Shortcuts

I believe in shortcuts.

I don't mean shortcuts that undermine what you're trying to do, like risking your life by rushing through a red light, or compromising your health by taking diet pills to lose weight, or never changing your strings so that your guitar sounds like broken windshield wipers. 

I like shortcuts that result from drilling down to the core essence of what you're trying to accomplish, allowing you to get maximum results from minimum effort and time.

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Learning is not linear

So, I'm now teaching middle school.

Following a calling is an incredible thing. I've found that it's best to not ask why I feel called to do something - I've just got to do it. Not that I'm impulsive, necessarily - I believe, as Rilke says in Letters to a Young Poet, that things grow within us without our awareness before they seem to spring up out of nowhere in our lives. The roots of this project go deep, even though a mere five months ago it was unknown even to me.

In order to best serve my students, I prepared. I researched curriculum. I reviewed the finer points of quadratics and quadrilaterals, colloids and covalents, appositives and apostrophes. I developed a daily schedule, put together a ton of IKEA furniture, and meditated on my vision for the school year.

Man, was I in for a surprise.

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Aptitude vs. achievement

In the academic world, there is a lot of noise (i.e., research and discussion) around musical aptitude - in other words, capacity or talent. They're working on the idea that before the age of ten, whatever musical potential you have is set and you won't be able to achieve anything beyond that. Indeed, evidence suggests that most of a child's formative musical experiences occur by the age of five.

I won't speak to the validity of these assertions - I have no reason to believe that they aren't true. However, there are some dangerous and inaccurate conclusions that could be drawn.

A person might decide that because they had little early musical training, they have no hope of learning to play an instrument as an adult.

A parent might conclude that more is better and enroll an eighteen-month-old in formal music lessons, burning the child out by age four.

The fact that one's musical aptitude apparently stabilizes in childhood does not mean that one's musical achievement must take place by this time. It's also worth noting that few of us are able to achieve our complete potential in a lifetime of study in any field - there is always room to keep learning and growing.

The diagram below shows the musical aptitude and achievement of four fictional people.

Persons A and B are twins raised in the same family. As children, their parents took them to the symphony as well as jazz and bluegrass festivals. Their parents, both amateur musicians, sang and played music with the children at home, and also played recordings. The children participated in toddler music classes and enrolled in violin lessons at age four.

Both children played in orchestras in middle school and high school. Person A discontinued lessons at age fourteen, while continuing to play in the school orchestra. Person B played in elite youth orchestras and took lessons with a college professor. Person B was accepted to a well-known conservatory following high school, while Person A went to a liberal arts college to study English. Person B became the first-chair violinist of a large orchestra, earned a doctorate in violin performance, and took a position as a university professor, while Person A plays bit of bluegrass fiddle and participates occasionally in a community orchestra.

Person C's parents sang at home and played recordings. In third grade, Person C began singing in the school chorus, and took piano lessons from fourth grade until ninth grade. In college, Person C wrote songs and performed at open mics. Person C continues to play at home, and now Person C's children are taking lessons.

Person D listened to music occasionally at home and participated in general music classes at school. Neither of Person D's parents sang much at home. Person D took piano lessons briefly in third grade but did not practice - lessons were discontinued in less than a year. Today, Person D listens to the radio on the way to work and is thinking about taking guitar lessons.

As you can see, even if you believe that one's capacity for music becomes set in stone in childhood, it's not as dismal as it sounds. Both Person A and Person C have a lifetime of musical enjoyment ahead of them even though they are not at the pinnacle of musical achievement like Person B. And that window of white showing that Person D has untapped potential: that is very important! That's the difference between wishing you could play and actually playing.

These graphs are obviously reductive - the risk is that you'll walk away thinking that you have less potential than Person D when really you're in C territory. Personally, I believe that some things can't be quantified, and one of them is desire. If your heart is set on learning an instrument and you are willing to put the work in, you will succeed. My point is that musical success does not have to mean being Person B!

Musical aptitude, like athletic aptitude, becomes most relevant at the very highest levels of achievement. On any sunny Saturday morning you will see a ton of runners out and I promise you that they are not trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials. So let's not pin our Juillard hopes on our toddlers. Instead, let's show them that music is joyful, worthwhile and soul-renewing at any age. It's never too late.

