An elderly woman was interviewed on Radio 4 recently. Asked about the key to her longevity, she responded: ‘Don’t give up anything because you’ll never start again’. That may be true in the context of pensioners going to Zumba, but I’m not convinced that it applies to musical activities. In fact, I spent a notable amount of time in my last job trying to help some pupils stop music lessons that they no longer enjoyed. Please don’t think that I’m elitist: I strongly agree with research indicating that almost the entire population are born with the ability to develop musical skill*, and much of my own academic study and school teaching has focused on motivating young people to begin and continue with musical activities, dealing with challenges as they occur. I am not discouraging participation in music but, just as a leaky tent can put someone off camping for life, so a negative musical experience can also discourage future participation.
As Director of Music, I regularly spoke with pupils who had poor attendance at instrumental lessons. It was fairly easy to establish whether they had genuinely forgotten, were feeling pressured due to other commitments or were just not that keen on going to their lessons. If the latter, we discussed together what was causing this; often the pupils spoke positively about the teacher and the music they were learning, but said they simply weren’t that interested in playing the instrument (this raises questions about teaching style and choosing instruments, but they are topics for another time). The pupils were often concerned about expressing this to their parents, leading me to write very careful emails about the situation. Some parents replied with thanks for mentioning the issue before they paid for another term of lessons, agreeing that their child was mature for articulating their feelings. Unfortunately this was not always the case: Common responses included: ‘I want her to have the opportunities I didn’t ‘ (then spend the money on lessons for yourself); ‘He can stop when he’s passed Grade Five, so that he’s got something to show for it’ (and will almost certainly never play for pleasure again); and ‘She wants to have singing lessons, but I’ve said she needs to get Grade Two piano first so that she learns to read music’ (a bit like buying a cat for a ‘dog person’). When lessons continued, it rarely resulted in a happy experience; pupils felt like they had failed to meet their parents’ expectations and parents often blamed the instrumental teacher or the school for a lack of achievement.
Two things spring to mind that may help to avoid this negativity. Firstly, achieving on an instrument requires frequent, focused practice. Parents need to support their children in the same way that they helped them learn to walk and talk, read and write: Paying an expert for 30 minutes each week will not be enough. Where parents were involved in their children’s musical learning there was generally quicker progress and more enjoyment: If tuition did stop if was generally as a result of direct communication between pupil, parents and instrumental teacher, with a more positive end to the experience than in the situations I described above. Secondly, we must remember that peoples’ interests change; what a relief that is! Yes, most of us maintain some hobbies from childhood (I still practise the piano and enjoy reading fiction) but we tend to discard things too (I no longer play the flute regularly or collect trolls). There are many forms of musical involvement and insisting that children persist with one musical activity against their will may limit their desire to explore other musical contexts in the future, potentially finding an area in which they do wish to become expert.
It is sometimes useful to compare musical contexts to other situations. Grandma and I went to Chester one afternoon last week. We had planned it in advance: I booked a restaurant and she borrowed a guidebook from her neighbour. We walked round the city walls and had a fantastic afternoon tea at Edgar House. We ate every last cake, sandwich and scone because we were enjoying them, not because we felt obliged to keep eating. Likewise, if we’d got bored of our walk it would have been perfectly acceptable to cut it short. We should apply the same approach to non-compulsory music activities; time invested in preparation will often make the activity more enjoyable but, if it’s not fun, stopping is ok. Unless you really want to keep doing it; don’t.
* MacPherson G.E and Welch G.F eds, 2012. The Oxford Handbook of Music Education; Volume 1 (Oxford, Oxford University Press) and Sloboda J 2005. Exploring The Musical Mind: Cognition, Emotion, Ability, Function (Oxford, Oxford University Press) are useful starting points for those interested in how musical skill is developed.