Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the first commercially successful light bulb over a hundred and twenty years ago. But according to the story, it didn’t all happen with a ‘light bulb’ moment. Edison and his team conducted literally thousands of experiments before they reached their goal. Edison himself is said to have commented: ‘I’ve ... found 10,000 ways that won’t work... Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.’ What a good job for us that Edison did just that!
Cultivating the disposition to persevere is very important. No-one succeeds in everything they do first time. What is important is how that lack of immediate success is responded to. If a child attempts something and they don’t manage to do it – what is their reaction? Disappointment? Tears? Anger? Or a willingness to keep trying? A desire to persevere? A determination to succeed? Children need to realise that if they really persevere with something, progress can be made. Effort and trying again – and again (and again...) can make a huge difference.
Many children are really enthusiastic about starting a musical instrument. Parents sign the form and agree to make the financial commitment to music lessons. The shiny new flute/trumpet/violin is purchased or hired and sits there in its velvety cushioned case, creating anticipation and excitement as the first lesson approaches. On a wave of enthusiasm which accompanies almost any new, desired activity, the instrument is played regularly, parents are delighted and all goes well. Then the ‘honeymoon period’ fades and the demands become a bit more challenging. Swift mastery of each new technique introduced is no longer on the menu. Very quickly things can slide: the child stops playing their instrument every day; parents start nagging; without regular practice progress isn’t made; this, in turn, creates lack of confidence and reluctance to play and the result is a vicious circle. Sound familiar? Is there anything we, as parents, can do about this? Absolutely yes!
Firstly, being aware of the scenario above is important: it may not happen with your child, but it does happen with many. Do think carefully before you sign the form for instrumental lessons. Learning a musical instrument is a very different kind of activity. Not only does it incur a significant financial commitment, it involves a significant time commitment – not just from your child, but from you. Through the primary years children need a huge amount of parental support, time and encouragement in their practice sessions during the week in between their lessons. If you can give this, their progress will be enhanced tremendously.
When we sign our children up for a sports activity, for example, it’s very different. Instead of there being the expectation that the child will practise their swimming/tennis/hockey skills every day by themselves, the training sessions tend to increase as the child progresses. A child who ends up being quite serious about their sport – or who shows real promise – may end up in daily training sessions in their primary years. But this is not so in music. No matter how good you are, you still tend to have a lesson once a week and the expectation is that you will practise every day in between the lessons. This requires a lot of self-discipline, self-motivation and perseverance, and it’s why the majority of children will need guidance, support and encouragement through the week if they are to stay on track.
As parents, we appreciate this when it comes to homework, hearing our children read or helping them learn their tables. We make sure we know what they are supposed to be doing, we make sure they have a quiet place to work, we are on-hand to answer any queries or explain something they don’t understand. We praise them when they show us a finished result with which they are pleased. Doing the homework is non-negotiable. Why is our approach so different when our child is learning an instrument?
The whole process of learning an instrument is very much a team effort, and good communication is needed among the members of the team: the instrumental teacher, the pupil, the parent and the Director of Music. When we are aware that our child is finding something difficult in maths, for example, the first thing we might do would be to ask the teacher how we can best help and support our child’s learning. Do we do this when we notice they are struggling with a new technique on their instrument?
Some parents will say, ‘I just want her to enjoy it.’ ‘I want him to have fun learning an instrument.’ We could say much the same about learning to read – it’s a skill which can bring life-long pleasure; but we have to learn to do it first – step by step – and with encouragement and support from home, progress is maximised. When we have a certain level of proficiency then the enjoyment can flow and with continued practice we can do even more. If our children stopped learning to read after two or three years at school their experience of reading would be pretty limited. In any activity there will be times when we are ‘on a roll’ and really enjoy it and times when we need to develop that hugely important quality of perseverance.
Learning an instrument encourages the development of such dispositions as: not giving up when things get difficult, having a go, determination to succeed, and all the skills of listening, counting, co-ordination, reading music and so on. It’s an activity which teaches so much as well as being ‘food for the soul’. Children come to see that by persevering they can improve their skills, that what they get out of an activity reflects what they put in, and that hard work is crowned with achievement – which boosts self-esteem. Those children who do persevere and learn for about five to seven years and make good progress (or who reach about Grade 5 standard) will have a skill which can bring them life-long enjoyment.
Children today have a plethora of activities from which to choose, but while it’s good to have experience of different activities, we have to be careful what messages we are sending our children when they do an activity for a term or a year and then give up. I have never heard an adult express pleasure that they gave up learning an instrument as a child. Mostly I hear adults say how much they regretted stopping – and why didn’t someone encourage them to continue?
To that end, we have to keep our children’s lives balanced. As they go through the prep school years the homework will increase, the music practice will increase and the number of activities on offer will increase. We need to bear this in mind and plan for it right from the start, making sure that there will be time and space in our children’s schedules for them to develop their music skills and progress. Let’s encourage them and teach them to persevere. Let’s invest the time to help them in some of their practice sessions. Seeing something through to proficiency and a positive conclusion gives such a sense of achievement and self-esteem. The quality of perseverance is of inestimable value.