My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Reality-check for young musicians and their parents

© Andy Dean -
I am going to go out on a limb here and say something that might just baffle a lot of folks.  Are you ready? Drumroll please...

Becoming a musician and being a musician requires more concentration, precision, and skill over a longer period of time than doing just about anything else.

Repeat that a couple of times to yourself and really think about it because this is important to understand if we want folks to keep on studying music.  I've been developing this thought over the course of many months through my work with some of the young musicians I accompany.  There is one in particular, who has spent much of the year on a bit of a plateau which has raised some concern among those who support her.  The frustration grew so intense that her parents asked me the dreaded question, "Do you really think she should keep on playing music?  Should we continue supporting and encouraging her down this path?"  Now it's important for you to understand that this musician's parents are wonderfully supportive people so this wasn't just an unsympathetic reaction.  I understood their frustration on many different levels and was a bit frustrated myself because as her accompanist and coach,  I was feeling the plateau as well.  In the sometimes-painful months that followed I had many discussions...with the musician herself, her mother, my husband (a great sounding-board!), a dear friend of mind that taught chemistry at Virginia Tech for many, many years...after it all, I was convinced of two things:
  1. we couldn't give up - this young girl loves music too much and works too hard to take it away from her. 
  2. it was no wonder she was struggling - some of the skills/qualities needed in order to improve on an instrument are ones that are rarely taught or seen these days, especially in younger people...
...sure there are some that are naturally gifted at being perfectionists, myself included.  We make terrific musicians because we are bound and determined to do what it takes to get every note the way we want it.  But not everyone is made that way and I don't believe that the musical world should turn these folks away, especially if they do have the ability to learn and if they are willing to work hard, like the young musician I mentioned above.   I also think it's important to note that in this highly technological age, when we are accustomed to machines and electronics doing most of our detailed work, calculations, and thinking for us, the process of music-making on acoustic instruments or using our voices is not very different than it was a hundred or two-hundred years ago.  Yes, there are apps being developed to help people with practicing and to aid in learning music, and some of them are fantastic, but a lot of the work that is needed to progress as musicians is the same work that has been done for many, many years, without the aid of gadgets.  This disparity is only going to widen as the years go on and as people continue to find ways for technology to provide nifty shortcuts for everything.  It is the job of teachers and parents to walk alongside young musicians and to help them gain the skills they need in order to play their instrument.  We need to teach them how to practice step-by-step; we need to teach them how to make decisions about music; we need to teach them how to listen all the time; we need to teach them how to concentrate; we need to teach them how to perform; and most importantly, we need to teach them when to let go and to simply enjoy making music.

So back to my original statement at the beginning of my I really mean what I said?  Am I implying that playing music is harder than, say, performing intricate surgery on a human brain? or being the President of the United States of America?  Well, in a way, yes...because for most people, the study of music starts at such a young age and consumes an incredibly high percentage of one's time and also because with music, there is only so much that technology can help with.  

Hmmm...makes me pretty amazed at what we do and makes me all the more impressed at how persistent this young girl is about wanting to play music.  Does our not giving up in this particular case mean that we should never let a young musician throw in the towel?  That's a topic for another post but for now I will say that I think there are times when it's all right to set music aside.  And when that happens it should be done with the knowledge that it's not a sign of failure on anyone's part.  Music is not an easy pursuit to follow, especially these days with iPads, video games, and other attractive technology that require button pushing, but in a much less taxing way.

Oh, and in case case you were wondering, the musician in question is doing just great - finally bought a train ticket off that darned plateau and is headed for new adventures in music!


  1. In many ways deciding on a career in music is a bit like becoming a nun or a monk - you embark on a journey of learning, development and evolution that lasts for a lifetime.

    This was a very useful post for me in that it reminded me how much life has changed in general especially with the advent of technology. You're absolutely right - expectation is of "immediate" everything and with music there simply aren't short cuts.

    Here's another thought for you to ponder: do you agree with me that time also need to be spent on addressing psychological/personal development issues e.g. dealing with evaluation, disappointment, etc? I certainly would have benefited as a student.

  2. Oh yes, Marion. Absolutely! I think part of the issue might be a practical one, however. It always boggles my mind how much teachers are expected to fit into that typical 1-hour a week lesson. Music is such a multi-faceted, complex skill I feel like students could have a lesson a day and maybe then they would be getting a more complete education. It's tough.

