the problem with early starters? :)

February 26, 2008 at 07:32 PM · Neat article, in terms of drive and urge to learn and excel, other than the age difference, there is quite a bit of similarities between early and late starters.

parents of early starters, early starters, late starters, your thoughts!

Replies (34)

February 26, 2008 at 10:27 PM · Starting children on the violin needs to begin with an expectation of outcome and an assessment of the child's talent and interest.

A realistic expectation for parents is that their child become a capable amateur who has an adult life that includes the violin. This is possible for any reasonably intelligent child who has (1) an interest in music, (2) ordinary pitch discrimination and (3) typical physical coordination.

All other achievements above and beyond that must be fully determined by the child (but supported by the parent).

Given that expectation, a parent shouldn't start a child before about nine years of age unless the child demands (I seriously mean demands) the opportunity and demonstrates unusual musical aptitude. Children without such aptitude make no more progress before nine than a nine year old makes during the first year.

Even then no child should be started without their consent and their commitment to make an effort to achieve some success. Once they do, parents owe it to a child to enforce an appropriate measure of discipline in practice and study.

Each situation is different and parents' biggest challenge is determining how much discipline can be applied to keep a child going in music. No easy answers here and there are probably more mistakes made here in either direction (strictness and lenience) than there are correct decisions.

February 27, 2008 at 01:52 AM · Corwin,

I totally agree with your post. Just as you described, I'm now "a capable amateur who has an adult life that includes the violin."

I started at age 6, but slacked off until I was in High School; I think the natural angst that anyone goes through as a teen lends depth to the playing of any musical instrument.

Fortunately for me, I wasn't pushed so much as encouraged into playing the violin. I sort of "grew into it" at my own pace, and I'm glad I did.

February 27, 2008 at 03:27 AM · Oh I see plenty of happy kids, playing the violin (and other instruments) at a very early age! But I've certainly seen both sides of the coin; the child who is naturally interested, with an easy-going adult, and then the child who is not very interested but is pushed by the parent. The latter situation should be avoided.

February 27, 2008 at 04:16 AM · I believe that if a parent suspects their child has an aptitude for music, it is best to start early. This is especially true if the intended instrument is violin. I am a bit biased since I started both my sons on violin at the age of three and it has brought them and our family much joy. I also say this after more than 12 years of attending Suzuki Institutes and other music camps. I have seen over and over the speed with which the youngest learn as compared to their older counterparts. Often intonation is an issue for those who start later (after age 8) as well.

Interestingly, I had this very discussion with my youngest son's violin teacher yesterday. His first teacher was Johannes Crackenberger in Madrid, the fellow whose paper sparked the lively discussion earlier this week. His opinion, having started at the age of 7 after already playing the piano and attending Solfege classes, is that the violin is best started no later than 7. I asked him if he remembered a time before he played the violin and he said, "I remember building things and then I remember no longer having time to build things because I was playing the violin." I found this statement a bit sad, although my sons might say something similar. The violin takes time if it is to be played well. This means there is less time for other activities and it is important for a parent to make a deliberate effort to set aside time for ordinary kid activities and time with friends and siblings.

If the parent and the child have a healthy working relationship, the process of learning the violin can be a wonderful thing. There are unfortunately some parent child combinations that are less than healthy.

February 27, 2008 at 12:36 PM · thanks for the wonderful input. agree with corwin that it is important to keep a long term perspective. nothing is lost if violin is part of a person's life in a positive, enriching way, regardlesss of the degree of proficiency. but setting an age limit may be a bit limiting since kids are sooooooo different. even with my 2 kids, the differences in development are truly remarkable with the same rice regimen. should have named them yin and yan instead.

with what timothy, laurie and jennifer said, we all perform the best in a nurturing environment, especially when we are young and crave for acknowledgement. yet, laurie's wise blog post illustrates a good point: there is a need to set the proper pace according to need, which is not to be considered as discouraging the kid's interest.

February 27, 2008 at 04:24 PM · Corwin,

So should we apply your "seriously demands" test to every activity in early childhood? Say, for example that your child doesn't "seriously demand" to learn to read, or learn arithmetic? Should we wait until she is nine before starting those subjects too? How about foreign languages? What if you teach your child Spanish and it turns out at nine that he really wanted Chinese all along?

