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Monday, February 02, 2015

How to Teach Your Kids to Like Music

Jascha Heifetz Dept.: It’s Heifetz’s 114th or 115th birthday, depending on which calendar you use, and in celebration let’s see what he and his publicist cooked up for a 1953 Saturday Evening Post piece. One of Heifetz’s publicists insisted that he never used ghostwriters. I’m suspecting, however, that the piece was transcribed and skillfully edited. One thing’s for sure: the lesson of how much practice is required to master a musical instrument has been lost in the Guitar Hero era.


ONE DAY LAST YEAR, following my concert in a Southwestern city, I was the guest of honor at a reception given by the local equivalent of Perle Mesta. It was one of those buffet-supper affairs. I had secured for myself a chicken-salad sandwich and a cup of coffee, and I was trying to balance the cup on one knee so that both of my hands could concentrate on the sandwich. I am reputed to have some agility in manipulating a bow across the four strings of a violin, but, alas, even after many post-concert suppers, I am still unable to master the art of eating smoothly on my knees.

Jascha Heifetz
As I was fumbling around with my food, an attractive woman, whom I judged to be about thirty-five years old, approached and said she wanted me to know how much she and her husband had enjoyed the concert. I smiled gratefully.

Suddenly she said, “Mr. Heifetz, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”

“I don’t know if I can answer it,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sure you can. You see, it’s about my daughter. She’s ten years old and just seems to have no ear for music. She can’t even carry a simple tune. Do you think we are wrong in not giving her piano lessons and forcing her to practice?”

I replied, “I am sure that your daughter is not tone deaf. I have never known anybody who is. You should give her piano lessons, and the sooner the better. I am sure you wouldn’t ask your pediatrician whether or not your child should eat, although you might ask him for a special diet. No child, regardless of how little talent he may seem to show, should be deprived of the privilege of learning to play an instrument.”

In the years since my American debut at Carnegie Hall, I have lugged the double case containing my Strad and Guarnerius more than 500,000 miles in every state of this country, and time after time, anxious parents have asked me questions like that posed by the woman whose daughter had no ear for music.

So now I am going to try to give you my answers. I believe it is vitally important that the growing generation of boys and girls receive a sound musical education. A healthy musical culture cannot flourish on just a few famous virtuosos. To take just my own instrument, we are going to he faced by a serious shortage of professional violinists of symphony caliber to replace the string sections in the 730 orchestras of our nation. In the last twenty-five years there has been a steadily decreasing number of persons learning to play instruments. Two generations ago there was a piano in almost every home, and it was almost standard procedure for one daughter to take up piano and one son to learn violin, with the smaller fry perhaps studying clarinet, trumpet, or timpani. Today, it is the rare home that boasts a piano in the living room. It is the exceptional family that makes music for its own pleasure.

When parents tell me modern children have no time to learn to play an instrument, I almost lose my temper. I ask a few questions. I find out that these busy children have enough time to keep up with Captain Video, Howdy Doody, and Hopalong Cassidy. It is a sad thing to find a child who knows all about disintegrator guns and rocket ships, but is ignorant of Aïda and Carmen, of Beethoven’s Fifth and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, of all the treasure of musical beauty that is his legitimate heritage. He might as well be growing up in the wilds of Central Africa.

I’ll admit it’s more convenient for parents to get their children out of the way and let the television put them in a hypnotic trance. But I wonder what it is doing to the children.

Isn’t it shocking that parents who worry about the food their children eat, the clothes they wear, the friends with whom they play, do not take as much thought for the spiritual food that goes into their children’s personalities?

You may say to me that your child doesn’t show any outstanding aptitude for music. Since he will not be able to earn his living as a pianist or violinist or composer, why should you waste all the time and money and also force him to practice? It is true that nine out of ten children who take up an instrument will never become professionals, but in this machine age music is more of a necessity than ever before. A hundred years ago, everybody, no matter in how humble a condition, was able to express himself creatively in one way or another, like a cobbler patiently fashioning a pair of shoes by hand or a tailor sitting cross-legged as he stitched a suit. Nowadays, the machine has taken over many productive functions. Impulses toward self-expression, which we are all born with, are choked up, frustrated, inhibited.

When you give your child the ability to re-create one of the immortal compositions of Mozart or Chopin, you have given him a medium for self-expression that will galvanize his personality as long as he lives.

