Why Your Child Shouldn’t Take Formal Music Lessons

Why Your Child Shouldn’t Take Formal Music Lessons





If she is feeling stressed, anxious, or even excited, you can find my daughter at the piano, drumming her fingers fluidly across the keys, lost in the notes. For her playing music is a therapy, an outlet, and an extension of herself. For all of these reasons and more, I just told her I don’t think I want her to take piano lessons at college in the fall – I am afraid she will lose her passion and her escape in the trenches of formal and rigorous music lessons.

Research shows clear connections between learning to play music and positive brain development in children. Study after study comes to the same conclusion: children who learn to play musical instruments are more likely to have larger vocabularies, higher reading skills, and even increased abilities to convey emotions verbally. When it comes to children with learning disabilities, learning to play musical instruments also enhances their cognitive functions.

There seems to be endless lists of the benefits of music training for children, including increased memory skills and attention spans. So why don’t I want my daughter to have formal piano lessons while at college? Perhaps it is my rebellious education side, the home school mom in me that says that her piano playing abilities are where they are now because she wanted them to improve, not because she was receiving a grade for her efforts. Or it could be that while the studies show that learning to play music is beneficial, I have not found one study to say that kids need rigorous lessons in order to see the benefits.

My daughter learned to enjoy playing the piano without all of the hype of Suzuki style lessons or formal recitals at age seven. All of my children learned to play the piano from my mother, with back-up from me, in a comfortable and relaxed manner. One son has moved on to focus on the guitar, another plays the harmonica, while the youngest is still most interested in the piano.

I don’t have any doubts about the far-reaching benefits of music lessons for kids. I do have doubts about whether or not the formal lessons will encourage passion or take away personal pursuits.

The drawbacks of lessons:

Cost – The costs can be as much as a vehicle payment each month. Check to see if your school provides lessons or if another friend or family member can help get your children off to a good start with lessons. It takes the “homework feel” out of the lessons when they are with someone your children already know, and it can save your pocketbook.

Time – Driving to lessons, waiting through lessons, and reminding your child to practice repeatedly all add up to hours each week. Make sure your child wants to take on the challenges before your wheels start spinning and your time starts wasting.

Loss of Passion – This is my biggest fear. For more than 8 years my daughter has enjoyed playing the piano, has been an accompanist for her best friend, performed at various public events, and still loves to play. I don’t have to remind her to practice or suggest she give it one more try.

The benefits of lessons and how to apply them:

Children respond positively to music, of that I have no doubt. Just this last year I found a piano teacher who could support and supplement my daughter’s goals. My daughter gets to pick which music she pursues, how many times per month they meet, and learn from an accomplished musician (for an amazingly low financial cost).

Flexibility – Find someone who works with your family’s needs. So many times X amount of lessons are required each week or month, but that can put a strain on your schedule and your budget. Move away from big franchise type music teachers and find an independent teacher. Often these are the people who are willing to tailor the lessons to your child.

Goal Setting – Take some time to set some goals with your child. Learning a new skill is a valuable practice for kids and it can teach them to set goals. It might just be that you want him to have lessons for all of those wonderful benefits, but he doesn’t really want to be there. Make small goals and keep his personal needs in check with your personal goals.

Experts – It is valuable for our children to be exposed to experts in certain fields. When our children take lessons from accomplished musicians they can not only learn valuable music skills, but experience the world through the eyes of the musician. Music lessons taught by experts are also valuable when you don’t have a personal background. My son had a craving to learn the guitar, but I was a piano and percussion woman myself who could offer little to him. He could read music, but still struggled to translate that to the guitar. Our daughter’s piano teacher also teaches my son the guitar, and he has made great strides in one year.

Finding Balance

Learning to play music can translate to cognitive, social, and emotional benefits for our children’s brains. However, in order to turn those beneficial music lessons into a lifelong passion, the music lessons need to be appropriate for your child. The decision is up to my daughter, but I hope that on whatever path she chooses she will still find joy in playing the piano.

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  1. Dustin S says:

    What says you can’t have formal lessons without invoking passion within the student? Some students relish on the challenge, the encouragement, the excitement to play difficult repetoire and the competition itself.

    I absolutely LOVED studying formal piano lessons. I had as formal as they could be – Not too long ago, I studied scales for 3 hours a day for 3 months because it’s freaking fun to rip off scales up and down the piano, crossing your hands and doing the same , and shredding and hammering the keys to let your aggression and anger out.

    I think you should be supportive of your child if they decide to move to music in College. It isn’t the Formality that will lose passion, it is the teacher who will cause them to lose it if they aren’t good teachers.