Actually, I think you're looking at children's motivation backwards. If you create an interesting and nurturing environment for any subject, the child will naturally want to do it. For example, because I play violin all the time at home, my 16 month old is(surprise!)"seriously demanding" to play. She has her own violin and we play whenever she wants. But make no mistake, she "seriously demands" it because it's an important part of our home environment, not because she has some strange, out of the blue interest in it!And DEFINITELY not because we force it on her. Any other priority we set at home will have the same effect on her too- if we are always reading, she will most likely want to try it too. If important people in her life speak Spanish, she will imitate and have an interest in it. No need to wait until she's nine! And no need to fear that we're somehow stunting her personality or making her do one set of things in lieu of some other hypothetical set of things she would rather do if she were just allowed to be herself.

Remember too that even at nine, a child's identity is a shaky thing, bolstered greatly by family and friends and situations. So any decisions that a child makes at that age are very much influenced by surroundings and probably much less by some sort of hypothetical stable disposition the likes of which we rely on as adults.

February 27, 2008 at 03:56 PM · Corwin, no disrespect intended, but I disagree with your statement: "a parent shouldn't start a child before about nine years of age unless the child demands (I mean seriously demands) the opportunity and demonstrates unusual musical aptitude."

I think you are right about what I call "Begging For Violin". However, I have taught many kids younger than nine that didn't have "unusual musical aptitude" that had a whale of a good time learning violin! And trust me, I also had a whale of a good time teaching them! I just don't think violin lessons should be reserved for those deemed having "unusual musical aptitude".

I think it is just dandy for a child younger than nine to take their time on violin, do the best they can, and go at their own pace. The joy comes from the progress, the excitement of learning something new every week, and the endless sense of discovery.

Sorry to be picky about your post, and I agree with everything else you say...I tell all of my child students that no matter what they do with their violin playing, I hope they play their whole lives! I would hate to see Classical music further isolated in our culture as "only for the professionals".

February 27, 2008 at 04:13 PM · Corwin,

Also, you said, "Children without such aptitude make no more progress before nine than a nine year old makes during the first year." Are you sure about that? Doesn't that depend on how much of the child's "aptitude" you assign to the environment and how much to some sort of supposed talent? How do you measure that aptitude (assuming it exists in the way I think you assume) so that you can make a decision about choosing the talented or retarded track? Just wondering why you think this and, for all I know, you might have multiple degrees in neuroscience and child psych...

February 27, 2008 at 04:44 PM · here is jansen talking about listening to her father playing bach which echos what howard is saying (doing) with his kid...

regardless of the starting age, it is never too late to start learning. at the same time, it is never too early because there is never enough time to learn.

February 28, 2008 at 05:12 AM · Howard gets my vote about the fruit falling close to the tree. I grew up with piano, but switched from piano to violin for my children as a primary focus of musical study because you can put it in the car and tune it yourself. A piano is a very not-portable instrument.

Also, In a book I am reading, Mysteries of the Mind, Restak, examples of brain plasticity in musicians are numerous. The book uses musicians for many examples regarding brain research. Example: "The motor cortex-the region that controls hand and finger motions-is much larger in professional keyboard and string muicians than non-musicians. Not only is the motor cortex of each hemisphere larger, but so are the white-matter fiber tracts that connect the cortices of both hemispheres together. Most intriguing of all, these motor cortical enlargements are related to the age at which the musician started training. The earlier in life one starts playing, the bigger the motor cortex. Even so, it's never to late to enhance your brain by taking up a musical instrument. Whatever your age when you begin playing, the brain area given over to music will become larger than observed in people with no musical inclination."

(pg 56)

I suggest musical study from an early age may change how your brain grows and how you think. As parents if we let children make decisions as if they have the prior knowledge to know what is good for them, we abdicate responsibility. Humans are not snakes, hatched and fully formed to slither away and live as small adults. They need direction, encouragement, and boundaries with choices limited to include things that are good for them.

February 28, 2008 at 05:23 AM · Heifetz made more progress between 3 and 6 than I have made in a lifetime but he wasn't ordinary. In addition to his natural gifts he had a father who was a professional musician. He didn't just conjure up the notion of a violin and then beg his parents for it. Likewise for many talented children.

But I really wasn't talking about such. I suppose that there are a lot of children of members who have the genes and the environment to succeed from an early age. You and they may be the average player you see but they are way above average when you look at the population of children who start the violin.

