SummaryDavid Michael Phelps offers homeschool parents a new perspective to help kids enjoy practicing music with four immersive strategies for musical education.
As homeschool parents, we want our children to love beauty, and, as Plato asked, “what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?”
Musical study is integral to a child’s formation, and so we hire tutors and pay for lessons, and as far as instruction goes, that’s the best many of us can do. But there still remains that little gremlin in our well-laid plans: how do we get our kids to practice their instruments?
My wife and I have tried all the most popular methods of trying to get our children to practice:
- The “Just Do It!” Method—In this method, the parents simply insist that the child practice. It can also include the use of egg timers and/or threats. It is known for being an unreliable method that rarely makes for happy musicians (or parents!).
- The “Musical Chairs” Method—In this approach, the parents switch the child to a new instrument when the child’s enthusiasm begins to wane. This is an expensive method, and one that doesn’t give the child the opportunity to make real progress in their musical education.
- The “Oh, I Give Up!” Method—This method allows the parents simply to throw their hands in the air and say, “Well, we’ve given them the chance and they just don’t seem interested. On to something else!”
My purpose here is not to condemn any of these approaches. But I would like to offer a slightly new perspective on children’s musical education, a perspective that has yielded better results in getting our own children to practice. (I’ll also give a few practical activities you might try in your own family. But beware: it will require something of you parents, too.)
In his Ted Education talk, renowned bassist and educator Victor Wooten makes a very important point: music is a language, but it is rarely taught as one. Usually, music is taught as a set of structures, as a process, or as a set of routines. Structure and routine are important in education, of course. But at a more fundamental level, music-as-language is best learned through immersion.
Immersion is, after all, the way we all learned our first language (or in some cases, first languages). To borrow Wooten’s term, we learn language by “jamming” with other speakers, with people of all proficiencies, even those who are not yet themselves masters of the language.
So what does immersion look like for the language of music?
Well, ask yourself what immersion looked like when you learned your primary language. You were with others, conversing. To converse means to keep company with, to live among, to turn toward something with others. It is not something done in isolation, but in community. In the same way, to learn music “immersively” means to do it with others.
But consider how much time your kids spend practicing their instruments alone. How much of their practice is spent in the lonely exercise of scales or techniques? Again, I’m not saying it isn’t important to practice fundamentals.
But just try to imagine your children learning to speak by only learning fundamentals, by sitting alone with a grammar book and once a week speaking with a tutor. They would not progress, and they certainly would enjoy practicing learning how to speak.
The same is true for music. So here’s the big idea: if you want your children to practice more, create more opportunity for them to “jam.” And here are four ways you might encourage more jamming in your home.
1. Play Together as a Family Band
By forming a Family Band, you are giving your children the interactivity that yields more joy (and more of the human touch) to their study of music. By playing with others, children learn that music is at its core not something to be studied; it is an occasion for understanding and communication between human persons.
There is also a synergistic effect in practicing in groups. Children with less developed skills will benefit by playing alongside those with more developed skill. And those with more developed skill will be able to hone the theory they’ve learned through improvisation and experimentation, making what they’ve learned about truly their own.
The Family Band need not be a complicated affair, not does it require having a ton of great instruments (or even good ones). The only thing necessary is that everyone in the family grab whatever instruments are at hand—a guitar or a violin, a piano or a drum, a jug or a pot, a cardboard box or a couple of spoons—and form a communal, musical unit.
The initial goal isn’t the music. It is the coming together. The instruments are almost secondary, since what is being created here is not a set of individuals with precisely tuned tools, but rather a harmonious community.
When music students play with others, the real joy of music becomes easier to experience. And when kids see mom and dad grab an instrument and join in, their natural curiosities and joys are stoked. Children want to model those they love.
2. Let them Play. Let them Improvise.
There are times when running scales and reading sheet music is essential to learning music. But just as learning language means more than reading books or reciting dialogue from pre-written plays, music means more than reading pre-determined music from a lesson book. It means being able to create and experiment.
And like spoken language, musical creativity and experimentation often happens in a “conversation.” To be a good musician, one must learn to listen and then to respond to what is heard.
One way to encourage this with your children is to play a ‘call and response’ sort of game. Let one child make up a lyric or a melody, and then have everyone repeat it back on whatever instrument they have.
Or have one child play a rhythm on one instrument, and then have another child mimic the rhythm and perhaps add something to it, passing along the new creation to the next person in the Family Band.
In the back-and-forth movement of games like these, your children learn that they are more than conduits for some other composer’s ideas. As musicians, they have have creative and interpretive powers, and once this is understood, children take more ownership over their music.
Don’t worry, by the way, if the improvised music sounds a bit rough. We all babble when we learn to speak.
3. Challenge your Children to Write their Own Songs and Then Teach Them to the Family Band
The key here is to install a sense of ownership, creativity, and service. By challenging your kids to write their own music, the time they spend with their instruments becomes time they steward.
They get to make some decisions, they get to play, and they can take a healthy pride in their creations. But by also challenging them to teach what they create to others in the Family Band, they will also have to think about what is possible for other instruments and to think about other people’s levels of skill.
What they make will have to be repeatable—and this means it will have to be solidified through practice.
4. Challenge your Children to Perform
If improvisation and composition offers a chance for your children to take ownership of the creation of music, then setting performance goals offers them the chance to take ownership of the polishing of that creation.
Often, students approach their practice time as “preparation for their next lesson.” They don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of their teacher. But avoiding embarrassment is a negative incentive.
A positive incentive would be having the chance to build their own performances. (Again, it’s about helping the children understand that they can create something of their own.)
Also, when children practices toward performance, they are again reminded that music is meant to be communal. It is important to help your students see the value of other people getting joy from their music.
Just as the Family Band need not be complicated, neither does performance. Invite Grandma and Grandpa over. Create a special time for a concert or an after dinner performance every Wednesday. Let your kids pick the pieces, or even write pieces, for these occasions. They may even want to create tickets or posters advertising the event.
Music is a language, and language is meant to bring people together, to communicate, to build communion.
By letting your children catch a glimpse of the joy and creativity of this special gift from God, they are much more likely to practice and practice well. In fact, you may not even need to remind them anymore!