    So perhaps write a post encouraging parents to find a new TEACHER if they find their children are losing interest.

    Just my 2 cents.

    • Chris Oldenburg says:

      Thanks for your comments. My post actually describes in detail why it is important to have the right teacher for your child when it comes to studying music. My daughter has already decided not to pursue music as anything but a hobby, and instead focus on pre-med studies. She does not want to play music for a grade – she wants to play her music for the sake of playing the piano. We found a teacher to support that. This is what I said in my post about that. “Children respond positively to music, of that I have no doubt. Just this last year I found a piano teacher who could support and supplement my daughter’s goals. My daughter gets to pick which music she pursues, how many times per month they meet, and learn from an accomplished musician (for an amazingly low financial cost).

      Flexibility – Find someone who works with your family’s needs. So many times X amount of lessons are required each week or month, but that can put a strain on your schedule and your budget. Move away from big franchise type music teachers and find an independent teacher. Often these are the people who are willing to tailor the lessons to your child.

      Goal Setting – Take some time to set some goals with your child. Learning a new skill is a valuable practice for kids and it can teach them to set goals. It might just be that you want him to have lessons for all of those wonderful benefits, but he doesn’t really want to be there. Make small goals and keep his personal needs in check with your personal goals.

      Experts – It is valuable for our children to be exposed to experts in certain fields. When our children take lessons from accomplished musicians they can not only learn valuable music skills, but experience the world through the eyes of the musician. Music lessons taught by experts are also valuable when you don’t have a personal background. My son had a craving to learn the guitar, but I was a piano and percussion woman myself who could offer little to him. He could read music, but still struggled to translate that to the guitar. Our daughter’s piano teacher also teaches my son the guitar, and he has made great strides in one year.

      Finding Balance
      Learning to play music can translate to cognitive, social, and emotional benefits for our children’s brains. However, in order to turn those beneficial music lessons into a lifelong passion, the music lessons need to be appropriate for your child. The decision is up to my daughter, but I hope that on whatever path she chooses she will still find joy in playing the piano

      My daughter also practices scales daily and is passionate about playing. The point of the article is that formal lessons don’t create passion. Formal lessons can be a tool, but they definitely are not for everyone!

  2. Dustin S says:

    But by ‘formal lessons’, it seems to me that you are somehow implying ‘boring and emotionally cold’ lessons or ‘too extreme and competitive’ lessons or ‘something that is going to destroy passion’ lessons.

    Or do you simply mean ‘Formal Lessons’ equates to ‘Studying music in a College setting’? Formality is not something that has anything at all to do with musical passion or College settings. That’s like saying don’t have a formal wedding because wearing tuxedos and drinking champagne is going to ruin the mood :)

    So I think your title is very misleading. The article title should say ‘Be careful of going from fun relaxed passion driven lessons to studying it too seriously in a College setting or with a Private Instructor’

    Why would you go into pre-med instead of piano? I have no idea how that makes sense. If she is passionate about HELPING people and curing them of diseases , performing surgery – Then I could make the same argument about pre med – That the many years of labor will destroy her passion for helping people.

    Unless it’s just to make money. But then again, private piano studios that are full time make a good bit of money I might add. $60 + an hour without having to claim all of it is pretty good for me. I will also be creating multiple locations of my studio relatively soon.

    So again, I don’t understand the issue – If you like studying piano, you should like studying piano in College – except I didn’t get my college degree – I just studied privately and now I have a full studio.

    So, there are many many more grey areas here than I think you are providing in the article.

    Or perhaps I am just biased because I am a private piano teacher.

    • Chris Oldenburg says:

      Actually, by formal lessons I am referring to those where the goals and the strategies are ultimately in the hands of the instructor – as in a class setting – but not necessarily. Our kids take music lessons, but the teacher is a mentor and a resource. The kids choose the music, choose how often they practice/attend lessons/compete and other aspects. I guess they are self-motivated enough and encouraged by us to make it work that way. For them the passion is theirs, not instilled or directed by someone else.

      The title is simply a counterintuitive approach to grab attention – looks like it worked. The reasons why my kids are choosing their career paths are too many to illustrate here, and aren’t really relevant to the discussion. Kudos for following your own passions in life.

  3. Dustin S says:

    Then your argument works for everything in the arts.

    ‘Why your child shouldn’t take formal ballet classes’
    ‘Why your child shouldn’t take formal art courses’
    ‘Why your child shouldn’t take formal Web design courses’
    ‘Why your child shouldn’t take interior design classes’

    On and on and on, ad nauseum.

