Nudging the little geek …

Should a parent ever force music lessons on a child?

If force means being a pushy stage-mom or stage-dad — especially to the point of making a child continue lessons long after it’s clear that the kid has no interest or motivation — then my answer is no.

On the other hand, can’t most of us recall a few things our parents made us do that we ended up liking? How do you discover a child’s talents and leanings without the occasional push or nudge to get the kid to try things?

My Own Experience

Before elementary school, I was already listening to classical music at home on radio and recordings. My parents didn’t force it on me. They just liked listening to it. So did I. By age 7, during the cold, gray stretch from November to March, I had devised my own Saturday routine of sitting in the living room for several hours, playing one album after another from my parents’ collection.

Parental Nudge

From my listening habits, Mom and Dad sensed that I probably had musical ability and decided to enroll me in beginning piano lessons for a trial period. The study didn’t go quite the way you might expect. For one thing, the little geek in me found Hanon’s 60 Exercises more intriguing than the familiar folk tunes that my family and friends and neighbors could easily hum along to.

But I didn’t get very far with Hanon — or the folk tunes. When a professional orchestra visited and played at my elementary school, the violin muse grabbed me. Now I was actually seeing, not just hearing, skilled musicians bring to life the scores I’d been listening to at home. I asked my parents if I could switch to violin. They consented but first wanted me to wait a short while to be sure this wasn’t a passing fancy. It wasn’t. My piano teacher wished me well.

JimTC - WP 2 - Little Geek

Me, some years later, practicing at 15 y/o.

I began violin by fingering and bowing familiar tunes by ear on a half-sized fiddle before I had my first lessons — some of the same folk tunes I’d learned on the piano. I couldn’t explain today how I managed to pull this off, but somehow I did. Watching two other kids play from my first violin instruction book undoubtedly helped. And, thanks to early piano training, I could read music. So I tried my own hand at playing from this same book.

After the first few months of violin, my teacher felt I was ready to start position-playing. She was right — I took to this part of the study quite readily. Sure enough, the little geek in me once again emerged. After music practice and homework, the instruction books on position-playing became my bedtime stories. Before turning out the light, I would leaf through the pages, eager to see what challenges were coming up next.

No Regrets

What motivated me to take up this instrument as a kid was my ambition to become a professional symphony player — like the ones I’d heard and seen at school. Although I completed a degree in performance, I finally decided at age 21, soon before finishing the program, not to go into the music business after all. By now, I could see that small-chamber playing as a serious amateur, one player to a part, better suited my temperament and personality than orchestra work did.

Still, the training I got is something I wouldn’t have wanted to miss. Today I keep listening to orchestral music — probably more than any other kind. And I keep practicing and playing regularly.

JimTC - WP 6 - Little Geek

High school musical show — tuning up. Me, toward right — tan jacket.

My Advice to Parents

I’m all for having you give your kids a little push, as my parents did with me. But remember — the path might not lead quite where you predicted it would. I’m sure Mom and Dad had no idea at first that some trial lessons in piano would lead to my embracing violin studies instead. If my parents were still with us, I’d tell them — yet again: “Thanks for getting me started.” If they hadn’t nudged me, I might still be merely an avid music listener but not an active player — and unable to read music.

Though I don’t own a piano and haven’t touched one for 20+ years, I love listening to piano music — especially while writing or studying or doing indoor chores. It often evokes fond childhood memories. Check out these tracks — just two of the hundreds I’ve listened to over the years. Runtimes are to nearest 5-second intervals:

Beethoven, Ludwig van. Complete Bagatelles. John Lill. 26 videos. Estimated total playing time: 1:15:00.

Chopin, Frédéric François. Complete Nocturnes. Brigitte Engerer. 1:56:15.

Photos by my Dad — a.k.a. “Big Jim.”

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