In addition, music is a spiritually uplifting experience. In a time that is so prosaic, so cynical, so nonreligious, so troubled by neurotic tensions and fears, is not the lift of being able to perform a Bach prelude a wonderful thing for the heart? This escape will be a boon to your child no matter what career he follows.

I know a nationally famous radiologist in Washington, D.C., who recently told me that music has saved him from a breakdown. Like so many other outstanding medical specialists, this man has had to shoulder a crushing burden of work in the last few years. On many days, he gives X-ray treatments for eight, ten, even twelve hours a day, but he happens to play the cello. One night a week he meets with three friends, two of whom play the violin and the third the viola. They rehearse quartets by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart. This doctor has found that music refreshes him not only mentally but also physically.

I know a Cleveland industrialist who gets away from the tensions of business by playing the fiddle. Dr. Albert Einstein finds relief from higher mathematics in the same instrument. I know persons in every walk of life – political leaders, writers, lawyers, architects, engineers,  businessmen – who find making music relieves the strain of daily living.

One important effect of a good musical training has nothing to do with music directly. The sense of personal achievement that comes with learning an instrument will build up your child’s ego and give him self-confidence to master other difficult tasks, in college and in life.

Although I advocate a musical education for every child, it is particularly important to start your child on music lessons early if he shows unusual aptitude. Is there any way you can tell? Yes. A love for rhythm and melody shows itself before the child is one year old. Even at the age of a few months, the child who is musically gifted will show signs. He may look alert and listen carefully when a symphony broadcast is coming through on the radio. He may even wave his little hand in time to the music. He will be completely silent while he hears the music.

Later on, such a child cannot be kept away from the piano. He will keep returning to it all the time, tinkering with it, banging on it. You will find it impossible to keep him away from the piano. Incidentally, if you have a piano – and I think a piano is one of the best investments you can make – always permit your children to tinker with it to their hearts’ content. Never yell, “Stop banging! That noise is driving me crazy!” Encourage the child to fool around with the keys, to experiment with chords and to whack away as loudly as he pleases. He cannot hurt the piano. As a matter of fact, he will keep it in condition. An unplayed piano gets out of tune and deteriorates more rapidly than one that is played. I suggest you buy a piano – a secondhand upright will do until you are sure your child and you will take to music – long before you intend to start formal lessons. It is better if the child’s natural curiosity sends him to the instrument to discover the fascinating sounds he can produce.

Do not embark on his music lessons by inquiring, as some parents do, “Well. Peter, how would you like to take piano lessons?” If he says, “No, thanks” – and children are as likely to say no as yes – then you have a fight on your hands. Just announce in a firm and matter-of-fact and unprovocative way: “Next Saturday I’m taking you to Mrs. Jones for your first piano lesson.”

To get back to how to spot a potential musical genius: I know of a boy who from the age of three has spent hours daily at the piano. When he is happy, he will go to the piano and improvise happy melodies; when his mother scolds him or he has suffered some disappointment in a game with his friends or at school, he won’t cry about it; he sits at the pianos and broods in musical patterns. He taught himself to read music before be was eight and has figured out the fingering on advanced pieces alone. Since his parents don’t believe in giving music lessons prematurely, this boy, now eleven, is just beginning formal piano study. He has all the signs of authentic musical talent.

My father, who is a self-taught professional violinist, has told me that he knew I had musical talent at the age of five months. I was lying in the crib and suddenly began to cry loudly, violently. My mother was not home. Father desperately tried to think of something to shut me up. He threw me a rattle. He made funny faces. I kept screaming my head off. Finally, he picked up his violin and played Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. I stopped bawling and stared intently at him and the fiddle. As soon as the tune ended, I resumed my outburst. He repeated the tune. Again I stopped crying. Then, feeling experimental, he played the melody out of tune, and this time I really cried. When I was three and a half, he began teaching me, using a quarter-size violin. (I still have it and am now showing my four-year-old son, Jay, the elementary finger positions on it.) When I was four, my father knew I needed a professional teacher, and at six I was graduated from the Vilna Conservatory of Music. I made my professional debut at seven, playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in a recital at Kovno, Lithuania. By eight, I was touring all over Russia. Some years later, in New York, I was telling all this to Harpo Marx. “So,” I said, “from the age of seven I have been self-supporting.”

