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By Ruth Meints

Is this the year you or your child will start learning to play an instrument? If your child is 3 years old, it’s time to think about this musical adventure. Studying an instrument improves academic skills and builds attention, teamwork, and coordination. With any new activity, there is usually some ideal, some standard of excellence that we hope to achieve, some vision of what we hope will emerge at the end of the process.

At our house, all three of my boys played stringed instruments and were involved in music lessons from an early age. As a violin teacher, I know my standards were somewhat unrealistic. My perfect scene went something like this: My three boys wake up to beautiful violin music. We eat a lovely breakfast while enjoying a spunky Vivaldi violin concerto. After breakfast, the boys head for their instruments, eager to master the thousands of difficult skills needed to produce the quality of sound they’ve just heard.

A solid 30 minutes of practice unfolds, with rewarding moments like:
1. Completing 30 repetitions without resting, followed by this joyful statement, “Mom, should we do more?”
2. Unlimited enthusiasm for fixing posture problems, acknowledged by such comments as “Let’s do whatever it takes to get this bow hold just right” and “It’s okay, Dad, I can hold my violin up like this for a really long time!”
3. Instant assimilation of any correction made. No need to ever talk about that again!

The rest of the day would be spent coloring and decorating a recital program, making cookies for the reception, and setting up the stuffed animal audience for the big show. These plush admirers along with my husband and me would enjoy the evening recital and then start the bedtime routine (which, of course, includes violin music playing in the background). They go to sleep with echoes of mom and dad’s daily encouragements dancing in their heads: “You are such a great learner, this will make you so successful.” “You are fantastic musician.”

Here’s what really happened:
My boys are up early and there’s some kind of fight happening. I quickly jump out of bed and get ready to referee. We only have enough time to grab a quick breakfast (Whoops, I forgot to turn on the music!) Oh well, maybe tomorrow or later today or in the car on the way to pre-school or before bed.

Since two of the boys are having a grumpy day, I practice with the congenial one for about 5 minutes. He’s really interested in seeing how fast he can go up and down with the bow on the string. If he was a lumberjack, he’d be reaching his quota of “sawing wood” in no time at all. I can’t tell if he’s holding the bow right or not. It’s just a blur. We play his actual piece once before his attention span is gone.
And that is the best session…my middle son won’t even pick up the instrument. I play his song while he’s laying on the floor. The last session is peppered with “How much longer? I’m tired. I need a drink. I have to go to the bathroom.” However, his violin is held up much higher on his shoulder and we do get through 3 or 4 activities before I call it “a day.” No recital in the evening and the bedtime routine is rougher than usual, so guess what? No beautiful music playing.

I think these two scenarios play out on a daily basis with any parent who has set out on the journey of learning to play an instrument with their pre-school age child (or any age, really…)

Here’s the thing: both of these sessions should be considered a BIG success, but most of the time, the second experience is not appreciated for how remarkable it really was. Three kids played their instrument or at least heard it being played. That’s an amazing fact in itself! Think about how few children ever have that opportunity. It could have been nothing at all.

Fast forward to today: All three of my boys are highly accomplished musicians. They all played a string instrument when they were preschoolers: one violinist, one violist, and one cellist. However, now their main instruments are not these at all, but instead voice, guitar, and trumpet. They each love music of all styles (contemporary and classical). Only one became a professional musician, and he still makes a living doing something completely unrelated.

BUT, this is what they learned from their violin, viola, and cello: delayed gratification, long term goal setting, daily discipline, pushing limitations by trying really hard stuff, problem solving, attention to detail, coordination, dexterity in motor skills, memory skills, the language of music (note reading), value for the arts, which is the highest indicator of the strength of a community.

Most of my practice sessions with them were less than ideal. Some were terrible. Some were motivational. Some were hilarious. But the end result was that ALL were rewarding in the end.

As parents, we control the environment. Any small change you make now will affect the trajectory of the future immensely. “The relation between parents and children is essentially based on teaching.” Gilbert Highet

Try these:
1. Play more music at home and/or in the car.
2. Make a commitment that you (as the parent) will play something on your child’s instrument every day.
3. Make statements to your child that will build their identity as a musician on a daily basis.
4. Notice the smallest improvements and mention them.
5. Let go of expectations and go with the flow more.
6. Think of practice as play. If you view it as a chore, so will they!
7. Attend musical activities like concerts and recitals.

Choosing to learn an instrument is a life-changing activity. It brings families together and creates an avenue for self-expression and creativity. I encourage you to make 2018 a musical year of learning and growth!

Check out opportunities for music education at the Omaha Conservatory of Music. Classes and private lessons are available in 2018! Contact us at www.omahacm.org or 402-932-4978.