Music lessons for the 'average' player

August 23, 2010 at 05:07 PM ·

I have a 10-year-old daughter who plays the violin and is progressing very nicely, exhibiting talent, and has fallen in love with the instrument.  My 8-year-old son, on the other hand, plays the cello but is average at best.  They both have been taking for 2 years and I wonder if it's worth it to have my son continue in an activity where he does not show a lot of promise.  He actually plays in tune but really doesn't have a whole lot of musicality, has the tendency to rush through his songs, and it's a battle to get him to practice.  He says he does not want to quit, but I wonder if he's just saying that because he knows how important it is to me that my children have a good music foundation.

At which point do I consider that he has as much foundation as he needs and that it's up to him whether he should continue with the cello.


Replies (25)

August 23, 2010 at 06:05 PM ·

Let him do what he wants. So what if he doesn't play that well. It's only been two years anyway. Maybe he just started too young. He's a kid. Let him keep on going if he wants to. Trust him. The only thing you could possibly say to him about it is that if he refuses to practice then you are not going to pay for lessons anymore since the two go together. Does your town have a music program in the school system? I learned to play the violin in school.

Are you suggesting that if he is just "average" that that is a problem? What is wrong with being average? Most musicians are just that. If he wants to do it and is progressing, even slowly, then just let him be.

August 23, 2010 at 06:18 PM ·

 I would not worry about it, let him carry on, don't make it an 'issue', don't 'nag him' to practice, do remind him but don't turn it into an argument, if he wants to practice he will, when he gets fed up (if he does) of taking lessons he will tell you.

I think whether he will carry on one more month or one more decade it can only benefit him :) and if you don't make an issue of it he will do what he wants in time...

August 23, 2010 at 06:47 PM ·

As a parent, I would be tempted to ask him if there is some other instrument that he is interested in trying. 

It's not always easy to find the instrument that is the right fit for a child.   If you went to a music shop, or a orchestra booth at a fair, and he could try any instrument at all, which ones would he choose?  If you go to watch a concert, which instruments does he most enjoy listening to?


August 23, 2010 at 06:49 PM ·

I agree with everyone else.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being average. Let him practice at his own pace. If he wants to learn without a teacher, let it be so. If he wants it to be a hobby not more, why not?
I don't think there's a point to make him a musician against his will -- he will not appreciate music in that case even when he grows up to have outstanding technique and musicality.

August 23, 2010 at 07:52 PM ·

 Think on the bright side.  You have an 8 year old who plays the cello and doesn't want to quit.  My advice: continue to offer encouragement and have inspiring music on the stereo (casual atmospheric stimulation has been shown to be effective on a subconscious level).  At 8 years old you have no idea how he'll feel about it in a few years.  He might suddenly become a lot more hard working in the future.  Sometimes children go through times when they don't necessarily realize how much something means to them and there are a lot of great professional players who may have been considered slower learners when they were little kids.

August 23, 2010 at 09:52 PM ·

What does he like to do?

August 23, 2010 at 10:00 PM ·

I don't think 2 years with minimal practice at that age qualifies as a "good music foundation."  If that is what you want, then he isn't there yet. 

August 24, 2010 at 01:06 PM ·

re:  If he wants to learn without a teacher, let it be so.

This is not good advice at all.

August 24, 2010 at 02:05 PM ·

I agree with you about the lessons, lessons are not optional. Everyone advances at their own pace, and maybe he was just too young to start at the age of 6. He sounds like he's into it anyway and just not like his sister, and shouldn't be compared to her.

August 24, 2010 at 02:28 PM ·

Agree with the above - you are way ahed of the game if your child exhibits any interest at all.  think not about proficiency in the instrument but of how this is going to open up the wonderfulworld of music and classical music in particular.

I'd encourage gently - and, as said, talk about other music options that she could try.

August 24, 2010 at 05:46 PM ·

From my own experience with a son who was able, but only moderately interested, on violin, I'd suggest 2 things.  As others have suggested, keep the door open for him to switch to another instrument and other styles of music.  If he ends up in a gamelan, or playing rock guitar, so be it.  Expose him to a variety of music, not just classical cello.  Have occasional discussions about the music he most likes and whether he wants to play there. Second, get him involved in group musical activities as soon as possible, and as much as practical.  Groups create several other dimensions, including the music itself, teamwork, social contacts, other adult's perspectives, etc.

