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Susan Pascale

PLAYING FOR LIFE; How to keep your child engaged in music, from early childhood through the teens

September 1, 2010 at 4:05 PM

How many parents have given their children years of music lessons, only to have the child one day announce: "I quit!"

It can be heartbreaking for the parent, not least because of the thousands of dollars they may have invested in lessons and instruments.

But inevitably, years later, the former teen will say, “I never should have quit the violin (or cello or viola)! I wish my parents had forced me to stick with it!”
Being a music school director for the past ten years, and the parent of three youngsters (an 8-year-old, a teenager, and a former teen), I have seen this sort of thing happen again and again. So I have made it one of my primary missions to create an environment that keeps kids in music, from tot through teen years. Here are some of my most powerful techniques for keeping children involved in, and passionate about, their music.
1. Start them young - on piano. I have found that children who begin with piano, and then come into my violin or other stringed instrument class, ALWAYS do better than children who have not had early piano training. Violin and other stringed instruments are difficult, due to the many aspects one must focus on at once. They are also physically challenging. Piano is a lot easier for pre-K kids to grasp. Once the student has a basic understanding of music, including note-reading, rhythm, and practice, they are freer to focus on the technical challenges of the stringed instrument. I now require tots to take my KinderPiano® class, and I encourage parents to keep those lessons going until they enter my violin class
2. Don't go it alone! How many parents enroll their children in private music lessons, only to have them refuse to go because don't know anyone? Yet the same child will participate in almost any activity if at least one friend is present! Group beginning music classes can be a lot of fun for the younger set, and particularly ideal for children age 3½ years through 5 ½, depending on their maturity. (For help in deciding whether your youngster is old enough to start lessons, see ‘Is Your Child Ready for Music Lessons’, at
3. Kids who play together like to PLAY together! The more opportunities the children have to play the more they will improve. In addition to private lessons, as soon as the child is eligible, we place him or her in a performing group. At our school, graduates of our beginning KinderViolin® class will enroll in private lessons and in our training orchestra. More advanced players go into our children’s orchestra, for ages 4 to 11. Older students are encouraged to join regional youth orchestras. Ninety-nine percent of the time, once the initial excitement of playing an instrument has passed, it is the group playing that the kids will remain excited about. Children love to be with other children! Participation leads to more practicing, especially if the conductor or musical director connects well with children.
In addition to private lessons and orchestra, many participate in our chamber music program. I started the chamber music program with four kindergarten girls who knew each other from orchestra. After a few months together they named themselves the BFF (‘Best Friends Forever’) They have been playing together for 3 years by now. They’ve performed for our US congressman, senior centers, local schools, and even at our local farmer’s market. What I’ve discovered is that the kids in the quartet were developing faster and playing better, so I set out to form more groups and a chamber music program within the Strings Program.
4.Keep em' in the spotlight! It is rare that a kid doesn't thrive from the envelopment of warm feelings, positive attention, and sense of accomplishment that they feel after a performance, (not to mention camaraderie with their fellow performers). Whether it's performing in a studio recital, a solo competition; or with their youth orchestra at Carnegie Hall, performances are key to keeping up a child's interest, and improving their playing. The vast majority of children who only do private lessons, and don’t have any performance opportunities, will eventually lose interest and drop out.
5. Stay positive! When in doubt, do not shout, berate, belittle, or threaten to drop the lessons. None of the negative stuff works, and it will just lead to more frustration for you, and your child. Even when it feels like your child is not meeting your or the teacher's expectations, remain positive. Your child may just be going through a rough patch.
To get through it, with the little ones, offer small rewards for practicing daily or weekly. It could be a sticker or a trip to the toy store. In their teens, you can relax their practice schedule if it feels like too much of a burden. When my teen son decided that he wanted to quit saxophone, his teacher suggested that he just practice five minutes a day. He did this for over a year, continuing to participate in various orchestras and jazz groups. It worked! He continued playing saxophone through high school, and received a huge music scholarship to college. Although he has decided not to make music his career, he continues to make money with his instrument through teaching and gigging.
6. Summer and school breaks are a great time to move ahead! Rather than taking a break from music lessons, vacation is actually a great time to make headway. It's an opportunity for life-changing musical adventures or just plain getting lots accomplished. Enroll your child in a summer music program that offers something different in the way of lessons and orchestra or chamber music. For teens, there are many programs away from home, in beautiful settings in the mountains or countryside. The more your child improves the more they will like playing, and the more they will feel good about themselves. It's the child who lags behind who will want to stop practicing or worse, quit.
7. Don't overschedule. Although we want our children to be well-rounded, it's better for their psyche for them to excel in one thing. And if that one thing is playing a musical instrument, it will have tremendous benefits. Skill on a musical instrument sets them apart from their peers. They will begin to identify themselves as a musician, which is great for their self-esteem. Excelling at a musical instrument - especially strings - will help in applications for arts schools and programs, and eventually, colleges! Most colleges have orchestras with many chairs to fill. There is usually a need for many more violin, viola, cello and bass players!
8. Stay committed. Staying committed to your child's music education may be the hardest part of raising your child, but I can say from first-hand experience, it's worth it! The experiences your child will have being a musician will shape their lives (not to mention their brains) in a way that cannot be duplicated. Music promotes self-esteem, teamwork, and good study habits, and it has shaped the lives of many youngsters in a most profound way.
 Taking all these steps will make it far more likely that your child will have lifelong appreciation for their instrument and for music.

