What follows is helpful advice on finding a teacher, and what parents can do to help their kids stay involved in music.
The following was excerpted from an interview on July 23rd, 2008, with "She Lives". You can read the entire interview at:
SL: How can a parent know when their child might be ready for formal music instruction? Does "the earlier the better" always apply?
BF: I think you really have to handle this on a case-by-case basis. It primarily depends on the child's maturity and ability to focus. The decision also depends on how involved the parent is willing to be in the child's education. The younger the child, the more involved the parent will need to be in the lessons. Early is not always better. The child does need to be developmentally ready. Sometimes the kids start out really excited, and then are surprised to find out that the process takes a bit of work. If you are not sure if your child is ready for lessons, do several "test" lessons with a willing instructor. That should be a good barometer of your child's readiness.
SL: I talk with a lot of adults who took music lessons as children and now regret they didn't work harder and stick with it. Some of those parents have their children in music lessons with the hope their kids will do better than they did. I'm sure you hear this a lot as well. What sorts of things can parents do to support and encourage their children's musical interests?
BF: there is a lot the parent can do. If the child is very young, sit in on the lessons as the instructor permits and ask questions so you can reinforce instruction at home. That is quite valuable to the child's progress. The young students (ages 5 – 10) who tend to quit are the ones who have parents who are very passive in the learning process. If the parent doesn't value the instruction enough to get involved and make it a priority, then the child won't value it.
If the parent can't play, the parent can ask the child to teach them what they have learned about instrument. This actually causes the child to organize the information better because they now have to communicate it to another person.
Make practicing a game. For example, write down all the scales your child knows. Put each scale on a slip of paper, or a 3X5 card. Toss all the slips into a box or a hat. Randomly draw a slip, and have your child play that scale. If you have more than one musician in the household, you can have a competition between them to see who gets the most correct answers.
There are several educational computer games that kids can use as well. Google search Jayde Musica and Noteable; I've used both programs to help kids learn how to read music. Noteable is geared towards younger students. Earplane is an excellent ear training website. It is very similar to ear training software we used in college. If you want more options, go to Downloads.com and type "note music reading" in the search engine. You will find dozens of freeware and shareware educational music programs. Try using Google to search as well.
If the parent can play an instrument, sit down and do some practicing with your child. For example, if your child plays cello and you play piano, play your child's cello parts with the left hand. That will help them learn how to tune. Play a series of notes on your instrument, and then have the child re-create that passage with their instrument.
And then make listening a game. When you are listening to songs on the radio, ask the child what instruments they hear playing. Ask them what they are hearing…are we listening to the verse, or the chorus section of the song? What genre is the music in? Then put the radio dial on seek and randomly select a station. Ask questions about the new song that plays. If you have younger kids, spend time dancing and moving to music. That activity will help develop their sense of rhythm.
Attend live music events as much as possible. Try local concert series, festivals, small coffee shop performances, and large concert venues. Try to meet the musicians, if you are able, and ask them about their careers and their instruments. Ask your children what they liked and disliked about the performance. If your child is watching someone who plays the same instrument, ask them to evaluate that performer's ability and technique on that instrument, if they are able.
(Here's another great tip I am adding post - interview. Have your kids perform once a week for the whole family, say after dinner. They can perform an item they have been working on for class. This helps them shake off performance nerves, and it also makes them accountable for their work. Their family can see the results of their child's practice sessions.)
SL: Unfortunately, we don't all live close enough to you to take advantage of your classes and private instruction, so where are some good places to start the search for quality music lessons?
BF: Ask the band or orchestra director at your child's school. He or she will have some recommendations. You can check the yellow pages and call the local music stores. Ask if the person teaching your selected instrument has a degree in music…that is a quick way to determine the quality of instruction. But remember that it is not the only way to determine quality. Ask parents of other children who are taking lessons on a similar instrument, "Who do you go to for lessons?" Certain names should start repeatedly popping up. Focus on those names, get contact info for those teachers, and then go interview them. I'll address the interview further in the next question.
SL: As a kid, I had a couple of crummy piano teachers. Nice ladies; not so good with teaching piano to youngsters, though. What sorts of questions should parents ask when interviewing music instructors that will help them determine whether that instructor is quality? Does a music degree always mean a quality instructor, for example?
BF: I agree with you. A bad teacher can really do some damage, to the point of turning a student off to the instrument entirely. One particular electric bass student came in, transferring her lessons from another teacher. Her right hand technique involved her hooking her thumb over the waist of the bass, and then reaching down to try to pluck the strings with her first finger. Her previous "bass" teacher had taught her that as right hand technique. (For people not familiar with electric bass, the right hand technique was so incorrectly taught and unnatural, it seemed like it had been completely made up.) He apparently made comments like "bass is boring" during her lesson.
It didn't surprise me to find out that her previous teacher had been a bluegrass guitarist (and a new teacher who was teaching for the first time in his life). The music store had paired the young bassist with this individual, and not a bass teacher. After a period of relearning, this young student is now completely passionate about bass, to the point of attending last year's Bass Player Live event in NYC with me. She has performed regularly on electric bass in Kids Jamming For Kids and Kids Rock, and she performs on double bass in her school orchestra.
As far as having a degree, I think having a music degree generally means a better quality teacher. In my local area, most of the teachers who are well respected have a degree in music. However, there are exceptions. I've met a few individuals who were exceptional teachers and had great skills with theory and teaching, even without a degree.