February 28, 2008 at 06:18 AM · This caught my attention the most

"Usually lost in the media celebration surrounding child prodigies is a sobering truth: most do not mature into adult leaders in their fields. (Parents of underachievers can console themselves with the fact that many adult pioneers—like late-bloomer Charles Darwin were not child prodigies.) Some burn out spectacularly, others carry on in their specialties in adulthood but never match their remarkable childhood achievements. Still others just become bored with pursuits they once found all-consuming and move on."


February 28, 2008 at 09:22 AM · I'm keeping out of this one - I'm too busy and I've got too many things to do, and I've spent too much time on this already, but I will say this.

That is what I am. I'm a late bloomer and I'm an adult pioneer. Many others here, in fact all others that I've read so far here that are adult learners/beginners, have had a great teacher to help them out. I haven't. I've gotten where I have gotten on my own steam. I've fought battles to get ahead on violin. I have put up with zero praise and encouragement from 5 violin teachers. I am sick of trying to find a bloody teacher. I'm thinking of just doing Clayton Haslop's course and be done with the whole sad, tired business.

P.S. I won't be responding by the way to any replies to this post. If you want to bash it out with me send me a message :)

I've quit trying to convince people that there's a problem in violin teaching.

February 28, 2008 at 06:25 AM · My mother brought me up in the belief that a child should not only not be pushed, but never even be influenced by parental bias, that it should be encouraged to do as many things as possible and eventually become able to make an informed choice by itself, rather than doing something because the parents expected or hoped it would do.

As a result, I have become a person entirely defined by my own choices, I have wide ranging interests and I have a "can do" mindset. Some people call me a jack of all trades. The downside was that in my childhood, I never stuck to anything, I always got bored eventually and moved on to the next thing, a habit which took me quite an effort to get rid of as an adult.

Nevertheless, I am grateful for this upbringing, I would not want it any other way. I have done more interesting things in my life than anybody I know, safe perhaps one or two people.

As for developing the brain area responsible for motor skills at an early age, I totally reject the idea that this can only be achieved by playing a musical instrument.

Just one example: Until not so long ago, all Japanese children were drilled in the use of the soroban (a Japanese abacus) to the extreme. A friend of mine was a regional champion in her childhood and now in her 50s, she can still add, subtract, divide or multiply several numbers in less time than it takes me to key half of those numbers into an electronic calculator. This requires some serious motor skills and I have no doubt that those who were taught the soroban at young age this way show the same level of brain development for motor skills than those learning a musical instrument.

I could name a few other examples of activities which will develop those motor skill brain areas and there are yet others I probably haven't even thought of, but let's just say that practise on a musical instrument isn't the only such activity. Certainly, nobody should rush their children into practising something for fear of them missing the boat on the development of those brain areas.

February 28, 2008 at 01:15 PM · Benjamin,

I must clarify. I work with children with exceptionalities and am a bit of a wonk on the subject. Clarification: My understanding is music training/ability is a reflection of the area of the brain developed, not necessarily the only reason or way the the brain can develops. Music training develops the area of the brain that controls finger control for example. That doesn't mean other activities can't develop this area as well. Musical training for children is just more pervasive than other activities in some cultures. As children, music, violin, and chess (and the game GO), are the most common areas where very young children have shown mastery similar or beyond adult mastery. Writing for example is far more rare for children to master at an earlier age. Brain imaging tools (MRI etc.) show once areas of the brain are developed more blood, glucose etc. travel to those area of the brain and are available for a host of other activites besides music. Motivation as you site is clearly the another layer to the mystery. I often tell people I think children who have a genius about them are just able to know what they want at a very young age. Relative to peers they shine due to the atypical focus they bring to activities. As they age, their peers develop focus too so they don't shine out as much, but are no worse off in many cases.

By genius I am not refering to sevante syndrome which is quite rare. I went to a talk about math and the speaker told us Asian language is very precise regarding math vocabulary when compared to English. There are few abstract math words like "eleven" that don't reflect the numeric value of the number they are suppose to represent. I know a Chinese American student who was doing college math in 5th grade. Both parents were mathmaticians. His mom told me he could barely write a sentence in English and really struggled, but they helped him in math because it was easy to hop between the languages and the patterns are clear and therefore easy. Interestingly, he finished the Suzuki books in 2 years. His playing was not extraordinary but he enjoyed himself. When he learned a new part of a song he would say "I see the pattern", instead of "I understand." Very cute. Everything for this kid was a pattern, but his playing was not exceptional and the tone quality was fair. He could just crunch patterns and had a great time doing it.