Private Lessons vs. Group Classes

If private lessons are the interstate highway, then group classes are the state road that winds through the small towns alongside it. Both roads are taking you to the same destination, but the journey is very different.

Decisions, decisions.Theoretically - theoretically - private music lessons are more effective than group classes. And theoretically, a child who starts piano lessons, say, at age four will be two years ahead of a child who starts at age six by the time they are both eight.

But in reality, we are dealing with human beings. In reality, a child can sit through four years of lessons and achieve less than what another child will do in six weeks. And (lest this discussion be reduced to talent versus lack thereof), that first child can decide to turn things around and make up for the wasted four years with six weeks of concerted effort.

The question that interests me is, Why?

Let's get back to my pet metaphor. The Eisenhower Interstate System is designed for efficiency. It is supposed to get you from Point A to Point B as quickly and safely as possible - no distractions, no fluff. Likewise, when you enroll in private music lessons, you get an effective, focused approach to music education with an expert teacher. Fun is incidental to both pursuits, although that's not to say that highway driving (or private lessons) can't be enjoyable.

My hometown of York, Maine is accessed via Route 95 north from New Hampshire. Unfortunately, there is a toll booth a quarter-mile north of the exit that can get backed up pretty badly in the summertime, and there are few escape routes. Plan ahead further south and take Route One instead if you want to stop and get the best fried seafood ever at Bob's Clam Hut in Kittery, and then you can enjoy so much outlet shopping that you'll forget where you were going in the first place. Even better: Take Route 103, which winds along through Kittery and Kittery Point before finishing in York. In May, the chestnut trees are gorgeously in bloom. At the height of tourist season you will not encounter any traffic, and there are no stoplights. You can stop in at Fort McClary or the Wiggly Bridge, or just enjoy the gorgeous views of Spruce Creek, the York River, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond as you wind along the lovely country road. Less than fifteen minutes and you're in York, where you can hop back on the interstate if you feel like it.

Theoretically the interstate is faster than the state road. Except when it's not. Except when there is rush hour, an accident, a ball game, tourist season, inclement weather, construction, or debris. Plus, you can't ride your bike, pick the wildflowers, or see much of anything.

Most of the time, you take the interstate. All things being equal, you do the private lessons because that's what everyone does.

But all things are not equal. For one thing, private lessons are two or three times the cost of group classes. They are much less flexible. It's difficult to hop in and out. If things aren't working, that's it - you're already at the top tier.

With group classes, you can dabble. You can try different things, change it up. You can experience different teachers. You can have fun, and even study music solely for the purpose of having fun without alienating your teacher. You can collaborate with others. It's inherently social, which can make all the difference.

Now, you can take Route One all the way from Kittery to Bar Harbor, but it will be a loooooooong trip and you'll never want to look at another fried clam stand. Once you have some momentum with group classes, private lessons become something special and valuable that can help you get to the next level. But it may take a child two or three years to get that momentum, and private lessons will not necessarily create it. May as well spend that time having fun and developing a love of playing, instead of stalling out.

Go with your gut: Do you want the scenic route, or the expressway? No matter what twists and turns lay along the journey, you will learn to play as long as you just keep going.

Continuity by proxy

I've been teaching music lessons in the same city for nine years now. That makes me almost as venerable as the little old lady down the street.

If you want continuity for your child's music lessons, the little old lady down the street is the way to go. She's not going to go for her Ph.D or get signed to a major record label. She's not going to go on maternity leave or on tour with her jazz trio. She's also not going to get fired, unless you decide to fire her.

Always changing: This photo was taken in January 2008, before the addition of our bird logo. The baby grand has since been sold and replaced with a Yamaha U-1.Yep, you can pretty much count on the little old lady down the street - which makes her pretty boring, when it comes down to it. Because she's not going anywhere. She's not going to tell you excitedly about her show at Eddie's Attic next Wednesday, or her new record coming out. She won't be sharing a song she wrote and show you the music theory behind it. She's unlikely to be appearing onstage with the Atlanta Opera, and she won't be attending workshops and training sessions with the aim of improving her musicianship and pedagogy.

Eclectic Music exists in its current incarnation because I was getting more referrals than I could handle and decided to share them. The people I brought on board were definitely not little old lady types. I caught a few straight out of grad school ready to work. A few people were already teaching and wanted a way to not have to travel to people's homes to give lessons. A few were sometime teachers, part-time musicians, and full-time servers looking for a way out of the restaurant business. A couple were undergrads seeking part-time employment.

