Thursday, March 31, 2016

How To Do Music Right

5 years ago, I decided that music will be part of my child's life, whether he likes it or not.  This is a decision that the parent makes on behalf of the child and the child is grateful many years later.  At the time, I was telling all of my friends to do this and how to do this, even though I was making up most of it.   This was at the time I started this blog with the goal of reverse engineering GAT test.  Some of what I said turned out to be off course, but in the end, it paid off.

It paid off way beyond my expectations, especially for music.

My Reasons
First, a child who is involved in music has high math scores the rest of his life.  Einstein attributes his aptitude for math to his love of music, as do lots of child development and cognitive researchers. 

Second, I have older friends who have parties, and a dozen random people show up with instruments and play music all night.   They have a big house and these parties attract hundreds of friends.  Some of these people didn't pick up instruments until they saw these parties and just putter around with instruments until they are good.  This is just really cool. 

Finally, I rediscovered music after a 25 year hiatus and am made with myself that I ever gave it up.

My Goals
First of all, I am not going to spend any money on music lessons.  I had a highly qualified classical music instructor from the 4th grade until the 7th grade, after which time I quit playing the clarinet because I hated music so much.  I'll come back to the topic of music instruction later.

Secondly, if I'm going to tell my child that music is 100% critical, and I'm not playing any instrument myself, he will determine that this is a lie and he will be correct.  Fortunately, I found an old clarinet in my in-laws basement.  A little hunting later, I've picked up an old flute, sax, soprano sax, trombone (kind of broken but it plays), a baby clarinet that turns out to be only for symphony musicians, a guitar, and probably other instruments.   But mainly I play the clarinet.

All of the parents I know who did this have an instrument which they at least pretend to practice once in a while, mostly at the 4th grade level.  You can get a guitar for $40 and learn quickly at

Finally, I want him to like music and not hate it so that in 4th grade, he can choose his own instrument, and choose music on his own.  Finally, in the 7th grade, he has to get all A's and take a bunch of tests to get into high school.  After that, it's college football games and band parties.

My Approach
First, we bought an electric piano, with headphones.  Then we got Piano Adventures beginning level. This is 4 books at about $7 each, and it's totally worth it.   I read a bit on how to play the piano and practiced a little.  Piano Adventures is so popular (you'll see why if you use it) that you can put any page title in youtube and get 500 videos of piano teachers and students playing the piece.

My primary objective for piano is that my child figures out how to read notes on his own.   I think of this as COGAT practice.  There is so much going on between the staff, the hands, the eyes, and the brain that it's good brain practice.

When my child starts a lesson, I give him a few days to figure out where the notes are and where to place his hands.   After a few days of playing the piece note-by-note, forget about rhythm or technique, I take out a note chart and make sure he has the right notes.   He doesn't about 50% of the time.  Then he takes the next two weeks learning how to play the piece and the assignments from the other 3 books. 

Both kids went through this approach.  The 2nd child, in 2nd grade, is currently on his 3rd year of learning how to figure out a piano piece with not help from me, at least for the first 2 or 3 days.   If there was a test given to 7 year olds on figuring stuff out, he would get the high score.

If I catch my child just puttering around on the piano, making up his own song or just playing random notes with his ear on the keys, I tell him to practice his book.  He usually doesn't, and I just fade into the background.  There will be no real practice that day.  Instead, he's going to practice discovering whatever it is he is doing, which is much much more important.  If I push him, I'm teaching him not to like practicing at all.  So I don't yell. 

There are some days and weeks of crying, especially in the first year, as the child learns the discipline of sitting down at the piano each day, so we keep a box of Kleenex at the piano.

The Result
The results are stunning.  My friends who did this and my wife are seriously considering music lessons because they've got a bunch of kids who are really good at the piano.  If they teach themselves and are good, and really like it, shouldn't they get instruction?  Of course, there are benefits to academic work, but all this music playing is getting really interesting.

I'm holding the line on my no-lesson policy.  If they got that good with no lessons, why have lessons?  They're not going to play professionally, and if they did, they can pay for their own lessons after I pay for college (or some of it).  I have an open offer to any child.  "You can have me as your teacher, like we've been doing, or I'll get you a trained music instructor who will make you play music you hate."

