V.com weekend vote: Should every child learn an instrument?

December 27, 2019, 1:03 PM · Numerous studies show that children gain all kinds of benefits from learning to play a musical instrument. Beyond the benefit of simply being able to make music, they open pathways in their brains that help in other subjects such as math and language, not to mention what they learn about persisting in a goal.

Kids playing violin

In the last week, an article in The Telegraph quoted Nicola Benedetti as saying that while all children should learn music in school, "I question how realistic it is to try to impose en masse the discipline and perseverance of learning an instrument."

Of course, Benedetti has strongly advocated for music in the schools, especially in the U.K., and she has worked to make it happen. But this appears to be a stepping back from calling for "a universal right to learn an instrument that protects parents from any costs," which she and a group of former winners of the BBC Young Musician prize had called for in a letter published in 2018 in The Guardian They also wrote that "it is crucial to restore music's rightful place in children's lives, not only with all the clear social and educational benefits, but showing them the joy of making and sharing music."

I probably would not be a violinist today, if my public school had not started me on the violin and supported my early efforts. Of course, I was lucky to have continued support from my parents, allowing me to take private lessons, once it was clear that I was inclined to be a musician.

I feel this raises several questions: How important is instrumental music, in a child's general education? And to what degree should it be publicly supported? Also, is it truly possible for every child to learn a musical instrument? Suzuki certainly thought that "every child can," when given the right opportunity and support.

Please participate in the vote and then share your thoughts in the comments.

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December 27, 2019 at 07:51 PM · I doubt that we'll get much response to #3 as a self selected group. I voted for every child should have a chance to learn. Not everyone will want to learn an instrument and forcing them to one can turn them off for the long term. For example, my mother as a child was forced to learn accordion, which she hated, she wanted to learn guitar or piano, as soon as she could she stopped accordion and never did learn either of the others.

I think the key should be music education, exposure to the instruments, learn to read music and sing, then follow their interests.

December 27, 2019 at 09:50 PM · My opening with parents and potential students is: "There is only one reason for anyone to learn how to play an instrument -- because YOU want to."

I've had parents go ballistic when I say that and I suggest that they find another teacher.

My introduction to instruments was in seventh grade when each student in Jr. High (now "middle school") had to attempt to play/make a sound with all the instruments in the orchestra. I learned that while I loved the violin, reeds, particularly double reeds were really uncomfortable, that the embouchure of the trombone was comfortable, all of the other brass instruments were either too small or too big. The flute was ok but I really liked the violin over the viola, cello and bass.

There was no pressure to study any instrument but the HS band that came out of our class was one of the best because everyone had an idea about which instrument they really wanted to play.

My learning the violin was put on hold as my parents were not going to fund that exercise. In my late 20's I finally started my journey and have been on it since.

Lastly, I see some young musicians in the Youth Orchestra that are being coerced by their parents because the parents believe that playing an instrument is good for them. Minimal participation, late for rehearsals, avoiding private lessons, spending a lot of time in the bathroom during rehearsals,... All signs of acting out. Opportunity yes, requirement no way.

December 27, 2019 at 11:08 PM · I voted "Every child should have the chance, but not be required." My recommendation to parents and teachers: It's fine to give kids a little push or nudge to see what will happen. If my parents hadn’t nudged me, I might still be only a Saturday listener but not an active player -- and unable to read music. But I don't believe anyone should force music lessons on a child if, over time, it becomes clear that the kid has no interest or motivation.

When I was 7 y/o, my parents suspected I had musical ability, because I was already listening, on my own, to full-length symphonic works at home. During the cold, gray stretch from November to March, this became a regular Saturday routine for me -- several hours at a stretch each Saturday morning and afternoon -- playing one classical album after another from the family record collection.

My parents enrolled me in beginning piano lessons on a trial basis. Little geek that I was, I found the Hanon 60 Exercises more intriguing than the simple tunes that family members and friends could sing along to.

I didn't get far with Hanon, though -- or the rest of piano, for that matter, because the violin muse soon got hold of me. A professional orchestra came to play at my elementary school. Now I was seeing in person how the pros actually made some of the music I'd already heard at home.

I next started fingering and bowing simple tunes by ear on a half-sized fiddle -- before I had my first lessons. I was originally slated to start violin in the public school program but ended up going with a private teacher instead.