    When I accompany students I usually coach them as well, especially if I know that's ok with their teacher. More often than not, those coachings feel more like counseling sessions/cheerleading camps. I see that all as part of my job and that's partly why I love, love, love what I do :-)

    Thanks as always for your comment, Marion!


  3. Hi Erica,
    Great post, I like big bold statements like this. I have spent most of my life feeling a stigma for being a musician, like it's an easy path. You make a very good argument that it is not!
    I am a musician and music teacher, but I am far from a perfectionist. Quite the opposite, but music has bought me some of the most rewarding and enriching experiences of my life. I couldn't pursue performing professionally as I couldn't focus on the details, but instead went on to learn the basics of any instrument I could get my hand on. As a result, I understand quite well the challenge to learn an instrument, and the huge amount of focus that needs to go into it.
    I actually wrote a post along these lines, might be of interest.
    Glad to find your blog.

  4. Chris,
    So nice to meet you - thank you for reading and posting a comment here. I did try to read your post but the link didn't work out for me. Please do resend it if you get a chance!

    And I find what you have to say so interesting. I have worked with several musicians that aren't the typical perfectionist musically but they are some of the most wonderful musicians to make music with, I think because they aren't so hung up over wrong notes, how things "should" be (whatever that means), etc...they tend to really live in the music at a completely different level and I learn so much about them as people when I play with them. So there's definitely an important place for people like yourself!

    I look forward to hearing more from you.

    All the best and keep playing music, just as you are!


  5. Making this comment from your FB two years later:

    "But not everyone is made that way and I don't believe that the musical world should turn these folks away, especially if they do have the ability to learn and if they are willing to work hard, like the young musician I mentioned above."

    And especially since not all people develop needed skills at the same age. I'm thinking of Zoe Keating, who was so crippled by anxiety that she let go multiple full-rides to prestigious schools (I think Eastman was one) and went to a liberal arts college, then got a couple crappy admin jobs in SF before going dot-com.

    It wasn't until she was in her 30s that she finally got a handle on her stage fright.

    With me, it wasn't until I was 44 that I had a realization of how to write music, and now I can't get away from the piano.

    Just because an 8 year old -- or even an 18 year old -- doesn't have what we think are the skills they need to have right then, it doesn't mean they will never have them. Or maybe like Keating, they find other skills within themselves with time that allow them to succeed in ways never before envisioned. It turned out she was indeed made that way, but she wasn't made that way THEN.

    How horrifying it would have been for anyone to have told her at age 15, "You're stopping lessons." The loss would have been incalculable and invisible, as it wouldn't have become evident for another 20 years. Marvin Hamlisch had crippling stage fright when he played other people's music. He responded by making his own. Billy Joel futzed around and made up his own stuff when he should have been practicing, and those interviews I've posted of him say that his teacher would tell him he was wasting his mother's money on lessons because he never bothered to practice the pieces he was assigned. My gawd, what the world would have lost had they been told by their teachers, "We're stopping."

    Teaching a kid to do anything is like planting an oak tree for shade. You may not enjoy the end results in your lifetime. And if you chop down that tree after only four years because it's not growing fast enough, you are making an awfully uninformed gamble on what may be the next half-century of its existence based on what you know now, and that only imperfectly.

    (I do tend to disagree with the opinion that playing a musical instrument is by default so much harder than anything anyone else does, though. I do have to admit that. Most people who say it seriously underestimate what is required to do many other things.)

  6. Janis,
    Yes, Zoe Keating is a great example of someone that didn't give up in spite of the challenges - it's a wonderful thing that she didn't because she has so much creativity to give. I can think of many others as well.

    In regards to my main statement around which I built this post, I want to reiterate that I'm not saying that being a musician is harder than any other skill. Definitely not. I was careful and very intentional about saying that developing musical skills tends to start from a very young age for many of us and optimal concentration and consistent work needs to be sustained at a high level over a longer period of time. For young people, especially these days with more and more distractions, to be able to figure all that out and to be motivated to stick with it is a huge challenge, I think. My purpose of the post was really to encourage parents of young musicians to recognize these challenges so that they can assist in a helpful way. I've seen many that get discouraged and don't know how to handle the constant work, challenges, and defeats because they haven't been engaged in music themselves. I wanted them to realize that what their kids are doing are really pretty incredible!

    Hope that makes some sense. Let me know if it doesn't - I always enjoy a good conversation with you. :-)