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January 30, 2012 / C. J. Sperling

No over-education, please!

When people find out that I play an instrument, they very often kind of excuse themselves. “Oh, I used to play *xyz* when I was young, but I haven’t played that anymore since long time ago. I wish I could play an instrument, though.”

Where *xyz* typically stands for either recorder or accordion, and in almost 100% percent of the cases it was their parents that made them learn it.

Many would have preferred a “cool” instrument like electric guitar or drumset instead – not classical, not allowed.

Quite a number would have liked to play piano – too expensive. *1

Surprisingly many wanted a specific classical instrument – say, violin, or clarinet, or whatever – and were forced to start with an “easy” instrument instead, “and afterwards you may change to the instrument you want”.

And all of them stopped playing after some few years, and never touched an instrument again.


My personal #1 in music education fails: “Musikalische Früherziehung”. I didn’t find the English term for it – pre-school music education, for children age 0-7, “joyful activities, using music and movement”, and lots of wonderful pedagogic efforts.

I remember that some teacher did something akin to Früherziehung with us in 3rd or 4th grade a few times. It was fun to have a try at some Orff percussion instruments, but I had my piano, too, so this was additional only and I didn’t have to take it for the real thing.

In my view, Früherziehung takes away the curiosity about the miracles of music. It’s not bringing the real rewards. It’s making children think that music is fun but irrelevant.

Its main goal is the childrens’ parents, who want to do the best for their kids. It’s a variety of the “don’t play around, think of your future” optimization mentality, which doesn’t see how much children learn when they play what they want to play.

I never met any Früherziehung teacher who really knew something about the inner values of arts music.

More important, I never met any adult musician who started with this as a child.


Wonderful experiences: children of one to four years of age exploring the sounds of a piano. Fully concentrated on a single tone, until it fades out. What would happen if he/she put her hand on this or that key and pressed it? How frightening these low tones are! The high tones are funny. Hey, this sound somehow special (a triad). But this too (an arbitrary cluster).

Watching this made me experience the pure piano sound anew, each time.


Why do adults underestimate children so much?

Is it really true that so many adults don’t remember how it was when they were children?

I don’t blame parents who never played an instrument, rely on “experts'” advise and inadvertedly decide on something that makes their children hate the instrument they have to practice each and every day.

But I do blame the “experts”.

First, any “expert” in child education who can’t tell how he/she personally felt as a child when starting to play an instrument should be handled with caution. A second opinion on this teacher should be obtained.

Second, any of such “experts” who can’t tell about some (not necessarily classical) music that makes him/her feel like a miracle is happening should be avoided.


How I was lead into classical music is quite clear.

First and foremost, my father liked to listen to classical music. It’s always been a normal musical language to me, the same way as others in my age were used to rock through their parents’ listening habits.

My father used to play piano occasionally, and I watched him obviously having fun doing so. A good reason to try it out by myself.

My parents took me with them to the concerts.

And then there were the games my father played with me. One of my favourites at that time: my father would play a record, Dvořák, “From The New World”, 4th movement, and do the tutti beats with me. Must have been extremely great fun for me. *2

I could explore the piano by myself, like a toy. For about two years until when I was five, and my mother told me that I would either have to start getting lessons or stop it, because it was loud and chaotic and was getting on her nerves. Which I was not exactly glad about, but could perfectly understand, and thus went to the teacher my parents had found.


I still remember my first piano teacher from nearly forty years ago. She wasn’t an expert. She was an elderly lady having to make a living, was located in the neighbourhood, and – this impressed me most at that time – not only had a piano, but also an ELECTRIC ORGAN! With AUTOMATED ACCOMPANIMENT! DRUMS INCLUDED!

Pretty bad taste, that thing, but I really was intrigued. Not that I ever wanted to change, I was eager to get at the “real stuff” that only was available at piano – the first Albrechtsberger, for instance, that waited for me in the second half of the book. But I was happy whenever I was allowed to give the organ a try and play “Samba”, “Swing” or whatever.

The piano skills of my first teacher were good enough for about three or four years. At some point she told me that I would have to get a new teacher, as I had more or less reached her level of playing. Which, obviously, wasn’t very high.

But I’ll always be extremely grateful that it was her and nobody else who brought me to play an instrument. I didn’t start with a focus on performance, but with a focus on joy *3. Sure I had to practice each day, sure I sometimes didn’t like practicing. But it was always clear to me that I had to do that in order to some day reach the pieces I wanted to play.

When I was young, the other piano players in my town had a much better technique. They were organized and orderly and won the youth competitions. I had my time divided between music, soccer, and playing outside. Today, I wouldn’t by any means change with any of them. It’s kind of a personally experienced proof of the fact that children learn, in an extremely complex way, when they “just play around”, and that it’s neither kind nor efficient to hold them off from it.


The most extraordinary and most creative results of an “orderly musical upbringing” (according to my standards) was a kindergarten girl I saw and heard at friends. Her mother was an electric guitarist.

This girl had the habit to take her mother’s electric guitar, unplugged, and play and sing. Which meant: don’t bother about tuning, put your hand somewhere on the fingerboard, strike the strings wildly in a (roundabout) quarter beat, and narrate what happened that day in a (roundabout) melody. She spit out what had angered her at kindergarten, on that specific day, directly from her heart.

It was a great experience. A great arts experience. *4

If it hadn’t destroyed all what the main worth of it was, I would have recorded it and tried to find a publisher.


My most unexpected experience with a child reacting to classical music:

We were having guests for some days, I was sitting at the piano, alone in the room, playing some Goldberg variations.

Enters the boy of our guests. He was roughly ten years old, and had grown up with rock and pop (when we went shopping with the car, he expertedly enjoyed Bob Marley and Lynyrd Skynyrd).

And he started to DANCE!

Silently, holding a polite distance to me, moving in an elegant funk-like style (he was quite good at it), not disturbing me in any way, absorbing the music.

Most likely it was variation no. 18 – at some occasions, friends told me that they liked the “walking bass” and how it grooved.

This boy didn’t think about “culture”. He simply enjoyed the wonderful music he heard, and he danced.

I don’t know what more I could wish for in regard of children reacting to classical music.


No over-education please.

If you believe in the worth and power of music, as I do: if it exists, others (e.g. your children) will discover it by themselves.

It’s not always about being proactive, about optimization. Sometimes, it’s about refraining from doing too much, about not destroying something that has to develop in proper time.

It’s about trusting the children and their natural abilities, too.


*1 In the case of a distant niece of mine, her mother was upset even at the very thought she would have to endure the sound of a piano played by a child every day. Parents like that make me aggressive. What do they think they did when they were f##cking and creating a new life? A no-obligation game? Producing some extra amenities for their lifes? I hope the creativity of that child survives until she is old enough to lead her own life. A great pity that I have no means to change this situation.

*2 Famous family story: I’m five years old, there are guests in the house, and the adult discuss which music they would like to hear. Me: “Oh, please, Dvořák, From The New World!”. As the guests didn’t know about the game, they were seriously impressed by this little musical connaisseur.

*3 One thing that makes me very happy about the success of Gustavo Dudamel: his emphasis on of JOY in music. He’s the first A-level musician I’m aware of who actively and convicingly promotes joy in classical music (after Leonard Bernstein, that is). And as he has the standing to do so – no “earnest music” gruntler who doesn’t realize that joy is not excluding respect or skills or hard work can hinder him. Kudos, thanks and gratulations to Mr. Dudamel!

*4 Children (not youth: real children) and art? Yes, of course! In visual arts, have a look at
Buchkinder Leipzig as a vivid example (galleries at their online shop).


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