I'm starting to reconsider lessons.   After 3 or 4 days, the younger child can play a lesson 4 times faster than it is supposed to be played and it sounds really good.  So I yell at him to move to the next lesson.  He turns the page to the new lesson, and then plays all of the songs from the old lesson by memory while he stares at me with a grin on his face moving his eyebrows up and down like he's in Vaudeville.

The older one moved on to the trumpet at 4th grade.  He loves band because it involves sitting around with his buddies.  When we practice together, I can start a song on any measure, and he'll jump in play along without looking at the music if he heard the song once before.  If he doesn't know what I'm playing, he'll just improvise an accompaniment.  How does he do this?  I never had this skill.  It doesn't run in our family.  I never got good enough to play at those parties.

Lately, we've moved on to jazz trumpet.  It turns out there are lots of beginning band books that use jazz as the material.  Instead of Merrily We Roll Along, the book is full of riffs from Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis.  It's awesome.  For band, we never practice the material the band instructor passes out.  My son sight reads those songs each Monday at band.  We focus on Arban, popular music and our new jazz books.   I happen to work with an accomplished jazz trumpet player, and ply him for important teaching information regularly, like how to learn Seven Nation Army like college football bands play.  I've been secretly trying to get the band to play the Empire song or 7 Nation Army when their band instructor raises her hands as a joke.

The young one is not going to play a brass instrument.  I have a house full of woodwinds and was really disappointed to have to buy a trumpet.  He wants to play the trombone and our trombone needs some welding.  So our deal is this - you can play all of the woodwinds except for the bass clarinet which mommy refuses to let me buy (at $1,900 to $2,500 for a starter version), but no brass.  On day one of 4th grade band, he'll be prepared to play the first band concert on any woodwind (the concert includes Merrily We Roll Along), and can bring a different instrument each week to the consternation of his band instructor.  He agreed.

I pick up the older one from band each week and have a word with the band instructor and assistants.  I asked if she would play a Brazilian Jazz song at the concert if I composed it.   I'm tracking down each parent to show them what books to buy for summer practice (fun ones with Harry Potter and Star Wars songs).   And I taught most of the kids 7 nation army, except for the little flute player who showed an interest in my son, who I scowl at.

He's probably going to surpass my level next year.  I don't know what I am going to do.  We've spent years practicing together and it's my favorite part of the day.  I think I'll cry.


  1. What about sports? I think you posted about that on a few occasions. We have K (girl) and Grade 1 (boy) and want to start one for each child, debating between individual sports (swimming, tennis, gymnastics) or team sports (soccer, baseball). Not a big commitment, just one Saturday afternoon after homework done, and no weekday activity. Anything particular you'd recommend?

    1. Both kids took swimming once a week and it pays off when they go away to YMCA camp for 2 weeks. They should call it leadership camp, but it involves doing stuff outdoors, including swimming. The younger one plays baseball, which might as well involve Nachos because there's so little physical activity. See my posts on the electric piano we got for this occasion. Finally, in 4th grade, the older once chose cross country which was a lot of fun. The younger one has expressed an interest in tennis. If soccer wasn't logistically impossible, this would be my first choice. I think sports are critically important, but for none of the reasons other parents drive their kids into sports at age 3.

  2. In several posts you mention "tears"; but can you explain how far you go in forcing your kids to sit down/focus on your lesson that day? My daughter is 3 years old and I'm wondering how much to push/how much structure is appropriate. She doesn't have attention span for workbooks or puzzles, but LOVES being read to (1+ hours/day).

    1. Two things are important here. First, at age 3, you can't push your children at all. You can just ask questions and show your child stuff and try to be excited about it. Pushing begins at 4. Secondly, if you have a strong reader, you don't have to worry about doing anything else because reading trumps all other activities in importance. Read my posts on early reading.

  3. After reading this post of yours, I am considering music for my boys too. By electric piano, did you mean digital piano or just the piano keyboard?

    1. We got a piano that looked like a small upright piano, but had a plug and a head phone jack. It doesn't have a lot of distracting features. A friend got a piano keyboard, and it works for his kids. Now that my kids are moving on to band instruments, which they don't have to do unless they ever want to play a video game again, I realize that I didn't need to spend as much money.