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Jerald Archer

Learning Music: A Lost Art

September 6, 2008 at 8:27 AM

I am writing this for no particular reason than to vent a concern that I have: Is the learning of music, not just the violin, no longer appealing to the young mindset? It would seem that it would be at the bottom of most young people’s list of things to do. The many students that I have had have never been able to get past the first few lessons I give due to some excuse or another. I don’t think that I have heard every excuse that could be invented, but I have heard enough to write the next episode of the Twilight Zone or possibly the next blockbuster si-fi movie of next summer…and so it is. But as a music teacher, I should take the time to analyze what may be going through their heads and hopefully come to some rational conclusion as to why they no longer want to learn music. In my findings, or more accurately, my resononings and observations, I’ve placed myself in their shoes and could only come up with the followings reasons:

Firstly, the environmental factors of most of my students are oftentimes detrimental to sound learning. Many are by no means from prominent family bloodlines, but rather from the other side of the coin, so to speak. I do not find this factor a bad thing as I enjoy the opportunity to help them access that educational experience which would normally not be available to them otherwise. Most public schools no longer have orchestras, and not even bands. It defies my logic to understand why this is. But the school will spend a massive amount of money on sports and the like. Only now are the repercussions of these decisions becoming evident and I fear that it will not change. As a counter-action to this dilemma, I offer my services at very affordable rates, and if I have to, free in some cases. Often I find that my music lesson turns into a mild, but very poignant, lecture of why it is so vitally important to get all the education that one may acquire and then have to spend even more time explain the meanings of words I may use in my explanations. And so it is.

Secondly, one must consider the media factors involved. It is a well known consensus among the young mindset that they would spend much more time playing video games than to practice on any given musical instrument, at any given opportunity. I am not saying that video games are bad, as all things have their good sides and bad sides of application. Learning a musical instrument is a challenge in itself, which requires self-applied discipline and complex problem solving. These qualities are also required for any form of gaming, be it chess or a video game, respectfully. They are also required in real-life situations as well. The scientific usefulness of video game playing is beyond the scope of this article, but it should be noted that no one has came out, to date, with a video game called “Violin Hero”. And so it is

Thirdly, I have noticed in the last 10 years, and I have come to figure why this is so, that they think that it (mastering an instrument) comes instantly out of a box. My sound conclusion is that they are highly influenced by television shows, which place the person who is performing on a high level of prominence, i.e. movie stars, singers on certain talent shows, etc. No real talent is required to participate in these affairs. This I mostly find with vocal students, more often than with instrumentalists, and usually will try to quell the erroneous images before they take root. I explain, usually in the form of true horror stories, of the many situations that I have encountered in my professional career. I explain to them that their manager certainly can help them if they are willing to sacrifice certain things and this doesn’t make the student less uncomfortable. They will maintain the idea since experience is the key to wisdom. To be in the public eye is not a glamorous place to be and that certain freedoms, if not all, have to be given up as well. This can apply in both the operatic arena as well as the popular music field. And so it is.

Given the points illustrated above, it remains that there are still some students who have their minds focused on what they can accomplish. They are exceptional and will be exceptional among their peers, despite the lack of respect they may endure for such qualities. Many will make it to great heights, even if they do not know somebody. As a teacher, I can only encourage the individual student. Not everyone can wear the same hat. It is up to them to apply discipline, fortitude and sacrifice to achieve the sublime level of mastery, which is their dream...and so it is.

Jerald Franklin Archer

From Dottie Case
Posted on September 6, 2008 at 12:53 PM
Jerald, I think there's another element, at least that I notice with my students. Often the students who are 'good at' music are good at many other things as well. I have students who are truly gifted, who are trying to fit practicing in around homework, the lead role in the school musical, dance classes and performances, other music lessons (piano, flute, etc.) karate, and some who even play 3 sports in school. Not to mention having any sort of dating or social life.
I've watched my daughter struggle with this, and you can see why it's hard for the kids....they see their parents being over-committed and overwhelmed.
It's hard to fit 2hours of practice a day inot a schedule like that.
Dottie
From al ku
Posted on September 6, 2008 at 10:12 PM
i look at it this way...there are 2 forces pulling the kids, one from the peers and one from the parents. right now, it seems to me for most families, one reason or another, the peer influence outweighs the parental influence.