February 28, 2008 at 02:10 PM · Back to the original question of whether there is a problem in starting early on the violin... My answer is that it depends.

The vast majority of kids who start young do not become musicians, nor is this the aim. Among the kids from our local music program who started very young (three, four and 5 years of age), the majority have continued to do music in some way as teens and young adults. They play in rock bands, fiddle jam sessions, sing in musicals, compose, experiment with electronic music, play gigs with their quartet, or play in their school or city youth orchestra. These are all fun, healthy outlets.

The problems arise when the child shows unusual skill early on. The parent feels a moral responsibility to support the talent, and it may not be clear how to proceed. There are many pressures to do extreme things in the way of developing the talent and many "experts" voicing their opinions.

Problems can also arise when the child feels the parent wants more from them than they are able to deliver. This can happen at any level and in any field, but I understand this is a real problem with first year students at the more competitive conservatories. The student might be willing to work humbly and patiently, but the parent might not understand why their exceptional son/daughter is not entering competitions or being selected as a featured soloist. Despite early development of technique, continued development of artistry requires patient, thoughtful work. All this is happening at a time when the young violinist is no longer in the ordered, disciplined atmosphere of their family home.

February 28, 2008 at 03:06 PM · i must say it is a treat to read people's inputs knowing full well that each one is originally different simply because we are coming from different backgrounds and angles. nonetheless, it is fascinating to savor such a melting pot!

i would like to submit one observation: as parents, our "job" is not just about starting early or later, but about the right time. based on our own experience with our 2 kids, it is clear that the older one has "matured" slower than the younger one, partly because of physiology and partly because of personality, i think. thus, each is an unique product of genes, environment and reaction to the environment. since our kids are not on a course with a timeline, each has cruised on her own pace. i think with our kids, the merits/drawbacks of a specific starting point will average out with time. despite the strengths of each kid, there is still a need to supplement the weaknesses and it takes time to do so.

February 28, 2008 at 03:40 PM · Al, this has been my observation too. Every child matures at their own rate. In our case, our younger one, (now six feet one inch tall at age 13), has taken longer to master the physical aspects of playing the violin. I have the feeling that starting early has been useful for him too. I believe the explosive growth in his skill we are seeing now is the result of brain work that has been stored up over his past 10 years of music study and just not apparent to us given his physical limitations.

February 28, 2008 at 04:05 PM · It's a scary decision sometimes, when we ask ourselves what is the right time for a child to begin violin study. For me, a safer alternative for a very young student may be musical training, such as Orff or Dalcroze.

Often I will recommend to a student of any age, when he is correcting a rhythm: First practice speaking the rhythm while he taps the beat. Then, after verifying that he is secure with this, practice the rhythm on the violin, but on one note. Then, after he is secure with that, practice the actual notes and passage he is correcting. Miss DeLay called that sort of strategy: "breaking it down into do-able bits".

By the same reasoning, it may sometimes be a safer choice to give a young child musical concept training, so he gets friendly with concepts of beat, intervals, timbres. etc. before one puts a violin in his hands. I believe the child may likely be happier in his first meeting with the violin, because he is not struggling with grasping these concepts at the same time he is playing.

February 28, 2008 at 03:16 PM · I have two examples in my kids, one who started late (age 7) and one who started early (age 4), both in the Suzuki method. They are 12 and 7 now. They are also very different in mentality, the elder very introspective, a perfectionist and dreadfully afraid of being wrong. The younger is the insufferable optimist, convinced of herself as the center of the universe.

When you start very young, you have no option other than Suzuki. I do not believe in the Suzuki method with as much fervour as one sees in the US. In particular, I believe that Suzuki, while having its good points, must be augmented with training in reading, scale exercises and eventually a curriculum of standardised teaching methods such as etudes (Wohlfart and Kreutzer). This is more necessary for an older child than a younger one. My children don't read from the Suzuki book until the end of Bk.3, and I augment the Suzuki CDs with other commercial examples of the same music -- if available -- book 2 and up. I think this is very essential in demonstrating that David Nadien and Koji Toyoda are not the only examples of virtuouso musicians out there, that Humouresque is normally played in Gb in the real world (not in D). It is also necessary for the child to develop a repertoire other than from the Suzuki books, otherwise you will end up using recitals to hear the same pedestrian music as everyone else.

