About 10 days ago, Mark Oppenheimer wrote an article entitled “Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument” on The New Republic’s website that ignited a flurry of heated comments via social media among my friends and colleagues.
The gist: forcing kids to have private music and dance lessons doesn’t make them more poised, better at math, or turn them into life-long patrons of the arts. Unless the kid is having a blast learning how to play the violin or is a true child prodigy, there’s no real point.
Hold your howls of protest. Actually, howl away, because you’ve got plenty of company. Still, in the chorus of the outraged, it seems as if everyone is howling about something else.
Among the first was Paul Berman, an editor at The New Republic and classical music fan who argued that we absolutely should force our kids (but, you know, in a nice way) to take music lessons. The way he sees it, if we deny students an opportunity to study classical music in-depth, we are robbing them of enjoyment of one of our culture’s greatest achievements.
Still following the ping-pong match? At this point, Oppenheimer answers Berman – still in The New Republic:
Oppenheimer apologizes to all the arts teachers out there and asks them to please stop sending him hate mail. He takes pains to explain that he’s not pitting classical music above any other kind of music. And he emphasizes his belief that music education is not a precursor to musical enjoyment. He concludes, “A great fan doesn’t need lessons, and those with lessons don’t tend to become fans.”
I think Oppenheimer and Berman have some valid points and miss many other important ones. For me, the value of arts education is not that it makes kids better at math or more graceful in the lunch line. The biggest value is joy. There is simple joy to be found in community, in self-expression, and – gasp! – even in school. Sure kids can learn self-discipline, problem-solving, and perseverance via sports or even by building model airplanes. But we all know that you often have to throw a lot of different options at a kid before you find the one that clicks. And for many kids, the only place they have will access to instruction in a variety of arts disciplines is in school.
Not only is arts education important, but a broad variety of offerings is important. Mr. Oppenheimer may pooh-pooh the idea of private lessons, but I’d like to see him try to learn an instrument in a classroom with 28 kids. It’s possible, I suppose, and certainly a noble effort. Our colleagues in the field lead classes like that all the time. However, there is something to be said for the intimacy of an adult/child relationship outside of the family that is grounded in a creative pursuit. Both private lessons for a broad base of students and in-class arts education in schools are important.
In his article, Oppenheimer writes of surveying the folks at a dinner party who had music lessons as a child and asking if they still play their instruments. None of them do. I personally think it is immaterial if Oppenheimer’s dinner companions still play their clarinets in adulthood. They enjoyed playing them when they were kids, or maybe they hated those darn clarinet lessons. Regardless, they are now in a position of embracing or rejecting the place of music in their lives from a position of knowledge, not ignorance. And that makes all the difference.
What do you think? Chime in below.