in other words, if the parents do not set examples/ideals, do not practively create environment/opportunities for the kids to explore in the direction they desire for their kids, the kids will lose themselves to their peers.

nothing wrong with developing friendships and developing a sense of community, but as parents we should hold our own kids to higher standards. classical music is just one example, among many others. learning music is not just about learning music...it is an education and it must starts at home.

i know of many parents who simply do not have the time/energy/interest to help set the direction/course for their own kids. sounds bizzare, as if the selfish gene has undergone mutation. i know of a very educated mother who would drop her kid off to the piano class and then go shopping by herself. for years. nothing against shopping:), but to avoid an opportunity to see your own kid in action learning music is rather retarded imo.

From Jerald Archer
Posted on September 7, 2008 at 12:08 AM
The first respondant is correct in her observation:students have many more things that they are involved with, other than music. These are the ones that are tailored for public school music programs, since in my experience, they ar really only there to "fill-in" time. They are rarely the ones who make a musical career out of music, which requires dedication and application. It sets them apart from their peers, both at the present time and in the future.
The second respondant has hit the proverbial nail on the head. Although the parents will be a big factor in how the student progresses, they should not be the primary overseer of the student's interests (or non-interests) in the art of music. I personally will not accept a student on the basis that the parents want the student to learn music, especially the violin, of which I get too many of, just because their grandpa played. This can do more damage than good in the long run. Three major requirements for mastery of anything is interest, dedication and hard work. A "jack-of-all-trades" can never be the master of all of them.
From Paul G.
Posted on September 7, 2008 at 2:19 AM
I'll comment on this from a kids point of view. (I'm 15)

Pretty much everyone I know is involved in music one way or the other. Some do choir, just sing, play guitar, are in band/orchestra or a combination of those.

They're in to so many other things than just music. One of my friends plays violin, speaks french and spanish, and gets a 4.0 every term. Another friend is a straight A student, is in choir, does soccer and basketball. Another friend I have plays trumpet like no one else, and is just a normal teenage guy, but does bad with grades. Another friend gets good grades, plays viola and guitar and is an SBO.

And I mean come on, every person who started playing when they were 3 were forced to by there parents. No 3 year old thinks about being a prodigy and practicing hours a day. Thats bull.

And lastly, dont lecture the kids, all they're going to do is rebel against what you say; That's a kid for ya.

From Paul G.
Posted on September 7, 2008 at 2:27 AM
Oh, and then there's me... I play violin, trumpet, saxophone, piano... Fluent in sign language, almost fluent in spanish... Get pretty goodd grades, Dont have a lot of time for a social life, but still fit one in... And in the middle of all this i'm stopping every 5 minutes to answer the texts that my phone's accumulated.

It's not too hard to balance.

From Jerald Archer
Posted on September 7, 2008 at 5:58 AM
paul G. makes a good point of it all. With this in mind, I shall consider concentrating more on how the learning of music enhances the overall achievments of students and not so much hinders it. Thank you for the insight of which I shall consider as the subject of my next blog article. The typical office requires that one be proficient in multi-tasking in order to cut down on employee overhiring. And so it is...
From al ku
Posted on September 7, 2008 at 12:23 PM
paul has accurately recalled what is facing kids growing up with a musical interest, that they need to strive for a balanced live, hopefully their own, and that life is hectic.

i do take exception to the notion that any 3 yo starting violin must be forced by the parents, as if it is some sort of violation against free choice. i think a more balanced view is perhaps needed. on one hand, it is possible some parents go over the top with the mission of churning their kid into a pro musical prodigy. case in mind: vengerov. in a youtube video, he recounted the times or shall i say, teary times as a kid where his mother insisted on him practicing against his will. he did practice because as he told his mom,,,he loved her and therefore he practiced. i wonder how paul can put his musical achievement and his earlier forced practicing on the same platform...

other 3 yo are started violin to develop an interest or routine, not unlike learning to go to bed at cerain time, brush teeth at certain time, eat at certain time, go get vacccine shots by certain time, all not necessarily to the kids' liking,,,

From Jodi B
Posted on September 7, 2008 at 1:07 PM
I would like to respond to this post with my own experience.

