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Music For Kids By Kids
Chapter 1.2: Realistic Goals - short term and long term

It is wise to always examine your goals and motivations:
inappropriate ones damage, good ones facilitate. Scoring well on future SAT scores is not an appropriate reason to start piano lessons for your five year old. Though it is the case that musicians typically rank high on intelligence tests and studies show that music stimulates brain function, this should be viewed as a nice side effect - a perk - not the motivation or the goal of an early music education. The contemporary obsession with creating "gifted" children who will be able to get into the college of their choice reflects the unfortunate tendency in our culture to turn everything into a competition. This is not a good starting point for the nurturing of a budding artist, or learning in general, for that matter.

The study of music needs to come from a place of passion on the part of both the parent and the child - an appreciation for the unique and wonderful experience that music-making can be. And the understanding that even if a child's interest and abilities may eventually blossom in other areas, early music education is a gift that will forever enrich his/her life.Performing a musical instrument expressively and with skill is, some say, the most difficult and challenging of all human endeavors. It can be a lifelong practice and process of discovery. Ali Akbar Khan, the great Indian musician, has said that if a musician could live for 500 hundred years, perhaps then he would feel he had mastered his instrument!

So - it is the process, the steps along the way, that must be enjoyable, because it is a long journey. A person who has or is encouraged to have unrealistic expectations (learn how to be an accomplished jazz musician in 8 weeks!) or inappropriate goals (can't wait to be the "life of the party") will invariably be discouraged and usually won't last more than a few weeks. Fortunately, kids are not inclined to pursue music for any but the right reasons - a love of music - and it is the adults who need to insure that it stays that way by not projecting their own agendas onto them.

The only valid goal of musical training is to nurture a love of music in the student while facilitating the long-term development of an accomplished musician. As a teacher I do not differentiate between those students who may eventually want to pursue a professional career in music and those who may only want to play informally and for their own enjoyment. For me, it's all the same thing and all the same skills and musical understanding are required. I don't ask that a student sit at the piano for several hours each day, unless that is what they really want to do. What is most important to me is insuring that the innate love of music is cultivated and kept alive, that lessons are fun and challenging and provide a real musical experience, that skills continue to advance at a reasonable rate, that the student is sharing music with family and friends--in short, that music is becoming a real and rewarding part of life.

Anyway, who can know or decide anyone's future for them? Imposing any long-term professional goal onto a child is always inappropriate and usually backfires. Kids live in the present. If its not relevant to "now" their spirits will rebel. The attention should be on providing a child with positive opportunities and a supportive environment for their pursuit.

What if my child starts showing a high level of interest and ability?

The 6-12 year old who shows a high level of interest and skill in music can be encouraged to do more performing (solo or with friends who sing or play other instruments), to increase the frequency of private lessons, to study arranging and composing, and to listen to and attend more musical performances. The decision to become a professional musician requires increasing focus and dedication to the instrument starting at the junior high school level. At that point, for the child who has the talent and desire, exposure to music summer camps and conservatory classes are desirable. There s/he will mingle with musical peers and a staff of music professionals, be surrounded, nurtured and inspired by an ever richer world of music, and will also get an understanding of the implications of pursuing music as a profession. By college age, those desiring serious careers should be attending one of the schools that are nationally known to turn out high level professional musicians - Eastman, Julliard, Indiana University, and the better music conservatories.

Caveat re competitions, juries, level achievement tests, etc:

The idea of competition or evaluation by a panel has no place in the performing and creative arts (except for entry into educational institutions) and, in fact, can be quite damaging to any individual who is subject to them. In other fields where the rules and goals are clear cut (sports, spelling bees, board games, etc.) competition can be a fun and motivating force. But there is really no way to objectively quantify and evaluate the arts and it serves no purpose. It means that someone or group of people sets themselves up as judges based on ultimately arbitrary criteria that the participant then has to model and be judged against. Again - it's a marketing thing (the winner of the Van Cliburn competition sells tickets, but is usually forgotten after a couple of years). This is no way to foster excellence in the performing arts. It actually works against the uniqueness and self-confidence of the individual, so fundamental to artistic expression.

Competitions in the arts do not produce better or more successful artists. They merely produce people who are good at achieving the necessarily arbitrary standards set up by a self-proclaimed panel of judges. I recommend against forcing or even encouraging any child to perform in front of a panel of judges for any reason or to enter musical competitions. Though it might be presented casually and in the spirit of fun, it is ultimately excess baggage that usually produces a negative effect. Artistic expression comes from inspiration and a fertile environment that encourages it and protects it. It is very, very delicate.

Guidebook for Parents and Teachers