Forced Musicianship: Is it a Problem?

By Sam Momeni

Walk past the hall of any band room and you’ll hear the resonant sound of children learning one of the most ancient cultural engagements commonly called music. Each and every one of those children expresses and develops their sense of music through a different—yet still valid—form. Some may get their first exposure to playing by strumming and plucking the nylon, or perhaps steel, strings of a guitar. Others may learn by the slightly more daunting and foreign action of bowing a violin. A few may even grow apathetic to strings, opting for something like a wind or brass instrument. Few children, however, put forth any thought as to why they play their respective instruments. To most, “it just kind of happened.” Even in the case when kids develop a soulful calling to play an instrument via inspiration from their favorite music virtuoso (think the likes of Taylor Swift or Nick Jonas), we find that actual interest in the instrument diminishes and tapers, but there remains a compelling force keeping them playing: their parents.

One of the most quintessential features of the average “busy child’s” life is being whisked away in a family-sized SUV each Monday afternoon to learn the abstract and surreal concepts of scales and harmonies on a piano. To the children, this grows to be a bit a cyclical occurrence, either eager to learn something new each time or dreading the experience as a whole. As for the parents, most have long held the conviction that what they’re doing is beneficial to their child’s cognitive and socio-emotional development, but whether or not that is pretext is worth examining in an uber-competitive urban culture, where kids and teens alike are laden with expectations. Whether it’s to sell the impression of extraordinary “commitment” in a child to a college, outperform other neighborhood peers, or simply fulfill their own childhood regret of not playing an instrument, parents forcing their children to learn and continue playing has been both well-known and well-documented. With a majority of kids in a self-conducted open poll reporting feeling “pressured” or “expected” to play (and play well), it’s obvious that the coercion of music can be quite damaging.

“Music should never be something a child is ‘forced’ to do in the first place,” said Dr. Gabriela Cohen, chair of the First Music Department at the Levine School of Music in D.C. “If there is nothing rewarding about it for the child, then it becomes unpleasant for the parent and the child.”

This is even further exemplified in the scenario of high-stakes competitions and recitals. The Director for Psychology in Schools and Education from the American Psychological Association (APA), Dr. Rena Subtonik, said: “that level of practice can be deadly.” Deadly and stressful indeed, but also counterintuitive. By doing this, parents will often deter their children from playing or having a passion for music once they are no longer required to play. The distaste they will often hold paradoxically defeats the purpose behind enrolling the child in the first place—making it a waste of time, resources, and ultimately money.

The move to force children to play instruments or learn music is evidently one that can wind up being quite wasteful and hurtful, but that doesn’t mean that exposure to music from a young age is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it has been proven to be quite a good thing in many cases. When asked about the benefits of early-age exposure to music, Dr. Cohen said “research has shown that exposing music to children at a young age is beneficial in a variety of ways, including memory, cognitive development, learning skills, and expressive abilities, in addition to helping them to develop social skills and build their confidence.” The scope of skills developed isn’t just limited to neurological and psychological development. “It also is beneficial in terms of the crucial musical skills that a student more easily absorbs at a young age (keeping a steady beat, singing in tune, moving expressively), that are much harder to learn at an older age,” said Dr. Cohen.

It is also important to acknowledge the varying degrees of readiness and inclination a child can have towards playing an instrument. Kristi Licari, who teaches band at Westland Middle School, generally notices her students enjoy playing their instruments: “As with any class or activity, there are always favorite and least favorite aspects.” That exact understanding is vital in uncovering why certain children lose or don’t have interest. As general education moves away from its past inflexibility and now promotes individualized learning, music education has the opportunity to mirror that change. This way, it feels much less a burden, and music education becomes much more to the feel of something that would typically invoke vigor or interest in a child from an early age (not to say that it already can’t for some).

Of course, this doesn’t justify any added stress on children and teens to adhere to or excel at music. “Parental pressure is only useful in initial stages of practice to play an instrument,” Dr. Subtonik said. In these scenarios, playing music—a typically pleasing activity—grows to be one that is compounded with the rest of the stresses in a child’s life. What was once a release from a sometimes meek and stressful reality for kids become a contributor towards that irritating reality, and music grows to be nothing more than a burden or task simply put forth just to get over with.

Nevertheless, with its beneficial effects undeniable, but its potential for exploitation elevated, music education stands in a unique and challenging situation. While there’s nothing wrong with raising a child piano prodigy, the realization that not every child will be that is one that needs to be made. Music and music education is something that stops at no borders and discriminates against no one. It has proven itself to be one of the purest and honest forms of expression, meaning if it’s forced on generations to come, a great sense of its original value is lost. The adoption of a much more pragmatic and realistic ideology is what seems to most effectively foster a love for music—rather than the forcing of it.

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