As to whether the child should be involved in the decision, there are several issues. Younger children have limited maturity to gauge what learning the violin actually means. The parent, on the other hand, is aware of how the child will handle the strict discipline it takes to learn the instrument. Of course my children said yes to the violin. Moreover, it was at times painful to get them to be disciplined enough to treat practice as something you just do, naturally, like you brush your teeth or change into your pyjamas before bed, or do your homework. All in all, I cannot say whether they have the discipline because of the influence of the violin or whether they are good at the violin because of the discipline. There's too much feedback in the system and every child is different.

It takes at least one devoted parent and preferably both (as in my case) to get children to learn the violin. The violin is not for the child whose parent merely chauffeurs the twerp to lessons once a week. It consumes your life to the extent that before long there are rehearsals for orchestras, lessons or suzuki groups every week day barring one or two days of the week. It means that in our workaholic culture, you have to force yourself to have a life outside your vocation, and one centered around violin.

The teacher or teachers become an integral part of your life as well. My kids violin teacher knows her students' (and possibly mine) moods, strengths weaknesses very well.

Lastly, I would not exchange what I have created for myself and my children for anything else.

February 28, 2008 at 04:20 PM · and then there are the likes of einstein, who apparently did poorly in math as late as in high school (OMG, no college would want you!!!), and then came up with something that i am pretty sure that his parents did not provide any guidance/input (well, except the genes may be:)...

it begs the question,,,when he failed his hs math, was he really clueless or was his mind already occupied with formulas of his own choosing?

February 28, 2008 at 04:48 PM · In the case of Einstein, his uncle and father were both engineers and they recognized mathematical ability in him early on, before any formal school. They rented a room to a graduate student in mathematics who tutored Albert in mathematics, well above the level of any of his peers. I think his difficulties in school were more due to his highly creative, questioning learning style and the orderly, authoritarian educational system he was placed in.

In Darwin's case, he was clearly self-trained in the field of natural history, devoting the majority of his non-programmed time to this endeavor. He also came from a long line of naturalists.

In both cases, as well as the cases of physicist Dick Feynmann and naturalist Rachel Carson just to name a couple, extraordinary thinkers came from parents who recognized the talent in their child and made extraordinary efforts to provide their child with supportive and stimulating environments.

February 28, 2008 at 05:33 PM · thanks jennifer! so nature for darwin, nurture for einstein and parents for violin kiddos! :)

February 28, 2008 at 08:17 PM · Very clever, Al!

Parents are usually very smart when it comes to their children. They know if their child is a generalist or a specialist and they have a very good idea of how their child compares across a wide range of skills and emotional characteristics with their peers. Although teachers might miss seeing talent in a particular child, a parent almost always knows when their child has unusual affinities or skills well before it is obvious to others. Parents also know if their child is desirous of doing something in an organized, adult-like way or if their child is wildly creative, wishing always to do something unique, novel, untried. Most parents wouldn't impose the discipline of a formal musical education on their three year old unless they felt he/she could focus, respond to instruction, and enjoy learning something in an organized way. My oldest was clearly a focussed child who wanted to do everything in the most adult-like way possible. I had no doubt that he would be able to learn the violin and that he would enjoy it. My youngest was on the wildly creative side, but he definitely had the desire and determination. Given that I had practiced on his older brother, I thought it was worth a try.

So, these early starters are a special group. They are individuals, who from the beginning, have some characteristics that parents perceive as being coachable and attentive. They are from families who see the value in activities which encourage brain development and discipline. They are from parents who carefully observe their children and look for ways to encourage their emerging talents and interests. They are from families willing and able to invest time and financial resources in their intellectual growth.

If my children had been generalists or especially athletically inclined or theatrical or any number of other possibilities, I would have been right there looking for ways to support their growth. It happens that they were musically inclined and I have since spent 12 years finding ways to support them in their growth as musical beings. I have also made a point to share with them the things I find beautiful, curious, engaging, thought-provoking, puzzling.

February 28, 2008 at 10:52 PM · Greetings,

I agree compeltely with Oliver about early training being more general even if it means one of the systems he mentiosn at two and then strating at three...

In a way I think the precednet for this is found in the ideas of Balliol who who emphatic that befor ebeginning the violin a person shoudl ahve good control of theory, solfeggio etc etc. So much of the overloa dof early violin learning at any age would be elimiated if the player knew exactly what they wanted to play and then could focus 100 opercent of their attention on how to play it.

