Learn a Musical Instrument -- Early

Dave Tutelman  --  October 5, 2015

Learning a musical instrument is the hardest thing we ask of kids below about 10. There is more work before you begin to see and hear satisfying results than almost any other activity. But eventually you do. And the work habits instilled will stay with you the rest of your life.

On October 4, 2015, Tyler Ferrell posted on Facebook a link to an article. The gist was that kids today give up too quickly on things they are not good at. Here is my take on counteracting that effect. It is based on a lot of personal experience with family members (admittedly anecdotal) and an observation by a professional recruiter that supports much broader evidence than just the Tutelman clan.

Learn a musical instrument! Early! Start at maybe 5 or 6.

Why? Because learning a musical instrument is the hardest thing we ask of kids below about 10. There is more work before you begin to see and hear results that are satisfying than almost anything you can do. But eventually you are able to play music that is recognizable. The work habits that instills will stay with you the rest of your life.

Around 1980, I was at a party and had a discussion with someone who was a professional head-hunter (that means "corporate recruiter", in case this is a cultural term that folks are unfamiliar with). She specialized in recruiting high-ranking high-tech employees. She stated that her profession had learned that the single biggest correlation to success in such jobs is a hobby of playing a musical instrument. We spent about a half hour trying to figure out why that should be. The closest we could come was working with unfamiliar notation. We didn't come up with a convincing answer, but she still insisted that it was a very strong statistical correlation that her industry used.

The next day, while monitoring my 9-year-old son's piano practice, I realized why. It was unbelievable how determined he was to get through a trouble-spot, despite the obvious huge frustration. He was near tears, but persisted with "trouble attack" skills until he succeeded. At one point, he muttered audibly, "I can do this!"

I feel strongly that piano should be a first instrument for every kid. Other instruments are much easier to learn after piano has been at least somewhat mastered. There are a couple of reasons why.
  1. The most important parts of music are melody, harmony, and rhythm (tempo and timing). Yes there are other things, like timbre and expression, but those first three are head and shoulders above everything else. There are very few instruments that teach all three. Drums, for instance, only teach rhythm of the three. Clarinet (woodwinds, brass, and most strings in general) teach melody and rhythm, but not harmony; with enough band play you can learn harmony, but not from solo practice. The only ones that teach all three are keyboard instruments (such as piano) and some plucked string instruments (such as guitar). They produce multiple simultaneous notes, allowing exploration of both melody and harmony.
  2. There is no problem getting the right note out of a piano, and with an acceptable tone. Just hit a key with your finger. Higher note? Pick a key more to the right. Multiple notes? Hit multiple keys at the same time. Very obvious, intuitive cause and effect. To create one single note on a clarinet requires embouchure, breath control, and can take as many as every finger on both hands. It's just too hard learning to create a single tone -- not enough attention left to actually learn music.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it. There's a lot of family experience there. My father, sister, brother, and I all play multiple instruments. So do my sons. For all of us, piano was the first instrument and established a base from which we could learn others. And, of course, developed work habits that are still with us decades later.



That's the end of the message. The rest of this article is to brag a little about my family.... Um... Er... To cite references for my evidence. Yeah, that's the ticket.

Dad was a Juilliard graduate. He realized that supporting a family as a classical pianist was very unlikely, so he also got a teaching degree and was a school teacher and eventually principal. But he was also a working musician on Friday and Saturday nights, augmenting his teacher's income until he became an assistant principal. And while he was teaching, he was always the school's orchestra director.

Even after he stopped playing professionally, he continued in music. When arthritis put an end to playing golf -- too painful -- he kept his hands limber and exercised playing his grand piano. In retirement in Sun City AZ (near Phoenix), he founded and led the Sun City Fine Arts Society, arranging and presenting large concerts with classical, jazz, and pop performers. The organization carried on after him until 2011.

My brother, sister, and I each started piano at age six. We wound up with different instruments -- well, different collections of instruments -- but the first few years of piano taught us how to learn an instrument and what music was about. My wife and I repeated this with our two sons. (She regretted never learning an instrument as a kid, but was a good enough singer to have been in the NY All-City High School Chorus.)

I continued piano for five years, and got tired of practicing the standard stuff. Dad took me away from the classical piano teacher, and started teaching me music theory and improvisation. (Think of it as the organized study of playing by ear.) I thoroughly enjoyed it, and earned some spending money playing piano when I was in high school and college. As a teenager, I also hacked around with baritone ukelele and little woodwinds like recorder and ocarina. I was later able to extend that to banjo and clarinet, but those stories are family-related and I'll tell them as I go.