“And I suppose until then you were just a bum!” Harpo sneered.

In the event your child takes to the piano or violin like the proverbial duck to water, do not pin your hopes on training him for a career as a concert star. According to the American Federation of Musicians, there are 242,167 professional musicians in the United States, but I doubt if more than fifty earn a decent living by concertizing. On the violin, there are no more than seven or eight persons whose recordings are best sellers, who can fill Carnegie Hall, who perform concertos with the major symphonies, who appear on radio and television, who are occasionally asked to play one or two numbers for $25,000 in a musical.

Many parents could save themselves heartbreak and disappointment, as well as thousands of dollars wasted on all the expenses of a Town Hall or Carnegie Hall debut before a “papered” house, if they would face the realities. It is natural to dream of your son becoming another Mischa Elman, Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Isaac Stern, or William Kapell, but the chances are that even if he is musically talented he will find his niche in one of the symphony orchestras or perhaps with a radio or movie studio, as a music teacher or as a composer, arranger, or copyist.

Be wary of the teacher who, after the second lesson, starts raving about your child’s genius. He may be more interested in the fees than in your child. A musical education aimed at the concert stage has to be so intensive, and expensive, that I would not suggest anyone embark on it until the parents are absolutely sure, on the basis of several expert opinions, that the gamble is worth while. This kind of approach requires complete dedication. The child must be taken out of school and given private tutoring in nonmusical subjects, because for many years he will be practicing exercises and rehearsing pieces for five or six hours every day. My father had to make tremendous sacrifices to pay for my musical education and for private tutors in arithmetic, geography, history, reading, and writing. For about three years he had to saw away at his fiddle for as much as eighteen hours a day to pay for my musical education.

As you can see, I believe that the parental attitude is the main factor in making the difference between a successful musical education and a botched-up business, in which the child resents the parents, and the parents feel they are wasting money on the lessons, and the practice hour becomes a pitched battle. Before the first lesson make up your mind that you are giving the child music for himself, not to add to your own prestige. Never remind him how much you paid for the violin or how expensive the lessons are. Never make him feel like a guilty dog if he misses a practice period or doesn’t do so well at the pupils’ concert as another child. Don’t boast to friends and relatives how talented your child is.

Above all, do not exploit him emotionally. Do not try to show him off in front of visitors to prove that his ability enhances your own status. Playing in front of company can be a good thing because it gives a young performer self-confidence and he learns the pleasure that comes from giving other people pleasure, but let him pick out the selection he wants to play and put it squarely up to him whether or not he feels like playing. Do not make him feel he “owes” you anything for the “favor” you are doing him by giving him lessons. If he is not in the mood to rattle off Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor, don’t sigh, hiss, frown, and make him feel like a heel. He is likely to hate the instrument, hate the music, and end up by hating you.

As you take stock of yourself before the first lesson, face the fact that learning an instrument, in the beginning, is sheer drudgery, the endless practicing of scales, which is the foundation of all musical compositions. Your child will often get sick and tired of practicing. You will sometimes go out of your mind as you hear the same monotonous arpeggios and chords and scales repeated over and over.

I believe it is best to tell a child the truth. Tell him it will be hard and monotonous. Also try to tell him that this work will lead to a worth-while goal. If you have been taking him concerts or listening to records with him, he will understand. Children are fascinated by concerts, and in many cities there are now special Saturday-morning concerts for young people, like the Little Orchestra Society series in New York, where the instruments of the orchestra are demonstrated, something is told about the lives of the great composers, symphonic construction is analyzed and the more colorful and rhythmic compositions like Stravinsky’s Petrouchka or Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice are played.

If you cannot attend concerts with the child, then buy him recordings of serious music like the two just mentioned, or other selections with a lot of verve and rhythm and rich melody like Ravel’s Bolero, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur Le Toit. The records made especially for children, like Winnie the Pooh, Pan the Piper, The Man Who Invented Music, Tubby the Tuba, Rusty in Orchestraville, Peewee the Piccolo, Peter and the Wolf, are all right in the early years, but after the age of five the child should graduate from musical farina and you might try him with Prokofieff’s Classical Symphony, Tchaikowsky’s Nutcracker Suite, the set of folk dances by Mozart or Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Scheherazade suite. If your child has a liking for popular music, do not discourage it, provided it is part of a varied musical diet. I never discouraged my two older children from listening to Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey or Louis Armstrong. Jazz is an exciting form of musical expression, and its syncopated beats have influenced all serious modern composers, like Stravinsky, Milhaud, Hindemith, and Villa-Lobos.