I think thtis would be so helpful in elminating tension which in my opinion, is lagrley caused in beginners becuas ethey are not actually clea rwhat they are being asked ot do.



February 29, 2008 at 02:36 PM · I am not sure exactly how I fall out on the nature versus nurture idea. I think that genius must be there from the beginning, but requires nurture to come to fruition. It also requires emotional stability and confidence as well as the old fashioned work ethic, reliability, organization, honesty, and ability to work with others. I am aware of the stories of Heifetz and Sczeryng etc... who were purportedly difficult personalities. One would be hard pressed, however, to criticize the work ethic of either one.

This question of nature versus nurture is also related to the question of success as an adult and the observation that few prodigies have interesting careers past their teen years.

Sometimes a very industrious approach on the part of a teacher and a family has early results which may be largely superficial. I'm speaking of the daily lessons, living with the teacher sorts of approaches. To be sure, a teacher would not expend this type of effort on a student unless they felt the student was something really special. The risk is that a student who is never required to function in an independent way may never develop confidence in their own artistic voice.

The other part of the equation is that "prodigy" is not "genius". Itzhak Perlman claims not to have been a prodigy. He is clearly a genius, however. When I listen to a great performer I get the sense that they are saying with great confidence, "This is how it goes! This is what the composer is saying!" I feel something new has been revealed to me in a masterful performance. This type of genius is very, very rare.

February 29, 2008 at 02:48 PM · jennifer, knowing how well your kids (big kids now i guess) have turned out, we really appreciate your very sensible approaches and mentality. it is not easy to be determined and at the same time, flexible, if you know what i mean, or have a healthy balance of the two.

show us the way, jennifer! :)

February 29, 2008 at 07:49 PM · It's time for me to recommend Music Together, one of the funnest things I ever did with my kids when they were toddlers. :) Whether you are doing violin or not!

March 1, 2008 at 09:33 AM · we started our daughter in suzuki violin at the age of 2 1/2. we certainly had no idea of her talent or her interests. we noticed that by 5 she would pick up the violin just to play with it. we then noticed that she would start playing (with) the piano at friend's homes. she is now 12 and still playing the violin as her main instrument she dabbles in the piano often teaching her friends who do not play an instrument how to play the piano. she taught her mom how to play the piano. she acompanies her self through the magic of digital recording and play back.

looking back we can state the following.i do not know if the violin has made our daughter smarter. it certainly has made her a far more rounded person mor comfortable in her own skin. our daughter has not known life without the violin. although she often has to be reminded to practice, she recieves great comfort from her violin. she can retreat to it when she is stressed out. she can use it to show off.she often plays in church. she participates in youth symphonies. its not unusual for her to go into the front yard, stand in the bed of our pick up and play a song. she then acts embarrased if a neighbor claps. every child should have the opportunity to feel special. she is active in sports and other activities, so she is not tied solely to the violin.

she loves and appreciates music from country to opera. she loves to go to violin concerts. in the last 2 years she has met perlman , midori and bell. i watch her at the concerts, she watches and truly appreciates these and other violin sololists. i do not believe she would appreciate these musicians as much if she started the violin later in life. i do not believe our daughter would have benefitted from the violin as much if she would have started later in life.

our daughter is now feeling the peer pressure of engaging in activities with her non musician friends. she informs us that her friends are encouraging her to avoid practice, etc and hang with them. i am convinced that if our daughter would have started the violin later in life such as 9 or 10 , should would be far more inclined to give up the violin at the beginning of her teen years. because she has not known life without the violin , she is not inclined to give it up. it is part of her.

given the opportunity to do it again, we would start our daughter in suzuki again at 2 1/2 years

March 1, 2008 at 07:20 PM · Gordon,

I really appreciate hearing about your daughter! It sounds like what we and our fellow Suzuki families have found to be true, that an early start often results in the child growing up with the feeling that music is a part of who they are.

March 6, 2008 at 01:11 AM · Playing devil's advocate here...Suzuki famously observed, "All Japanese children speak Japanese!" So simple, but so profound.

We fret about whether a child will like playing an instrument, but perhaps our mistake is waiting until after they have already formed immutable opinions about it.

