Helping Your Kids Succeed in Music

Professional musicians Kurt Bestor, Peter Breinholt, and Jessie Clark Funk sit down to share their thoughts.

Kurt’s Bestor:

1. Music NOT a luxury, but a necessity. “Humanities makes us human!” In my opinion EVERY kid should have a background in the arts and music.

2. How do get kids to “stick with” music. (For me, it was required. Otherwise – I might have quit piano lessons.) Don’t ASK little Johnny or Suzie if they’d like to quit.

3. Kids who are active in music score in top 10% of students on tests and grades. Chicken or egg? I think there’s a correlation

4. Kids who sing together don’t want to fight each other. Learning to play music with others teaches incredible life skills. Practicing music every day teaches a valuable life lesson in “sticking with a task,” & “Working toward a goal.” Performing gives confidence in standing in front of an audience.

Peter Breinholt:
I think “Success” can be measured in THESE terms which are much more universal than being a recognized professional musician.

Peter Breinholt:

My brother and I are 16-months apart and we both took piano lessons as kids. He was the technical son and I was the intuitive son . . . in everything. He thrived in the structured piano lesson environment, and I floundered. My Mom caught it, but she also noticed I played the piano way more often than my brother. But I wasn’t practicing. I was just playing around. I would pick out Beatles songs by ear and memorize them, and then I started writing my own. Eventually she could tell from the other room who was playing the piano, because we had such different styles. If it was a complex, aggressive, and methodical it was John. If it was natural, feeling and emotive, it was Pete. Now before you all protest, I’m not saying you can’t get both in the same kid (nod to Kurt). But even my piano teacher finally said I was getting nowhere with lessons, but surprising him each week with my own stuff . My parents finally decided there’s was more than one way to skin a cat and let me quit. But not before buying me little 4-track recorder on which I could do multi-track recordings of my creations. My Dad also pulled out his guitar from the college days and let me figure it out. And then a drum set. Family legend has it that I didn’t emerge from the basement for four years 🙂 I loved it.

So were my parent right to let me quit? Wouldn’t I be much better off as a musician today (and a human being) had I stuck with it? At best I would have known some theory (but likely not much) and at worst I may have lost interest in all of it. Who knows? But today I’m 5% technical and 95% intuitive when it comes to most things in my life, including music, which makes me a punk. Or a folksinger. I like it that way for reasons that don’t apply to this conversation, but there are also things I wish I could do musically that I can’t. My point is, the HOW sometimes involves nuance from parents since children are wired differently. That, I know.

Today, my 11-year-old son doesn’t want to play the piano but my wife feels strongly that he should. He throws tantrums, has torn up a few books, and is making achingly slow progress. Becca feels that it’s good for him to sit and stare and focus and practice, even if he doesn’t learn much. I agree with her intellectually, but deep down there’s that part of me that wants to let him do it the way I did. I guess I lean to the unto-thine-own-self-be-true side of this debate. What’s the other saying? “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a flame to be ignited”.

Our solution is that my son plays two instruments. One Becca’s way and the other my way. He takes piano lessons (which is roughly the equivalent of having him do chores on the farm) and he plays ukulele because he likes it. And because I teach him Coldplay songs on it. But frankly, we don’t know what we’re doing as parents. It’s all a social experiment.

Jessie Clark Funk:

“Success” needs to be defined by the child and the parent as a team. I see so many parents pushing and prodding their kids to perform that the child ends up quitting as soon as they have a choice and they also hold resentment toward their parents. So, I think the hard part is finding a balance and making sure there is a realistic goal that the child AND the parent can set together.
For example- Mrs. Smith might desperately want Susie to be a concert violinist and Susie enjoys playing but it’s not her whole world. Mrs. Smith wants her to practice for two hours a day but with that kind of schedule Susie will burn out faster than a candle in the rain. Setting realistic goals is so important for success- no matter what your definition of success is…symphony player or holiday family entertainment.

One other point that helped me immensely and has been effective with a lot of the kids I’ve taught over the years…. Inspire them! If you are having a really hard time motivating your child to work at their music- find ways to inspire them! Take them to music shows/festivals, buy concert DVDs of their favorite performers (whether their favorite performers play the same music you want them to play or not). Introduce them to great musicians in your community or sign them up for lessons with someone who they will respect and have fun with- while learning music! Bottom line- If your kids don’t listen to you, put them in front of great people who they will listen to and who will inspire them!

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