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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Should kids stop learning to play musical instruments?

September 20, 2013 at 5:38 PM

I'll admit it, this article, called Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument, got on my nerves this week.

Not that I think people should "force" their children to play the violin or anything else. But I certainly do believe in the value of music education and literacy. Probably the most unnerving thing about the article was the author's underlying musical illiteracy, revealed in this comment, "Look, I love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but one could make the argument that Rebekah (his daughter) would be better off learning to play the Lumineers’ 'Ho Hey' on guitar."

Nice pop song. But it would take about five minutes to learn the four chords in "Ho Hey" on the guitar. I'd estimate that it would a person around 12 years of music education to learn the literally hundreds of skills required to play the Mendelssohn concerto. Guess what? If you have learned the Mendelssohn, you can get very easily to the bottom of that Lumineers song and just about any other music, no problem.

Why devote years to getting to the level of playing the Mendelssohn Concerto? For the same reason why you devote 12 years getting to Calculus class, or the reason you devote 12 years getting to the point where you can read Shakespeare and understand it. Education teaches you to think, and we do need adults who can think. It doesn't matter if you still play the instrument that helped you get an inside view of music, or if you still do the calculus problems that stretched your brain to the highest level of math, or if you regularly go back to reading the Iliad. You are an educated person for all these things, better able to appreciate culture, function in the world, and contribute to your community as a citizen.

And so. This week's vote:

From Natasha Marsalli
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 5:48 PM
I think- out of fairness- this vote ought to be placed somewhere that isn't predominantly visited by musicians and music educators. ;)
From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 5:59 PM
I think that life ain't fair! ;) And that headline of the original article REALLY wasn't fair!

Actually it is interesting that the responses to the original blog in the New Republic (which is not a website necessarily populated by a huge bunch of music teachers and classical music aficionados) were nearly universally protective of music education and classical music!

From oliviu dorian constantinescu
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 7:47 PM
I wholeheartedly agree with the article. Children should not be forced to play a musical instrument just because their tiger moms want to. And I completely disagree with the question submitted for voting. It's not "Should kids stop learning", but "Should kids stop being forced". Rephrase that question first, ask for votes later.
From Jim Hastings
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 9:08 PM
The author sums it up for me here:

"Rebekah, for her part, will continue with ballet. And violin. Periodically, we ask her if she’d like to quit, and she always says no. That’s good enough for us."

As one who strongly favors music education and classical music, I agree that parents shouldn't force kids to play musical instruments. That doesn't mean parents shouldn't enroll a kid in lessons for a time to see whether or not the kid might like playing.

My own childhood experience bears this out. Our parents played classical music frequently on radio and recordings. They didn't force it down our throats. They just happened to like it. It caught on with me. At 7 y/o, every Saturday, especially in winter, I would play one classical LP -- forerunner of the CD -- after another for 3-5 hours.

That's when my parents decided to enroll me in beginning piano lessons. They wanted me to get some experience in playing an instrument. Since our family had a piano, that was a logical first choice. But soon a pro orchestra played at my elementary school, and the violin muse stole me from piano. Now I really wanted to make music, because I'd found the right instrument for me. I made the switch. My piano skill never developed beyond the basics.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 9:35 PM
This man chose an inflammatory title, probably hoping to stir people up. I question how he would feel about football or basketball for kids. Karate? I'm surprised he does see the value in Hebrew school. My guess is that synagogue attendance and membership is sinking faster than symphony ticket sales.

One definition of a philistine is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 11:27 PM
I totally agree that music as well as sports or any activity should not be forced. One should expose many options to kids and kids should take the one they like.

I am, on the other hand, for seriously trying to find a serious discipline the kid loves because it will teach him/her so many good life lessons and skills he/she will be able to use later on in life...

By the way, the Ho-Hey song analogy was so funny :)

From Gail Nelson
Posted on September 21, 2013 at 1:18 AM
Haha - I laugh about the idea of "forcing" kids to learn an instrument, when I have for four years taught the recorder to hundreds of kindergarten/first grade students in a public school. I can count on one had the number kids who truly did not connect with music. I think if we start them early enough, we don't have the problem of "forcing" them, they'll have an idea they'd like to play at least as a hobby. Most often I think we introduce kids to formal music too late. After they've already decided it's not cool or whatever.

Heck, I wrote a book just so parents could even try their hand at it.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 21, 2013 at 1:08 AM
No kid should be forced. Support and encouragement are always good though.

I've never heard of The Lumineers before, nor sampled their latest endeavor "Ho Hey". Maybe I'll slip it in between Wicks' Sibelius and "Wozzeck". Sure.

I've never seen the movie "Dazed and Confused" either. Isn't that a movie about kids smoking a lot of pot? Um, no.

I'm sorry for his child. His repeated "are you sure?" suggests his support is iffy, at best. Kids pick up signals and signs. They are not stupid.

I'm a little surprised that someone with such a distinguished publishing and academic career doesn't appreciate the beautiful lessons of resilience (among other things) that the fine arts offer.

Puzzling, isn't it...

Is he one of *the* Oppenheimers?

From Raphaela Rocha
Posted on September 21, 2013 at 3:28 AM
Of course not! They actually SHOULD learn how to play an instrument, as long as they're not forced to. Studies have constantly shown that learning to play an instrument at an early age brings countless benefits in both short and long periods! :)
From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on September 21, 2013 at 5:50 AM
This one is good timing for me. I let my daughter quit the piano after 2 years, but I have not allowed her to quit trumpet. I think that secretly she's glad. She's 11 and not mature enough to realize that mastering anything is hard, and if you quit when it gets hard, then many years down the road you'll regret not having made the effort. (Well it might not be trumpet, but it will be something for sure.) I'm also afraid, given a hint she recently dropped, that she'll think I'm a wimpy mom for giving in on something she really, deep down, does enjoy. And what 11 year old likes to practice?
From Sean Gillia
Posted on September 22, 2013 at 3:30 PM
In response to one of the posters here, my take (after reading the article once a few days ago and having no energy or desire to read it again) is that the title of the piece was a red herring. The article was much less an attack on tiger moms and forced instrument learning than it was a troll-like, inflammatory attack on the value of music and, therefore, the study of music. The author displayed a breathtaking narrow mindedness -- indeed, ignorance -- that Laurie and others here have addressed.
From Mark Roberts
Posted on September 23, 2013 at 2:56 AM
I like all shakespeare's plays except the ones I did at school.....
From Joshua Iyer
Posted on September 24, 2013 at 1:56 AM
Ooh! Ooh! Debate topic for an assignment in English! :)

I think that kids learning a musical instrument is a good thing. Just like sports or dance, a musical instrument is just another thing to expose them to. My sister did a ton of things when she was younger, in elementary school, some with me - swimming, piano, reading, dance, Girl Scouts, soccer, etc. - and she still did some musical things. Now, in middle school, she's focused on what she wants to do - writing. I think parents should expose their kids to as many things as possible when they're young. If they don't like to play music, that's ok! Don't force them to continue if they don't want to.

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