Graduating from one to school to the next is both an exciting and crazy time, to say the least. The changes that are occurring biologically, socially, and academically in children are enough to make parents’ heads spin. With a change in school comes a lot of unanswered questions: What will the schedule be like? Will there be a ton of homework? What classes are my child’s friends taking? How do I set up my child to do well academically?
Middle school years, especially, are a time of amazing growth — music can (and should) play a huge part in this. Quite often, however, music falls by the wayside when students graduate from elementary school to attend middle school — and again when students graduate middle school to high school.
During this change in buildings, parents may become very worried about increased academic load. Extra-curricular activities may begin to increase and pull students in all directions, as well. As a result, families often choose an “addition by subtraction” approach and drop instrumental music, thinking the time commitment will be too large, both in school and at home.
Parents of students graduating to middle school must keep in mind that their child has had only a “glimpse” of musical instrument instruction in elementary school. Unless instrumental music instruction is five days a week, children probably have less than 20 hours of contact time with their teacher all year, and perhaps only a tiny amount of time playing in an ensemble — one of the best parts of playing an instrument! It’s impossible to make an educated decision about quitting without more time on task with the instrument. It’s also not realistic to think that one can skip a year of instrumental music and go back later once the schedule settles down — most often, there is no going back once you quit.
In middle school, peer pressure can begin to play a role in whether a child sticks with an instrument. However, schools that have created great cultures of music making from grades 4-8 run into far fewer problems with this type of pressure and student retention than other schools. Creating this culture is a tricky process that involves all stakeholders in the school system (including parents) valuing music as a core part of the curriculum. Large successful programs have less of a negative stigma attached to them than ones in need of improvement, and as a result, more students want to be a part of it.
The following are 4 ways to ensure children stick with their music instruction when graduating to another school:
- Create a musical environment at home. Talent can be increased and is not inherent, and musical children are raised, not born. Exposing children (and the family) to different music — especially beautiful sounds created by the instrument they are studying — is incredibly important. Mindful listening is very different from the concept of “musical wallpaper”, where music is simply in the background while we wash dishes or do homework. When is the last time you sat down with the primary goal of listening to music without doing anything else? Mindful listening is a unique and powerful experience. Additionally, if parents have always wanted to play a musical instrument, they should allow their child to see them playing and expressing their love for music. The more music is part of home life, the better the chance is that it will continue in school.
- Be ready for the end of the honeymoon period. Most children begin playing an instrument with a lot of excitement. Parents often see this excitement and think their child loves their instrument, but it may be a little too early for that. If the child does not know how to get better in a systematic fashion and the teacher and family fails to help develop a practice routine at home, the child’s interest will wane. Therefore, parents should not take the child’s interest for granted. They should ensure that practice occurs most days and that goals are clearly set as far as performance objectives are concerned, not time practicing. There will certainly be a dip in interest if the child takes the summer off playing and sounds not-so-great come fall, but that does not mean they should discontinue their studies in school.
- Let your child switch instruments. As long as children don’t switch an instrument every few months, it’s okay for them to switch. For instance, it’s good for a child to start on piano or violin and then move on to another instrument later if they have the desire to do so. Many school directors may recommend a change of instrument in order to vary instrumentation; most changes are extremely beneficial for the student. It’s better for parents to compromise on switching than to be okay with their child quitting. Besides, many kids switch instruments only to return to the original one later with renewed passion and appreciation.
- Don’t make it an option to quit. It’s as simple as that — don’t make it an option. I have worked with young students most of my life, and I will tell you that many middle school age students need to succeed despite themselves. If you give children the opportunity to opt out of something, many times they will — especially if it is something that requires persistent and diligent work (it’s also my experience that 7th grade tends to be the worst in this regard). Music is a core subject that encourages “right-brain” thinking and may be the difference between a child who gets ahead and one who doesn’t in this world. Parents should never deny their child the subject that develops their ability to find professional success and personal fulfillment later just because they are having a short-term disenchantment with the craft for reasons even unbeknownst to them. Many people have criticized me for asking parents to “force” their children to play an instrument, as if it some malicious act. We insist our children stick with many subjects in school, don’t we? Music should be one of them — at least through 8th grade. I’ve spoken with way more remorseful adults whose parents allowed them to quit than ones who are mad that their parents “forced” them to play through middle school.
It’s understandable that parents may be worried about the increased homework and high stakes testing that their child will be subject to at the next school level. Never mind the fact that students involved in instrumental music score better on tests; our school system should not sacrifice music for the sake of high-stakes standardized tests, and neither should parents. Without instrumental music education as part of their day, children will be missing out on the opportunity to have their creativity nurtured and see their chances of growing up to be an innovative thinker severely diminished.
Parents and children simply do not have enough time with their craft to make an informed decision about discontinuing instrumental music study after only 1 or 2 years. It is only after a rich middle school experience of multiple days a week of instruction, ensemble playing and increased performing opportunities that a decision should be made about staying with music longer. In a world where creative thinking is necessary in order to succeed, families would be wise to continue exploring instrumental music education and the wonderful benefits that come with it for their entire school life, if not beyond.