Out of this motley crew, several are still with me after two or three or more years. I work with some amazing people - I even married one of them.

But this one guy...

Nah. I'm not going to tell you the horror stories and perpetuate the stereotype of the flaky musician, however accurate it may be. The only reason to tell you a story or two would be to demonstrate how even my most dedicated, reliable, dependable contractor is as likely to move across the country as a freight-train-hopping hobo.

I've definitely had some illusions shattered over the past few years, such as the idea that I have control over anyone's actions but my own. I don't. I cannot take responsibility for someone else's choices. All I can do is all I can do.

I know I'm doing all right as long as I can keep Tara Chiusano happy. We are so lucky to have her.That doesn't mean I'm not accountable for what happens at my business. But I cannot change someone else's level of commitment, even if I hold them accountable for it. Remember, even though they finally made Don Draper sign a contract at Sterling Cooper  -- ...well, if you don't know how that turned out, add Mad Men Season Three to your Netflix queue. The point is, I can't take anything for granted.

Hence the headline - if you can't have continuity with one teacher, you'll have continuity by proxy - that, we can arrange. If a teacher leaves, I take personal responsibility for finding an appropriate replacement as fast as possible - in some cases that replacement has been me personally. While I can't guarantee that a teacher will be around forever, I can do my best to bring another one into the neighborhood so that our students don't lose momentum. If the teacher has tracked the student's progress in a journal, the thread of continuity should be picked up by the next teacher.

Ultimately, the continuity is the school itself. No one person can make the kind of open-ended commitment that is possible for an organization to make - ultimately, not even the owner. For instance, it's fairly likely I'll go on maternity leave sooner or later (although actually I've always wanted to hop a train).

Even the little old lady down the street up and dies eventually - I know, because her students come to me for lessons. But even if the school fades away after awhile (it happened to My So-Called Life), I hope that whatever we do for your children will have brought them joy and growth. That really is the best I can do.

When you think you might maybe perhaps possibly want music lessons for your child

"I'm not sure if my kid is ready for lessons."

"I don't know anything about this - how do I know which instrument he'll like?"

I've written before that I don't think it matters that much which instrument you choose. Nor can I really be much help in that area - having never desired to play, say, the flute, I am utterly mystified at what would motivate someone to do that (and my mother is a flautist). Unfortunately, there is no personality test that will tell us which instrument will suit a particular person.

A satisfied customer.In an attempt to deal with some of this uncertainty, parents will request a trial lesson. However, the purpose of a trial lesson is not to see whether a child is ready for lessons or whether he will like the instrument. A one-time trial lesson is solely to determine whether you like the instructor. I guess some logistical aspects of the decision might be taken into account such as drive time, parking, noise level, and studio appearance, but these are secondary when there is a great connection with the teacher. Trial lessons don't provide much insight into readiness or interest.

What then, are you to do if you don't know whether your kid is ready for lessons? There are a few options.

When in doubt, wait. There is no harm in waiting. The critical period hypothesis for language and music, which suggests that children develop their aptitude before age six, does not mean that after age six learning language (and music) is hopeless. Rather, it implies that if children aren't exposed to language during the critical period, they're in trouble. Research is ongoing as to whether this applies equally to music, but chances are your kids have heard enough melody, harmony, and rhythm to have a lifetime of enjoyment ahead of them even if you wait until second or third grade or later to start them on formal lessons.

Group classes. Private lessons are not necessarily a big commitment - you pay a month or a semester at a time. However, it's a huge implied commitment: "We are going to spend the next seven years supporting our child as she develops mastery of the violin." There will be highs, lows, and plateaus. The relationship your child will have with her teacher is unusual - intense one-on-one time with an adult who's not a family member. In some cases, the teacher practically becomes a family member, which can present a challenge when it's time to move on.

If you're not quite ready for all that, I don't blame you. Group classes are a great alternative at any age: you can get a surprisingly in-depth experience at a fraction of the cost of private instruction. If you discover that the class isn't your cup of tea, you have fixed end points at which to bow out gracefully. Also, you can try a few different classes in order to explore different instruments and styles in a cost-effective way.

