Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Teaching musical instruments which you do not yourself play

Somebody asked here a little while ago how it is possible to teach an instrument that you cannot play. I had to think a little about this, because the whole thing seemed so natural and obvious at the time that I was undertaking this aparently strange experiment. I am not very musical myself and so decided very early on that my daughter should be able to play at least two instruments and also appreciate music in a way that I do not.

Music is of course just another language, like mathematics or English. I have explained that at the age of two, I taught my daughter some written Chinese, but I might not have mentioned some other things that were going on at the same time. I had the English numbers up on her wall, but also Roman numerals, Chinese and Bengali. Getting her to grasp the concept of a notation for musical notes fitted into this scheme of things. The conventional letters assigned to notes are pointless, at least in the early stages and so I just gave her the sounds and taught her the notation directly. The sounds were produced by things like bottles partly filled with water, which I blew across. The note could be varied by adding water to the bottle. This also introduced the idea of music and sound as vibrations in air and led easily to the study of physics and the differing forms of transverse and longitudinal waves. Handy also for explaining the damage caused by earthquakes!

Having taught her the notation, getting her to manipulate a column of vibrating air was fairly simple. The recorder can be taught easily enough with the Usborne Book of the Recorder. I taught myself how to play the notes while she was in bed and then showed her how to do it the next day. Taking examinations with the recorder required a piano accompaniment and so we switched to the piano. Actually, we used an electronic keyboard, rather than a piano; the principle is the just the same. One does not need to be a music teacher to get the kid to play scales and simple tunes.

I then thought it would be interesting to teach an instrument of which I knew absolutely nothing at all; the guitar. For this, I decided against teaching myself to play the thing in any way, because I thought it might discourage my daughter. How much more exiting and satisfying for her to play something which I could not even get a single not out of! I bought a primer in guitar and then just supervised her learning. I might not be musical, but I can tell is a note is twangy or a chord not pleasing to the ear. I also can recognise if a scale is being played correctly. She was fascinated at the whole notion of learning something which I could not do and we worked at the guitar for seven years. She eventually passed Grade 5 in that and Grade 2 at piano.

At the same time, I was trying to get her to love music being played by others. I took her to concerts when she was still in her pushchair. Simple stuff first, Baroque and so on, but then as she got older I arranged for us to listen to some more complex and demanding things. When she was ten, we went see Das Rheingold when the ENO were doing it in London. Three and a half hours of Wagner with no interval! From this grew a love of opera and we then went on to see most of the popular ones such as Rigoletto, Aida, Carmen, Lucia, Die Fledermaus and so on. This became quite a hobby, in the course of which she developed a taste for some pretty unusual music. We did not stick to traditional stuff, but also saw things like Porgy and Bess and even, I am ashamed to admit, a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan pieces.

What is curious about this is that my first wife, who was Swedish, was a real opera fanatic and made me sit through a few. I hated it then, but when going with an enthusiastic child, I found myself starting to enjoy it. Of course, because she was only eleven or twelve at this time, I also took her to workshops run by the English National Opera on the things that they were currently doing. This was fun and also gave her an insight into the matter.

Inculcating a love of music, both playing and listening, is not that difficult in a small child. It requires a certain amount of single minded dedication, true, but then the education of the child was the business of my life. It was, quite literally, a full-time job and the eight or ten hours a week that were devoted to this aspect were only a tiny part of the whole. Her MP3 player is now filled with a mix of modern and old, with the music from Die Fledermaus being a particular favourite. It is vital as home educators that we ensure that our children are given at least as much opportunity to develop and learn as would be available at the best independent school. This means not restricting the education to things that we like ourselves or only teaching them  what we know. Music, drama and art are every bit as important as mathematics and chemistry for the child's development.  I have never been what one might describe as a cultured person, but that need be no handicap to teaching subjects like music.


  1. Nice article, Simon. There were some brilliant musicians playing and singing in the children's cabaret at HESFes last week (alone with dancers, comedians, etc). A real mix of instruments, styles and languages! I spoke to someone whose friend first picked up a guitar at 14, who had just finished his music degree and had been offered his first job teaching music at the college he attended from 16. There were at least two violinists played classical pieces (I missed done of the show) who must have been grade 7 or 8 - they were excellent and at least as spill received by the audience as those playing more modern instruments and pieces. Really inspirational!

  2. 'There were some brilliant musicians playing and singing in the children's cabaret at HESFes last week (alone with dancers, comedians, etc).'

    Yes, I heard about this. The good thing about home edcuation of course is that playing an instrument does not need to be restricted to half an hour's practice in the evenings, after school. There is so much time during the day, that if a child wants to spend four or five hours following this pastime, it is fine.

  3. Interesting article and, yes, many people can and do learn instruments independently. Often enough, those who aren't taught at all, but follow their own course of discovery, turn out to be the most dedicated. And talent tends to favour those who see practice as something they want to do rather than something they're forced to undertake.

    For something like recorder as a specialist instrument, however, the knowledge underlying its technique is pretty obscure (particularly baroque and renaissance ornamentation, and the use of different breath techniques compared with other wind instruments). Eventually the dedicated player will benefit from seeking out an expert. Certainly beyond grade 6 or 7. I reckon the key is to let the child decide if they're interested enough to do this.

    Incidentally, why are you ashamed to admit to seeing Gilbert and Sullivan? I thought that their reputations had been rehabilitated in recent years because of Gilbert's satirical genius?

  4. 'For something like recorder as a specialist instrument, however, the knowledge underlying its technique is pretty obscure'

    The great disadvantage of the recorder is that unless played beautifully, it sounds hideous. This is particularly the case with the descant; favourite of schools. We used a tenor recorder as well for a while, which has a far better tone.

    'Incidentally, why are you ashamed to admit to seeing Gilbert and Sullivan?'

    Sheer intellectual snobbery! Like so many peasant autodidacts, I have an absurd veneration for High Culture and demonstrate my supposed superiority by sneering at things like Gilbert and Sullivan.

  5. Thank you Simon, great post!

    We had a clarinet gathering dust in the corner waiting until we could afford the nearly £40 quid a lesson, but you inspired me with your first post on this subject and we have dragged it out and started tinkering with it. My son is quite delighted with it. We will still need some professional to help with technique eventually, but at least now he is learning to read music and just learn the enjoyment of using an instrument.

    I am grateful to you for this, as the notion that we could achieve anything on our own had not ocurred to me previously. I have always felt the deficiency of not having a musical background. Thanks Simon.

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