There is much truth in the African proverb which loosely translated reads “It takes a village to raise a child.” And it takes a community to recognise and foster musical talent in a child.
The remarkable thing about living in Goa is that all of us are two or three degrees of separation from a music student or a musician. We either have a child who is learning to sing or play an instrument, or have a friend, neighbour or relative who does. Or both.
The beginning of the New Year is a good time to reflect on what we are parents, as a community can do to nurture a love of music among our children, and take them to their fullest potential.
Here are a few suggested resolutions that can help achieve this.
1. Make practice time a daily routine: Practice makes perfect. If there is one big lesson to be learned from the El Sistema music revolution and from so many successful music programs around the world, it is that daily contact with the instrument makes all the difference. This is in keeping with the “10,000-Hour Rule” (based on a study by Anders Ericsson) referred to by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book Outliers, in which he examines the factors that contribute to high levels of success. The Rule states that success in any field is to a large extent a matter for practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. Gladwell provides examples ranging from the Beatles to Bill Gates to illustrate this point.
Admittedly this is not easy, and I struggle with this even now. For young school-and college-goers, where there are huge demands on their time from mainstream academic work, this poses an even greater problem. So the sensible advice would be to keep it real and simple.
2. Find an optimal time and duration that works for your child. Some children find that they are freshest and at their most alert before they set out for school, while others might find music a good way to unwind at the end of the day.
3. A young child requires the most support in the initial years, when s/he is learning the “grammar” of the music “language”. Playing open strings on a violin and scales on a piano can seem tedious unless some encouragement is given by the support group of family, friends and teachers. Hopefully once the basics are grasped, an innate love for the “language” will create an inner drive to practice without prompting. A word of encouragement and praise in acknowledgement of hard work can work wonders. But it can be a double-edged sword. Too much of it lavished without justification could make a child complacent.
4. If practice is fun, it ceases to be a chore. It was instructive watching the learning games used by Suzuki teachers to get even under-fives to seek out the instrument every day. Regarding the bow as a train travelling on different ‘tracks’ between the fingerboard and bridge, playing out rhythms like ‘Miss-is-ipp-i hot-dog’, But-ter-fly’, and ‘cat-ter-pill-ar’ are much more interesting than following vague principles for an under-five.
5. When I was growing up, although we received music instruction, not much time was spent on advising us on how to practice at home, on how to optimise the use of practice time. This gets even more crucial today, when so many demands are made on our children. It is a good idea to begin a practice journal for your child, which can initially be filled out by an adult, and gradually the responsibility for this can be transferred to the child. A child old enough to think for him/herself should be encouraged to ask why s/he is playing a scale or study exercise; why a certain passage presents a problem, and what can be done to ‘fix’ it. Learning a challenging work can be frustrating, and it helps to learn it a lot slower, and then work it up to the desired tempo. The time set aside for practice can be seen as a large ‘pie’, and various ‘slices’ of that pie can be allotted to different aspects, for instance one quarter of the time for scales and arpeggios, a third for exercises and intonation, and the rest for working on ‘real’ music.
6. Get involved: It is not for nothing that parental involvement is such a crucial component of the Suzuki ‘method’ of teaching and playing of an instrument. Indeed, the Suzuki philosophy invites the parent to study the instrument as well, even insisting that parents be present at each session. Even if this is not possible, taking an interest in one’s child progress is something a child can instinctively sense, and it spurs him/her to greater heights.
7. Daily practice teaches you so much more than just music. In an earlier article ‘Music and Intelligence’, we had seen how Nobel Prize winner Thomas Sudhof had recalled the importance of his bassoon teacher from his childhood in instilling him the discipline that held him in very good stead for his professional career.
Concert violinist Nicola Benedetti and the driving force behind music education initiatives in the UK (Sistema Scotland and Big Noise) elaborates “When I have been to people’s homes, I’m just trying to give an idea about practice –about parents supporting practice and not giving in if the kids don’t want to do it. They have to do it! At some point in your life, you’re going to have to execute a certain number of hours of work in order to get paid, and that is just what life consists of. If you want to get into that habit, it’s easier to learn that as a child than it is to learn it at 18. You’re doing yourself a disservice in not trying to apply any kind of discipline at a young age.”
Next week, it would be worthwhile to look at what we can do to enrich the musical ‘milieu’ or environment our children are growing up in.
(An edited version of this article was published on 5 January 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)