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“Teach your children music with a touch of pianissimo” – Can heavy handedness turn them off?

13th May 2015

By Melanie Spanswick

As any parent knows, it’s difficult to force a child to do anything. Eating sprouts. Doing homework. Keeping your elbows off the table. Coercion tends to result in rebellion. And nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to music lessons.

This weekend, however, Nicola Benedetti, the concert violinist said in an interview that she thought all children should be made to study music whether they like it or not.

She’s annoyed that music scholarship is deemed pretty inessential, in comparison with reading, writing and arithmetic, and she’s concerned that, as a result, it risks becoming something of a luxury subject – one that you can flirt with once all the serious business of learning is done. And as a result, all the far-reaching benefits of a musical education will be lost.

As a classical musician and piano teacher, I can see both sides of the argument – and its extremes. Of course we want to inculcate a love of classical music early on. The trouble is, some people think that the earlier you start them off, the better the chances of producing a virtuoso. This is why some parents will sit a four-year-old in front of a piano and expect “results”. If you’re lucky, you might get some tuneless, though joyful, improvisation; but Fur Elise is a long way off.

I’ve known of Tiger Mums and Tiggerish Dads who, keen to nurture a Benedetti of their own, enforce strict practice regimes on their toddlers that, if followed rigidly, may yield superficially impressive results. The little darling could well be playing Bach without any warmth or feeling by the age of six. But this has little to do with curating a long-term love or passion – such an approach is more likely to kill it stone dead.

Indeed, some parents are so obsessed with their children taking the musical exams that mark the path to the concert hall, that by the time I’m given them to teach, the kids have passed Grades 1 and 2 without the faintest idea of how to read music. The children have simply learnt the pieces by heart. At this point progression is almost impossible. It’s like taking up knives in an operating theatre without having studied biology. My only option is to down tools and painstakingly teach them to read music right from the start. This is not generally leapt on with great enthusiasm. Often the pupils give up through sheer frustration, and everybody’s time, energy and patience has been for nought.

Which is why I’d advocate the other way. The softly, softly, but cleverly sneaky one. It worked for me. From an early age, I was fascinated by the plethora of black and white keys and the amazing sounds produced by the piano. By the age of 10, I was desperate to take lessons. I couldn’t wait to learn to play and, perhaps because of this, I loved practising. My parents had cleverly fostered my curiosity, encouraged me to explore and left me keen to learn more. It’s what I try to do with my pupils.

So, while timing is key, more important is the delicacy of approach. If we get it right, we could save a lot of heartache, halt the notion of “forced” lessons, and put an end to the prevailing boredom of the dreaded practice sessions. Just imagine: the instrument would be seized with joy.

So this is where I rather agree with Benedetti. Yes, implement, say, two class music lessons a week – of listening, initially, rather than playing. Make them unavoidable, allow youngsters to be surprised by jazz, fall in love with blues or be delighted by classical (a music teacher can dream, can’t she?). That discovery may then extend naturally to a curiosity and enthusiasm for playing an instrument. The discipline required for mastery comes from within, and self-motivation is key, but we must also provide the circumstances to spark fascination. We mustn’t expect them to play for us, instead, we must turn the music on for them.

Read more on the Telegraph website