Susan Pascale has been director of the South Pasadena Strings Program for 10 years. She has won numerous awards for her work with children and her innovative teaching style, ‘The Pascale Method.’ Her unique class offerings include KinderPiano®, for children age 3 ½ and up, and KinderViolin® , for ages 4 1/2and up. Her award-winning South Pasadena Children’s Orchestra recently set a record for being the youngest orchestra ever to perform at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Pascale attributes the success of that orchestra to the fact that the children started so young. She oversees each student and their progress under high-level private teachers. For more information, go to, or call 626/403-4611.

From di allen
Posted on September 1, 2010 at 6:10 PM

these are good points.  I would also say, that if a parent or adult wants to expose a child to music lessons, and music generally, they should also accept that it may not be the child's 'thing' - and they have a right to opt out.  Yes, I meet people almost daily who wish they'd stuck with it, but that's just how it is.  I agree that starting with piano is best - though this may sound sacrilegious to some.  I began piano at 7, learning about harmony, how to read music  etc and never found it too difficult.  I studied for 10 years, and now play reasonably well.  Last year, at age 68, I took up the violin - and find, wow, this is hard.  how does anybody learn this from scratch?    if i were not a musician already, cannot imagine doing this.   but thanks for this advice, which I will pass on to others.

From Janis Cortese
Posted on September 1, 2010 at 7:13 PM

I'm biased of course :-), but I also agree about piano.  Piano is physically easy and mentally ungodly since you are thinking about ALL aspects of music and absorbing more music theory than you can imagine just by playing it -- and yet making the noise itself is just a matter of pushing a button.  Strings so far to me have been musically very easy but physically and technically incredibly challenging.  Now, I'm a beginner so I'm not playing the scary stuff my instructor can pop off without thinking, and it will be years before I can do that if ever.  But nevertheless, there is a massive depth to what a piano can do in that it's pretty much a one-person orchestra.  I had no idea what I was learning while I was learning it, and now I can scratch my way through one of the Bach things in Suzuki and know without realizing it, "Ah, that G# is there because I'm in an E7 heading to the relative minor."  You really get a 30,000 foot level view of music with a grounding in piano, and its shallower "learning curve" in terms of just getting it to make a decent noise is more rewarding in the earlier stages.  It doesn't start to wring you out until you've been doing it for a while.  :-)  It's more deceptively seductive in that way; strings smack you in the face with a brick wall from the first moment.

From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on September 2, 2010 at 12:08 PM

Susan I agree with your points.  As the parent of a teen who started viola in grade school and announced in High School that "I quit!" - I concur with all of the things you brought up.  While my daughter was given the supportive environment to continue playing in the home and with a private instructor, she unfortunately had an instructor in High School that as she put it,"made playing music horrible."

I thought it was just teen angst, but as it turned out fully more than half of the school orchestra quit because of this instructor.  How sad.

I began learning the viola 24 months ago.  At first, my daughter was scornful of my attempt - telling me that I would soon discover that it "wasn't all that" and that she was glad "to be away from it.".  I dutifully practiced and progressed over the months, and now that I am doing a side by side with a major Symphony, I've seen her interest begin to spark.  (*what will you be playing*)

I saved her old viola.  It hangs patiently in the room where I practice on my own instrument.  It will be there for her one day should she ever decide to return to it.  And, I think, one day she will pick it up again.

---Ann Marie

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 2, 2010 at 1:10 PM

I agree in theory with the point that taking piano lessons early is helpful for musical development, but my experience with adults doesn't square with the idea that it helps keep people engaged lifelong.  I know legions of adults who took a few years of piano lessons as kids, disliked it, and then quit and no longer play anything.  For myself, I wish I had been able to study piano too, but my family only had the resources for one instrument for me, and I chose violin.  I think your other point about the benefits of playing with others is a big factor there.  If you can only play one instrument, and you play the piano only, you don't have the opportunity to play in a band or orchestra.