December 27, 2019 at 11:52 PM · Every child should be given the opportunity to see whether or not they enjoy playing a musical instrument. If they enjoy playing, they should be given the resources to continue to learn, and see where it goes from there. If they decide they'd rather not play, then that's fine, although they should always be given the opportunity to learn if they change their minds later in their childhood or adolescence. The same goes for dance, visual art, vocal music, theater, and so on.

December 28, 2019 at 12:38 AM · Being an academic requirement does not mean pushing to play a particular instrument, does it?

In the examples above, child did not want to play accordion, but did want to learn another instrument.

I voted for the second, taking into a account that there is so many different instruments, that there is no chance that a child dislike ALL of them. Drums are always an option ))))

Music lessons give the skills which other disciplines can not provide.

Self-criticism, team work, patience. And understanding dependence "effort-results".

And it is on top of possibility to create joy for yourself and others.

December 28, 2019 at 04:31 AM · Playing an instrument should rank with learning basic life skills, like reading, writing, and arithmetic; similar benefits may be experienced from sports. This is about synchronizing the eyes, the hands, and the ears. it's not until you rise to the culinary arts that you begin incorporating the senses of smell and taste.

December 28, 2019 at 05:13 AM · I voted that every child should have the opportunity. I started the violin in Jr. High School (now called Middle School).

The schools around me don't teach strings. They do teach band instruments, however, because football is a big priority here, and football games need marching bands.

I'm told that the funding just isn't there to hire strings teachers.

At least children have the opportunity to learn some kinds of instruments, but I'm partial to strings!

December 28, 2019 at 06:50 AM · Having taught many whole class projects for violin and viola I discovered that the requirement for every child to learn doesn’t work. You end the projects with the children who had no interest still having no interest, the children who are very able being bored and put off learning and children who often want to continue being unable to because of financial problems. The money would be better spent giving children an opportunity to see and experience instruments of all types and then allowing them to choose if and what they would like to learn along with public financial support to do so. Music should be a core subject as it has the ability to change lives through rewiring of the way the brain works and it’s ability to transcend gender, social strata, religion etc.

December 28, 2019 at 07:03 AM · I think music theory, solfege, music history and music appreciation should be mandatory. Learning to play an instrument comes from wanting to make music and I don't see how imposing it on someone who does not wish to make music would accomplish anything other than frustrations. The desire to play must come first. Parental influence is very significant, but the school system also has a responsibility to educate beyond the limited home microcosm. I know men that loved opera, once they actually seen one later in life, that would not have been caught dead admitting they do at a younger age, it's just not cool and general lack of music education has a lot to do with it.

December 28, 2019 at 02:38 PM · We have these discussions about other things too. Teach every child to play chess, for example, or contract bridge. Like violin, these games are boundless in their complexity, they teach concentration and accountability, they're culturally universal (especially chess), and they combine technical skill with an appreciation for symmetry and beauty.

One big problem school children face when learning violin is an often binary choice between playing a team sport and other avocations. With long daily practices, weekend commitments, and compulsory attendance, students can hardly do anything else. In my opinion, state scholastic athletic associations should regulate the length of practices (say, to two hours per day and students can have a day off once a week). Scholastic accomplishment will also rise if they cut back on the amount of time consumed by team sports.

Chess has another advantage over violin ... its MUCH less expensive.

December 28, 2019 at 04:20 PM · I've written about my late father's job before, e.g., https://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20182/25675/, but I want to mention additionally that at the very start all school pupils reaching the requisite age were assembled and were given a series of several tests designed to identify any who would not be able to learn a stringed instrument (e.g., if they couldn't hold their left hand so that their first and second fingers were aligned together simultaneously with their third and fourth fingers being aligned together, but the two pairs separated by a significant distance - sorry to make such a dog's dinner of the description!). All children not identified as incapable were offered the "free" loan of a stringed instrument and "free" classes in which to be taught to play it (of course nothing like that is free; in this case the Borough ratepayers footed the bill - but I think the Borough got value for money).

December 28, 2019 at 04:58 PM · I voted that it should be an academic requirement. I realise that some children will have no aptitude and/or be put off, but experience suggests to me (I'm an ex-teacher, have taught all ages) that if it's just optional, many children won't try it, because they fear the unknown or think it might be difficult.

