Posting 108 – in which a modest domestic dispute spills out into the blogosphere

Exhibit A on my wife's behalf

Anybody who thinks I dwell in an ivory tower of music education, content to comment from afar, is sadly mistaken; as one of perhaps two Abreu Fellows who have at least one child, I’m aware how profoundly my daughter will be affected by all the choices my wife and I make for her.

Case in point: the other day my wife and I were talking with my brother and his fiancée by when he had the unmitigated folly to ask us what instrument we were eventually going to start our daughter on. I initially thought the question might be premature, given the daughter in question is barely 15 months old, but apparently my wife and I will need the time to figure this out. In a rare display of familial discord, my wife the pianist immediately replied “Piano!” while her husband the ex-pianist/hornist/conductor (in chronological order) immediately said “Violin!”

The fiancée then raised an interesting point, particularly for someone not active within music. She suggested that piano would have a gentler learning curve and be far easier on parental ears than a ¼ size violin being played out of tune- and she’s right. I recall Joel Smirnoff’s comment in the March Strad article that “The child wants to be rewarded with sound,” and there’s definitely an element of instant gratification (and intonation) on the piano that may not be there for the violin.

How strong that element is I don’t know. I get the impression that as many children drop out of solitary piano studies as they do solitary violin studies, unable to achieve the level of proficiency necessary to find the activity intrinsically motivating. (More on that here) There’s another issue worth mentioning: piano is by default a solitary pursuit, whereas violin can encompass a group – and therefore social – element. And of course, there’s a financial/real estate element too: pianos are much larger and much more expensive than violins.

So I’m obviously pleading my case, at this point. And the lack of immediate intonation on violin might even be an asset, helping students acquire, even protractedly, a finite appreciation for pitch and quality of sound that a piano cannot generally impart.

The strongest argument I can think of in favour of piano is that it demands the development of an advanced degree of musical literacy, the ability to track, comprehend and execute multiple voices at the same time. I’ve never regretted my early piano studies: as a horn player I was one of the few I met who was immediately comfortable with reading parts in bass clef, and as a conductor I then had no difficulty adjusting to multiple staves of musical information. I’ve applied that literacy to my very late violin studies to some…some advantage as well.

Well, say the Solomonic, what about letting the child study both? I’m not sure that would be a kindness to my daughter. I have no intention of being the kind of parent who schedules every last one of his child’s minutes. I do want her to understand that hard work and effort is a prerequisite to finding any activity enjoyable, so that she develops that essential degree of self-efficacy required for any pursuit, but I also want her to have fun being a kid… a concept I think is rapidly forgotten today. Adulthood can be crappy enough at times, as we all know, so why inflict that on any person sooner than necessary? Please weigh in below…

And now, introducing Guest Blogger Mrs. Theresa Govias

Theresa and the object of the disagreement

I have always thought that piano was the ideal instrument to start children on. As a piano teacher I started children as young as 4 and they all did very well. One of the primary advantages is that they start learning to read music immediately, which then can be transmitted to any other instrument they decide to try. However, it does seem that most violinists start learning their instrument from a very young age, so maybe to be good at the violin you do have to start at the age of two. In that case I wouldn’t want my daughter to be denied the chance to play violin well because I stubbornly think that piano is the best instrument. But I do think that regardless of whether we start her on violin or not, I will still try to teach her piano at some point. I think it has transferrable skills that are invaluable to being a good all around musician.



13 thoughts on “Posting 108 – in which a modest domestic dispute spills out into the blogosphere

  1. I vote for the piano, partly because I have always been the kind of person who wants instant gratification. I definetly agree that leaving some free time in a child’s life is essential, free time to experience boredom & figure out what to do about it unassisted by hovering parents.

  2. I’ll go with the Solomonic, and say “why not both?” You & Theresa & Sophie are privileged to live in a part of the world where high-quality music education is a given. I’d kill to be able to give that to our son Manuel. Surely you as parents can budget the time allocation so it doesn’t get overwhelming.

    I’ve always wished I could play the piano even somewhat well. It hampers the making, and writing, and arrangement of music in so many different ways. So I agree with guest blogger Theresa Govias there.

    In India, the cost of pianos, the high cost of maintenance, the lack of good piano tuners and teachers (and therefore players, and therefore teachers again, in a vicious circle), the absence of a deeply rooted western tradition, etc means that there are too few good pianists. Maybe a few in the bigger towns and cities, but they are woefully minuscule in number compared to our population of over a billion. If I wanted Manuel to learn piano, it would be hard to ensure he had quality teaching into the foreseeable future.

    Jonathan, I take your point about a string player having to discern pitch for themselves, but this is not necessarily accomplished. India is rife with players who have just gotten used to hearing themselves (and others) play out of tune. Menuhin compares this with getting used to one’s own bad body odour. Everyone else notices it, but you’ve gotten used to it, so no attempt is made to correct it.

    To summarise then: Let Sophie have both! Go on, you know you want to! And I suspect she does too!

