How to Discover Musical Interest in a Child

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Question: Hi Albert,

My 14-year-old grandson will be spending a couple of weeks with me this summer, and I would like to find out if he has any interest in learning to play the piano. I would like to put together a “quick musical interest discovery package,” that will hold his attention long enough to find out if he would be interested in taking lessons. In other words, something that would show progress quickly, so he won’t get bored out of his skull. Teaching him to play the “C” scale and some finger exercises probably wouldn’t work. (Did I mention that he’s a 14-year-old boy?)

I was thinking that maybe teaching him a simple two-chord song with single notes in the right hand may be the best approach, but not being a music teacher, I’m guessing. What’s your advice for providing maximum musical enjoyment, in the least amount of time? Thanks.

– Willard Crawford (Llano, California, USA)

Albert’s reply: This is a wonderful question, and a topic that I’ve challenged myself to address in my course. There are several things that I consider important. First, I think you’re absolutely right that scales and finger exercises probably won’t spark anyone’s interest, let alone a teenager’s. That said, teenage boys are often competitive, and as such they love a good challenge. A simple finger coordination exercise that reveals the role of the mind in controlling the fingers typically awakens new students to technical challenges and, more importantly, that playing the piano is largely a matter of concentrated mental effort – more than it is finger gymnastics.

As for a simple piece suitable for a first lesson and to spark a young person’s interest in music, what music does he like? Although I play and teach classical music personally, I recommend finding music he already likes. He will far more likely be interested in playing music familiar to him. Convincing your grandson that he “should” like any given piece of music or musical genre is automatically a losing battle, especially for a teenager. If he likes popular music, there are many very simple arrangements available that would be suitable for the very early stages of learning music.

One word of caution: Like probably all classical teachers, I strongly disagree with rote learning. This involves simply showing a person which keys to press when. It may seem to be a shortcut to learning, at least in the beginning stages, but since it does not improve anyone’s skills, it will never make anyone a better musician. I can easily teach someone who’s never touched a piano before to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in a few minutes, but the student will have gained neither musical knowledge nor skills.

Finally, I believe we all need models of achievement to inspire us and to show us what is possible in a given discipline. Young people have sports stars showing them the very limits of human athletic achievement, but since ours is not expressly a classical music culture, children often take music lessons without ever hearing what music and musicians can achieve. How can students aspire to high achievement if there is nothing to inspire them?

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