I also don't think that kids who dislike performance and the spotlight are as rare as music teachers think they are.  I didn't have recitals growing up and I if I'd been forced to play solo in public I would have quit right then and there.  My violin student daughter is similar--she does it because her teacher and her parents think it's good for her, but it's like pulling teeth to get her to play in public.  And she's not so unusual among her friends, even her friends in orchestra.



From Michael Pijoan
Posted on September 2, 2010 at 4:35 PM

Personally I'm skeptical of the whole "piano first" idea.  If I had a child of my own and he or she expressed an interest in violin specifically I would let them start violin.  It worked for me.

From Janis Cortese
Posted on September 2, 2010 at 7:17 PM

I don't think a kid should ever be refused an instrument that they ask for specifically ... if they say, "Violin!" then go for it.  But even then, supplementing it with piano is great, especially if the parent themselves plays.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on September 3, 2010 at 1:52 AM

I was one of the "piano first" kids.  For me, it was a good fit.  But I'm fond of stating and re-stating that one size doesn't fit all.  What worked for me won't work for all others.

Before I began elementary school, I had already been listening to classical music at home and had always liked it.  Yet, at the time, I had no interest in playing an instrument.  Mom was a skilled pianist and a former child piano whiz -- I'm sure this had something to do with my parents starting me on piano lessons when I was 7 years old.

I definitely began to show some curiosity quite early regarding music theory -- key signatures, major and minor modes, meters, chord progressions.  Then an excellent community orchestra played at my elementary school.  I caught the violin bug right then and was soon fingering and bowing simple tunes on a small fiddle -- several months before the first lessons.  I couldn't explain now how I managed this, but somehow I did.

Later, when I majored in violin performance and had to have x number of hours of piano studies as part of the program, I was thankful, indeed, for the early piano lessons.

My piano skill level is rudimentary -- I couldn't hope to pull off some of the whiz stuff the professionals and advanced amateurs can do.  But I'm glad I learned early how to read treble and bass -- and how to play simple tunes and form basic chords.

I'm sure this early influence is one reason I especially like violin-piano combos -- and why I value so much what a good accompanist can do.

From Christina C.
Posted on September 3, 2010 at 4:51 PM

- I do think that starting on the piano is a great way to get the basic music-skills going before adding the difficulties of learning a stringed instrument into the mix

-I'm very happy to see that group music is included in your list- playing with others definitely helps to make it fun and will help to keep them interested.... but along those lines, another point I would add is to...

-keep kids inspired! Parents should make a point of taking their kids to concerts featuring their instrument.... help inspire them & remind them of just how great  playing their instrument can be.

From di allen
Posted on September 3, 2010 at 5:33 PM

parents who give their children music lessons are a noble band of martyrs.  my mother, for example, had to fight my dad every saturday for the 75 cents to pay my teacher.  i will always be grateful.    and one added gift i received - learning and being fascinated by words like 'allegro, andante, pianissimo, largo, etc.  this led me into the study of foreign languages - eight so far.  another benefit of music study, even if the so-called 'mozart effect' has been discredited.

From Eloise Garland
Posted on September 4, 2010 at 1:13 AM

 I'm not sure if I'm the only one who differs with a few of your points... but I generally do. 

I've never been in the belief that starting on the piano first is a better idea then just going straight into the strings. Although I can see the point of it and the fact the piano is not only a very visual instrument but one to develop skills very well, I believe that the violin still is a good instrument to get started on. I know I am biased at that, and violin was my first instrument (I'd been singing for some months before in a church choir though) and I never really went through any 'squeaky stages'... but it worked well. I enjoyed at it and excelled well from day one, and because I like to hear the note maybe more than see it, I was perfectly happy learning from the violin.


I am a believer in private lessons, I have to say. I've had both private and group lessons before and I have always found it much more comfortable during the private ones... however, I do have to say that for younger kids, group lessons are more likely to work. Saying this, though, brings me onto another of my points... I strongly believe a child is not ready to play an instrument until they are just a bit older, maybe 6 or 7. The reason I say this is because I think that is their prime time for being interested and wanting to get involved. A three or four year old child, from my eyes, seems pushed. Surely a kid that age does not have their own drive to keep at such a skill by themselves? They are only just coming out of toddler stage by then and can barely make their own decision on what they want for their packed-lunch to take to nursery without swapping and changing every few seconds!!

Anyway, I'm waffling on now. They are my only things really, otherwise I think the rest of the advice is good! As a post above said its not 'one shoe fits all'...

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