How often did I get the response from kids grumbling that they 'had to' do maths - but yet they got benefit out of it, and some even shone.

It should maybe be the requirement for two years of junior school education, and a report written on it. There should be a choice of instrument which could include percussion as well. No exams though - preferably a joint performance at the end of the two years.

After that, if they wanted to, they could give it up.

I think it's so important to develop the brain in this way while young.

I only learned the violin because my parents wanted me to have a hobby-accomplishment, I'd already turned down ballet and riding lessons, and the local education committee had a scheme of free violin lessons in school.

I gave it up, but the education stood me in good stead, and now, after my husband, my violin is the Love of my Life!

December 28, 2019 at 07:30 PM · Who pays for this? Where I live, parents get "donation lists" of stuff that we're supposed to bring on Day 1 every year ... Clorox wipes, windex, kleenex, glue sticks, white board pens, etc. etc. When that stuff runs out, teachers are buying their own supplies at Wal Mart because there is no budget. Too few counselors and nurses and resource officers, and you want to hire violin teachers? Let them eat cake, I guess.

December 28, 2019 at 08:47 PM · My son's school had Suzuki violin for all the kids in the k-2 multiage class. It was a bold, inspired experiment but ultimately failed (for reasons that I can get into if anyone's interested.) The Orff program that other kids got to do had a wider range of instrumental opportunities and I thought it was a good intro to a broad range of kids. They do teach recorder still, to all kids, and that seems reasonable. What I really wish all schools taught is the ability to read music and sight sing. My church choir is getting alarmingly old and creaky/croaky--and the next couple of generations don't seem to have the skills to join.

December 28, 2019 at 10:11 PM · I think everyone should have the opportunity to learn an instrument, if they want to.

Because of an injury playing youth football in grade school I was unable to participate in organized sports. Since my parents wanted me to at least try something I said guitar.

This wasn't offered in school so I started private lessons. Took them for several years.

In 8th grade the band director pulled out class to talk to me because they needed a percussionist and heard I had taken guitar lessons. Since I could read music and count rythm he changed my schedule and I started band with out a single drum lesson.

In my sixties now and still have my snare drum and several guitars, a mandolin and harmonica.

All because I was given the opportunity.

December 28, 2019 at 11:30 PM · Also, Children should have the opportunity to try different instruments. The physical and mental talents are different for the different instruments. In the middle ages, Music, meaning music theory, was a required subject at the Universities. Related idea; why do medical schools admit so many applicants with a music background? Because learning an instrument demonstrates self-discipline, daily work, and dedication to a multi-year big project.

December 29, 2019 at 12:26 AM · I think it's been comprehensively shown that learning an instrument helps in every other lesson AS WELL.

However, beware of too much free stuff.

Here in Belfast, in earlier years - don't know about currently.

Lessons were free, string replacements were free ( and awful - the cheapest steel strings) and you could hire an instrument for pennies.

Which meant that at age 18, you HAD to hand back the instrument.

If you wanted to continue, you had to BUY an instrument at the same time as all the expenses of university. Guess what lost out?

Conversely, I had to provide my own instrument, and lessons were subsidised a bit. So I went to uni with my own instrument. and a proven wish to continue playing.

December 29, 2019 at 01:22 AM · Of course I voted with the majority. On the other hand, I think "have a chance" is a bit weak. I still like my school system's approach. My school was entirely working class. So in 5th grade the required music class (which was mostly singing folkish songs) was, for months, hands-on instruments. They had class sets each of brass, woodwinds, percussion, strings. You could sign up to take an instrument home, you could change instruments. I had clarinet, trumpet, and some string (viola or violin, don't remember). So each student had "a chance" to learn a bit expense free because the school system was just a bit pushy.

December 29, 2019 at 02:56 AM · I was surprised that I voted with the majority. I would have said it should be _required_ but then I remembered my son. His school required that students do some kind of music in 4th and 5th grade, and my husband put his foot down, remembering his own childhood experience. Fortunately as an adult, he discovered he had a real talent for the electric guitar and ended up composing for it (at a pretty high level, according to a professional composer neighbor). In addition, he took a self-directed course in college on atonal music. He knows a ton more music theory than I do. The interesting thing is that he exposed my daughter to his very eclectic music tastes and now she often puts on some of that music to study by.