Short-term enrollment. If you're pretty sure that private lessons are what you want, you can do a trial for a specific amount of time. The important thing is that you decide ahead of time as a family what your commitment will be, rather than quitting when things get rough. This type of trial accommodates the student's needs, but not whims - it's a great way to hold a child accountable while still allowing for a change of direction.

Go all in. No matter what option you choose, do not hedge your bets. Fully expect your child to succeed, and you increase the chances of that happening. Assuming he'll quit after six months, likewise, will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. None of this, "we aren't renting a sax until he's sure he wants to do this!" The average ten-year-old is not equipped to weigh the implications of his decision. You make the call, and then give your child the support and encouragement he needs...and give yourself a little grace when it seems like the whole thing was a terrible idea.

The bottom line: You can't really go wrong, as long as you are being the grownup and owning the choice you make on behalf of your child.

It doesn't matter how long it will take, and you don't want to know anyway

Not everyone wants to take the slow train. A prospective student might ask me how long it takes to get good at the guitar. A parent will occasionally express concern that her child is not progressing as quickly on the piano as he should.

A teacher's job would be much easier if these variables could be managed, but the truth is that there is no helpful answer to the first question ("Anywhere from six months to ten years") and there is no easy solution to the second problem ("Your child is either in the midst of a plateau from which he will emerge victorious, or he's truly not into it. We should know one way or the other in eighteen months").

Futile but fun. Not knowing how long it will last is part of the experience.My left foot is almost healed. I hurt it somehow on a run on Christmas Day - not sure if it was broken or sprained or strained, but I could barely walk. Now, the pain is just a little ghost that reminds me to continue to take it easy.

The fact that I am almost fully healed is thrilling, because at the beginning, the pain was so bad that I couldn't imagine it would ever go away. My injury was my reality, and it felt oddly permanent in its intensity.

Turns out it took just over three weeks to get to this point. If I had known at the beginning that it would be three weeks, I wonder if that would have changed my experience. Would it have seemed like an unreasonably long sentence? Or would it have soothed my fears of being sidelined all spring? I think that by not knowing, I let go of running and focused on healing.

Speaking of being sidelined, a powerful ice storm recently shut down the city of Atlanta. On day one, when I learned that I would have to close Eclectic Music, my mind was tallying up the lost revenues and fretting over the inconvenience. After five straight days of being shut down by ice and snow, I just didn't think it was a big deal anymore. If I had known at the beginning that the aftermath of the storm would last all week, I would have driven myself crazy with worry.

I recently came across a (presumably) well-meaning guitar teacher on Twitter. Most of his tweets were essentially advertisements for his services. "Learning the guitar is hard. It takes at least two years before you'll be able to play anything decently."

I happen to believe that both of those statements are false, but even if they were true: It doesn't matter how long it takes. But by sentencing his students to a long and difficult process, he's taken all the fun out of learning and is unlikely to find any takers.

There's a saying: The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today.

If you want to do something, just get started, and don't even think about about how long it will take to get where you want to be.

He'll leave home for college in 2025. But let's focus on the deer tracks.Some things, you just can't measure in time. It doesn't matter how long you've been playing. It doesn't matter that another student started three months ago and can already do more than you can do after a year. It doesn't even matter that you don't feel like you've gotten anywhere. What matters is what you do with today, with this moment that you've been given.

We aren't supposed to have all the information. We've just got our little lantern to illuminate the pathway a few steps ahead. Too much analysis, too much awareness, too much anticipation, and the passion is lost. Reading the plot synopsis of The Usual Suspects on IMDB is not the same as spending a couple of hours in its thrall as the twists and turns of the story unfold before you.

So what does that mean for the adult trying to decide whether to start learning the guitar? Do it for the sake of doing it, and be pleasantly suprised when you realize at some point that you can actually play.

What about the parent of the child who doesn't seem to be getting anywhere? Recalibrate your expectations and look for little signs of growth and progress.

Winter can seem long and dreary, but we all know that spring is coming. The beauty is, there's no way to know which day it will actually happen. I'll take the pain and discomfort of those cold days of wondering when it's ever going to warm up, just so I can have that incredible moment of awe and delight when I finally find the first green shoots of the daffodils.

Don't tell me which day it will be - I want to be surprised.

It's not the what, but the how.

The Snow vs. My Father and His Snowblower - the score will always be perfectly tied.

Lots of us consider repetition to be backsliding. "Last time I ran this route I was five seconds per mile faster!"

