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Daniel Broniatowski

The Purpose of Violin Lessons

September 20, 2013 at 2:12 PM

Music Lesson On September 16, 2013, Mark Oppenheimer wrote an interesting article for the New Republic called, Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument. His title is controversial and as a concert violinist, founder, and director of a new Boston area classical music school called the Maestro Musicians Academy, I feel that I am in a great position to respond directly to Mr. Oppenheimer’s points.

Before I delve into my own ideas, I would like to briefly summarize what I see as Mr. Oppenhemier’s argument. In my opinion, Mr. Oppenheimer asserts that it is unwise for parents and schools to push their children into learning an art form that is “useless” (his word). He claims, based on personal experience, that forcing our children to learn violin or even origami in depth will not produce any results that can be helpful in life later on. He also goes on to say that in order to propagate an art it is not necessary that millions of students learn to a high level. Rather, he believes that it is the elite-few who should be encouraged to continue, should they have the talent and desire to continue the tradition of excellence in a particular discipline.

Yet, it is worth nothing that the author is a promoter of music in the public schools – at least up to a point. He seems to believe that all children should have access to the arts, rather than the privileged few who have the money.

Not only is Mr. Oppenheimer’s discussion stimulating and controversial – it is necessary. Mr. Oppenheimer seems to imply that the days of teaching violin, and by extension, classical music, are in the past. Many of my readers already know that the classical music world has been going through an identity crisis for some time.

So, the initial premise “Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument” is well taken and well framed if we assume that playing the violin well in itself will be the be all and end all of the music lessons.

Most people who appreciate classical music and have taken lessons understand that this goes deeper than “just learning to play the violin”. We know that developing perfect pitch, good bowing technique, and learning about Mozart will most likely not give our children practical skills that can be translated into the “real world” in themselves.

The problem with arguing against Mr. Oppenheimer’s assertion is that what we do is so personal that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. With that in mind, I will now outline some of the points that allow me to get up in the morning so that I can teach my students with a clear-conscience and feel that my work is meaningful. Disclaimer: These are my own opinions!

1. At heart, musicians are communicators. Music is a language. It is a way that one can fundamentally communicate without words.

Many children today do not know how to communicate with words, thanks to the digital era we live in. Words on a page would be meaningless without inflection and music fills in the spaces between the words so that our words have purpose. Although music lessons might not be addressing this problem outright, they are a necessary creative outlet in a world starved of genuine communication.

2. We all are born with different talents. We do not always know why we were given the talents and life is a journey.

Mr. Oppenheimer is correct that it is wrong to “force” a student to take music lessons. Yet, it is also wrong to force a student to learn math, science, or social studies. But we still require a core curriculum! I think that what the author really was trying to imply is that a student should not be required to learn music because it is irrelevant by today’s standards. Fair point, but even his own daughter is quite happy taking her violin lessons and, when asked if she would like to quit always says “no”.

If she decided one day that she wanted to pursue her violin studies more seriously, would it be right to “force” her to do something else? I know that I am answering his assertion with a question but my premise strikes at the heart of Mr. Oppenheimer’s argument. With all due respect, what he is really saying is that life is predictable and that we know what the next generation will need to succeed in this world. We certainly can guess, and this what our school’s common curriculum should address, but we do live in a world where everyone matters – or at least this should be our goal. If his daughter suddenly realized that her purpose was to use her G-d given talent to play the violin to achieve something great (WHATEVER this calling would be), would he feel right stopping her?

I believe that the answer is no and I respectfully believe that Mr. Oppenheimer actually agrees with me if I read his sentiments correctly. As a parent, he wants his children to be successful in their endeavors while being fulfilled in life. He also wants his children to have a purpose that is translatable into society at-large.

The reality of life, however, is that it IS unpredictable and finding one’s true purpose is an ongoing journey. How the violin, viola, cello, or ukulele will fit into this purpose is in the eyes of the beholder and as in Judaism, which his daughter studies after-school, the next part of the story is up to the next generation to write while standing on the shoulders of the giants who preceded.

3. Learning an instrument requires an in-depth approach, no matter what the skill level

The problem with Mr. Oppenheimer’s argument about having only the most committed students continue to learn violin in-depth is that it is based on the implied false premise that basic instrumental training is somehow easier and suitable for the masses. I have taught violin in many environments and in different countries. What I have observed is that much (but not all) of what we call talent is a question of nurture, as opposed to nature. I have seen students from all socio-economic backgrounds do equally well and equally poorly. At the end of the day, while some kids are born with a certain amount of aptitude for the violin, the talent must be encouraged and crafted by a skilled teacher. In addition, a supportive family that values hard work must be involved in the process. This starts from the very first lesson. Because of this fact, it is unfair to say that offering violin only at a beginner level is “better than” churning out “millions of fourth year violin students”. Many children do not have families that encourage them in any discipline and their violin teacher can act as a substitute parent or, at the very least, motivator. Does this mean that the student will become a professional musician? No, and nor should it, but the idea of instilling a work-ethic and commitment is a useful skill that can translate into any worthy discipline.

Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.
Parent-tested, Child Approved
Maestro Musicians Academy, Brookline, MA

From Tom Holzman
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 3:35 PM
Your points are good ones. Almost all activities kids can take part in have benefits going beyond any particular ones the kid might get from simply mastering the activity. Thus, having kids take music lessons has very little downside that I can see unless the kid is tone deaf or really hates music. Of course, the parent has to be sensitive to what the kid might want to do musically. Forcing a kid to take violin forever when the kid may be clamoring to try clarinet strikes me as counter-productive.
From Jim Hastings
Posted on September 21, 2013 at 1:32 PM
Thank you for posting this. Tom's observation -- "Forcing a kid to take violin forever when the kid may be clamoring to try clarinet strikes me as counter-productive" -- ties in with my experience.

I chose violin early. What helped pave the way was a logical progression:

- Hearing classical music at home, starting before preschool.

- Enrolling in beginning piano at 7 y/o -- my parents' idea.

- Hearing a pro orchestra play at my school.

Now I could hear and see how string players brought to life the music I loved listening to at home. That's when the violin muse stole me from piano. I asked my parents if I could switch to violin. They consented.

So, while my parents required me to get some experience playing an instrument, the choice of instrument, in the end was mine, not theirs. But getting a little push like this from my parents -- with piano -- definitely helped with violin. I can't thank them enough. I came to violin already able to read music, count, and identify key signatures. Before my first lessons, I was already fingering and bowing simple tunes on a half-sized fiddle -- and reading from what was to be my first instruction book. And when a pitch was off, I could tell.

Although, by 21, I had decided not to enter the music business, I don't regret the time and effort I put into completing a performance degree. I continue to practice and play about 3 hours a day. This is just part of who and what I am. And the disciplines I learned from the study continue to benefit other areas of my life.

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