With this in mind, I encourage the parent to look for a professional teacher who is actively working in his or her field. Then interview that teacher. That is the best way to know the person your child will be studying with. Ask them if they have a degree. What topics will your child be studying? What textbooks does that teacher use? What is their curriculum, generally speaking? Will your child learn music theory? How does the teacher accommodate different learning styles? If your child is studying guitar or bass guitar, ask if your child will learn to read music, or does the teacher only teach from tablature?
Ask what areas the teacher specializes in. Ask them about the groups they play in professionally. Ask what kinds of projects that teacher is involved in; are they recording a CD, writing a thesis, composing a new piece of music for a newly written play? Just ask questions, and listen. The teacher will reveal their personality. Then ask around about that person. Ask at local music stores. Ask your child's music teacher at school. See if that person is generally well regarded by the local music community. I would recommend interviewing several instructors this way, at the very least two instructors. You will begin to see big differences in their answers. One or two teachers will rise to the top of your list of choices during this interview process..
SL: What are some advantages to group lessons versus private instruction? Are some youngsters better suited for one as opposed to the other?
BF: In my opinion, group lessons allow an individual to explore their interest before fully committing to their chosen instrument. Group lessons are a great precursor to private study. Another advantage to group lessons is that the cost per lesson is much lower. You are also learning in a very safe environment; you are among students who are at the same level. So usually the environment is quite relaxed.
The downside is that group lessons don't accommodate various learning curves very well. There is also much less individual attention than in a private lesson. The larger the group lesson, the less individualized attention the students will get. This can hurt students who are having trouble grasping the material, or the students who are very young. For that reason, I do two things with my group classes. If a child is very young, say six to nine years old, I will generally recommend that the parent attend class with their child so that the child gets more individualized attention. I also stay after class as needed when students require extra help.
If your youngster can focus and listen well, is disciplined, and can "play with others well", I say group lessons are a good choice. If your child does better in an environment with few distractions or if your child has trouble focusing, I would skip the exploratory step of group lessons and enroll into private lessons. The quieter environment and individualized attention should help the student thrive on their selected instrument.
As a parent of young musicians, one of my greatest challenges has been to get my kids to practice their instruments on a regular basis. I'm sure there are other parents who share that challenge. What tips can you give us to help motivate our kids to actually WANT to practice? (The more suggestions you can offer, the better the odds of me finding one that will work for my reluctant practicer!)
Parents should realize that usually takes a very, very long time before the student will practice simply for the pleasure of the activity. It is hard to find pleasure in the activity when you sound like a beginner. Also, the student has to face their feelings regarding sounding like a beginner when they practice…and it doesn't feel very good.
So on that note, make practice a balance of fun and work. I mentioned a few ideas earlier. One idea was to use computer games to teach music reading. Another idea was to have the child play scales that were randomly selected. You can create flashcards or even a board game based on the material that the student is learning, and then use the game to quiz them. For example, a drummer could create flashcards covering the rudiments. For other instruments, it might be scales and chords.
Also, have your child play along to recordings of the songs they are learning. Even if you don't have the recording, You Tube probably does. If the recording is too fast, check out devices like the Tascam Practice Trainers (such as the CD-VT1 or the MP3-VT1). Those devices are designed to help musicians practice, and they can slow down a recording without changing the pitch. I have found this to be an invaluable help to musicians who are learning a challenging song. (More information is online at http://www.tascam.com/
Set up a practice area for your kids to use. Make sure you have a music stand and an instrument stand. Keep lesson material out and on the music stand, ready to be worked on. Keep your child's instrument on the instrument stand and "at the ready" at all times. That way, any five-minute break to "just noodle" will often inadvertently grow into thirty or forty-minute practice session. If the instrument is stored in it's case and out of sight, this is far less likely to happen.
The kids who are the most successful at practicing tend to have a regular set practice times. And they are consistent about keeping those appointments with themselves. I had a student who woke up a half hour early everyday and he practiced before he went to school. He did that for years. At age fourteen he ended up playing in lead guitar in several bands that were performing regularly around the area.
Performing usually helps kids get addicted to playing, as it is (usually) one of the first things they will really enjoy about the instrument. Have your kids get into a band, work up a set list, and then invite their friends over and throw a house concert for them. If the kids name the band, you can help them design band T-shirts with logos. Find out if there are any local open mic nights or neighborhood events (a block party) that the band can play at as they progress.
And setting up a reward system works wonders as well. Some children get a sticker when they practice, others may get 50 cents for each day that they practice. Reward systems help kids push through periods when practice is not fun.
SL: Does environment have any impact on a child's musical interest? What can parents do to create a musically rich home environment and communicate music as a priority to their youngsters?
When parents communicate that music is a priority, children make music a priority.
Parents can make time to share music. Sit down and share your favorite music with your kids…and start that process early. Go to shows, or just listen to records together. My mom couldn't play an instrument, but she turned me on to classical and folk music at an early age by sharing her record collection. Talk about what you are hearing, and what you like or dislike about it.
Following through on your own musical dreams is another really great way to demonstrate to your kids that music is a priority. Some of the parents who bring their children in for lessons will express that they wish they could play an instrument. However that parent feels they don't have the time to learn right now. I tell them to rewire that thinking. After all, none of us are getting any younger! I think it is healthy for your child to see you stop everyday and take a half hour to do something that is exclusively for you, just for your own pleasure. You will quietly teach a powerful message about work-life balance, in addition to placing a value on musical endeavors.