My daughter had a violin teacher in the past require her to practice 2 hours a day minimum.. or find another teacher. This teacher came very highly recommended and she was an excellent performer as well as a teacher. My daughter had to fill out a practice log and show it to the teacher who would from time to time ask why she didn't have time to practice here etc.

One week, my daughter and I were scratching our heads only to find 1 hour a day for each day of the week. We looked at each other... there had been no TV (she doesn't watch tv during the week, no video games (no V games allowed in my house.. mom rules) no outdoor recreation, afterschool events... etc; but there happened to be a bunch of homework that week.

The practice log was good because it made my daughter prioritize her activites. If she wanted to do a certain activity, then she knew she had to practice another time etc.

Most recently, she had been asked to play with the HS chamber music group as an incentive (she is in MS), but she turned them down saying that she didn't want it to eat into her practice time. When I suggest to her other sports or clubs she should do, she declines saying that it interferes with the violin. It is my opinion that she is either afraid of trying new things or if she does try new things then they would have to be mastered to her level of violin playing.

Another idea, is that sometimes kids just don't get it. There have been some lessons when my daughter can't pass the etude required for 2 or maybe 3 weeks. Believe me, it is also frustrating to the student as well. I remind her that it is good not to have a good lesson every week, that is how you learn :)

I hope I am clear in my remarks as my three children this morning are pulling me in three different directions! aaaggghhhh!

Thanks Mr. Archer for your blog.

From Paul G.
Posted on September 7, 2008 at 3:07 PM
Mr. Ku,
I didnt totally mean it like that...

Every three and four year old I know hardly has an attention span big enough to do the same thing for more than 10-20 minutes.

I meant that the parents had to push the kids into this direction... There's no way they're going to dream up playing the violin and praticing every day. Every child doesnt develop this "self-drive" until about 6. ( trust me, I've watched a 3 and 4 year old every week since they were babies. And i have to take a class in school where we watch 50 little kids)....

I WISH my parents would have done this with me... My mom has always said she could never force me to that but I wish they would have...
When I fill out an application and they see that i've only been playing for 2 and a half years, they automatically think: "this kid's gonna suck"... And then when I play and they hear me they shut up...
But I know kids who's parents made them do this type of thing and they're miserable. Here's the story of a girl I know: Her parents made her learn piano at 3, singing at 4, and violin at 5. They MADE her practice every day, even when she didnt want to. And they still control every aspect of her life and she hates her parents...

So I guess everyone is different.

From al ku
Posted on September 7, 2008 at 7:19 PM
as you said, everyone is different, therefore i don't presume to know what other 3-4 yos feel like. may be some feel miserable, some feel great, some just do it,,,as in a bell curve. when i talk, unless i specify, i do not have any intention to highlight any particular sector, because i don't know enough. it is just that in the violin industry, many successful artists started very early. we can say they were forced or pushed, and if i state so, i do not want to tag a negative connotation on those verbs. i suspect you do, partly because you did not start that early and as you stated, you turn out to be pretty good.
From J Kingston
Posted on September 7, 2008 at 7:53 PM
Interesting post. Here are a few opinions.
Jerald, I agree with your third observation. Popular culture promotes instant results. I suggest as a culture we are not very patient in general and taking advantage of music instruction requires great patience for all concerned. I also think there is too much noise in general. Both conceptual noise and literal noisy places. To hear you have to concentrate on hearing. With the celebrity culture our kids just can learn to play basketball or swim, they have to "be like Mike (Jordan, Phelps etc.)" ....right away, immediately or they just don't "have what it takes". Or else they must show great promise instantly or the child gets frustrated or the parents don't see the point. Also, talking is so much easier than writing or reading or doing most anything else. We are nation of talkers.