    Why do you think there are so many happy artists and musicians that graduated from good institutions? It’s because they studied and learned more deeply their passion – Was able to reflect upon their passion in a more mature setting – with more mature instructors who have most had actual careers in performance and teaching.

    Your article is basically destroying passion rather than creating it. Your article is suggesting people should not follow their passion.

    Studying piano is not a game nor a hobby to those that do it for their lives. It is extremely fulfilling , rewarding, watching children progress and succeed in the world by giving them one of the most valuable stepping stones for life happiness.

    The career paths that your children absolutely are relevant to this discussion because your argument in fact can be used for anything you choose – where your child is interested or has passion – your argument is turned upside down to imply – that basically you shouldn’t ever attend college, ever, because it’s just going to kill your passion.

    I might write an article on my own blog linking to yours – at least I’ll give you a bit of link juice. :)

  4. Chris Oldenburg says:

    Looks like we are coming to a point in the discussion where you maybe aren’t ready to see another point of view. I did not write this to suggest that no one should take formal music lessons. I wrote this for parents (are you a parent?) to let them know it is OK for their kids to have passions that don’t involve rigorous lessons. Informal is not the equivalent of inept. You mentioned you didn’t finish college. Does that mean that you were unable or just not interested? Formal lessons are not what benefit all kids in all situations (just like college).

  5. Dustin S says:

    It means I went through some serious misfortunate events in my life and now that I have a flourishing studio, that is taking priority.

    I don’t need to be a parent to assess an argument – That is a logical fallacy.

    Do you have to be an economist to decide an economic school of thought is bad?

    Do you have to be a Coach in order to decide a decision made from a referee is poor?

    To suggest that not being a parent invalidates my response is reaching for straws.

    Your argument is based off fear that your childs passion will fall away if they begin studying it more deeply. But that is precisely WHY students enter the arts in college for ‘formal’ studies – because they are passionate about it!

    Again, another bad argument to use is the ‘Looks like we are coming to a point in the discussion where you maybe aren’t ready to see another point of view’

    I did not, nor am I going to – but it would be quite easy for me to have written the same about you. But I am not implying that you are close minded, which you certainly are about me.

    Of course it’s ‘OK’ that every child not enter formal studies. That is pretty common sense and a meaningless point – The point isn’t that every child should do it if they take a few piano lessons – My argument is that if your child is old enough to make the decision for themselves, then you should support it as the parent.

    I’ve never been a fan of tiger moms. They hinder their childrens ability to choose for themselves and try to force their children to live through their own ideas and opinions, rather than the ideas of the person who is actually having them – Your child.

  6. Dustin S says:

    So i stop cluttering up your blog with comments, I’ll simply put my link up here:

    http://prodigypianostudios.com/eclecticpianoexperience/?p=43

    It’s just my way of thoroughly countering some of your claims. With passion I might add. ;)

    • Allie says:

      Your paragraph on ‘flexibility’ is somewhat insensitive to piano teachers.

      While you might think of piano lessons for your child as just a hobby, it is a BUSINESS for piano teachers. How can they operate successfully when they are expected to be flexible with regard to scheduling lessons? If your child takes lessons only every other week, who will take that time slot on the alternating weeks? Probably no one, thus the teacher loses income.

      I also don’t understand what you mean by ‘big franchise type music teachers’. Who are they? Most teachers are independent piano teachers. Most have policies that they expect their students to follow. Most expect students to have lessons weekly and to pay tuition on time. Most independent teachers are not so casual about piano lessons as you seem to present in that paragraph.

  7. Whitfit says:

    I would argue that not having formal lessons in music is limiting. There are very few accomplished musicians that did not take lessons. If your child is content to be a middling pianist (and frankly, if she is reaching college age without formal lessons, then that is almost certainly the case), then formal lessons are not necessary. If the point of it is to have fun, well, then who am I to argue?

    For someone to have a career as a musician (rock stars excepted) you pretty much have to have a good formal grounding and passion. Very few grandparents/aunts/uncles etc… can provide that.

    Your choice (and your child’s is valid). It just doesn’t end up on stage in a concert hall. Which is fine, but limiting.

  8. herb says:

    Some well-thought points made here.

    I agree. Not fair to the teacher to have holes in their schedule.

    It’s also not fair to the student who will fail to get consistent weekly instruction.

    I’ve found that the busier the teacher, the kinder, more experienced they tend to be. That’s why they are busy. They also tend to understand the value of consistency in meeting with the student (they have the best interest of the student in mind).