But how did it feel? Maybe this time you did it with less rest, less effort, a stronger form, and shorter recovery time. Maybe you just had more fun.

If you're revisiting the same musical piece you played several months ago, perhaps it is now smoother, more fluent, and more confident.

Even when you compare apples to apples, you might not be considering all the variables.

Of course, even if there is truly no change in your position or ability, the how is still what matters. You always have control over the most important aspect of it: your attitude. And sometimes that's all you can control.

Five things guitar teachers do that seem helpful but aren't

I've had a lot of transfer students from other teachers over the years, and I see the results of guitar teacher laziness. There are obvious issues, such as poor documentation and poor organization (a bunch of tabs in a dog-eared stack of paper is all you have to show for two years and $2,000). However, there are some things that actually seem like selling points but are really further indications of a lack of a strong teaching foundation. Here are a few:

1) Your teacher stays up all night creating detailed tabs for you - When a guitar teacher creates a custom, detailed tab for you, that benefits your teacher as much or more than it benefits you. There's nothing wrong with having a "reach" song that you're working on, and it's awesome if your teacher creates a custom tab from time to time. That said, you should also be playing easier songs that you have a shot at figuring out on your own. if all you're doing is learning from tabs, you are learning to play songs, but not necessarily learning how to play the guitar.

2) Your teacher never puts down the guitar - Playing together with your teacher can be very beneficial for students at all levels. However, a teacher who never puts down the guitar to let you play alone may be hampering your ability to play independently, especially at the beginner level.

3) Jaw-dropping displays of guitar prowess are a part of every lesson - Your lessons should be about you, not about your teacher. If you feel intimidated or in awe of your teacher, you might not feel comfortable asking questions or showing that you are having trouble with something. It's great to know that you're studying with a person who has some serious chops, but beware of show-offy noodling or demonstration of skills that supposedly "can't be taught."

4) Your teacher lets you learn whatever you want - It's great for a teacher to help you learn songs that you love - that's the whole point. However, your teacher should also challenge you with material that will develop your ear, encourage your ability to read, or help you learn specific technical skills. Also (especially relevant to younger students) your teacher can help broaden your horizons by sharing music that you might enjoy, based on what you're already expressing interest in.

5) Your teacher keeps you in your comfort zone - There are many guitarists who are stuck. They tend to have students who are stuck. If you have been playing for a year or more and still can't play a song all the way through, have never jammed with anyone but your teacher, and don't feel a sense of identity as a guitarist, it's time to re-evaluate. A good teacher will hold you accountable for not only daily practice but actual mastery, and will help you set and reach appropriate goals.

Have you had any of these experiences in learning guitar or any other instrument?

Eight reasons your kid needs a new music teacher

There can be obvious indicators when it's time to find someone new to give lessons to your children: the teacher is late or cancels all the time, takes phone calls in the middle of the lesson, raps your kid's knuckles with a ruler, et cetera. I'd like to discuss some less obvious signs that nonetheless point to the fact that things aren't working out.

Sometimes it's more a matter of taste.1. There is no accountability.
A professional educator should have a book wherein he or she records the lesson's assignments in detail for either the parent or the student (depending on the student's age). Ideally, there should also be a place for the student to log their practice. A teacher who leaves no trace ends up treating each lesson as a discrete meeting with no thread of continuity, which hinders forward progress.

2. The teacher is not using professional materials.
The best teachers have strong relationships with local music stores and are keeping up with the latest books and methods. These teachers understand that costs of $5.95 here or $6.95 there are not unreasonable in the context of the overall investment of music lessons. Furthermore, an experienced teacher has a plan for the student's education that means any individual book will be useful.

An instructor who uses photocopies, outdated method books, or handwritten materials may be thinking small, uncertain of the best direction to take, or reinventing the wheel.

3. The teacher moves straight through each method book, page after page, week after week. This teacher is using a one-size-fits-all approach and is not really present. The student is not gaining independence or skill, since very few students can assimilate new concepts at this rate.

A better teacher will supplement the method books with folk, classical, jazz, and pop repertoire tailored to the student's desires and needs.

4. The teacher asks for a longer lesson. This is a red flag, especially if the request is accompanied by skipping the student from, say, book 1 to book 3 in a given series. Some teachers pinpoint a student as "talented" and then unwittingly set them up to fail by giving them repertoire they are not prepared for, requiring a lesson that's too long for a beginner.

