Huh? How can that be – isn’t learning an instrument all about the music? In my books, no! In some ways, the music is a lovely side benefit.
So what is it about? Why do I devote hours and hours every week to attending children’s music lessons and then helping them practice?
“Let me count the ways …”
Learning a musical instrument teaches my children invaluable life skills, that I vehemently believe, are so essential to life satisfaction and high achievement (in all facets of life).
Tenacity, the ability to struggle with a problem, fail, sometimes many times, feel discomfort and displeasure – but still persevere! When a child sits down to learn a new piece on an instrument – grit is what they need to get through the uncomfortable place of not being able to do it. Having to break up the piece and work on the sections and master elements before putting it all together, slowly, and then finally speeding it up. Grit is when you come to lesson and you find out you learnt it wrong at home and you have to unlearn it before you can relearn. Grit is making a mistake in a concert, and picking it up again and keeping going.
Self-control or conscientiousness – doing something even though you don’t want to because it is the right thing to do at that time. Self-control may be delaying gratification, or doing what is right rather than what is easy. Practicing badly is easier than practicing to improve. Skipping quickly through practice without noting position, tone or musicality is easier than having to stop, think, take it slower, progress less quickly and perhaps have to stay at the instrument instead of watching television. Self-control, is being bored in music lesson, but still being attentive and respectful to the teacher. Self-control is not giving up the instrument, or not allowing your child to give up the instrument, when it gets ‘hard’ or when they get ‘bored’.
Zest is a joy for the moment and an expression of that joy. Zest appears on the face of a child that plays a piece for the first time and she has the realisation that she did that – that was all her hard work! Zest is the hug and high five between you and your child when you start practice with a sense of purpose and finish practice with a sense of accomplishment. Zest is your feeling as a parent when they play a beautiful note, or bar, or piece and the music moves you and you think, wow, my child did that!
Social intelligence is understanding the meaning between the lines of speech. It is reading the emotions of others beyond their words, and putting words to our own emotions, to manage them well. When a child plays a piece like Lightly Row, and you tell them it sounded like their boat sunk (*laughing*) and then they play it again gently and beautifully – they are starting to understand how to express themselves and express meaning beyond words. When your more advanced child, turns to his instrument when he needs to mull through goings on of the day and plays his pieces in a melancholy tone – this is social intelligence growing. Social intelligence also grows when children have to praise and clap other children in concerts even if they are beginners. And playing in a orchestra with others is the ultimate in listening and communicating as community, as one – to move an audience emotionally.
Gratitude is taking the time to reflect on what is good, in the midst of everyday chaos. Gratitude is being able to kiss the back of my child’s neck when they are playing a piece and making them giggle. Gratitude is also a long term aim of giving my child the opportunity to persevere with a musical instrument. I hope one day my child will NOT say, “Mum, why did you let me give up my instrument?” No-one ever says they wished they had given up earlier.
Practicing an instrument staves off “learned pessimism”. When a child learns to persevere through failure everyday at their instrument, this forms neural highways that say to the child, “Don’t give up, you can do it because you’ve done it before” Optimism is always knowing there is a way through. Optimism is about NOT thinking your future in life is somehow set in stone from your genetic heritage or your environment. Optimism is belief in yourself to navigate the speed bumps and not lose sight of your desired future, just like learning a new, difficult piece of music.
One view of curiosity is being interested in the unknown, including the unknown outside of our comfort zone. Curiosity is still forging ahead to discover even when it is hard, you look stupid or you think you might not succeed. Curiosity is having an open mind to possibilities for yourself. Learning a musical instrument is everyday discovering what is outside your comfort zone – always trying more challenging pieces. Instrument practice is certainly not always about playing perfectly, and always getting it right. A young child knows that only playing the pieces she knows gets very boring and she inherently wants to learn a new piece. She is forming neural pathways to tell her pleasure is stretching herself. Invaluable for her future happiness and success!
These qualities can be gained from countless other activities including dance, sport, languages etc. However the slight difference with learning a musical instrument is that the lesson once a week is the tiny tip of the iceberg where these skills are nurtured. My kids do soccer but they don’t specifically practice every day outside of training and matches. William learns dancing but he doesn’t have to practice each day. I know children who are doing a sport intensively (like gymnastics, or ballet for example) where it is an almost daily practice – this mimics a musical instrument practice a lot more closely.
There has been oodles of commentary on social media about how the current generation of children in higher socio-economic environments are being parented such that they do not learn some of the skills I have listed above. That they are overly protected from failing or suffering discomfort in their childhood, and as a result are not being adequately prepared for real life. Could learning a musical instrument during the younger years be part of an antidote to this?
Well, being ‘helicoptered out of discomfort’ is not happening with my kids as much as I can control it (which is not much, really, actually ….). Which means compulsory musical instrument instruction until High School! Geez I am such a Tiger Mother huh? But often I do still ‘save’ my kids – like dropping in forgotten lunch boxes etc to school ….. more work required.
What do you think? Do you value your children learning the above skills? Do you consciously put them in situations where they are challenged or uncomfortable? I would LOVE to hear your thoughts so please pop a comment in below!