It is always sad when one hears that a child, who had begun playing an instrument, gives it up. Quite often, it is the parents who make this decision, and they tend to rationalize this to themselves and others, with many quasi-convincing arguments: “She never took to it, really”. “It’s such a waste of time, and he’s not even enjoying it.” Or “he’s now into (some other pursuit)”, or “she just doesn’t get the time to practice”. Or “she has to really concentrate on her studies; this is a very important year for her.”Or even “he had a really crappy teacher, and was not making any progress.” Sometimes the parents or the child her/himself, somehow decides they do not have the “talent”; such a loaded word, and one that is very controversial among pedagogues, and one that I personally avoid.
At the other end of the spectrum, one meets adults all the time who rue the fact that they had not persisted with an instrument picked up in childhood, but discarded at some point later. I meet people of my generation who were also learning violin, or piano or whatever, and were really quite good at it, but for one reason or another, stopped.
If you yourself have recently given up playing, or have a child who you feel “isn’t making progress”, and if you therefore feel that persisting despite this is a “waste of time”, here is a real-life account of the childhood of the great Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, described by him in his autobiography “First the Music, then the Words”:
“In Molfetta we celebrated Saint Nick’s day, or Santa Nicola as we called him in dialect, on December 6, the day most children received presents —the equivalent of Christmas or Epiphany for children elsewhere in Italy and abroad. All I got, on that long-ago morning in 1948 [Muti was seven years and five months old], was a small case with a three-quarter violin. I was so disappointed that it wasn’t a toy. Yet there it was, before my eyes, a sign that something terrible awaited me, that something awful was about to begin. Indeed, soon thereafter they introduced me to my solfeggio teacher, who walked me through the scale. I can picture her to this day: she was a young blonde. Nevertheless, my hatred of solfeggio remained strong enough that I made no progress in the first three months. My brain balked at the very idea and refused to learn a thing. She would point to a line on the staff, and I’d just make whatever sound came first, as I didn’t recognize a single note. In the end, she asked my father to just let it go.”
“She convinced him, and albeit reluctantly, he was ready to give up; the family would have one nonmusical child, so be it. My mother, on the other hand – to my great surprise, because she didn’t have any particular interest in music – made a strange remark: “Let’s give it another month”. Most family-related decisions —the ones we called “irrevocable” – were up to her. I don’t know why she said that, nor exactly what switch it flipped within me, but everything became clear to me that night. The following morning, in front of my teacher, I recognized all the notes quickly and with a degree of boldness, even. So I was finally able to move on from solfeggio to really begin playing the violin.”
Muti goes on to describe how hard it continued to be nevertheless, despite the shot in the arm he received from his mother’s vote of confidence in him. It gave him the motivation to practice even though from his window he could see his friends playing soccer outside. And he must have really practiced, because in just two years he was performing Vivaldi’s Concerto in A major in public, “before an audience of 300 pontifical seminarians.”
The interest in music, nurtured at this crucial fragile, vulnerable point, led on to greater things which made Muti the phenomenally successful and respected conductor he is today. All this might not have come to pass had his parents capitulated at the first obstacle in their child’s path.
Not every child will necessarily become another Riccardo Muti, but this is not the point at issue. The point is that persistence can yield significant results.
Nicola Benedetti , award-winning Scottish violinist and champion of music education and the charity Sistema Scotland, made headlines in the UK when she stated that children should be exposed to classical music “whether they like it or not.” The statement is not at all as radical as it might first sound. Do we stop our children from studying mathematics or Hindi or geography because “they’re just not enjoying it”, or a perceived lack of progress? Of course not; quite the contrary. We ensure they work even harder at them. Why a different approach or yardstick when it comes to music?
Benedetti waxes almost poetic in her earnestness on the subject: “You’re not just developing concentration and focus in order to try to understand the music,” she said. “You are also getting something that has life lessons, has beauty, has uplift and joy and sorrow and tragedy – all the things that you will have to deal with in your life at some point.”
Muti’s story is a familiar one. The initial years are painful, for child and parents, but then it becomes so enjoyable, so rewarding. So much depends upon a child’s motivation to persevere despite everything, and here parental support is crucial.
The Portuguese pianist Pedro Emanuel Pereira who performed in Goa recently told me an interesting anecdote about the legendary violinist-pedagogue David Oistrakh that bears repeating here in this context: “Once, someone asked Oistrakh how he decided which children would be his pupils. He gave an interesting and funny answer: “I don’t care too much about talent or if the child wants to practice, when they first meet me. The first thing I do is meet their mother. If the child has a “crazy”, driven mother who will motivate him/her to practice, I will take on that child.””
So, if you or your child are at a crossroad, and are uncertain whether to continue with learning and playing a musical instrument, “Let’s give it another month.” And another. And yet another.
(An edited version of this article was published on 28 June 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)