Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I was intrigued by Mark Oppenheimer’s article in The New Republic “Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument” when it appeared in September, and a reread it now that it has been reposted. Obviously, the “forcing” alluded to in the headline sounds pretty bad, and few people would advocate it. But the article is not about forcing; more like “strongly encouraging”. Oppenheimer is willing to continue financing his daughter’s violin and ballet lessons, but he won’t encourage it. And he does not believe that it is worthwhile, unlike the weekly Hebrew lessons, or more valuable than watching comedies on television. I can accept his feelings on this point, and I wonder myself sometimes what motivates some parents to push their children into certain activities, given attitudes that are little different from Oppenheimer’s.

But if this were merely confessional breastbeating it would have been a 50-word blog post, rather than an article in TNR that helps pay for those useless violin lessons. So Oppenheimer provides a few hundred words of explanation, and chaos ensues. The arguments are so badly tangled that they come out almost as an advocacy of music lessons once you’ve unknotted them. I find it hard to escape the impression that it irks him that his daughter is enjoying something that he doesn’t understand or appreciate.

He has two main arguments:

  1. To they extent that playing an instrument is a useful skill, it is not classical music that children should be learning.
  2. Learning to play an instrument has no value beyond itself. (Ditto for learning to dance.) The claims commonly put forward are spurious.

Let’s look at argument 2 first. Oppenheimer writes

Why are so many children taking ballet, violin, piano? Lately, I have been asking my fellow middle-class urbanite parents that question. About dance, they say things like, “Ballet teaches them poise,” or, “Ballet helps them be graceful.” And about violin or piano they say, “It will give them a lifelong skill,” or, “They’ll always enjoy listening to music more.”

It does not take a rocket scientist, or a Juilliard-trained cellist, to see the flaws in these assertions. First, as to ballet, I propose a test. Imagine we took ten girls (or boys) who had studied ballet from the ages of five to twelve, and then quit, and mixed them in with ten girls (or boys) who had never taken dance. Let’s say that we watched these twenty tweens move around their schools for a day… Does anyone really believe we could spot the ones who had spent seven years in weekly or biweekly ballet class?

Interesting thought experiment. Does anyone really believe…? Obviously the parents who told him this believe that, or something similar. (Maybe “poise” and “grace” aren’t quite so conspicuous, so they wouldn’t quite know what to predict.) Are they right? I don’t know. But it’s weird to present as proof that these other parents are wrong the results of a made-up experiment that no one actually did.

As for the enduring value of music lessons, I propose an even simpler test. Go on Facebook and ask your friends to chime in if, when they were children, they took five years or more of a classical instrument. Then ask all the respondents when they last played their instrument. I tried a version of this at a dinner party recently. There were about ten adults present; I was the only one who had not played an instrument for many years as a child. All of them confessed that they never played their instrument. Whatever it was—violin, piano, saxophone—they had abandoned it.

So, first of all, nine isn’t a very big sample — and quite likely his wife was one of the participants, so he knew her answer before he asked. A lot of adults play music. Maybe they don’t get invited to journalists’ dinner parties. There are all kinds of amateur orchestras, jazz bands, summer fiddle programmes, etc. My own experience has been that I’ve had periods of my life when I’ve played a lot, and periods when I’ve played hardly at all. I’ve changed instruments (piano to guitar and back again), and styles (Renaissance, baroque, romantic, folk, jazz). So this is almost like his grace-and-poise thought experiment: He’s sure he knows the answer, and he’s sure everyone will agree with him. The “experiment” (asking his friends) was just supposed to provide colour, and give expression to his image as the the lone honest man in the suburbs.

Of course, if the goal were to actually understand the link between music education and playing instruments later in life, rather than asking nine friends at a single dinner party, he might have phoned up a thousand strangers to get a broader picture.Or maybe, just by coincidence, some people who do that sort of thing for a living (let’s call them the Gallup Organization) might have done the work for him. In their 2003 “American Attitudes Toward Making Music” survey they found

The survey also found that adults are still quite active in the creation of music, with 42 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 35 to 50 currently playing a musical instrument, up from 35 percent in 1985. As for those 50 and older, 20 percent were still playing an instrument, up from 16 percent in 1985.

Conversely, the vast majority of those questioned began their musical education prior to entering their teens. In fact, some 64 percent of those questioned began musical training between the ages of 5 to 11, while 18 percent began between the ages 12 to 14.

The article continues

And the music that these friends listen to as adults—klezmer, Indigo Girls, classic rock—is in each case quite far from what their parents paid for them to study. Their studies of cello had not made them into fans of Bach. And unless I am mistaken, Shinichi Suzuki didn’t include Rush in his violin books.

No Rush (I take it, that’s a band) in the Suzuki books. Ha ha ha. Pretty clever. Obviously, the Suzuki organisation thought they were going to grow up into adults who listen to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The fact that they don’t proves that it’s all a scam.

He doesn’t recognise (or pretends not to recognise) that music pedagogy, like every other pedagogy, is a tricky business. A lot of what we teach children is not useful or interesting in itself (e.g., long division), but is supposed to train skills that will make further learning easier. The particular examples we use may not have any special value, they may not even be pedagogically the best in some abstract sense, but only the ones that are customary, that people have figured out how to teach. Maybe they used to be useful (e.g. long division), which makes it easy to ridicule the decision to keep teaching them. There has to be a balance — it can’t be all preparation for some future learning, because most children will stop paying attention if their passion and curiosity aren’t engaged. But if you try to start in right with the “good stuff”, either they won’t get it at all, or you’ll be spoon feeding some very particular methods and examples that don’t help them to extend their learning on their own.

Thus, learning to strum a few chords on a folk guitar is a useful skill. But if you start there, it doesn’t build up a very general set of musical skills. If you set the goals low, the children will never know what the range of musical possibilities might be. There are hundreds of years of carefully developed music pedagogy tied in with classical music, taking beginners through to extraordinary levels of expertise. The fact that most people get off the train at some point — maybe to get on the jazz train, or the klezmer train, or the rock-n-roll train — doesn’t mean that it’s a bad place to start.

And that brings us back to the deepest peculiarity of the argument. Oppenheimer compares the violin and ballet unfavourably to his daughter’s Hebrew lessons:

One of these classes connects her to a religious tradition going back three thousand years. Two of them are pretty well pointless.

Now, he might have gathered together nine friends who had years of Hebrew school as children, and asked how many of them attend synagogue regularly, or otherwise engage in Hebrew-language activities. And after (I’m guessing) most of them said “pretty much never”, he might have written

One of these classes wastes her time teaching her a nearly dead language that she’ll never master, and that is unlikely to be of any use to her as an adult. The other two connect her to an artistic tradition going back hundreds of years.

Because there’s nothing more confining than to tell a child to do what she feels like, artistically (or religiously). They don’t know what the possibilities are. We encourage children to learn a tradition so that they will appreciate that the world is large, and the possibilities for art and music and thought are not confined by what they experience at home or in their neighbourhoods, or what happens to be on television right now.

As I said, I think Oppenheimer is just jealous.

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