With great respect to the many here who promote a "balanced" life. I have come to the conclusion when looking back on my life, that to a large degree balance is very over rated. When I managed employees who wanted to "balance" their work and their homelife, I simply told them that you pick balance, or you pick opportunity.
As parents, I think it is our job to identify opportunities for our kids, whether they are 3, or 13 and to help them actualize their potential. Opportunities might be finding teachers, performance opportunities, social friends who promote personal growth. Also, I think one of my main jobs is to create an environment that is quite, (noise free), and organize mundane activities in such a way as to maximize uninterupted blocks of time for practice, schoolwork, and family time. My parents didn't know enough to recognize opportunities in music for me. Opportunities in music in most cases are a multigenerational, cultural chain of events.

From J Kingston
Posted on September 7, 2008 at 8:14 PM
One more thing:
I had the opportunity to work for a man who is now one of the most wealthy in the country. I asked him how he became so successful. He told me that even though it seemed that he became rich overnight, he had been laying the groundwork over 30 years. During those years his peers hopped around, moved around the country trying to leapfrog their careers while he stayed single minded in his purpose of building up his business, his vision. He knew exactly what he was trying to build the whole time. When we listen to great music, and then go back to practice etudes, scales or anything else, I would suggest that it is the same approach. Children need to learn that work ethic and it is never too early to teach the respect for hard work.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 7, 2008 at 8:19 PM
From watching my kids, who are 9 (4th grade) and 5 (kindergarten), and their peers, what I am noticing is that there is a strong expectation of intensity in most activities, music included, after about the age of 5-6. These competing demands bump up against each other and force kids to choose pretty early. Then, once something is chosen, it becomes increasingly difficult to change course. There is little support, it's more like contempt really, for doing anything "halfway" or "for fun," beyond the age of about 7.

I also agree with J. Kingston's point that the culture encourages a very unhelpful mindset--that either you're a celebrity superstar or you might as well just quit now and join the ranks of passive consumer.

However, I've come to the opposite conclusion to J. Kingston about balance. I think that hard work is what's overrated, at least in the sense of viewing hard work in and of itself as some kind of moral good. My family has been affected by mental illness, and at least in that context, I've seen devotion to "hard work" become a kind of idolatry that works against healthy human relationships.

And you're right--the modern workplace seems to require, more and more, a tolerance for multitasking, in spite of the fact that it's both inefficient and a neurobiological myth (unlike computers, human brains don't actually multitask).

I don't think these trends can be bucked by any individual teacher or student--they're too large and deep-seated--but I do think that on an individual level people can benefit by not always taking themselves, and their activities, so seriously, and at least acknowledging that hard work sometimes can have a dark side.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 8, 2008 at 4:25 AM
Some different viewpoints:

A four year old girl was walking down the street with her father. They passed a place with an open window, looked in, and saw a bunch of 4 year old kids playing violins. It was a Suzuki school. The little girl said that she really wanted to join them, and her father consented. Her name is Hilary Hahn.

On a more personal level: One of my students who is very talented and very smart started learning to play the violin because there was an empty slot in his after school schedule. He told me that he's really glad of it because he really likes to play the violin.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on September 8, 2008 at 5:31 AM
"There is little support, it's more like contempt really, for doing anything "halfway" or "for fun," beyond the age of about 7. "

Little support from who? Do you mean from the other 7 year olds? I can't fathom that. I can't fathom it from anybody else either, for that matter.

From al ku
Posted on September 8, 2008 at 11:03 AM
i am going to leave the age debate to the experts on the site:) and raise another point...

jerald mentioned that some if not many of his beginner students quit after couple classes...

to me this is a rather intriquing situation...why so?

lets look at it from several angles:

1. students: don't even want to be there in the first place, but ready to be inspired?

2. 1 plus a teacher that is not exactly interesting or the right fit? now, i am not knocking gerald or anyone in particular, but i do wonder what are teachers' skills to capture a young person in couple classes...what do you do in the first couple classes that stink so bad???

3. 2 plus parents who can go either way. to our family, number 3 is the key and the glue to get everyone together. IF YOU START SOMETHING, YOU STICK WITH IT TO THE END! or, simply, no breakfast, no lunch, no dinner:):):) democracy sucks my toe!

conclusion: it is either teachers' fault or the parents' fault. to properly understand the kids takes as much work as studying the violin. duh.