I am very much opposed to a trend in music teaching today which tries to sugar-coat the hard realities. Many teachers avoid scales as long as possible, minimize exercises and start teaching pupils pieces right away. One handbook for teachers and parents advises them to call practicing “playtime,” on the theory that this will make it more delectable, although a skunk cabbage by any other name still smells bad. Another progressive music teacher, in a similar textbook, insists that practicing which is not voluntary and fun is no good, and children should not be disciplined. I’m afraid I’m a reactionary on the subject of music lessons. Practicing is practicing. It is never fun.

I have been practicing my violin for forty-seven years and I still can’t say I’m crazy about practicing. When I was learning the William Walton concerto, which I introduced in 1939, I got so annoyed that at times I wanted to break the fiddle. Rehearsing a piece is often a tedious chore. Even when an expert is practicing, the music often sounds jangled.

Once, in Seattle, just before a concert, I was running through my arrangement of Debussy’s L’Enfant Prodigue. I wasn’t satisfied with the way I played the ending, and I kept doing it over and over. I kept trying different ways of saying a certain passage. As I was practicing, a waiter came in to wheel out a tray which had contained my lunch. A bus boy followed on his heels. Both of them watched me in amazement while I struggled. As they closed the door I just managed to overhear the waiter telling the bus boy, “What a racket! This guy is giving a concert tonight and he don’t even know how to play.”

I believe that if you set a definite program of practicing and stick to it resolutely, you will not have too much trouble getting your children to practice.

You can start Junior on music as early as five, but six or seven is better. The piano is the best instrument for a start because it produces tones on pitch when a key is struck by anybody. For the violin, it is necessary to place the fingers of the left hand on certain strings and then draw the bow with a certain pressure across the proper strings, otherwise it will sound like two cats serenading each other in a back alley. The wind instruments, like flute, oboe, or trumpet, also require special facility in forming the lips and in breath control to produce tones. With the piano, your child learns how to read music, how to relate phrases on paper to motions on the keyboard, and he gets a basic training in music fundamentals and he can switch over to another instrument later without any trouble. I recommend two years on the piano before a switch is made.

It is better to have the child practice only fifteen minutes a day at first, then gradually increase it to thirty minutes, and then an hour. To make any decent progress, a minimum of two hours a day is essential. Two hours of practice seems a lot, but it’s more constructive than two hours of television.

Don’t let the practice periods cut in on the child’s outdoor play. I don’t believe in musicians’ being people with long hair and hollow cheeks. I like sports myself, and I am as proud of my backhand as I am of my legato. When I am not on tour, you will usually find me sailing my boat or playing tennis or table tennis. I also like fishing, hunting, football, and baseball.

Although the early months of learning may be tough, soon, when the foundation is laid, the child is playing simple melodies, and this will give him encouragement to continue the grim business of practicing. By all means give your child praise and encouragement, but let it be honest praise. Not long ago, my son, Jay, played something and asked me, “Isn’t that wonderful, papa?”

I said, ‘No, Jay. It’s not wonderful, but it’s very nice.” Gushing all over the place can be as harmful as nagging constantly.

When your child reaches the stage of learning difficult pieces, hold out rewards to him. I promised another son, Bob, a two-wheel bicycle when he was eight if be would learn the Schumann Albumblätter. Bob is now twenty and a junior at Antioch College. He plans to make his career in agriculture although he spent seven years on piano and some violin lessons. Last summer when Bob was home, he said one day, “You know, I’ve just begun to appreciate the piano. I play it all the time for kicks. I’m certainly glad you made me practice.”

Except for difficulty with hearing, there is no handicap to prevent a child from studying music. A few months ago, a man in Los Angeles asked me if his son, who was left-handed, could study violin. I said, “Of course. All you have to do is have the order of the strings reversed.” Charles Chaplin plays left-handed fiddle quite well. If you saw Limelight you will remember the amusing satire he did of a concert violinist. The music wasn’t dubbed in on the sound track. It was played by Chaplin.

Persons who are totally blind may, like Alec Templeton, become outstanding performers.

