The right and wrong way show a child respect, as demonstrated by the New York Times

Of course, one way we show children respect is by dressing them in ridiculous and adorable costumes to amuse ourselves at their expense. (The Field Museum Library)If you'd like a child to learn something from you, you better stop being so amazed that they can learn anything at all.

From time to time, I hear a new teacher say something like, "Wow, that kid is only eight?" He's going to be an incredible guitarist!"

First of all, that's not how it works. Just because you started at fifteen and this kid started lessons at seven does not necessarily mean that, at age fifteen, he's going to play like you did at twenty-three.

But more importantly, there's no reason to burden this child with an external standard to compare himself to. He is doing a great job now, and he has his own road of progress ahead of him just like anybody else, one day at a time.

Trying to project a future for a child, however benign your intent, is not just comes off like that awful "Mommy, What Will I Look Like?" business that Lindsay started on Arrested Development.

By not comparing a child to other people, you avoid discouragement, false confidence, arrogance, hopelessness, and envy. Or at least, you might postpone it a little.

We respect children by appreciating where they are developmentally and giving them appropriate challenges, as well as appropriate praise for their efforts.

We disrespect children by giving them inappropriate praise, challenges that are too big or too small, and treating them as though they are small, quirky adults.

Earlier this year, Anthony Tommasini, the chief music critic for the New York Times, wrote a series of articles in an attempt to choose the top ten composers of all time. This thoughtful project encouraged responses from many readers, including the son of two professional viola players, a Manhattan eight-year-old named Lucas Amory. Tomassini featured the child's letter on his blog.

Note how Tommasini shows respect for Lucas' opinions ("Lucas has a passion for the Romantics so Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Schumann appear on both his lists") without being self-conscious or clever about it. He acknowledges that it's the child's budding critical thinking skills that set him apart at age eight, not simply the fact that he's writing to the Times or that he's into classical music. Tommasini writes, "He clearly understands the difference between all-time greats and personal favorites — quite impressive for an 8-year-old."

Since people generally do not point out the developmental milestones of adults, Tommasini demonstrates here that he understands his role in fostering Lucas' further growth as a human being. Understanding the difference between fact and opinion, especially with regard to art, is impressive for an eight-year-old. By praising this, he is encouraging conversation between Lucas and his parents on the subjects of critical thinking, art criticism, and beyond.

Lucas Amory's illustration.Lucas illustrated his list with a picture of Tchakovsky and Schumann competing for the top spot. The drawing is clever, funny, and cute. But Tommasini doesn't tell us (or Lucas!) it's cute - he just includes a print of the letter in its entirety and lets the audience enjoy the natural, un-self-conscious sweetness of a child instead of calling attention to it.

On the other hand, a video produced a few day after the letter was initially published is cringe-inducingly awful. From the simpering interviewer to the self-important editing to the soul-crushing length of it, it's a terrible production that disrespects the child by inflating his ego. They actually ask him to spell the word "precocious," and they actually included the footage of him spelling it, with the interviewer's embarrassingly surprised and delighted response. They also baited him by asking about Lady Gaga's music. His nasty response should not have been encouraged or included. It's certainly not Lucas' fault at age eight - the grownups should have known better.

There's more - for instance, they asked Lucas questions that were sent in by Twitter followers, which I personally was uncomfortable with (he's a celebrity expert at age eight?). "Why are you so awesome?" is not a good question to ask an eight-year-old, and following it up with, "A lot of people are impressed with your knowledge," is not helpful either. You can see that, to his credit, he really didn't know what to do with that and handles the ridiculous and immature interviewer as graciously as he can.

A bright spot was the chance to hear Lucas play Bach. He plays with an impressive and unforced artistry and technique. It is truly special to hear a child play so beautifully and be so deeply engrossed in the music. Of course, the producers unwisely cut off the end of the piece.

Lucas is special because of who he is, as we all are - there is no need to use him as any kind of example. In the video, Lucas was unfairly objectified - he was playing the role of "precocious child" the way a young woman might play the role of "video vixen" or "bikini babe." Shame on the Kaufman Center for allowing this to happen. I hope Lucas Amory continues to pursue his varied interests and develop his budding intellect away from the watchful eyes of the cameras.

Every child deserves respect. Glorification and indulgence - whether it's a silly video, too much ice cream, or too much power - is not good for kids. Let's set limits on what they can have, love them for who they are, praise them for who they are becoming, and give them an opportunity to show us what they can do - on their own terms.

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.

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.

Pre-recital pep-talk

At Eclectic Music, an important theme is balance - between pop and classical, work and play, structure and creativity. Another thing that music educators must balance is the relationship between process and product. As musicians, we must get lost in the process of learning a certain skill or piece of music - thoughts like “What is this for?” and “Man, it’s taking me so long to learn this!” interfere with our focus. On the other hand, music is meant to be shared, not just experienced alone with one’s instrument - at some point we must gather ourselves to present what we have learned to an audience.

One way to reconcile these seemingly opposing aims is to consider a performance itself as a process: the most important aspect of a recital, especially for young musicians, is the experience of doing it, not “how well” we do. Mistakes are inevitable and should be embraced as part of the process of performing - they are not demerits that bar you from attaining to some realm of perfection where professional musicians appear to live.

For students experiencing some pre-recital jitters, here’s something to consider: professional musicians do not appear make mistakes because they’ve learned to cover them up through years of practice - that is, years of making mistakes in public! We all make mistakes, but the most experienced players get good at hiding them and not showing on their faces that they “messed up.” As a performer, just keep going, keeping your body language relaxed. You can start over if you really get lost.

Sometimes a professional really does do it “perfectly.” However, it’s rare that a performer would do a high-profile appearance (like on national TV) unless she is playing something well within her comfort zone - something she could do in her sleep. For most of our students, performing itself is far out of their comfort zone. They all work so hard leading up to a recital, and it becomes a showcase for how far they’ve come. It’s unrealistic to expect that one can manifest a professional polish on what are essentially brand-new skills. Even if the skills are well-established, performing is its own skill that adds new challenges to the mix - but also new rewards.

Performing is an essential part of a student’s music education, giving meaning and context to the long hours (or half-hours!) of study and practice. We are so proud of all of our performers.