Sunday, September 22, 2013

Music Lessons Are Pointless?

I just ran across an article in the New Republic arguing that it is pointless to send your children to music lessons. You just know I'm going to be all over that one! But first, read the article:

His clinching argument against music lessons comes in this paragraph:
As for the enduring value of music lessons, I propose an even simpler test. Go on Facebook and ask your friends to chime in if, when they were children, they took five years or more of a classical instrument. Then ask all the respondents when they last played their instrument. I tried a version of this at a dinner party recently. There were about ten adults present; I was the only one who had not played an instrument for many years as a child. All of them confessed that they never played their instrument. Whatever it was—violin, piano, saxophone—they had abandoned it. The instrument sat lonely in a closet somewhere, or in the attic of their childhood home. Or their parents off-loaded it in a tag sale years ago.
There is a kind of immediate plausibility about this argument: taking music lessons takes up an awful lot of time and money when you are a kid and the "utility" of this may indeed be questionable. The thing is that you don't know that. I'm not a parent, but I imagine that part of being one is trying to help your child discover their abilities and talents. Perhaps they will show a real aptitude for something, but perhaps they won't. In which case, you need to try out a few things. Do you need five years of music lessons? Probably not, unless you really enjoy them. But I think that you might owe your child the opportunity to take a year of lessons, just to see if it takes. Some ballet might be good too. Some sports. Some instruction in drawing and painting. If you don't try, you won't know. Is this a useful endeavor? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but you don't know until you try. I can pretty well agree with this part of the article:
Now it is clearly the case that if nobody studied ballet or violin, we would have no professional orchestras or ballet companies. That would be a great loss. But for such art forms to persist, it is only necessary that the most eager and gifted students persist in their studies. I’m all for lots of children trying classical music or dance, but we no more need millions of fourth-year violin students than we need millions of fourth-year origami students.
Music lessons are the best way of finding those eager and gifted students.

But I have another, more subtle, counter argument. I recently was involved in a business deal with someone I knew only slightly. I had to question a particular exchange rate that was part of the deal and when I did so, the individual reacted so strongly that I had the sense that he could bear absolutely no disagreement or even different opinion. A classic narcissist if not an actual sociopath. Some psychologists think that one in every twenty-seven people is a sociopath. Here is one non-technical definition:
Probably the most widely recognized personality disorder. A sociopath is often well liked because of their charm and high charisma, but they do not usually care about other people. They think mainly of themselves and often blame others for the things that they do. They have a complete disregard for rules and lie constantly.
What is the connection with music lessons? As I said, it is subtle. As someone who taught private lessons for many years, I recognize that one of the real problems is self-confidence. Some people do not succeed simply because they don't believe they can. So building self-confidence is important. But the problem of being simply too self-centered, over-confident and unable to recognize one's own weaknesses is not actually a problem! Why is that? Well, I like to think that we have Bach to thank. I had a student who had a somewhat dissociated personality. Not a sociopath, but not one that easily related to others. He was playing a pretty substantial piece by Bach. In the lesson, after he played it through, instead of commenting, I just asked him to play it again. Then again and again. Each time it was different because he started listening to himself more and more. Playing Bach is like holding a mirror up to yourself: it is very demanding music and it almost forces you to come to terms with it. It takes you outside yourself. I suspect very, very few sociopaths take many music lessons. It is just too damaging to their egos.

If you have a mild tendency towards being a narcissist or sociopath, I suspect music lessons might be an antidote. This is just my crazy theory, but since I have started spending a lot more time in the business world, I notice more and more people I would characterize as narcissistic or sociopathic. In the music world, the only people like that I noticed were record company executives.


Now some Bach:

UPDATE: I notice that Paul Berman has also written a rebuttal to the article by Mark Oppenheimer.


Rickard Dahl said...

I agree with you that it's probably best to let children get introduced to lots of different things to see what they like. Maybe they will find something they really enjoy and want to do. Still when I get kids sometime in the future I think I will prioritize music education. Piano would probably be most important considering how versatile it is but other instruments could work too.
I've read Paul Berman's response and Mark Oppenheimer's response to the response. Mark noted that many people were enraged because of him comparing a violin and ukele. Just because an instrument is typically used in popular or folk music doesn't mean it can't be hard, there is probably classical music written for even the most unusual instrument and besides some pieces can be played on many different instruments. I've seen transcriptions of J.S. Bach's music for many different instruments, for instance ,
and since I've mentioned Ukele:

And here's a nice comment from the comment section of Paul Berman's article:
"I posted this in the other article but it is relevant here too:

Becoming a professional musician is certainly not the only desirable outcome. I am an amateur violinist. Every time I move to a new city, I can find new friends by joining an amateur orchestra or looking people up in the catalogue of the ACMP, now called the Chamber Music Network. Whenever I travel, I can meet people through the ACMP as well (in Paris, I played piano trios and in Tokyo I played string quartets and string quintets. If I'd been a cellist, they could have lent me a cello!). I can go to music camp and get coached on hard pieces and perform them in front of other amateurs. It's *FUN*. When you have a pick-up group, there's no pressure to get the music perfectly - you just sit down and do your best, and laugh if you have to stop and go back to letter H. And you can talk and joke between movements, and have supper or tea, and play some more. Playing great music even at an amateur level is a rich experience - emotionally and intellectually. I was a kid who had to be forced, and so are my kids. I don't expect them to be professionals - I just want them to get good enough to play with other people. If it helps them in school, that's great - but mostly I just want them to have some wonderful social experiences later in life.

Pianists who haven't touched the piano in years, do you realize that Brahms wrote piano four-hands versions of all his chamber works and all his symphonies? Do you realize how much sheet music you can get for free on ?? Dust off your instruments and find someone to play with. For FUN."

While I don't have any real experience with public performance of music I think he makes a great point about having fun. Playing music should be about having enjoyment and fun and there is lots in classical music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Lots of great points there! The bit about the joys of amateur music-making is really important. I have toured in Europe with a flute-player and it was a wonderful experience because of all the people we met. We had almost no time to do touristy things like visit museums and cathedrals, but we met people every night. People who wanted to talk to us, to buy us drinks, to invite us to lunch or dinner.

Music is an important bridge between people. Making music with other people is a rare and important experience that I think is fundamentally elevating. It connects you in ways that nothing else really does.

I wonder that anyone would call it "pointless".

Jr. Williams said...

Is 13-14 too old to start piano lessons?
irish dancing classes

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, not at all! But it depends on your goals. If the aim is to become the greatest pianist of your generation, then starting much younger is probably a good idea. But really, if your aim is simply to enjoy music by playing it, you can start at any age.