5. The student is not playing rhythms correctly.
It can be tedious and difficult to teach a student to count rhythmic patterns on their own, which is why a lot of teachers don't bother.

6. The student has curled-up pinkies, hunched shoulders, or keeps looking at his or her hands when playing. These are signs of tension that scream, "too much, too fast."

7. The student is not practicing. If you, as a parent, are supporting your child's practice and it's not happening, the teacher is perhaps to blame. A student will practice if he has a practice routine and a clear idea of what he is supposed to do during the designated time. If the piece is too difficult, he will balk.

A pro teacher will spend a lot of time during the lesson teaching the student how to practice. Not every detail will transfer to the student's own practice sessions, but specific guidelines are much more inspiring.

8. There is no recital. Recital preparation is "teaching to the test" but in a very healthy way - it shows that the teacher can help the student set and follow through with longer-term goals. If there's no performance opportunity, there is no bigger picture and it's all too easy to lose momentum.

**
All of the eight no-nos above are things I've learned in part through the many transfer students I've taken. I've encountered these teaching mistakes so many times that it now takes me only a few moments to diagnose them with a new student.

Some of these things can be corrected - I've had lots of parents say things like, "He never used to practice but now I don't even have to remind him," or "She doesn't get frustrated the way she used to." However, some students never recover from the lack of momentum created by these failures of instruction, and it's a shame.

In a field where so many adults are intimidated by their lack of knowledge, my goal is to spread the word about the problems I see in a way that is accessible to the layperson. I hope I've done that here.

As a student, teacher, or parent, have you encountered any of these eight reasons to seek a new music teacher? Or others?

Breaking a habit

Ali, an eight-year-old piano student, was having trouble keeping her wrists level. She kept resting them on the piano case while she was playing, thus creating tension and restricting motion. Every few seconds, I had to either verbally correct her or gently nudge her wrists up.

Because I secretly desire to be a mean piano teacher rapping knuckles with a wooden ruler, I did this:

The tape is sticky-side up, fastened with a piece of folded-up tape on either side.

This turned out to be an immediate, complete solution to Ali's problem. She never touched the tape, and I never had to remind her not to. She simply decided that she didn't want to get stuck to the tape, and reminded herself to keep her wrists up.

Proof that to break a habit, everything you really need is in your own mind.

Momentum: more important than talent

One big thing you have to forget about is whether your kid is talented or not. Just take it off the table.

Here's the thing: for kids, it's all about the work they put into it. Yes, work. It's not all going to be fun, although it might be enjoyable. You have to help the kid set up a routine for playing every day. Or at least four days out of the week, at least ten minutes a day. If you can't do this, the chance of your kid succeeding with the instrument over the long haul drops precipitiously.

It's all about momentum. If you can build momentum from the very beginning, you will be amazed at how well your child will do. Some early success on the instrument will help her continue to stay motivated to practice, which in turn leads to more success. "She's so talented!" Uh-huh. How mysterious.

Contrast that with the alternative: Teacher and kid cover pages 10-12 in the first lesson, and kid doesn't look at them again for the rest of the week. Kid comes back, teacher realizes the kid didn't practice. Two things happen then: First, the teacher knows that practicing is going to be an issue and unconsciously holds back her best stuff. Second, the kid gets assigned pages 10-12 again. There goes the momentum. It takes a lot to fix this problem: The kid has learned that practicing is not a part of taking music lessons.

I cannot overstate the importance of the crucial first few weeks of music lessons. Developing the practice routine is a lot like practice itself: getting it right on the first try is exponentially better than fixing mistakes. It takes seven repetitions to learn a given musical figure, and thirty-five repetitions to un-learn it once it's been learned incorrectly. Likewise, a child who gets off on the wrong foot has learned incorrectly that learning an instrument is about attending the music lesson and nothing more, and once a child makes this erroneous assumption it is extremely difficult to get him to a place where he is learning music for real.

This is such an avoidable problem. But how involved should you be in preventing it? This depends on the age and temperament of your child. For most children under twelve, you can pretty much assume that you will be overseeing daily practice, reminding your kid to do it, and providing rewards for doing it/consequences for not doing it. If you are not willing to be this involved, it is unlikely your child will succeed at music lessons, even if it was his idea.

