Even Mozart had some help from dad

You want your child to play an instrument, but are you aware of the parental commitment involved?
Click to follow
Many parents would like their child to play a musical instrument, but don't know when to start, which instrument to choose, how to find a teacher or what it will cost. And they don't anticipate the intense parental involvement that is essential for lessons to succeed.

Almost any child can learn to play, according to music teachers and musicians. Practice, they say, not talent, is what makes perfect. And practice is rarely achieved without a parent's participation, a view that is backed by research.

Professor John Sloboda, of the Department of Psychology at Keele University, and colleagues studied 257 young people and found that those who put in most practice did best. They also found that parents of musical high achievers are more likely to attend lessons with their children, get detailed feedback and instructions from teachers, and actively supervise daily practice.

Professor Sloboda says: "What separates high-achieving young musicians from drop-outs is not innate talent but supportive parents and high levels of practice. Because practice is hard and often unrewarding, parents need to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the details of their child's learning. Even Mozart's father devoted several hours each day to one-to- one tuition.

"Talent may distinguish the genius from the merely excellent, but most of us could become fine musicians if only we had the motivation to put in the hours."

Christine Livingstone, a cello teacher and music director of the London Suzuki Group, famous for starting its musicians as young as three, says most parents don't realise the extent of the commitment they will have to make. "Children come to us with one of their parents and for about six months they just watch others being taught in a group. This is to give them an understanding of what a lesson is, how long it lasts, what is expected of them. It also gives the parents an opportunity to meet the other parents and find out what the commitment actually involves. Only three out of 10 people who show an interest ever go on to begin lessons. Often they realise that it requires just too much time and commitment."

In the Suzuki method, a child has one individual lesson with a teacher per week and one ensemble lesson either weekly or every two weeks. Each term could cost more than pounds 300. The child is then expected to practise every day with the parent, and by the age of six would be doing about half an hour a day.

But getting them to practise is not easy. Susan O'Neill, a psychology lecturer and researcher at the Unit for the Study of Musical Skill and Development at Keele University, where she also teaches flute, suggests several ways that students can be motivated. First, establish within them the belief that they can learn and improve through effort. Second, provide an environment that is supportive and non-threatening, so that errors and failure are simply part of learning. Third, be careful not to set up an overdependence on motivators such as exams, competitions or rewards. And, four, give them greater control and responsibility for organising their own learning; for example, allow them to choose their own pieces or decide how much practice they need to achieve their own goals.

It is not essential for the parent to be musically literate; knowledge can be a hindrance.

Finding the right teacher is crucial. "It is essential that the child finds them friendly, encouraging and nice," says Ms O'Neill. "These attributes seem to be far more significant than impressive musical abilities."

The best way to find a teacher is by recommendation from other parents or from schools. The Musicians' Union and the Incorporated Society of Musicians will also have local lists, as will local authority music advisers and libraries.

"Beware the teacher who charges low rates," Peter Hewitt, director of the Royal College of Music, warns. "A good teacher will charge fairly competitive rates." Lessons at school start at about pounds 13 and private lessons cost as much as pounds 30 per hour.

The choice of instrument will be determined by the age of the child, maturity, physical characteristics, and the child's preference. "They should be excited by a sound that they hear," says Roger Durston, chairman of the Music Education Council for the UK and director of music at Wells Cathedral School.

A child starting young (between three and seven) will be encouraged to play the violin, cello or double bass, which come in miniature versions, or the piano. Woodwinds can be taken up from eight to 11. Children will generally start brass instruments from nine or 10. And it is better to rent an instrument at first - at least until your child is sure about continuing. A mini cello, for example, costs about pounds 50 a term to hire.

If at first you - or your child - don't succeed, Susan O'Neill says: "Try a different teacher, try a different instrument, or try six months later. Don't be put off."


The Musicians' Union, 0171-582 5566; the Incorporated Society of Musicians, 0171-629 4413.

Masterclass: the best advice

"Doing a small amount of work every day on your instrument is far more fruitful than cramming in a load on one day a week. Enjoyment is a fundamental principle in music, so it is up to the teachers and parents to make sure this way of practising can be an enjoyable pastime."

Nigel Kennedy, violinist

"A child should start when she is old enough to realise that if you practise, you improve; to appreciate the necessity for trying hard and that it might also be good fun. It's a difficult line for parents to tread - between pushing them and not pushing enough."

Tasmin Little, violinist

"Everyone has the ability to learn an instrument. You just have to find the one you're keen on."

Evelyn Glennie, percussionist