Finding the Right Instrument is Like Falling in Love
"You wish to try another instrument?"
Reasons to say "yes" to a change of musical instrument
Our society values making decisions and carrying them through to the end. "You decided to spend all your allowance, now you will have to live with being broke until next week.", or "You decided that you wanted to go to soccer camp, now you must see it through to the end." As parents, we feel that we are helping our children to build character and accept responsibility. But are we, as parents, depriving children of the time and opportunity to explore all the varied possibilities available to them at this point in their lives? All too soon, they will be "too old" to change. Youth is the time to taste the world, hopefully, to be touched by it and to fall in love with doing something.
Playing an instrument is like falling in love
The infatuation with one person as opposed to another is totally unpredictable. If one does not marry the first person one dates, one is not accused of being incapable of falling in love. One is encouraged to continue searching. Similarly, if a child does not enjoy playing a particular instrument that is absolutely no indication he or she will not like or even be passionate about another. Often parents begin a child's instrumental music experience with piano lessons because there is one in the house. When, for example, a child decides that he or she hates to practice the piano, parents often decide that the child is not musically inclined and the lessons end. Several years later, when the same child announces that he or she wants to play the flute in the band because his or her best friend is playing the flute...and, by the way, the flute has to be rented and a parental agreement signed promising that the child will practice... many parents are tempted to respond, "Dear, we tried the piano. Remember how you hated to practice? No one in our family plays. We just aren't a musical family. Let's stick to sports." Yet, even professional musicians often do not specialize in the first instrument they study. Like love, finding the right instrument takes time and trial and error.
There is good news and there is bad news. The bad news is that you, as a parent, may have invested time, money and effort in lessons and, perhaps, already own an instrument or two. When your child comes home and announces that he or she no longer wants to play the trumpet that you purchased at the end of the rent/lease agreement last spring, you are not pleased. Furthermore, you may think of the horrible hours that you spent nagging about practicing. Has all that time, money and effort been wasted? The good news is NO! All instruments have things in common. A child who has learned to read music through piano lessons will whiz ahead of the child who is playing the clarinet as his or her first musical experience. Fingerings for many brass instruments are very similar. Rhythm and pitch, phrasing and ornamentation, scales and arpeggios, are common to all musical instruments. Nothing that your child has learned before on the old instrument will be unused on the new one.
How do you decide, though, whether this is a whim, just another passing fancy, or whether you should take your child seriously and give music another try?
And this is the difficult part, because if you truly want your child to enjoy playing an instrument, you are just going to have the take a deep swallow and say, "I think that is a great idea. Now, do you need to rent a French horn, or does the school have one? Do you want private lessons, or can you take this in school?" Easy to think about, but far more difficult to say convincingly as you wonder how you are going to sell that student cello sitting under the piano.
Finally, you must answer the question of exactly how important you think playing an instrument might be for your child. The $99 million dollars, which Congress appropriated for NEA, as a writer in the New York Review of Books wrote, "gave every American about one postage stamp worth of the arts last year." As Americans, we do not invest great amounts of time, money and effort in our arts, and yet, when we consider why teenagers become involved in drugs, alcohol and sex, one might note that these young people are looking for experiences to fill their lives. I would be so bold as to suggest that there are great "highs" to be had standing in the middle of a 150 piece band on a field playing Bernstein (West Side Story), Strauss (2001 Space Odyssey), or Tchaikovsky (1812 Overture). There is great camaraderie throwing water balloons at band camp. There is money to be made playing in a jazz band. There is even positive peer pressure, and having been the soloist with the school orchestra is certainly an advantage when applying for college admission. In short, music may be the "wholesome" activity that keeps your child happy and on the right road to adulthood.
Last summer several young men aged 14 to 16 sat in their soggy shorts, having just come from a rowdy sailing class filled with capsized boats and water fights. They took out their French horns and began to play, and an idea was born. The group began with the most important first step - a name - "Four Horns in a Row" (even before the fourth horn was found), and announced that they could be hired for weddings. The founder had started on the trumpet. The second and third French horn players were sailing buddies who had their arms twisted a bit by the first. The young man who ultimately became the fourth member had tried the violin, the piano, and the trumpet and was extremely competent on trumpet, owned several of these instruments, and had even participated in national and international musical groups. When he announced to his parents that he wanted to play the French horn because his friends needed him as the fourth horn, they acquiesced, primarily because they lent him an instrument. For the first time in his life, he began to practice on his own without being asked. The miracle had happened. He had found an instrument. Two professional parents had not been able to find it for him; neither had a host of music professionals who had given him opportunities to play every instrument in the orchestra. Time and happenstance had met and that quixotic moment had produced the spark. His parents were left with the cast-off instruments and the task of advising his old teacher. What can one say, except that the chemistry was right, and how can anyone explain the vagaries of love?
Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.,
President of Maestro Classics