Monday, February 27, 2012

If There's No Time to Teach Art, Let's Not Pretend to Teach It

It's the contemporary parent's constant nightmare. You buy pricey instruments for all the kids and each kid lasts about six months before wanting to quit, claiming she hasn't learned how to play in school, and citing frustration at not being selected for orchestra.

Each time this has happened, it has saddened me. I protested every time, "You really wanted to play the flute (or violin or guitar or piano). You were desperate for that instrument!" ( I either rented at exorbitant cost or bought outright. Anyone want one of our four guitars? One of our two violins? I think I already got rid of the flute.)

I thought my kids were going to learn how to play their instruments in know, the way we all used to? Well, there are still music lessons in school, but from what I understand, the lessons are crowded, noisy, and there is no personal instruction that takes place. It's catch-as-catch-can. It's essentially learn your own dang instrument.

So, fine. I know that the school has hundreds of students. There is only one music teacher for all these kids. It's frankly amazing that they have orchestra, lessons, and twice weekly music classes.

But here's my point: if there isn't realistically time to teach all these kids how to play the instrument(s) their parents bought for them--and force them to practice at home, fomenting untold familial fights--then let's not pretend that there is.

Let's not act like we're teaching the arts in school if we really don't have the time and/or money to do so.

Let's be realistic. Say to us, the parents, "Well, yeah, it would be great if all the kids learned an instrument. Music instruction and musical practice and learning how to read music is just an all-around great idea. Understanding music helps with understanding many other academic subjects. Playing an instrument is something that every educated, well-rounded person should know how to do."

This probably is said (although I don't even need to hear it; I already know it). 

What isn't said is: "We want to get you all excited to get your kids instruments and sign them up for all our musical offerings. The truth is, however, there is no time in the school day to teach them how to play. We act like there is, but realistically, there isn't. So, go ahead send your kid to school with her violin twice a week, but honestly, don't expect her to learn how to play it here."

That's a harsh truth, but I don't mind harshness, as long as it's realistic. Just be honest with me. Be honest with us. Don't waste my (or our) time.

Say instead: "It is a good idea to push your child to learn how to play an instrument--and then stick with that instrument. Your child isn't going to learn that in school, however. We just can't carve out any time because you know, test prep (PSSA, 4Sight, Benchmarks, etc.) sucks up all the time. No, you'll really need to find a private teacher. So, um, good luck with that!"

If I had known a few years ago that my kids would not learn how to play music in school (I have hired outside teachers after wasting many months expecting them to get some instruction at the elementary level), I could have saved a lot of time, and my kids could have been saved a lot of frustration. They might have actually learned how to play all those instruments by now.

Arts in school--whether that is musical instruction or visual art (another area that I believe is getting short shrift)--is something we all want. We all should want the arts.

We should also expect classroom instruction in the arts. But if that is not realistic anymore--not in this sad time of harsh budget-cutting and too much attention on the TEST, TEST, TEST--tell us that. 

Tell us the school can't do it. Don't pretend that it can. Because pretending helps no one learn.


  1. What you are asking for in this post, to have students really learn how to play their instrument at school, has never been a practical possibility. While a band or choir director can do much in the way of teaching the rudiments of music and inspiring the kids to practice, there is really no substitute for private lessons and several hours of practice each week. If your band or orchestra director doesn't play your specific instrument, the kind of technical help you need to make speedy progress on your instrument will need to be found elsewhere.

    I really like the main thrust of what you are saying here, though. That is, we need to be honest about what it is that we are offering our kids. As a piano teacher, I frequently encounter this sort of frustration from parents who have enrolled their children in some kind of group music classes. They think they are giving their kids a wonderful musical experience, and what they end up getting is very surface level instruction with no substantive skill development.

    Learning to play an instrument well is fun, but it is also hard work, and guess which one comes first? Parents need to know that if they want this for their kids, they have to have a plan in place, before lessons start, about how they are going to stick it out when the kid says they don't want to play anymore. I find that if a parent makes this sort of commitment from the beginning, the child thinks of music lessons like any other school subject - not optional. That really cuts down on the family conflicts over music lessons. (Using techniques like Love and Logic by Jim Fay helps too.)

  2. I agree, Jeremy, and thanks for reading. All I expect(ed) from the school instruction were some of the basics--e.g., fingering guidance for the violin. I can't help my daughter there. I have not played violin.

    I spent hours looking up fingering on was crazy. These are the basics I wanted her to get in school, but the crowded group lesson was taken up with pointing to the musical notes and singing and "air bowing."

    I don't mind having to do outside work and needing to find an outside teacher the "substantive" instruction. I only want the school to tell me that right away.

    When I was young, I had semi-private clarinet lessons in school. I also spent many, many hours with private music teachers outside of school. My parents used to pay huge amounts of money to the best piano teachers they could find. I practiced for an hour each day.

    Getting my own kids to practice has been difficult because they feel adrift and unprepared in the basics. But I totally understand that true mastery takes years of study and practice.