From Ronald Mutchnik
Posted on September 8, 2008 at 3:21 PM
Each of us sees a different corner of the world. On one extreme you have established ensemble programs in a community where being in an orchestra or band is considered an honor and fun and there are more and more students interested in participating from year to year. On the other extreme, one sees kids for whom even small efforts to learn music or anything else for that matter are huge challenges.

The factors are many- lack of a stable home environment, peer pressure, lack of discipline and guidance in applying oneself, and the "distractions" of other things one can spend one's time with instead of the hard work it takes to learn to play an instrument regardless of talent.

I don't quite understand why hard work is such a bad thing. It seems to me that everything in life worth having or pursuing comes through effort. I often tell my students that the clean drinking water that comes out of the faucet and the roof over their house that protects them from the elements did not just happen overnight as if by magic. Isn't it true that someone had to conceive of the idea of transporting water over vast distances and engineering it and laying down the pipes, and creating filtration systems, and monitoring all of the above so that they have the convenience of turning on a faucet out of which comes the water for the taking whenever they want.

Then there is the issue of parents making their kids do something that they may not like to do. Each parent draws a line somewhere I think. The majority of parents will simply not allow their children not to brush their teeth or not allow them to simply not go to school, etc. yet when it comes to playing violin, in this case, it is considered different because it is not as essential to one's health as brushing teeth or one's education as going to school to learn your English, math, and science, etc.
I think we, as teachers of the violin, need to encourage parents to let the violin be a part of the student's lives like anything else and make it a normal part of one's daily activities. If it is on equal footing with everything else, instead of being conceived as this thing you do only for fun or only when you feel like it, perhaps, over time, it is accepted and even looked forward to in the daily routine. Dishes must be washed, garbage taken out, clothes ironed and put away, the garden weeded, and the violin practiced. I don't mean to imply that violin playing is a chore in the derogatory sense that these other things I listed are often thought of, because, in truth, it is also in the attitude.
The person who knows that a well-kept garden brings pleasure to the viewer and also keeps the nutrients going to the plants that need it most sees purpose and joy in their weeding. The dishwasher who knows that a clean, washed plate relieves the diner of concern over sanitary conditions in the restaurant in which he or she enjoys a meal can take pride in his or her contribution to the happiness and satisfaction of the diner. And so it is with all tasks, chores, duties, obligations, committments in life.
Part of life is learning to make the best with what you've been dealt. In terms of hard work, one could certainly do a lot worse than to have to practice the violin as part of one's daily activities. If we keep a sense of perspective about things and we teach our children to have a good attitude and live that way by our own example, I believe, more often than not, learning the violin can be a positive thing for all concerned.

From al ku
Posted on September 8, 2008 at 4:59 PM
i enjoy reading ron's post,,,makes a lot of sense. it is really pretty straight forward if we do not act on our extremist impulses:) learning is, as ron mentioned, about learning to develop the right attitude and that process takes time, trials and errors. the biggest enemy is impulsivity and the biggest challenge patience. but, with teachers' help and parental guidance, kids make baby steps in the right direction. it is hard work to think first before you do. very, very hard work.

would also want to touch on something karen mentioned about the association between developing mental illness and hard work, if i interpret what she said correctly, that if you push someone too hard, he/she may "break". since everyone is different, coming with a different baggage on the back in terms of genes and environment, everyone has a different "breaking" point. many psychiatric disorders, ie, bipolar, depression, schizo, etc manifest themselves in the adolescent years, possibly due to multifactorial triggers including hormonal changes. it is sad and we all know of a friend or a family member like that. and with confusion and guilt, we look back and ponder: now, if johnny did not break up with his GF, did not take that job where the boss was abusive, did not have to take that calculus with that that bunch of asian kids, he probably won't be like this now. which begs the question: is johnny going to develop mental illness, if not now, later, anyway? i don't know, but i think the only thing we parents can do is to anticipate the worst and act accordingly: tough but fair and realize they are our children first and what we envision them to be second.