It doesn't matter whether he is "average" or becomes a star.  Music education teaches much more than technique to get sound. Some other valuable things it can teach your son at any level of expertise include: reward and effort are linked, experimentation to get creative results, decision making under uncertainty, expertise and confidence are linked, there is a process to solve most problems, etc. etc.  Kids do learn these and other things, and the evidence is strong that kids with music education, on average, do better at scholastic education than those who do not have music education.  Keep him going on something for as long as he has any interest.

August 24, 2010 at 06:52 PM ·

I think that he's too young to tell what kind of a musician he will be. Child prodiges are very rare and they don't always become great musicians when they are older either. Give him some time, the teen years are more important and telling. If he's willing to stick with it at 8 years old, I feel you might have a very talented child.

With that said, I'm not a teacher nor a parent so this is just my 2 cents. Good luck!

August 24, 2010 at 07:58 PM ·

If your son enjoys playing the cello, keep him in lessons, regardless of how "good" he is. Actually, I chuckled a bit when I read your post, since as a child, I WAS that kid who played violin, but played mediocre at best and had only a sometimes-interest in lessons. Because of this, I was permitted to attend lessons irregularly---taking breaks for months or years(!) at a time to participate in sports, art classes, horseback riding, piano lessons, etc.... and low and behold as an adult I now am committed fully to violin and  have no interest in any of these "others" except for violin. You have no idea how often I am kicking myself for not taking it seriously as a kid... Unless your son genuinely *dislikes* the cello, I say keep him in lessons. He'll thank you later.  

August 25, 2010 at 10:07 PM ·

I certainly think that 8 is too young an age to make a judgment that your son only going to be an average player and put an end to his lessons.  After all, he's now only at the age when your daughter started learning the violin.  The fact that your son plays in tune at 8 and after only two years suggests that he may have more potential than you think.

In later life, even if he doesn't become a professional musician, he may just find that playing the cello at a less than professional level is an immensely rewarding activity.

Michael Pijoan made what I think is a good suggestion.   If you haven't done this already, I'd suggest getting recordings of the Bach cello suites (particularly) and other cello music such as the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas, the Dvorak concerto and maybe some Haydn and Mozart quartets or the Schubert quintet.  Even at a young age, it can't hurt to expose him to the music and if he responds to it, it may help both as a stimulus to practice and as a way to absorb musicality, particularly if, as you say, he does express an interest in continuing with the instrument.

Speaking from personal experience at an advanced age, I'm grateful that my parents paid for violin lessons for me as a child, but I now wish they had prodded me to practice more.  If they had, maybe I could have been an "average" violinist, too.

August 26, 2010 at 02:06 AM ·

I would stick with it for as long as the child wants, or is willing. I had years of lessons in my youth, but never really bothered to practice until my last year in high school. It wasn't until college that I really developed my musical skills. After college, I studied and practiced diligently, made up for (some) lost time, and became a Suzuki and traditional classical violin instructor. I later joined various string ensembles, currently play with an early music ensemble and perform solo (unaccompanied) violin gigs for many events.  I would say my music is the most important and joyous aspect of my entire adult life. With good, careful instruction and parental encouragement, you never know where it could lead.



August 26, 2010 at 03:52 AM ·

You mention wanting your children to have a well-rounded musical foundation so I have to ask, are they both also learning to play the piano?

Don't compare one child's successes to the other.  That is not fair.  Encourage your kids in everything they do.   Take some of the pressure off of yourself by having a practice chart for them to see everyday and know they have to practice.  If you don't want to nag your son to practice then let him use a practice chart so he can take ownership of how he uses his time.  He will see that his sister writes on the chart everyday and it may motivate him to keep up with her.

August 28, 2010 at 06:20 AM ·

I asked my parents if I sounded bad when I started playing.  They said yes!

After a few years they had one teacher tell them (I paraphrase) that it was too bad I missed my chance to be something.


August 28, 2010 at 08:45 AM ·

 I have some "developmental challenges".  AKA very mild brain damage at birth.  Due to my difficulties with coordination, I am theoretically way below average in my ability to play.  I think if you heard me playing you might agree, and I have thousands of hours of play time under my belt.