I recall an experience many years ago which taught me how fundamental is the love of music. I was giving a concert in Denver. Helen Keller was visiting Denver at the same time and she expressed a desire to “listen” to me. Miss Keller is deaf and sightless. She came to my hotel suite and placed the fingers of her left hand on the violin and I played two numbers: a Spanish dance by Sarasate and a caprice by Paganini. I was afraid they would make no sense to her, but she must have sensed the vibrations because, as I played, her right hand beat in perfect time; and I knew she was “getting” the music because when I reached a particularly delightful turn of phrase, she would smile happily.

Nobody is tone deaf, but a few people do lack a feeling for rhythm. In such cases a sense of rhythm develops during the music lesson. It is important that you occasionally sit in on one of your child’s lessons and that you often listen – really listen, not just pretend to listen – when he practices, and show appreciation of his progress. If your child feels loved and has a sense of security, I see no reason why disciplining to practice will break his spirit.

An hour in the morning, when he is rested by sleep, and then another hour after lunch or dinner are probably the best times for practicing. He should work at it seven days a week, although now and then you can give him a day off. For starting the instrument, summer months are a good time because he hasn’t the pressure of school work.

Success in music, as in other hard phases of life, is 90 percent hard work and 10 percent talent. Queen Victoria, after hearing Paderewski play, said, “You are a genius.”

“Your Majesty,” he said, “long before I was a genius, I was a drudge!”

There are no short cuts or miracle methods in music, and be suspicious of any teacher who promises quick and easy results. I know the case of a girl, six and a half years old, with genuine musical talent – she could sing the entire score of Oklahoma! at the age of four – who started lessons with a progressive teacher – the kind who teaches with elephants and rabbits instead of notes. She was playing little pieces in two weeks, but six months later, when she had to play a few exercises, she got discouraged, refused to go to the piano and now bursts into tears when her mother mentions resuming lessons.

I have this experience many times. I am giving a concert in a large city, and a friend of a friend asks me as a favor to audition a promising young violinist. The boy or girl appears, a little nervous, but proudly clutching the violin case. He takes out the violin and tunes it up. I then ask him what he is going to play and he says the Bach Chaconne or Mendelssohn’s Concerto, and I say, “Before we try that, please play me a scale.” So often, the youth gets red in the face, fumbles around and makes a spectacle of himself. It is shocking to realize how many students today are unable to play a scale cleanly and perfectly.

If you happen to play an instrument yourself, should you be the teacher? No. It is preferable to get an outside teacher, unless you are one of those rare well-balanced, even-tempered persons. With all your good intentions, you are bound to become quick-tempered and impatient at times. Also, there may be other little conflicts in the relationship between you and your child – like why he didn’t finish his vegetables at dinner – which may seep over into the music lessons and create needless tension. The teacher is a specialist, and if he is a good teacher he is an expert in the psychology of children.

Finding a good teacher is not easy, as the music-teaching profession has a few quacks and charlatans who are out to make easy money by preying on the illusions of parents. Nobody has to take a state examination to teach music, and anybody is in business by just putting a sign in his window. Try to judge the personality of the teacher before you consign your child to his clutches. Is he warm, pleasant, friendly? The severe, tight-lipped, authoritarian person will not make a good teacher. Does he seem enthusiastic about music? Is he honest with you or does he start gushing about how your daughter’s fingers are so long and beautiful and perfectly suited for the piano? Is he neat? Despite the legend, I have always found that good musicians are neat, orderly persons. I would avoid a teacher who is sloppily dressed and whose studio is disordered. Such a person is probably careless about music also.

If possible, I would consult either the head of the music department in your local college or the head of a conservatory such as Juilliard in New York or Curtis in Philadelphia to recommend teachers for a beginner on the instrument you select.. After you have interviewed the teacher and are satisfied he or she is a decent human being, you might inquire into the approach to lessons. Also ask for the name of one pupil and take the trouble to meet the pupil and listen to him play. You will learn a lot about the teacher by carefully watching the pupil.

If you have a constructive attitude, I think you will find that your child’s musical education can become an exciting adventure, and not only for the child. You may find yourself so fascinated by the wonder of making music that, before long, you will want to start taking piano lessons yourself. It is never too late to start learning an instrument.

But remember, practice at least an hour a day!

– Jascha Heifetz, Saturday Evening Post, 7 March 1953

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