March 6, 2008 at 02:12 AM · Nicole, you could also as easily have observed that most Japanese do not learn nor speak foreign languages well when compared to people in other countries where one or two foreign languages are on the school curriculum. It is often stated that during those years when children in other countries study foreign languages, Japanese children have to invest that valuable time to learn the overly complex and irregular writing system. Whilst other countries in Asia also use the Chinese character set, their use is mostly consistent and regular while in Japan it is very inconsistent and irregular, that is to say highly context sensitive where exceptions are often more numerous than rules. Ask a Chinese how any given character is pronounced and they will give you a precise answer, ask a Japanese the same and the answer will be "impossible to tell, it depends". Names of geographical places for example can often only be read by locals.

Far more alarming are the latest trends as the level of reading and writing proficiency of young Japanese is continuously falling, presumably due to lack of interest and too many distractions such as video games etc etc.

The lesson to learn from that is that too little and too much of everything is bad for us. As always, finding the right balance is the key. This is all the more important for children. First and foremost a child should be allowed to be a child and do what children do.

I might add that the lack of ability to play a musical instrument in the general public is not because people start too late, be that as kids or as adults. The reason is the general mindset we are growing up with.

Our media and entertainment industry spends billions of dollars to turn us into passive consumers. That is the problem. Before the invention of sound recording, it was fairly common for people to make their own music. The mindset was such that one would aspire to be able to play for one's own entertainment. In such an environment, people of any age are less likely to quit practising, cause its not perceived first and foremost as a career option but predominantly as a fun thing to do.

The good news is that we seem to be moving back to this mindset, ironically again due to technology. The music industry (at least that part which is producing popular music) has done its utmost to remove the artistry from the performing side of music, that a) people no longer feel it is worth paying for most of their stuff and b) the general population realises that any dick, jack and harry can do just as well making music as those "artists" marketed to them. At the same time, computer technology has made it easy enough to compose, arrange, perform, record and produce your own music on a shoestring budget and do so at no loss of quality. It is amazing what ordinary folks create and put up to share freely on the internet. I am sensing a comeback of DIY music, like it used to be before the phonograph and the radio. All the more reason to become an adult beginner of a musical instrument if you don't already play one.

March 7, 2008 at 08:48 PM · Suzuki's observation that children learn the language that is around them from birth very naturally and his application of this idea to the language of music has greatly increased the number of skilled players. In one of her lectures, Joanne Bath gave the statistic that today more than 80% of professional concertmasters world wide were Suzuki trained at some point. She continued saying that at one time orchestras in the US were folding because there were not enough good players to fill the ranks, but that after the increased popularity of the Suzuki method and the focus on early musical training we are again well-supplied with fine players. Even today many of the finest musicians seem to come from families of musicians. Perhaps some of this is genetics, however considering the success of the Suzuki Method in leveling the playing field, the import of the early start is evident.

On another note, culture certainly does play a role. I once asked a lab class of 25 Jr. college biology students how many played a musical instrument. To my surprise, out of 25 students I had three mandolin players, one banjo, two guitarists and a classical pianist. A total of 5 out of the 7 musicians in the class played bluegrass. This is something one would probably not find in Seattle, WA but here in North Carolina in a population of locally grown students bluegrass is a big thing.

I will admit that I really worked hard to provide a musical atmosphere for my children, utilizing everything at my disposal. I read books, attended lectures, took my kids to recitals, concerts of all kinds. I especially wanted to take advantage of the local musical culture. One of the things I did deliberately was to take my kids to Bluegrass and Irish Fiddle jam sessions. I wanted them to see that music was for all ages. I wanted them to see what a joyful thing it is to make music with others regardless of one's ability. I wanted them to see the great old guys sawing or plucking away. They had a blast doing this and I think it helped them in their classical playing as well. As a result, they can figure out a harmony or a break or invent a variation to go with whatever others are doing, ie. they can jam. Hopefully, they will continue to gather with others throughout their lives for the enjoyment of music.

March 8, 2008 at 02:05 AM · Benjamin, I agree with much of what you said, but really your first sentence only proves the point I was making. Grammar can be dull, but how many of us actually dislike speaking our native language(s)?

I agree that children should play, and that the root of music is entertainment. So I don't see why children should avoid learning to play music. Indeed, children often take their fun so seriously that it is comical to adults; my mother tells me I would knock my building blocks across the room if they weren't aligned to my satisfaction.

It's true that parents and teachers sometimes behave in ways that Suzuki would probably find appalling; it's a legitimate fear. I don't think that makes practicing the violin at an early age an inherently bad thing, though.

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