Friday, August 21, 2009

Music education and summer vacation

My sister, who is in elementary school, is taking piano lessons, and when she sees me practicing banjo during my visits home, she always wants to show me what she has learned on the piano. She clearly enjoys playing and has worked through a beginning method book.

But when I asked the other day whether she had been taking lessons and practicing, she said no, she was on break for the summer and would start again in the fall when school begins.

A few thoughts on this:

-If there is one type of study that requires regular, disciplined practice, as well as regular tutoring at the early stages of learning, it is learning a musical instrument. My own method of self-education involves reading and learning different things as my interests change: sustained study of a single topic is a challenge for me, so when I become interested in a topic, I try to read, write, and learn as much about it as I can before my interests move on. But this approach does not work when you are trying to learn an instrument. Learning an instrument requires sustained, challenging, repetitive practice, and it usually requires the help of a teacher.

-Educators and parents should make a conscious effort to dispel the notion that summer vacations constitute a "break" from learning because school is not in session. This is an example of how the widespread idea that education is simply "what happens in schools" is counterproductive. Education researchers have a word - the "achievement slide" - describing what happens to kids' brains during summer vacations. Many kids actually become slightly less intelligent because they simply do not exercise their brains over the summer. I don't think that means that we should have year-round schooling, as many policymakers are suggesting, but it does mean that parents as well as students themselves need to learn to continue their education year-round through self-education rather than bring their learning to a grinding halt because the school calendar says so.

Here's an excerpt on the importance of practicing one's instrument - it's written for banjo players, but you could substitute any instrument:

Knowing what to practice and making the best use of the practice time has so much to do with how well you will ultimately play the banjo. I once described natural ability to a student as someone who enjoys practicing and has determination. Sure, music may appear to come easier to certain people. However, many times the people to whom it appears to come easier are the same people who can sit around for hours at a time digging in for ways to improve and wouldn't want to be doing anything else.

An observation I made from reading about some of the banjo masters' practice time was that in many cases banjo players who have made significant contributions or have had styles named after them flat out practiced all day when they began. No one handed it to them. They just had desire and invested the time.

Ross Nickerson
--The Banjo Encyclopedia: Bluegrass Banjo from A to Z

And here are a few helpful articles about helping your child learn a musical instrument:

-"Why having your child learn a musical instrument is a good thing"
-"Why Should Your Child Learn Music? Here's My Story"
-"Should My Child Learn to Play a Musical Instrument?"

Feel free to submit your own ideas, thoughts, and links in the comment section.