Thinking About Thinking

Don’t Teach Kids To Play Music, Teach Them To Love Music

Posted in Philosophy, Pop Culture by larrycheng on July 29, 2009

My favorite part of the TEDx Boston event yesterday was the themelet on music.  There were three musical performances all involving the younger generation topped off by the Youth Orchestra of the Americas (YOA) led by Benjamin Zander.  I don’t think it’s humanly possible to love classical music more than Benjamin Zander – he’s infectious.

Benjamin Zander’s presentation of music made me think about my own personal musical journey.  As a child, music came quite easily for me – both the piano and the violin.  Once my parents saw that I had some proficiency in music, they sacrificed a lot of time and money to get me great teaching and equipment.  I practiced a fair amount and learned to play a number of the great works by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, etc.  And, at a young age, I even started competing.  Despite my improving capabilities, there was one major flaw in the whole program.  I never really fell in love with music – and that would ultimately be the limiting factor. 

There was a brief moment in my short music career where I could have really fallen for music.  For a few weeks, I got to take a break from classical music and had the chance to try my hand at jazz piano.  What’s unique about jazz is in its truest form, it’s about improvisation.  You don’t play jazz off of sheet music – it comes from within yourself.  I learned that for me, playing the notes on a page of sheet music was not playing music at all.  Ironically, it wasn’t until I threw away the notes, that I really started to feel like I was playing music.  Playing other people’s music was all well and good, but I had the best time making my own.  I always wondered if my brief flirtation with jazz had lasted longer, if I would have ultimately come to love music. 

I have always carried a broader lesson with me from this experience: it’s one thing to be good at something – it’s entirely another thing to be good at something and to also love it.  Anyone know a good jazz teacher? 

12 Responses

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  1. Stephen J said, on July 30, 2009 at 9:20 am

    Thanks for sharing Larry. I enjoyed the show very much also. I used to play guitar as a kid, went through the classical grades but as you say, never fell in love with it. Until I got some lessons from a local bluesman for a birthday present, then I fell in love with the blues and studied some of the greats. My biggest regret was having to sell my gear after college, I could not take it with me to NYC and needed to the money to help pay for my move from London. Still have my fender telecaster and my semi-acoustic though. Time to dust off the amps 🙂

  2. Chris Waldron said, on July 30, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Great post. So much can be said about the state of education, specifically music education. Most teachers aren’t capable enough to mentor someone (although extremely talented). Many, not all, see teaching as a necessity to pay the bills but are not passionate about the opportunity to inspire others. Not to mention music education is being removed from the curriculum so there are fewer opportunities for teachers and students. We are trying to give more people the opportunity to love music by creating an environment where students can easily find a patient, talented instructor. Our system also forces a certain amount of organization and transparency on the part of the instructors too so the cream rises to the top. Thanks again for discussing this topic and I hope you make the time to play (and love) again.

  3. Jay Levitt said, on July 30, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    A few years ago, Dave Frank (a Berklee professor) was giving private jazz-piano lessons. If he isn’t, I’m sure someone else is. There’s also a whole online curriculum at

    The key to Berklee’s style is what they call “Harmony”, or what others might call jazz theory. By the third or fourth semester, you find that you can analyze the chords on a lead sheet by sight (look, there’s a secondary two-five into the pivot modulation), and you’ll know what chord scales you can use to improvise over each measure. And then there’s reharmonization…

  4. Enoch said, on August 1, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Hey Larry,

    I’ve been thinking similarly about this for some time, ever since Evan was born. My parents, as typical Asians, saw the benefits of musical instruction and pretty much forced music, instruments, and practices on my brothers and I. But my parents did not actually play any instruments, nor did they listen to music regularly.

    For whatever reason, I was the only brother to stick with playing music. They put me with classical piano and clarinet. And then I picked up guitar, bass guitar, improvisational piano, and drums on my own.

    For my own kids, I decided with Karen years ago that we would like our kids to take music lessons. But rather than merely force music lessons on us, I wanted our kids to grow up in a home with music. but seeing their parents play music, sing songs, and worship God through music.

    It seems to be working. I’ve been giving piano lessons to Evan once a week for almost 1.5 years. I use lesson books recommended by some piano instructor friends. He’s progressing well. Now Evan is giving Owen piano lessons! I was floored when I saw Evan teaching Owen how to play the songs he had played when he started out.

