Why Music Lessons Suck – part I

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Music/Audio, Opinions, Personal, Teaching 1 Comment

Maybe I’m bragging here, but I think I have a good problem:

My kids voluntarily and enjoy playing piano.  There are times when I actually have to tell them to stop playing.


There actually are times when it gets to be too much sonic goodness or they chose inappropriate times to sit down and start a recital (i.e. 6:30 AM when 3 of 5 people are still TRYING to sleep).

Even through my cringing and complaining, I do relish their enthusiasm and hope that it will continue.  I also compare it to what I went through and more relevantly, what my kids’ peers are experiencing in their music lessons.

Why do my kids want to play piano when the other kids in the neighbourhood have their parents fighting with them to go in the same room as a musical instrument?

I’ll concede that there are a few details about their upbringing that help out with this “problem”.  The kids are surrounded by music ALL the time – I’ve got speakers in almost every room and there’s usually something coming out of them at any one point in the day.  Also, having a parent involved in the creation and production of music has some sort of influence … one might think.

That being said, I’m still a bit flabbergasted by the impromptu concerts/duets and even arguments about who gets to play on a daily basis.  I’ve been actively teaching my kids piano for the past two years.  Before then, it was whenever they were kind of interested in plunking around on the instrument.

What am I doing?

I’ve taken to teaching them the expected basics – note names, time values, accidentals…  My approach is pretty basic – focus on one thing at a time and encourage making good sounding mistakes … I like to encourage good sound over right notes in the beginning.

As for practicing, I like to get them thinking about what they’re playing and feel free to explore.  Sure, they have to practice the piece as it’s written, but what happens when you move things up an octave?  What happens when you start on a different note?  What happens when you start one hand on a different note?  What happens when you try to make something up with one hand?

I don’t know how far I can go with this, but I want them to be able to balance being literate in music as well as being able to “speak” it on their own …

Back to the point

Even though some of the parenting choices that we’ve made probably have a factor in all of this (one that comes to mind – limited “screen time”), I think it comes down to a philosophy choice about what music is and how to approach teaching it.  Coming back to the title of this post – Music Lessons Suck.  I can’t say that for ALL music lessons, but here’s where I’m coming from.

“Traditional” Music Lessons

If you look at the way piano lessons are typically structured (you can probably substitute in any “classical” instrument for piano if you wish), there’s not really any art or language that is taught.  You, as a student, are expected to learn playing technique and music notation without knowing how to “communicate” or “emote” through music.

From a piano students’ perspective, you’re taught how to sit, hold your arms and fingers and how to properly press the keys to make a sound.  You’re also taught the names of the notes on the keyboard and the corresponding dots on the lines and spaces of notation paper.

Granted, there are methods out there – Suzuki, Orff, Kodaly, etc. – that initially try to introduce children to music through other avenues: Suzuki emphasizes listening and rote playing.  Orff emphasizes rhythm and movement, etc.  But, quickly after students have reached a certain point, they abandon any self-expression or creativity in music performance and join the mass fray of students learning music by playing notes from a page.

And What Do We Get?

In the end, whether I’m looking at music as a language or an art, I have to ask myself, can a student being put through generally accepted traditional music lessons actually be expected to CREATIVELY communicate or be considered a CREATIVE artist?

I’m in no way criticizing classical musicians who’ve put hours and hours into their craft – I did it myself.  It’s sad to say how a couple of decades will essentially completely wear away muscle memory that used to crank out 15-20 minute pieces.

I come from the classically-trained side of the fence, so from personal experience, I can state that, there was a time when I was embarrassed and let down by my training when put on the spot to try and improvise over a simple blues progression.

I couldn’t.

But could you blame me?  No, not really.  My training taught me some fantastic technique and the ability to articulate and interpret some pretty advanced music works from notation.  What it didn’t teach me was how to CREATE.

I’ll leave it off here to avoid you having to scroll too much.  Part II of this rant can be found here.

Comments 1

  1. Pingback: Why Music Lessons Suck – part II | Hatched Productions

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