For children twelve and up, it is a judgment call. You have to choose your battles on everything at this age, so maybe you want music lessons to be something you don't have to be involved in or fight over. If this is the case, you have to decide whether you are okay with spending the money on lessons even if your kid isn't practicing. The exception to the momentum rule is that sometimes when teens are given the space to develop their passion for music, it will bloom on its own.

Be prepared for the teacher to have a say in this, too - your teacher might not be willing to work with a student who is not practicing. Children who don't practice are not fun to work with.

Many a parent wants his kid to be a natural - our culture fetishizes prodigies and overnight successes. But practicing music is really about training the student to feel pride in a sense of accomplishment - to derive pleasure from a sense of progress after a period of hard work. That's not glamorous at all! So what's the shortcut?

You guessed it: momentum. The funny thing is, momentum starts to look eerily like talent when developed early and cultivated faithfully.

Choosing an instrument - maybe not that big a deal?

When I first started out as a teacher, people would call and say "My daughter wants to play guitar" or "I'm enrolling both of my kids in piano." But when my school started to take off as a multi-teacher school (as opposed to just my own teaching studio), people would call and say, "We want to get involved with your program - what instrument should we pick?" I was thrilled to see this sign that our little music community was having an influence in the larger community. But in spite of the fact that I have played and taught several different instruments over the years, I have no idea what makes me want to play a particular instrument or how to go about choosing an instrument for someone else.

Maybe it's like deciding how many kids to have. There is no wrong answer, and even if it is the wrong answer (surprise!), it ends up becoming the right answer anyway. Or, you never even bring up the question, and so the idea of a wrong answer is moot.

The basics of learning an instrument are the same on every instrument even if physical techniques differ. It's like learning French for a few years and then switching to Spanish. True, the three years of French study became a dead end, but you developed your skills of language learning and can now apply them to Spanish.

Likewise, though you might awaken musical skills one one instrument, once you master the physical techniques of another, you can express yourself musically with it. Playing an instrument is simply translating what you hear (or see) to a physical interface, and the ability to "speak" this language continues to grow no matter what instrument you study.

So what do you do as a parent? Do you choose an instrument for your kid? What age do you start? When do you allow them to quit or switch instruments? Honestly, I don't know - it depends on your family culture.

You know what? It's like romantic love versus arranged marriages - given the right conditions, either can thrive, statistically speaking.

Whatever you do, be fully committed to whatever instrument you choose, during the period of time that you're enrolled in lessons. The main thing that contributes to enjoying music lessons is success, and the main thing that contributes to success is a good practice routine. For most kids, even the instrument they are so excited about will be gathering dust in a few weeks without that solid routine.

Given the right routine, a good result is possible on any instrument - and if it doesn't click the first time, switching isn't the end of the world.

Finding time to practice

Learning to play a musical instrument requires practicing every day, even if sometimes it’s only for a few minutes. For schoolchildren, I recommend sitting down to play right after school, following a snack. This is when a kid is still fresh and able to concentrate. No tears, no stress - done and on to the next thing!

It isn’t that practicing is more important than homework, or family time, or playtime. It’s because mastering an instrument is part of a daily routine like eating, sleeping, bathing, or exercising. You can’t save it up and do it all in three hours on the weekend, any more than you can brush your teeth for the entire week on Monday morning. Therefore, if you are going to make the commitment to weekly music lessons, there must also be a daily commitment to practice.

Homework is truly overwhelming for many families these days, and I understand the panic that sets in when a deadline is looming, Dad is out of town, and the library is closing in ten minutes. On truly hectic days, practice needn’t be intense - perhaps it will simply consist of running through a few favorite pieces for less than five minutes. Though even small, token practice sessions like these will have a cumulative effect on a student’s musicianship, the student is also learning the meaning of commitment, the power of self-discipline, the value of routine, and the art of time management. These life skills will be even more valuable than the musical skills in the years to come.

Of course, there may be days when it’s not possible nor worth it to add one more thing. Too many of those days, and it becomes necessary to evaluate the big picture - which activities truly add joy and satisfaction to our lives, and which ones are draining our time and energy?

If we are realistic about the level of commitment necessary to succeed at music, we may find that it’s actually not a good time to pursue it. On the other hand, being honest and clear about the time required to practice may move us to make the time. Learning how to do this paves the way for a lifetime of musical achievement and enjoyment.