Each May brings rites of spring — flowering plants and greening lawns, gowned college and high school graduations, warm afternoons at baseball games or tennis matches and nervous youths at piano recitals. Or band and choir concerts. Or guitar recitals.
The latter musical events cap hours of practice over months as young musicians-in-training show off what they have learned.
For hundreds of Waco families, music lessons are part of growing up, of acquiring skills and sensibilities that last into adulthood. As with sports, music training for children can sharpen focus, build discipline through practice and create a feeling of accomplishment that adds to a young person’s self-image, Baylor University professor of music education Georgia Green said.
Music lessons also can deepen one’s appreciation of music as an adult, broadening one’s quality of life.
“If you can play a piano well, you’re the life of the party,” said Michael Alexander, Baylor associate professor of string music education and director of the Baylor String Project.
While May may close the book on this spring’s music lessons for many, it’s the start to considering music lessons for summer or next fall for others.
Many, if not most, Waco-area public and private schools offer music training for students, with much of the instrumental training — through bands and orchestras, primarily — falling in middle and high school.
Private lessons can complement school music programs by introducing preschoolers to basic concepts. They can start some instrumental training for elementary-age students and give children individual attention that sometimes is overlooked in school ensembles, say music educators and instructors contacted for this story.
What do parents and guardians interested in getting their children involved in music lessons need to know?
As a start, be aware of what a child is physically or mentally capable of at certain ages. Many music teachers recommend lessons around the time youths begin to learn to read as the skills needed for reading and schoolwork — concentration, a sense of directions, language recognition — make it easier to learn how to read music.
“Children who are able to read, tell simple directions such as left and right, up and down, and number their fingers can make faster progress,” said Waco piano teacher Carla Gibbs, president of the 34-member Waco Music Teachers Association.
Some music programs offered in Waco start much earlier than grade school, but with different emphases or instructional philosophies.
The Suzuki method, developed by 20th-century Japanese violinist and teacher Shinichi Suzuki, takes children as young as 2 or 3 years old and employs child-scaled instruments. It’s the technique championed locally by the Central Texas String Academy, directed by Julia Hardie, and whose instructors are Suzuki-certified.
Other programs work to nurture music sense and awareness among preschool children. Baylor’s School of Music offers Kindermusik and Musikgarten classes during the school year for infants to age 5 and ages 5 to 8.
Lesley McAllister, Baylor director of piano pedagogy, said those programs introduce children to music through singing, listening and movement. They lay a foundation not only for future music appreciation or performance, but also to aid child development in other areas such as language skills.
Many, if not most, children who take instrumental lessons start on the piano as its training can be adapted for age and size — a child can play whatever he or she can reach from the bench rather than hold an instrument — and basic lessons in reading music, music theory, history and literature transfer easily to other instruments.
Adults should be aware that young children may not have the physical abilities needed to play certain instruments, one reason that most band programs kick off in middle school. Alexander lists considerations for some wind instruments:
Height and arm length for trombone players as a trombone with extended slide reaches four feet.
Breath power and control for oboe and bassoon players.
Arm strength for tuba and horn players.
Suzuki students use string instruments scaled down to child-sized dimensions and there are half- and three-quarters-sized guitars built for young hands and arms. Steve Smith, who teaches guitar through Backstage Pass Music Center, reminds parents that their children won’t stay small.
“As they grow, that instrument won’t serve them well,” he said.
Retired Waco Independent School District band teacher and jazz trumpet player Byron Swann also advised that going cheap when buying or renting an instrument often backfires when that instrument breaks and needs repair.
“Get it from a music store rather than the pawn shop or Uncle Joe,” he said.
Teachers, too, can recommend what instrument may work or not. In fact, the music teachers contacted for this story all recommended that parents, students and teacher meet at the beginning to discuss what lessons will entail, what’s expected of all parties and get a sense of whether personalities will mesh.
Lessons won’t mean anything if there’s no practice in between and it’s the grownups who sometimes have to push practicing when the teacher’s not there. Veteran Waco piano teacher Ruth Pitts, a former Texas Music Teachers Association president who’s taught generations of beginning piano students in her half-century of instruction, recommends small portions of daily practice, 20 to 30 minutes each time. That builds muscle memory and a foundation of technique on which progress can be made.
Sometimes, parents might have to resort to “mild bribery,” Alexander said, with the promise of snacks or candy as incentive.
Parents’ commitment to music lessons is crucial, too. Parents not only need to make sure children stick to their practicing, but also defend music lessons as a priority when schedule conflicts arise with sports, dance, theater, or other activities.
“A parent has to think it’s important for a child to think it’s important,” said Green. “I had to pick between (Girl Scout age level) Brownies or piano.”
At the same time, enjoyment is essential and if an older child gets to the point where lessons are more misery than music, it’s time to think about stopping.
“Make sure your child really wants to learn,” Smith said. “I couldn’t stand piano and in college I took two years of piano because I was forced to. Music should be fun.”