My brother switched to clarinet after the basic few years of piano. In fact, he and I would play pop and jazz together as teenagers, especially if we could find a drummer to sit in. He also learned and got rather good at guitar, which was extremely useful for folk singing, a staple of my generation. In our twenties we both took a lot of ski trips to Vermont. A favorite activity on the five-hour bus ride was singing, and he was one of two or three guitarists on the bus. I felt we needed something different to spice up the sound, so I got a banjo and learned to play it so I could join them. Today, he is retired from engineering, and spends time as a professional musician on saxophone and clarinet. He is also the musical director and front man for a big band in San Diego; here's a video of what he does.

My sister was the real musician among us. Yes, she started with piano and stuck with it for a few years. But there were just too many instruments for her to be so limited. She became outstanding at the flute, and was a flute player in the NY All-City High School Orchestra. But in her own high school's orchestra, she didn't always play flute (although she was their best flutist). If they needed piccolo, she played piccolo. On one occasion, the band teacher told her that the orchestra was going to play a piece with a prominent cello part -- and nobody played the cello. He lent her the school cello; she learned how to play it in about a month, and was the featured cellist in that piece. And that was typical; she played all sorts of instruments well enough to get recognizable music out of them. At college, she got a degree in music and went on to Indiana University's highly respected music school for a masters degree in conducting. She is still active in San Diego music circles.

My sons followed similar trajectories.

The older son (Jeff) started with piano at six. In fifth grade (age about 10) there were group lessons in school for those who wanted to be in the school band. He chose clarinet, and continued with it through high school, where he was in the concert band and the marching band. When he first brought home the rented clarinet (Tyler, you'll like this), he couldn't get a sound out of it. Just blowing into it didn't do anything. Since I was always able to help with piano, he called me in for assistance. Of course, I had never played a reed instrument and had no idea. But between the two of us and the textbook he brought home, we figured it out. The following week, I saw a clarinet at a yard sale and bought it, had it overhauled, and started praciticing with my son. When he brought home a piece to practice for the band, there were usually two clarinet parts. He would play one and I would play the other -- harmony! Then we'd switch parts. We both learned a lot, and it was quality time. It ended that summer, when he chose to go to band camp for two weeks. When he got back, he was much better than I was, and didn't want to practice with me because I couldn't keep up. In high school, in addition to the HS bands, he also played electronic keyboards in a garage rock band. Not much music for him after high school, but I do remember his approach to integral calculus in college; his "I can do this!" was identical to the anecdote about piano practice when he was 9.

My younger son (Dan) also started with piano; no big surprise there. When fifth grade came along, he took up saxophone. In junior high, he played saxophone in the concert band and a smaller performance band, while getting "certified" in piano by the NJ music teachers society. He didn't continue in the high school bands; his extra-curricular activities were the baseball and basketball teams. But he did learn enough guitar on his own to play in a garage rock band through college, including a few paying gigs. He still considers himself a guitarist.

While the boys were learning piano, I made it a point to set a good example for them. I practiced daily myself. I worked on Scott Joplin rags and even some Gershwin pieces (e.g. "Rhapsody In Blue") in addition to improvising pop music. During that period, my chops were the best they ever were. (Chops: slang - the technical skill with which a jazz or rock musician performs.)

Let me end with an anecdote about how the apple does not fall far from the tree.

As a teenager, I used to drive my dad crazy. Like most teens, I would ensconce myself in my room, close the door, and listen to rock'n'roll on the radio at a volume that could be heard outside my room in the hall. Dad didn't consider rock'n'roll to be music; remember his classical training and jazz and pop skills. So that was my typical teen rebellion. And it was a rebellion! If my parents were not home, I played the music I liked rather than the music I knew they disliked. Alone in the apartment, my radio usually played not rock but jazz and occasionally classical music.

My younger son loved not just rock, but heavy metal. Metallica, Guns and Roses, etc. Since he was a rock guitarist himself, he would play heavy metal groups incessantly on the stereo. Not my music at all; I didn't make a fuss about it, but he knew how I felt. While he was in college (locally, only about 40 minutes away), I went to his dorm room to drop something off for him. I stopped at the door and listened to the sound coming from his room. Andres Segovia, playing classical guitar. Sound familiar?


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