December 30, 2019 at 02:59 PM · Normally, we can't graduate from high school if we can meet the "academic requirement" for the classes we took. It means we need to pass certain classes. By making music an "academic requirement", does that mean there are grade exams (ie ABRSM) associated with these music classes to check that I did reach certain level "academically"?

Whatever Nicola Benedetti is doing is likely to be well-meaning. However, she can represent classical music, which is only a part of the music world. Does it make sense to force a child to attend classical music lesson when his heart is on metal/rocks? Why singing opera is "academic" and singing Taylor Swift is not? Does it has to be western music by the way? What if I am into Indian 22 tone scale, or some folk music of some remote tribes? Where can the school get the expertise to allow those freedom, or someone will tell me apart from piano or violin lesson, anything else are not "music"?

December 30, 2019 at 05:39 PM · I voted it should be an academic requirement. No need for all children to take up a stringed instrument, but some basic knowledge of how to produce instrumental music is part of a complete education because just about everyone consumes some sort of music.

Be wary of claims that music education benefits other aspects of children's education. I doubt there are any randomized trials of the impact of violin learning on academic achievement, for example. Children whose parents invest in their music education are likely to invest in other aspects of their education also. Ditto for enriched school districts that have good music programs. Correlation does not imply causation.

December 31, 2019 at 04:51 PM · Throughout grade school and college, it was clear that social stratification was taking placed based on your musical instrument (band versus orchestra), whether you had private lessons, whether you were a member of a prestigious youth orchestra, whether you got to go to summer music camps, and whether you were entering and winning local/national performance competitions. Those parents who heavily encouraged their children to play musical instruments were doing more than giving the gift of music; they were presumably selecting the social circles that their children would join. Moreover, if you were able to do a varsity sport AND play a musical instrument well (string instrument in particular), you were likely heading to an Ivy League school (in the US) or a high-end college. So, some of the indirect impacts of learning and building social circles around your musical instrument can be huge.

December 31, 2019 at 06:32 PM · I think every child should have the opportunity to learn an instrument, just like every child has the opportunity to try different sports in the phys ed program. Children should be given the opportunity to explore different activities and find their passion. Just like phys ed, I think some compulsory basic music education is good to have. I think exposure to different genres and instruments, learning to sing and learning some music reading are a key part of basic music education. Most of my music education has come from outside of the school system, but in my little city students are required to do band for one to two years. But yes, I think that in order to succeed on an instrument, you have to want it. Otherwise you will give up.

As some of the posters have already mentioned, I really think parents should give a little push or nudge to get their kids to try different extracurricular activities, including music study. I think requiring a kid to try something for a short period of time is reasonable, but forcing them to keep going for the rest of their lives is not reasonable. I feel that kids should have some choice in deciding whether to pursue an activity long-term or not. Take my learning viola journey as an example. I was 12 years old, signed up for chamber music at music school, there was a viola shortage and violinists get assjgned the viola part. That happened to me. I was very resistant and didn't want to play viola, but everyone pushed and forced me into it and I'm so glad because ever since I started playing viola I was in love with it, especially with the notion of having a deep, rich, juicy sounding C string. I was the one who ultimately chose to keep playing viola because I love it.

January 1, 2020 at 06:52 PM · An article about the closing of a community music school in Manhattan showed up on my Google feed this morning: https://gothamist.com/arts-entertainment/what-death-manhattan-music-school-says-about-opportunity-classical-world. The author argues that opportunity is not enough to nurture talent--you need money too.

The author attended a private school in Baltimore on scholarship and was offered an opportunity to play an instrument. His parents told him he was not responsible enough for it, which he apparently believed until he grew up and learned that the real reason was that his parents knew they could not afford it. He writes, "Pursuing music, especially in a city like New York, is crazy expensive. For those that want to go beyond an amateur level, you need funds to buy an instrument suited to the rigours of intermediate or advanced playing, not to mention pay for private instruction. That a school could exist to make both of these things possible? A veritable dream."

For me, this article highlights the gaslighting we do to children with our doctrine of "equal opportunity" that is anything but (at least in the USA). We blame them. "You're not responsible enough to learn an instrument," in this case. Or "You're not disciplined enough to learn the cello in your public school program," when the teacher providing instruction is harried, uninspired, uninspiring, and plays the trombone.

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