  3. One benefit of beginning with piano is that a 5 or 6 year old student can play a song that they know after just a couple of lessons, which my students are usually really excited about. I don’t know that much about violin but my impression is that it takes a while to be able to play even “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. (Of course, this is coming from a piano teacher…) However, I definitely agree that starting on violin could lead to a better sense of pitch later on…

  4. Whichever the child prefers to start with. ( parent of 3 violinist, and one cellist, started at ages 4,5,3, and 8 respectively)

  5. How about a non-Western instrument? Perhaps direct tactile and auditory exposure to other music would help her grow in ways we cannot imagine. With parents with such deep connections to Western classical music (and perhaps others), there is no doubt she will be steeped in that tradition. Maybe a second would be open new musical and social possibilities.

  6. having had grandchildren who all were signed up for violin lessons and none pursued it, I am coming down on the side of the piano, because now two are playing piano with relish and one playing cello in her school orchestra.
    I also think that it is good to introduce children to instruments, but let them pursue the one that gives them most pleasure.

  7. The quality of a child’s music lesson experience is enormously dependent on the technical and inspirational skills of the teacher. If the absolutely best teacher in your area teaches the [insert that instrument here, no matter what it is], and there are also social support opportunities for that instrument [group class, chamber music, orchestra] in your community, then [insert that instrument here, no matter what it is] is your best bet.

    Ruth Brons
    32 years teaching violin, and loving it!

  8. Either is great, but see if your child gives any hints about which is a better fit. Little kids do gravitate to the sounds of particular instruments. See which one seems to draw her attention more. I have two kids, one on violin, one on piano. I chose violin for the one who always sang with excellent pitch, piano seemed a better match for the one with a less natural sense of pitch. Both have done well and it is nice they each have something that fits them.

  9. I think you are right about one thing. This is something worth doing some research and reading about even before you start interviewing teachers. Your daughter is surrounded by the environment of two very active musicians. Your biggest problem will not necessarily be which instrument will she decide on. I lean toward Ruth Brons opinion that you need to choose a teacher that is adequately trained to start children at age 3. I would recommend participating in some form of kindermusik up until that time. As the daughter of two musicians she is likely to have rather high expectations of what she should be able to accomplish at one time.
    Find a teacher who will let you get a head start on the instrument as an amateur, as one of you will be modeling for her. It is not necessarily to play like a professional. I know it will feel like eating with your fork in the wrong hand. But It will help you to understand how she feels as a novice among so many experts (which you have placed in her environment) and how much a Technic needs to be bough down to her physical level. Be willing to pace your self with practice games between the Twinkles. Children need little bits of off task time between each review and repetition.

    Musical parenting does not require as much about musical expertise as it does curiosity about the development of the young child. Before you go looking for a teacher read these two books:
    The ‘re rarely too young and never too old “to twinkle” – Kay Slone
    (contains very useful information about child development stages and music.)
    Helping Parents Practice: Ideas for Making it Easier – Edmund Sprunger
    (covers issues about practicing with challenging children, degree in Psychotherapy and family counseling)

    Your next challenge is to causally observe several recommended teachers in your area as inconspicuously as possible. I know this may be difficult since your reputation as a conductor may proceed you in your local community. You have plenty of time to attend recitals and events and get to know the musical parenting community which each of these teachers cultivates around them.

  10. Great discussion- with your permission, may we discuss what it means to “just be a kid”? (Or should this be a new post? If so, let me know if this is a “rabbit trail)

    It used to mean, (I’m 61) here in the USA: Playing outside, hide-and-seek, dodge-ball, crafts, camp, riding a bicycle, going on family vacations, swing sets and tree ropes and tree houses, playing catch, shooting hoops, kickball, toy trucks, dolls, finger-painting, trips to the zoo, the beach, the mountains, hikes, staying with grandma, sewing with Mom, hunting or fishing with Dad, miniature golf, swimming.

    Now “being a kid” more likely means video games, TV sitcoms, web-surfing, texting, video, movies, shopping malls, theme parks, etc. I don’t want to be judgmental, but the notion of El Sistema is in great part to keep our kids minds occupied in ways that not only develop talent and character, but also leaves little room for the “empty calories” or “weeds” of life: those things not toxic, but without nutritional value, those which occupy time, but don’t contribute, those which consume resources without gain.

    I vote for violin, or recorder, then piano.

  11. Thank you all for taking the time to post your thoughts – I think everyone makes valid and interesting points – the child’s own interests, quality of teachers, plurality of genres, practical experience…and lastly, what it means to be a child these days.

    This deserves a much more detailed posting of its own, but my perception is that one of the great advantages of the social music experience, “social” in the sense of “friends” or “community” is that the environment itself provides extrinsic motivation when intrinsic motivation has yet to come forth through repertoire, the reward of sound, etc – and can even compensate pedagogically to a certain extent if teachers are unskilled or lacking in inspirational ability. I presented on this specific phenomenon in Montreal in November, and will address this fully probably by the end of January. But how learning happens in a network as vast and as largely unregulated as Sistema itself is worthy of much more investigation and discussion.

  12. Pingback: Top 10 of ’11 «

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