From al ku
Posted on September 8, 2008 at 4:59 PM
i enjoy reading ron's post,,,makes a lot of sense. it is really pretty straight forward if we do not act on our extremist impulses:) learning is, as ron mentioned, about learning to develop the right attitude and that process takes time, trials and errors. the biggest enemy is impulsivity and the biggest challenge patience. but, with teachers' help and parental guidance, kids make baby steps in the right direction. it is hard work to think first before you do. very, very hard work.

would also want to touch on something karen mentioned about the association between developing mental illness and hard work, if i interpret what she said correctly, that if you push someone too hard, he/she may "break". since everyone is different, coming with a different baggage on the back in terms of genes and environment, everyone has a different "breaking" point. many psychiatric disorders, ie, bipolar, depression, schizo, etc manifest themselves in the adolescent years, possibly due to multifactorial triggers including hormonal changes. it is sad and we all know of a friend or a family member like that. and with confusion and guilt, we look back and ponder: now, if johnny did not break up with his GF, did not take that job where the boss was abusive, did not have to take that calculus with that that bunch of asian kids, he probably won't be like this now. which begs the question: is johnny going to develop mental illness, if not now, later, anyway? i don't know, but i think the only thing we parents can do is to anticipate the worst and act accordingly: tough but fair and realize they are our children first and what we envision them to be second.

From Jerald Archer
Posted on September 8, 2008 at 9:39 PM
Dear readers,

Here is part where I have to explain and defend myself:

Mr. Ku writes:

"jerald mentioned that some if not many of his beginner students quit after couple classes...

to me this is a rather intriquing situation...why so?"

I shall first answer your question with a question. Are you a teacher or even a professional performer? If so, than you can understand the great amount of work and sacrifice that is involved in both areas. In my original blog article, I hope I am getting my point across clearly, that not only am I demanding on my students, but demand the best that they can do. anything less is a waste of good time for everybody involved. The work forces of the planet are not interested it those who "just get by". I do not mean to sound too defensive, and I am certain that you are not questioning my teaching ability, as you have no idea of the technique that I use. It is not meant to entertain, it is tailored to be useful only to those students with a certain mindset. Any other method could easily be had at any local music store. I seek to give quality time to my students, and in order to obtain quality one must sometimes weed the garden, so to speak. And in response that mental illness, such as depression and bi-polar disorder is caused by too much hard work, I have to disagree by my own personal experience. It is caused by chemical anomalies in the brain, and sometimes post traumatic stress,etc.I don't think the experts(?) can really know, since the brain, and the mind, as well, are too complex to fully understand.It would be more medically sound to say that the sometimes erratic moods of a teenager are often eccentric. But I do not condone medication for children or young adults(except for very severe cases)until the youth has reached the age of at least 25 years. It is then that depression and bi-polar symptoms usually manifest themselves, and even then, medication should only be considered after much deliberation and study. Too many young adults are subjected to medications that they may not need. Some of these medications can prove dangerous, and I need not reiterate on the miriad tragedies that can occur if those medication were prescribed in haste.
I find it interesting as to how the subject of mental illness and hard work can actually be associated. I suppose there are factors that could onset a mental illness-like manifestation. The only one I've ever actually seen manifest in an individual is exaustion and, in the worst cases, death. Otherwise, there is no substitute for hard work and the rewards are not always something tangible.

From al ku
Posted on September 9, 2008 at 12:15 AM
gerald, with that post, now i see what you meant, that you have a rather selective standard for your students, thus many are "turned away" to more suitable venues. i was confused, thinking that between you and your prospective students there were communication issues, thus they did not return,,,

as far as the mental illness issue is concerned, you have brought up the term post traumatic distress...well, just imagine some kid whose heart is really not into violin is put through oppressive hard core violin training, that can be considered traumatic distress. post traumatic distress comes after that,,,

since we are not psychiatrists, we may need to leave the proper use of meds to them.

From Jerald Archer
Posted on September 9, 2008 at 12:36 AM
As everyone has an opinion,I feel justified in delivering just that. But with all due respect, I was by no means giving medical advice, just an observation. At any rate, there is enough material for me in the previous posts to help me in ascertaining the overall mindsets of the student, as well as the parent. I happen to be writing a book, on the teaching of violin, and one chapter includes the study of the psychological attributes (both normal and abnormal) of the violin and it's players, respectivly. Thanks to all the posts in helping with this project. And there's an end to that.

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