    My parents told me music was valuable, beautiful, and important, but they did not show me, teach me, or share it with me. They did, however, force me to take lessons, which was the best they could do given their limitations. For that I will always be thankful and now I can now show my kids what it is to love making music. Not that I’m a great musician!

    I like your blogs because they often state what I am thinking, but you write so well.

    • larrycheng said, on August 6, 2009 at 9:23 pm

      Enoch, I wish I had stuck with playing piano like you did. It seems all of the adults who stuck through piano or any instrument really enjoy playing it later in life. It sounds like you’re building a great foundation with your kids.

  5. Evelyn said, on August 4, 2009 at 3:08 am

    Although in general I agree (and sympathize) with your philosophy on music appreciation, I wonder if your two-part heading–A) Don’t teach kids to play music; and B) Teach them to love music–must be mutually exclusive. I’ve often found that the things that I love to do are the very things that I’ve been taught well in, whereas the things that I’ve received lackluster instruction in, I continue to appreciate with mild interest.

    I see this in my children as well. When Matthew first took up violin, he resisted practicing. He was easily frustrated when he played the wrong notes or when the melody that came out of the violin sounded like cat scratches on a chalkboard. But as his technique improved and was able to play pieces that he was familiar with, his confidence soared, along with his love for playing. Ashley seems to be following a similar pattern, and Kristen is happy just to play along on her cardboard violin.

    I can’t say with certainty that their love for music will continue as they grow in age. It seems that every kid who has ever had to play a musical instrument hit a point of resistance somewhere in his/her childhood. My guess is that with middle childhood comes a certain amount of will power/defiance/assertion of individual rights. And it just so happens that it is also at that point in a child’s life that his/her talents begin to truly blossom so that parents feel the urge to push him/her more. Perhaps your musing on jazz is fitting here, since in many ways it is a very liberating form of playing music while still utilizing all of the fundamentals that you’ve ever learned. If all along you’ve been taught to strictly read and play what is written on the page, as a ten-year old, would you not find the task of note reading tiresome as well?

    As an educator, I find it troubling that we begin to lose kids right around that middle childhood age. In part, I think it is because we push kids to answer problems systematically and always expect them to give the “right answer.” We forget that they are creative, interpretive, and free thinking beings who may have different ways of solving problems or different ways of analyzing literature. We give them the same tasks day after day, year after year, such that we literally zap the love of learning for learning sake out of them. May this also the case for music playing? Should we as parents let Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert sit at the wayside while our children explore with music composition (albeit ridiculously juvenile), Britney Spear hit songs (heaven forbid!), and the electric guitar with the 75-watt amplifier?

    So back to my original point: Teaching kids to love music goes hand in hand with teaching them to play music. If you don’t teach them, they may never learn to enjoy it.

    • larrycheng said, on August 6, 2009 at 9:23 pm

      Evelyn – I agree. I should have titled the post – Don’t JUST Teach Kids to Play Music, Teach Them To Love Music. I also recognize that I probably couldn’t even had enjoyed jazz when I briefly experimented with it had I not learned the fundamentals in the first case. I guess you have to learn the rules before you can break them. I’m just a big proponent that once you have learned the rules – you get the chance to break them!

  6. Pete said, on August 5, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Hi Larry, same experience here. I took standard piano lessons from grades 4 to 9. In 9th grade, I switched teachers to a jazz/blues teacher. It completely changed the game for me. He would start every lesson the same way: “play something.” Like, make it up. I loved it. I had always enjoyed making up songs on the piano, which my parents called “noodling,” i.e., not practicing. I finally found a teacher who taught noodling.

    I switched instruments the next year to guitar, took exactly 4 lessons, then taught myself. I’ve played for the last 20 years. I never learned to play guitar by standard notation…it was all by ear and improv. I’m sure I would be much better at it if I studied classical guitar, but then I probably wouldn’t love it.

    On a related topic, I think there is art in the interpretation of classical pieces. But I much prefer the art of raw creation.


    • larrycheng said, on August 6, 2009 at 9:25 pm

      Hey Pete – hope all is well. You’re comment on “play something” reminds me of Tiger Woods’ dad saying “just hit the ball”. Apparently when he taught Tiger, he didn’t over engineer the swing in the beginning. He just said, hit it. And Tiger would sit there and swing and learn on his own. Maybe it’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s somewhat reminiscent.

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