    Most teachers I know are not making much at $60/hr. after their studio expenses, licenses, insurance, etc. Plus, many cannot teach full time. Most people (like me) only want lessons after work or school 3-7 p.m. M-F or Sat. Not such a great work schedule.

    In regards to low cost lessons, I’ve found that you get what you pay for.

  9. Well, obviously Ms. Oldenburg dusted off my previous submission. Why, I don’t know. Her screaming rage at piano teachers is not to be taken seriously.

    There are more parents who disrespect our profession than can be imagined. And we don’t get rich putting up with the minute cancellations; loss of music that ended up in Texas; multiple shifts of lesson times that have to do with Soccer, Gymnastics, Tap Dancing, Hip Hop, Tennis, Swimming and the rest.

    I suggest you read and not censor:
    http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/16/taking-piano-lessons-skimming-the-surface-or-getting-deeply-involved/

  10. Kylie says:

    I understand that you are afraid private lessons sometimes take the passion out of kids. And i understand the homeschooling attitude of “let the child self direct their learning into areas they are interested in and they will be motivated and develop in the things they are good at.” I agree with that, in a way.

    But I am a piano teacher, and I find your arguments about flexibility and ‘the child choosing the music they will study’ frustrating.
    I write this in the ‘we’ format, and i am speaking for good quality private piano teachers.

    As teachers we know what a student needs to learn to be a good pianist, we have their best interest in mind, and we try to be as flexible as possible within reason. You make it sound like we’re putting our interests first by being ‘unflexible’ with scheduling, and choosing music FOR the student, etc.

    We know that a student needs consistency in their lessons – coming every week if possible, in order to progress best.

    We know how best to teach them to read music so they can learn songs on their own later. We know how best to teach technique so they don’t end up with wrist pain or other injury later on. Just as examples.

    We know that it is best to learn a variety of songs – we know what songs will teach what skills and we choose music to suit the student’s skill level and interests.
    As the student gets older, they develop stronger interests in certain genres and they get more say in what they play.
    Formal piano lessons taught well should give a child/student the best chance at developing skills necessary to learn music on their own later on…whether they want to learn it for pleasure, or do a degree or become a piano teacher.

    If your daughter went to ‘formal piano lessons’ as you call them, with a private studio teacher, the teacher would most likely help improve her technique and skills and give her plenty of say in what repertoire she would play. We are not out to control anyone. We are after the best for the student. And we try our very best to invoke and keep passion in our students. I am a piano teacher because i love music and playing piano, of course i want to transfer that passion to my students.

    If you think performing in front of an audience is a passion killer for your child or studying for music exams is a passion killer, you can opt out of those. But please don’t talk down private piano teachers as a whole, especially if you haven’t had much experience with them, or you’ve had a couple of bad experiences.

  11. Kylie says:

    In fact, it’s not so much what you said, but what could be read through your words by others, that i am frustrated by. You make vaguely fair indiscriminate points that could be interpreted so badly by the average mum thinking about enrolling her child in piano lessons. Maybe you wouldn’t be getting negative comments if your article title better conveyed the content. I don’t mean to be harsh or say you’re totally wrong, i just don’t like the way you portrayed us to the general public. Just to clarify.

  12. Chris Oldenburg says:

    First of all, thank you to all of you who took the time to comment on this article. It shows that you have as much dedication to and conviction for teaching music as I do for parenting. While we are coming at this from two separate vantage points, there are some similarities in our opinions.

    Music offers unending benefits, and learning to play music only enhances those benefits.

    Exposing our children to experts in music is a great way to broaden their definitions of and experiences with all types of music.

    Music teachers (like all teachers) can be amazing partners for the healthy development of kids.

    My article is intended to help parents remember that it is important for our children to have goals, but there is more than one way to reach them. I want my kids to lead balanced lives in a world where children are pulled in extreme directions. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day for parents to raise children who attend everything at maximum levels. Creating opportunities for balance means teaching our kids how to responsibly manage their time and their efforts while they pursue their interests and their passions.

    Again – thanks for the comments – it has been an interesting discussion!

  13. Denise G says:

    It seems to me, afer just reading your article, that indeed your daughter is taking ‘formal lessons’ even though from a friend. This makes the rest of the reading redundant.
    My ‘take’ on the article.

    • Chris Oldenburg says:

      The lessons my daughter takes aren’t from a friend. They are from a woman who is a professional musician. The lessons aren’t formal – they are student led. My daughter chooses if and when she wants lessons and to practice, and which pieces of music she wants to play. Formal lessons are teacher directed, often require weekly lessons, and the goals are set by the instructor and/or parents.

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