I think that violin playing has been a positive in my life.  I write at about half the speed of an average adult, and tying my shoes is still a challenge for me.  However, I can play clean notes on the violin.  I think that's kind of amazing.  Thousands of hours of practice actually do pay off.

It's also really kind of fun, when you're feeling down, or angry, you can pick up the violin and torture it and all sorts of weird sounds come out.  Which is really the point of playing music in the first place.

Likelyhood is your son isn't as challenged as I am.  But if it can be possitive for me, I don't see why it cannot be possitive for him...

One thing to keep in consideration, is that your son is playing an 8 year old sized cello.  They almost always sound terribe.  The small cello's just don't have the body to be musical instruments.  Sure, you can make noise, and practice fingering on them, but they really don't sound good...  Likelyhood is 3/4's of the problem is the instrument.  Your son has no incentive to slow down and try to get a nice tone if the instrument just refuses to sing!

That said.  The important part is guaging frustration...  Is your son frustrated that he is moving slowly through the repituar.  Is he in pain because his posture isn't correct.  I think it is the job of parents to guard their children from long term frustration...

Would you rather have a frustrated virtuoso or a happy idiot?

August 28, 2010 at 09:42 AM ·

"He knows how important it is to me" 

If that is what is keeping him in the game then he is in it for the wrong reasons and you are wasting your time. Johnny would rather be in the park playing ball games with his friends, and at his age he should. If Johnny is willing to practice without cajoling from over ambitious parents then let him carry on. But it seems that in the heart of every mother that loves music there is that burning desire to see their daughter/sons on the stage. Let him come back a few years later, he might have discovered a new affinity for music, and he will progress much quicker. He will then be able to tell which instrument he likes best and maybe not even classical music.


August 28, 2010 at 10:15 AM ·

Timothy: you are an inspiration.  Thanks for posting....

August 28, 2010 at 02:27 PM ·

In the beginning I never showed any promise either quite honestly...But theres that one moment where people come to realize their passion. Mine was when I made the top orchestra at blue lake fine arts camp during the summer before my freshman year, a total surprise to me! After that I understood that music is more than a noise, it is passion. From there I would practice day in and day out. Now im playing in one of the most prestigous orchestra and symphony at my school (Neuqua valley, the best public school for music in the that means its REALLY REALLY hard and super competitive) So I was really proud of myself. I'm now in the allstate pit orchestra and going to audition for the CYSO.

So I say send him to a music camp or a festival! He will find his passion somehow... and if not, well he'll find it in something else that is wonderful!

August 29, 2010 at 01:16 PM ·

 This guy takes the cake on inspiration...

August 29, 2010 at 01:49 PM ·

 I started the cello* at age 11at school, quite early enough imo because more physical development is needed for that instrument than the violin, and at 11 an average size pupil should be big enough to learn to play a full size cello with all its tonal advantages.   Fortunately, I was blessed with a series of 3 inspirational teachers during my school years, and this is probably the most important formative factor.  One of my teachers even got me a lesson with the late Christopher Bunting, whom he knew well.

Btw, the large majority of people in any occupation or activity are "average", by definition.

* It should have been the violin, but the school violin class was full, and it's taken me 50 years to rectify the situation - but that's another story.

August 29, 2010 at 02:34 PM ·

  Btw, the large majority of people in any occupation or activity are "average", by definition.

The more interesting question, is what percentage of violin players make music rather than simply making noise...

September 4, 2010 at 03:40 PM ·

On teaching an "average" child: I think, first of all, that learning to play an instrument is extremely valuable to any child's development. There are studies on this subject! I say, hang in there.

Second, it is pretty impossible to gauge what sort of player a child will be when he's that young. I've been teaching, oh, 45 years or more, and I am constantly surprised. One day a student who's been diligent but unremarkable will suddenly have his or her own musical voice, and each time I am shocked: "Where did that come from?"...because he or she is not parroting me. And I've seen brilliant abilities stumble.

I do not encourage students to become professionals, because I know (and they don't) just how hard that life is. But some have managed to climb over me and do it anyway & are happy. My favorites are the ones who go out and develop new string programs where none were before!

Yes, the piano is invaluable for learning theory. On the other hand, playing with other people is the big pay-off for all the work, and violinists & violists get tons of that. Fun is the great objective, while another is involving kids in the musical community (speaking as a parent).

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