Nudging the little geek …

November 5, 2015, 7:00 AM · Should a parent ever force music lessons on a child?

If force means being a domineering stage-mom or stage-dad and making a child continue lessons long after it's clear that the kid has no interest or motivation, then my answer is no.

On the other hand, how do you discover a child's talents and leanings without the occasional push or nudge to get the kid to try things? Can't most of us recall a few activities our parents made us do that we ended up liking?

The Push I Got

My parents didn't force classical music on me. They just liked listening to it. So did I. By age 7, during the cold, gray stretch from November to March, I had made my own Saturday routine of sitting in the living room for several hours, playing one album after another from my parents' collection.

Given my listening habits, Mom and Dad sensed that I probably had musical ability. They decided to enroll me in beginning piano lessons for a trial period.

The study didn't go quite the way you might expect. For one thing, the little geek in me found Hanon's 60 Exercises more intriguing than the familiar folk tunes that my family and friends and neighbors could easily hum along to.

But I didn't get very far with Hanon -- or the folk tunes. When a professional orchestra visited and played at my elementary school, the violin muse grabbed me. Now I was actually seeing, not just hearing, how skilled musicians brought symphonic music to life.

I asked my parents if I could switch to violin. They consented but first wanted me to wait a short while to be sure this wasn't a passing fancy. It wasn't.

My piano teacher wished me well. I began violin by fingering and bowing familiar tunes by ear on a half-sized fiddle before I had my first lessons. I couldn't explain today how I managed to pull this off, but somehow I did. Thanks to early piano training, I could read music; so I next tried playing from my first violin instruction book -- the one I'd watched two other kids play from.

Jim at 15
Me, some years later, practicing at 15 y/o.

After the first few months of lessons, my teacher felt I was ready to start position-playing. She was right. But, sure enough, the little geek in me once again emerged. Harvey Whistler's Introducing the Positions, Volumes I and II, became my bedtime stories. Before turning out the light, I would leaf through the pages, eager to see what challenges lay ahead.

Where This Led

What motivated me to take up violin as a kid was my ambition to become a professional symphony player -- like the ones who had visited and played at my school. I did go on to complete a degree in performance but finally decided at age 21, soon before finishing the program, not to go into the music business after all. I could see now that small-chamber playing better suited my temperament and personality -- and schedule -- than orchestra work did.

Jim - HS Senior Year
Me -- near right, tan jacket -- tuning up on lead violin for high school musical show.

A Word to Parents

Even so, the musical training I got is something I wouldn't have wanted to miss. So I'm all for having you give your kids a little push, as my parents did with me. If they hadn't, I might still be merely an avid music listener but not an active player -- and unable to read music.

But remember -- the path might not lead quite where you predicted it would. I'm sure Mom and Dad had no idea at first that my trial lessons in piano would lead to violin studies instead. If my parents were still with us, I'd tell them -- yet again: "Thanks for getting me started."

Today …

I keep listening to orchestral music, and I practice and play violin regularly. As for piano: It will always be part of my life, too. I don't own a piano and haven't touched one for 20+ years. But I still love listening to piano music -- especially while writing or studying or doing indoor chores. It evokes fond childhood memories.

Check out these piano tracks -- just two of the hundreds I've listened to over the years. Runtimes are to nearest 5-second intervals:

Beethoven, Ludwig van.
Complete Bagatelles.
John Lill. 26 videos. Estimated total playing time: 1:15:00.

Chopin, Frédéric François.
Complete Nocturnes.
Brigitte Engerer. 2:00:05.
Photos by my Dad -- a.k.a. "Big Jim."

Slightly abridged. Adapted from original post, published October 24, 2015, on my own blog.


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