Music Survival Guides for Kids, Parents — And Teachers, Too

By Amy Nathan

I became a “music mom” courtesy of Fred Rogers. By chance, we recorded a week’s worth of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood episodes on music when my older son was about fifteen months old. He liked all the shows, but his favorite was on the Empire Brass Quintet. He insisted on watching that episode over and over until he memorized all the dialogue.

Not being musicians ourselves—and having had less than successful experiences studying music as children—my husband and I didn’t know how best to follow up on our son’s musical interest. We made a lot of mistakes, including one that almost ended our music-parenting journey when we signed up our son as a toddler for formal instruction when he was way too shy to benefit. Plus, the instruction was for an instrument he wasn’t interested in: violin. I feared I had ruined his interest in music forever. Not so. He remained enthusiastic about music, just not those violin lessons.

Thus began the long process of learning to do a better of job of being music parents, asking for advice from other parents and teachers, finding music-and-movement workshops for the toddler years, going to child-friendly concerts, waiting on formal instruction until he was ready to start on piano, and then finally the big day arrived when he was old enough at last to play the instrument he fell in love with thanks to Mr. Rogers: trumpet.

That was just the beginning, however. Learning how to be helpful music parents for both of our musical sons was a continuing learning process, picking up a good tip here, a useful suggestion there, but always feeling that there were new challenges coming up beyond the horizon that none of us knew about but would soon have to figure out how to handle.

How much better if there had been a guide book to help musical kids. So I set out to write such a book: The Young Musician’s Survival Guide, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2000, and then issued in a greatly expanded Second Edition in 2008.

For that book for kids, I called on dozens of professional musicians to remember back to when they were kids and didn’t always want to practice, had performance jitters, and faced other hassles that can frustrate even the most enthusiastic music student. I asked these pros to share the strategies they had used as youngsters to keep going despite the challenges. I compiled their anecdotes and suggestions in The Young Musician’s Survival Guide.

Gradually, I heard from parents that they wanted a guide book, too—a book that would help them walk the “music-parenting tightrope” so they could figure out how to be helpful without being overbearing, how to encourage excellence without getting bogged down in fruitless battles of will. Four years ago, I set out to write such a book for parents: The Music Parents’ Survival Guide.

By then, both of my musical sons were grown. The older son had become a composer; the younger one was in a PhD program in political science, playing his saxophone only now and then. Having learned that parenting is a dynamic, trial-and-error, changing process, with no one “right” way to go about doing things, I assembled a large panel of advisors who could offer a range of suggestions for the various stages of music-parenting: from first mommy-and-me workshops through adolescent doldrums and on to the college and conservatory application process and beyond. These advisors included more than 150 “veteran” music parents from music schools and programs around the country, dozens of music educators, and more than forty professional musicians.

I pulled together the contributions from all these advisors in The Music Parents’ Survival Guide: A Parent-to-Parent Conversation, which came out this spring. Among the book’s advisors who share their experiences, suggestions, and lessons-learned are the parents of several well-known musicians, including the mother of Joshua Bell, the jazz pianist father of Wynton Marsalis, the musician parents of Alisa Weilerstein, Ranaan Meyer’s piano-teacher mom, and also the parents of Anne Akiko Meyers.

Judging from the experiences of the contributors to the music parenting book, it appears that there is indeed no one best way to go about raising musically interested and musically skilled youngsters. The parenting strategies described in the book range from tight oversight to laissez-faire. Often parents changed their methods along the way, with some tightening up and others loosening up, depending on the changing needs and experiences of their children. The book offers an array of possibilities that other parents can consider as they craft their own way of being helpful to their musical kids.

I hope that both books can be useful to music teachers, too, in working with students and also in helping parents find their role.  Of course, many of the suggestions in both books are ones that a good music teacher would already be sharing with students and parents. But it can be helpful when well-known musicians and their parents give these ideas an extra dose of authority. For example, music teachers tell students all the time to go slow or work on pieces bit by bit. That advice can gain solid support when a student reads in The Young Musician’s Survival Guide how pianist André Watts finally learned to do that, in order to conquer what he calls “the monster under the bed.” That’s his name for the part of a piece that keeps tripping him up. “You can’t get by him because the guy’s always there,” says Mr. Watts in the book.

“He may not come out all the time, but there’s always a danger he might come out when you play the piece. You want to get rid of him. Separate that section from the rest of the piece. Mull it over.” He then describes several techniques to figure out why that section is causing so much trouble and strategies to banish the monster.

Similarly, teachers may suggest that parents back off or not place so much pressure on a student, but it might make more of an impact if they read the frank account from Shirley Bell on how she learned to do this with her violinist son, Joshua Bell, how she came to learn to “not be too intrusive. It’s not easy,” she says in The Music Parents’ Survival Guide. “It was important for me to recognize how much my personal needs were being met by my child’s gifts and successes.” As she notes, “I had to learn to listen—and preach less. . .Avoid power struggles—not an easy task.”

One goal I had in writing The Music Parents’ Survival Guide was the hope that it might serve as a catalyst for starting parent-to-parent discussions at music schools and programs around the country—or on the comment pages of blogs like this—with parents and teachers sharing ideas with each other as the parent and teacher advisors in the book have done, describing strategies that helped kids get into the practice habit, banish performance jitters, or find ways to keep music in their lives if they decide not to pursue a musical career. I hope these discussions can help smooth the way for young musicians and their families.

Below are links that tell more about these books, and the musicians, parents, and educators who contribute advice in their pages.

Amy Nathan is an award-winning author of several books on music, including her newest book from  Oxford University Press: THE MUSIC PARENTS’ SURVIVAL GUIDE. A “music mom” herself (her older son is  composer Eric Nathan), the advice in this book doesn’t come from her but from a large advice panel made up of dozens of music educators, more than forty professional musicians, and more than 150 veteran music parents, including the parents of such well-known musicians as Joshua Bell, Alisa Weilerstein, Wynton Marsalis, Anne Akiko Meyers, and Ranaan Meyer.  Her earlier book for kids, THE YOUNG MUSICIANS’ SURVIVAL GUIDE, also from Oxford, offers tips from dozens of professional musicians who remember back to when they were kids and describe how they handled the challenges faced by a young music student. A Harvard graduate with masters degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Columbia’s Teachers College, she has written other books for young people on such topics as music, dance, women’s history, and civil rights. 

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