Once upon a time things were different – at least in the area of music education and music enrichment for children. Back in the day, a music education for a young person was a very serious matter and the student was expected to take it seriously. Teachers would interview students to make sure that they were worthy of the teacher’s valuable time. A month or more would be spent just learning how to approach the instrument (you hold the bow like this, you hold your hands like this at the piano, you hold your horn like this). Forget learning any songs at first. Scales were the thing and eventually sight reading of course. Note values (duration and pitch) were sometimes tenaciously drilled before the child was ever allowed to touch the instrument. Improvisation was strictly off limits until the child was old enough to vote. Obviously, this was before Shin’ichi Suzuki came on the scene.

I encountered this modus operandi just recently. The child wanted to play music but the instructor (actually more of an accomplished musician than a teacher) refused to let the child play anything for months until all of the “T’s” were crossed and “I’s” dotted. I was saddened because the child was frustrated and loosing interest. I may be taken to task for this but I think 19th century educational methods don’t work well in the 21st century and candidly, this ponderous and somewhat aristocratic approach to teaching is becoming rare today. In a world where bright shiny objects rule and there is a limitless palet of entertainments and diversions to capture the attention of young people, music educators need to “kick it up a notch” as one chief used to say. The greatest concern is not that a potential prodigy might develop a bad habit somewhere along the line that will have to be arduously extricated from their playing. The greater tragedy would be that the 300 other students who will never play Carnegie Hall or go to Julliard might get bored and quit music when music has so much to offer to every young boy and girl.

Probably the greatest change that we have seen in music education for children is the age where instruction actually begins. Not so long very ago a teacher would not consider a music student until they could read well. Eight or nine was a very typical age to begin learning music. Also, the physical limitations of the instrument were often cited as a factor. How is a child supposed to play piano if his or her hand can’t span a decent arpeggio? Funny, that didn’t seem to slow down Wolfgang Mozart who wrote his first piece of music at the age of four. This all changed when the aforementioned Mr. Shin’chi Suzuki came along with his famous Suzuki method in the middle of the twentieth century. Mr Suzuki believed that all people had the capacity to learn music from their environment just like they learn their native language. He believed that since young children could master their own language, no matter how difficult, at a very early age then they could also become highly competent at music and begin their musical journey at a very early age also if the music was presented to them in a natural and organic fashion. Today, teachers who are trained in the Suzuki method begin with students as early as four and sometimes three. Suzuki also believed that the goal of a musical education was not to create a few great musicians but rather to create a generation of people with a sense of beauty and nobility. Sometimes I wonder, wistfully, what this world would be like if all children learned to play and appreciate music.

In the next post we will learn that a child’s musical journey can begin even earlier, actually from infancy, if parents are willing to do a few very simple things.