As someone who spent a good deal of my university days hanging out with musicians and wishing I could be one, I’ve always wanted to make sure that my own kids are musical.
That’s a higher benchmark than you might think; one thing I know from having spent time with those crazy-talented undergraduate performers is that they had to sacrifice a huge proportion of their childhood to become proficient on their instrument of choice. I was astonished when I found that they couldn’t remember half of the TV shows I’d watched as a kid, all that prime time entertainment having been skipped in favor of practicing their scales – I was left to wonder if I’d really gotten anything valuable at all out of having seen so many episodes of Scooby Doo.
Some of them were born to play; others had been forced into it by their overbearing parents who’d whacked their little fingers with wooden rulers every time their hands had strayed off the keyboard. None of them regretted having lost their early years to music, and most of them appreciated the sense of self-discipline that their parents had given them; at the same time, the descriptions of their relationships with their parents themselves were often rocky and miserable. To this day, I’m still left to wonder how to balance persistent encouragement and kindly discipline without becoming a lousy, overbearing parent. It’s a challenge inspiring musical children!
My best friend’s mom had the formula right. Her daughter was a gifted flautist with an impeccable technique; the mother hadn’t so much forced as followed her into the realm of music, sharing her every discovery, delighting at the progress brought on by hours of practice. They always listened together to the classical greats and modern experimental performers, chatting and discussing the flourishes they could hear.
My friend’s childhood revolved around the flute, and it had been a joy – she would spend an unbelievable eight hours every day focused on it, but not all of those with the actual instrument in hand. She would draw pictures with her mother while listening, they would both imagine themselves performing, running through the hand movements in their minds. Her mother even studied the recorder herself, just so that she could become good enough to accompany her in duets.
My friend had a sunny, beautiful childhood, and it was only as an adult that she’d realized her mother’s musical journey had been made consciously in the spirit of wholehearted support; that she’d been kept on task, not by harsh words and threats, but with enthusiasm and unconditional love.
Make loud noises
That’s where a musical parenting style has to strike if it’s going to be truly effective. In their zealousness to inspire the next prodigy, many parents forget that music is one of the highest emanations of the human heart – and that a child’s response to it is something pure and joyous. A regime of technical training does have its success stories, but there are far more young spirits crushed by this method than there are those who develop a disciplined talent. Of these, a good number reach the top solely in fear of disappointing their parents, something that not only affects their creativity, but that also gives rise to debilitating relationship issues when they reach adulthood.
To inspire a musical genius, music must first be given as a gift. Your immediate move should be to invest in a small but good- quality pair of headphones – while the key to musical awareness does come from a frequent exposure to beautiful music and pleasant sounds playing around the house, it’s when a child experiences music as something personal that communicates directly to the silence of the mind that something wakes up within them in response. Music may not be quite the same thing as language, but it works in a similar way. A child’s natural reflex to any form of language exposure is to answer in kind.
Buy musical toys, but don’t scrimp on the cheap stuff. Learn to distinguish between toy instruments that are actually in tune and those that just make discordant noises. Get little percussion instruments that resonate properly such as bongos, gongs and cymbals. Don’t buy pretend guitars with fishing-wire strings; get ukuleles and little harps, or even a Vietnamese zither. Woodwind instruments are too complex for very young children, but some whistles and simple ocarinas make beautiful notes, and can inspire an interest in the breathy pitches of flutes and clarinets for when they get older. If you have the means, buy a real piano, and let your kids make as much noise as they want on it before you start showing them their chords and do-re-mi.
Above all, be there next to your children as they embark on their musical exploration. Don’t lock them in their rooms with a keyboard, banging loudly on the door whenever it goes quiet in there. Let their discoveries be yours too; get beside your kids and be as engaged as possible. If you have the time, learn as much as you can yourself – it’s hard to be disappointed with their progress if the journey is one you’re taking together.
Mozart would never have been the wunderkind he was without the passion of his father – and whether your kid turns out to be more of a Beethoven, Brahms, Beatle, Beyoncé, or none of the above, make sure you’re the biggest fan they have. Plato said music gives wings to the mind, but it’s parents who lift their children into flight.