Raising musical children
My wife and I are often asked what we have done to raise a musical family. This is always slightly embarrassing because we didn’t really plan on raising a “musical family”, nor are we altogether sure why some children take to music and others don’t. Neither of us are musicians. Although Mrs. C. is fully Asian, she’s definitely not the Tiger Mom when it comes to music lessons and practice. Our children will also attest to the fact that we have (ahem) less-than-perfect parenting skills, and in some respects a non-ideal home life. But it turns out that we did raise what most people would call a “musical family”, and so I thought it might be helpful to share our family’s approach to music. It’s definitely not the only way, and perhaps not even the best way, but it has met with some success.
1. An educational philosophy that “music is curricular, not extra-curricular”. From the beginning, we were convinced that music is an essential component of a liberal education. And so we began with the attitude that music is not primarily something one does with “free time”, or something that (like other hobbies) must always be “fun” and “enjoyable” to be worthwhile. Rather, music is studied because it expresses the good, the true, and the beautiful; and because the knowledge of music enriches the whole man. Furthermore the lives of the great composers, the histories of famous and important works, and the influence of music on society should also be studied. Knowledge and competence comes first; the enjoyment comes later.
2. Respect for parents. This is a huge topic, and I’m not qualified to write the book, but children who don’t respect or obey their parents are not generally very teachable. Just paying for lessons isn’t going to help much. And getting them to practice is going to be a constant battle. So, it’s important that children be raised from the beginning with a healthy respect for their parents.
3. Home education. This not only gives a family lots of flexibility in terms of music lessons and event scheduling, but it can help children avoid unproductive and harmful distractions. Almost 50 percent of our city’s youth orchestra is home schooled.
4. No television. Our decision to live completely TV-free has eliminated one major distraction and a fierce competitor for the children’s free time (although now we have to fight with computers, etc.).
5. Exposure to good music. We’re not convinced of the “Mozart Effect”, but our children’s exposure to the best kinds of music – primarily sacred, classical, and folk music – begins in utero and continues throughout their childhood.
6. Limiting bad music. Certain genres of “music” are actually anti-musical. They erode the patience, calm, and mental discipline that is necessary to learn the art of real music. And so we have always tried to maintain a tight control over the kinds of music we allow in the home. Our children have not become addicted to rock music or any of its derivatives (rap, hip-hop, heavy metal, etc.) – what Professor Alan Bloom called “America’s drug of choice”. There are exceptions, but it’s rare for an electro-music-addicted young person to find anything appealing about classical piano or violin, or even traditional folk music. You might make him study it, but when he wants a musical diversion, he’ll always choose the passive stimulation of rock music before picking up the fiddle or sitting down at the piano.
7. Musical siblings. Having one or more siblings who also study music has a great many benefits, both tangible and intangible. They need each other, they help each other, and they play together.
8. Musical friends. There were, in fact, two families who inspired us when our oldest children were very young. We saw their beautiful enjoyment of music and wanted the same kind of joy for our family. Later on, we were blessed to have the friendship of one family in particular whose children were also musical, and with whom our children enjoyed playing.
9. “Yes” to music. All parents must say “no” to their children often enough. We decided early that we would try to say “yes”, whenever possible, to our children’s musical aspirations. That means sacrificing time and money for concerts, competitions, rehearsals, workshops, master classes, new instruments, and special trips of all kinds that were “above and beyond” what was minimally required for their studies.
10. Love and a happy home. I don’t like the Tiger Mom’s approach. It may result in good musicians sometimes, but I’ve talked to numerous people who resented that kind of upbringing and have dropped the music. There must be love in the home, and a genuine desire for the good of the children as opposed to parental or family prestige. Children can sense when your motives are off. Spend time talking about music and listening together, but don’t make an idol of it. At the same time, the laissez-faire approach is also mistaken. There needs to be firmness and discipline, especially in the beginning, at least for a minimal effort, and without any fear of occasional unpleasantness.