Many Singaporean parents believe in music education. As such, they sign their children up for music lessons from as young as two. And this isn’t surprising given the myriad of benefits of learning music. However, many parents also find that over time, the musical instrument that they spent a fortune on becomes a white elephant. Why does this happen? How do we motivate children to learn music and not give up halfway?
Let’s look at this from a local perspective. No prizes for guessing, one of the most, if not the most popular musical instrument that parents insist their children learn is, the piano. And the deal breaker for children seems to be when they reach Grade 5. This is when many drop out. Why?
These are the most common reasons cited by Singaporean parents and music students:
- Students loathe practicing
- Students are not musically inclined
- Students hate teacher
- Students have too many things on their plate
In a nutshell, these reasons, although seemingly superficial, do carry a grain of truth to why students give up learning music.
However, there are other important factors that we often tend to overlook.
We spoke to Mac and Elaine, the principal and vice-principal of Macs Music School, and they shared 3 important factors to consider to motivate children to learn music.
1. What’s the purpose?
Purpose and meaning are of paramount importance to motivate children to learn music. Mac and Elaine explain that the situation is such:
Students come in for classes every week, they are given a piece, they learn the technical aspects, they practice, they improve and they hit targets.
Often, students have no avenue of performance and don’t feel any real sense of accomplishment.
The pieces always get more difficult and eventually they sit for the examination. They pass the examination without even being fully prepared for it.
Examinations help to assess children’s skills.
It’s like, taking a bio examination. Scoring 55 marks doesn’t really bring you anywhere.
But what happens after that? How do we continue to motivate children to learn music?
Over time, students find no meaning in learning and music loses its essence as a communicative tool. This is the main reason they stop.
Key term – music is a communicative tool.
When learning music, it is not only about the examination. Mac and Elaine stress the importance of always ensuring that children enjoy playing music.
There’s more to learning music than the technical aspects and improving technique and form. Even professional musicians don’t challenge themselves with more difficult pieces every week. At every level, there’s something for us to enjoy along with improving.
We need to provide the platform for them so that music becomes a tool of performance. Then they will continue learning.
Performance opens the windows for children to see music as a form of expression and communication. This has far greater meaning and purpose than aceing examinations. This is the best way to motivate children to learn music.
For example, in Mac’s Music School, students have a formal recital twice a year. Music Fiesta provides all students with the opportunity to perform. The younger ones play as a group and students who are at higher levels get to perform solos.
In addition, there are annual concerts and events like Studio Spotlight that gives the limelight to students who are progressing well and outshining their peers. This too helps motivate children to learn music.
At different levels, we reward those who work harder and shine those who have talent. The base line is, at some point, everyone must have a chance. This is the support that the school can provide.
Mac’s music school students during a group recital.
And it is definitely true, for even the littlest of children find it incredibly exciting to dress up in their Sunday best and perform for an audience. As they grow older, the performance holds more meaning, like achieving a personal best, or performing a difficult piece and impressing their parents.
Need I even mention how parents beam in pride looking at their little ones gracing the stage in their own versions of Mozart Beethoven?
2. Great Expectations
Singaporean parents are known to be fiercely competitive, and they expect their children to achieve many great things.
Some parents have enrichment lessons for their children every day of the week, in addition to their academic and CCA commitments. And some children learn more than one musical instrument. So given all of these, how do we motivate children to learn music, and follow through with it?
When you explore so much and never go in depth, then you will never excel in one. There is no point in being over zealous.
Mac describes how students have multiple commitments and parents set them unrealistic goals for music, that don’t match the effort that they put in.
I once heard a child asking his parent, after a recital, “Mummy did I disappoint you?” It hurts us quite a bit to hear that.
Parents also tend to compare. They compare their children’s accomplishments in one area with another, as well as their children against other children. Such comparison is counter-productive and won’t motivate children to learn music.
Don’t make your child feel lousy by comparing.
The takeaway from this is that, as parents, we need to be realistic in our expectations. Take into consideration our children’s commitments, how much time they actually have, and their learning ability, before we stretch them.
You don’t want your child to be a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. So select wisely, select what is manageable, make sure that it is in line with your child’s interests, then encourage them to be their best.
And if they fail, don’t force them.
3. You reap what you sow
Elaine puts it across honestly, and as it is – no such thing as no stress. In relation to what she mentioned earlier, music is a communicative tool. To motivate children to learn music, music has to be a means of communication.
She sums it up brilliantly as such:
You need competence in order to communicate. There’s no such thing as no stress, it’s all about how we manage it. The outcome is always worth the process. The question is – how to make the process more enjoyable? Then you find that working is not that hard anymore.
You can’t entirely say no pressure, no stress, for anything that we do, we have to do it well in order to enjoy it.
How to achieve enough to want to do it again is through hard work.
Mac adds on that being in the fast lane, parents need to help the kids to instill the sense of discipline. The music teacher spends a maximum of an hour a week with the child, the rest of the week it’s up to the parents to ensure that the child practices sufficiently.
Words of Advice from the Experts
On a concluding note, here are some things that Mac and Elaine wish to tell parents.
Asian parents generally want tangible results, they want a timeline, or a yardstick of what their child can do, when.
When your child learns music, they sit for exams such as Trinity, ABSRM and the like. Look at it from this point of view – every grade covers a certain perimeter of technique and knowledge and when you reach that, you get yourself assessed. It’s no longer a myth to skip grades and some children learn faster.
When it comes to which musical instrument to choose, parents should make the initial decision. They can always switch instruments when they are older, should they decide if they don’t like it.
Different children enjoy different instruments.
Instead, to enhance the learning process, give them a choice of what their favourite piece is, and work with them to improve on it.
And the last question you should ask them after a music lesson is, did you enjoy it? If they say no, what are you going to do? There will be some days that are more enjoyable than others, so don’t harp on that.
As the children get older, especially when they enter their teenage years, they will have other distractions that may deter them from learning music. So we need to take the initiative to cross this hurdle, and attend to our students when they need us.
Cannot tell anyone that we don’t work past 11!
Every journey has its ups and downs and after every down comes an up.
It’s really a journey, some of them have a shorter one while some have a longer journey. To create the environment to be holistic, everyone (parents, students, teachers) must work hand in hand through the mountains and valleys of learning music.
We are talking about a musical journey of more than 10 years. Music teachers see their students easily from the age of 3 to 17 or older and we juggle between the difficult times, and work with them on how to put music practice as higher in their priority list.
We need realistic targets and we reap success from success.