the cultural influence in the family. If the child of a musical family hears music constantly, then he’ll clearly move toward the family’s center of gravity.

We also know much more than ever about the role of intentional practice in shaping ability. High ability in any discipline is more a function of dedicated practice rather than innate ability. Children of all kinds of parents can learn to play a musical instrument well.

“Maybe music isn’t my child’s passion”

True, maybe it’s not.

The problem with this myth is two-fold. First, is the myth of The One True Passion. Then there’s an implied misunderstanding about how real passions develop.

Many people believe that everyone has a singular passion locked inside of them just waiting to be discovered. In this way of thinking, only a fortunate few manage to discover it and go on to be highly accomplished people. The rest of us are left to wander about perpetually seeking our One True Passion. This, of course, is nonsense. None of us has such a thing. Instead, passion or intense interests develop as virtuous cycles. A young child begins an activity at the behest of his parents. In the course of participating in that activity, the parent is an enthusiastic helper and cheerleader, always finding something praiseworthy in the smallest achievement. The child, in turn, endeavours to keep trying because the genuine approval of his parents is more precious than any possession. More effort, more feedback, and more desire to invest effort. And on it goes.

No child develops an intense enthusiasm (aka “passion”) for something without his parents investing time and effort and endlessly cheerleading. A passion is an action, not a fixed state of being. Picasso said that “Inspiration exists but it has to find us working.” The same is true of passion. It has to find us working, exploring and learning.

“Children who are meant to play an instrument will eventually ask to take lessons”

Maybe. Maybe not. Are you willing to take the chance?

Regrets about not starting or continuing with musical training are among the top regrets of adults. And although it’s never too late to start music lessons, there are data showing that musical aptitude reaches its adult plateau level around age 12. By age 8 or 9, a child’s ability to discriminate between pitches (up, down, same) reaches the level at which it will remain for the rest of his life. By age 12, his ability to distinguish between harmonically consistent and inconsistent pitches reaches adults levels. Children may not necessarily ask to take music lessons until some of these windows are already closed.

“I’ll try a few lessons and see if he takes to it”

This myth is rooted in the same misunderstanding of The One True Passion. The idea behind this myth is that a handful of music lessons will be enough to see if this can unlock that hidden passion.

The answer is the same: that’s not how interests develop. At least not in younger children. Playing a musical instrument is hard. For some instruments, it can take a year or more to make sequences of sounds that most of us would interpret as definitely musical. For the overwhelming majority of children, then only the persistent encouragement from their parents and teachers can propel them over that hump.


The decision to give children the gift of music lessons has all the traits of good leadership. Parent leaders have to be well-informed about the benefits of musical training and about their role in the undertaking. They have to be 100% convinced that they are right. And they have to lead by example and by working in the trenches with their children.