What I Expect of the Parents
The single most important determinant
in my kid students' success in learning to play an instrument
has unquestionably been the support and involvement of the
parents. My once-a-week contact with a student isn't enough
to develop and sustain their interest in music and children
are very reliant on their parents to put all of the elements
Of course this begins with the parents finding them an instrument
and a teacher but it certainly doesn't end there. Once lessons
are in place and the child is beginning the musical journey
there is much more for the parents to do. Here's a list of
what I would expect from dedicated parents.
1. Set realistic practice goals and remind them as needed.
Okay, there's a fine line between reminding and nagging so
parents should be careful how they go about this. The big
question is always, "How much should they practice?"
This isn't an exact science here - the parents must exercise
judgment and wisdom in the matter. For ages 5 to 7, it could
mean as short as a few minutes a day, later 15 minutes a day
and then 30 minutes. This is more dependent on the kid's maturity
than age though. When my mandolin playing son was 6, he was
good for 20 minutes a day, 5 or 6 days a week. When my guitar
playing son started at 7, I had him play only 2 - 5 minutes
a day maybe 5 times a week. Of course, after he learned to
get some music out of the guitar he wanted to practice more
and more because he was excited about it. At age 11, my daughter
upped her practice time on banjo and guitar to 1 or 2 hours
a day. Again, she was excited by her progress and she wanted
to play more.
2. Make it a positive experience. The old adage, "Practice
makes perfect" applies here, but this can take some sensitivity
from the parents. The overriding goal must be to keep practicing
from feeling too much like drudgery. When my own kids started,
I paid close attention to their mood and I'd delay, shorten
or even cancel their practice when they were too tired or
hungry to effectively practice. There were times when after
only a couple of minutes I'd grab their instrument and say
"Okay, that's enough for now" when I'd see the frustration
build. More important than anything else is to keep frustration
to a minimum and keep it as fun as possible. Don't stress
over a bad day or a bad week. The great thing about learning
as a kid is that they have so much time in front of them.
My daughter learned very little in the first nine months and
I kept it very low stress. Eventually, she gained confidence,
found it to be fun and now she's very proficient.
3. Keep the instrument and lesson sheets or books easily
accessible. I always go the extra mile with this. We always
leave the instruments out of their cases, hanging on the wall
so they're really easy to pick up. When they are in the cases
because we've been out with them, I immediately unpack them
and hang them up. I also monitor the tuning and make sure
they're in tune enough for practicing. With electronic tuners,
($23) even non-musicians can tune instruments. Make sure to
have extra picks (if needed) around.
4. Have music playing around the home or in the car as much
as possible. If your child is learning to play bluegrass,
it's essential that they hear bluegrass as much as possible.
Learning music is very similar to learning a language and we learn language much faster when we're immersed in it. Much of what I know
about music and bluegrass was never taught to me. It didn't
need to be, because I acquired it naturally through listening.
Make sure to have a stereo in the living room and use it whenever
possible. Don't rely on your child to turn it on. Most kids
aren't that proactive. My kids love to play computer games,
so when they play I often have bluegrass playing in the background.
This does require investing in CDs, but check out local libraries.
They often have a number of bluegrass and old-time CDs. Visit
my recommended album lists.
Also consider satellite radio, which has an all-bluegrass
station, or internet radio, especially Pandora as I mention here.
5. Play with them if possible. This can be a huge help. It
certainly made the difference for my own kids. Of course if
you don't play, make sure to take an interest. Listen to them
play, show them off to family and friends. Kids need validation,
especially from their parents.
6. Keep them inspired. Take them to concerts, festivals,
workshops: anything to get them inspired. How inspiration
happens is a total mystery, but almost every musician has
a story about how they saw some musician or band that just
set them off. It can be very random. Mark O'Connor, the fiddling
prodigy, saw Doug Kershaw on TV when he was seven years old.
Chris Thile's dad took him (at age 5) to a show because a
friend asked him to come and hear a music called "Bluegrass".
Now he's the greatest mandolin player ever, at age 22. Others
were surrounded by musical parents or had a friend introduce
them to the music at a jam. You can't predict when or where
it'll happen but you can surely increase the odds that it
will. The Redwood
Bluegrass Association, which sponsors concerts in Mountain
Veiw, has been generous enough to allow all of my students
under 18 to attend their shows for free.
7. When they're ready, have them play with others. For most
kids in the bluegrass world, this usually means playing with
grownups, or traveling long distances to find other kids,
but my students are lucky in that I have a fairly successful
bluegrass program for kids established right here in Palo
Alto. And I do occasionally offer a Kids-Only Bluegrass Jam
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