When To Stop the Music Lessons

Learning to read music is good, but how much is too much?

"Lots of thirty-second notes with a legato above" by Horia Varlan is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
"Lots of thirty-second notes with a legato above" by Horia Varlan is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I am sometimes asked to recommend music lessons and music teachers – or if I even think reading music is something that everyone should have to learn, regardless of musical talent or interest. My immediate response is always yes, absolutely, everyone should learn to read music, it is a basic skill like reading a book. Imagine what your life would be like if you could not read! Reading is the doorway to lifelong enrichment.

Music notation is just another form of human language, but with this important difference: it is the only one of its kind. With other forms of language, if you don't learn to read the written word in one language, you can still enter the magical world of books by learning another. Not so with music. If you don't learn to read music notation, you will forever be limited to playing by rote or by ear.

So, given that learning to read music notation is something everyone should be required to do, the next question is when do we stop making children learn to read it? There are only so many hours in the day, and it can take a good number of them to learn how to read music. How much training is enough? When do you stop the music lessons?

The focus of mandatory music education, in my view, should be solely on music literacy and story-telling, not on instrument technique and habit formation. Once the student gets the connection between what the written score says and the emotions and thoughts it is supposed to communicate, then the student has attained the goal. Now the student can read and enter into the world of music and truly appreciate it. Now the door is opened.

The piano is the best of all first instruments, because it allows the student to focus on literacy, not technique. The piano keys correspond 1:1 both to the notation and to the fingers, so the connection between one's body and the music is immediate and easy. Becoming literate while also learning how to even produce a sound with an instrument – or worse, by singing, where you have to BE the instrument – is far more challenging. The hill is steep enough as it is.

A good piano teacher will insist that the student faithfully reproduce both the spirit and the letter of the music. If the tune is a happy one, the playing should be happy. If it is sad, it should be sad. Rhythm matters! Oh, how I wish more piano teachers would absolutely insist on a steady beat. Hardly anyone will ever notice a flubbed note, but literally everyone notices an unsteady rhythm -- and hates how it interrupts the flow.

It is perfectly good and proper to make a child take piano lessons until they are musically literate and emotionally engaged, but not a minute longer. Once that goal is achieved, the student should be freed to branch out into whatever other instrument they desire to learn, or to continue on with the piano, or to no instrument at all.

What you absolutely never want to do is to teach them to resent music, to hate learning it. Students should be clearly shown their goal, told why it is important, praised for progress, and then encouraged to participate in family music events such as singing together, playing together, listening and talking about music, and attending live performances together.

It is only when they decide to learn a chosen instrument that you want to focus on habit formation and technique. At that point, the student understands the emotional and mental difference between a note played properly versus one played incorrectly. Now they want to learn. You don't have to force it, they'll put in the time on their own (or not, and set it aside), and ultimately will internalize your teaching and become their own, best critic of how well they are playing.

And if your student decides to not take up a chosen instrument? That's perfectly fine. They will become appreciators of music, patrons of the art. There are many arts that I enjoy immensely as an admirer and as a collector. I've no interest in creating those things myself, but they bring so much joy to my life. If you can give a child a lifelong, intelligent, knowing love of music, you will have given them a gift beyond price.

And that's when to stop the music lessons.


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