A trombone to pick
December 12, 2011 11:01 PM   Subscribe

When script guru John August, writer of films such as Big Fish and Go, posted a fairly casual post advocating teaching children piano and guitar over certain woodwind instruments, the response was fairly heated and resulted in Mr. August putting his blog on a comment holiday.
posted by smithsmith (102 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
He's got a point. Unfortunately, it's a pretty shitty point. It's true that any musician who gives a fuck about their craft SHOULD have basic facility on the piano. But his view is that every single other instrument should not be taught UNTIL it's too late to actually master that instrument. The honing of craft on a musical instrument takes way too much time. Piano/theory study should be concurrent with study of another instrument. What a fucking moron. Stick to your day job, Mr. August.
posted by ReeMonster at 11:07 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seems reasonable enough. Of course, it's like suggesting everyone should learn Spanish and not German, or Chinese and not Japanese, because of teh relative likelihood of them being useful - great as far as it goes, but if anyone follows that advice we end up with a lack of diversity and pissed off German and Japanese teachers. Also it may be that by learning German or Japanese important and interesting things are learned beyond merely speaking a new language.

(Not to only pikc on former Axis countries, French is a bit rubbish, too. Where is it useful that isn't France and doesn't have a lot of english speakers? Nowhere you'd want to go)
posted by Artw at 11:10 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

a man is entitled to his opinion
posted by philip-random at 11:14 PM on December 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

I half agree. I will insist my children invent their own instrument. That way they will be by definition the best dinolaserturbophone or megasharkordion player in the world, and it will be awesome.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:14 PM on December 12, 2011 [26 favorites]

The language analogy doesn't map. There's a high utility payoff to knowing Japanese if you're going to be in Japan, but a much more uncertain value in other countries. So you choose the language to learn based on trying to guess where you're headed. Facility with the piano translates to a universal payoff in terms of grasping music theory (and form) which can be carried forward to appreciating works written for other instruments.

I guess the compromise solution would be have to a piano primer semester or two before students adopt an instrument.
posted by Gyan at 11:19 PM on December 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

He definitely does have a point about the added value of learning to play a polyphonic instrument over a monophonic one, but he certainly could have made it better, and not been so unjustly negative about monophonic instruments.

That said, tubas? Come on. Then again, ukuleles. Fair enough, good riposte.
posted by Decani at 11:25 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

If your child comes home from school clutching a trombone and says "look what I'm learning!" you give them every encouragement and opportunity to do so. You don't piss on their dreams.
posted by awfurby at 11:34 PM on December 12, 2011 [17 favorites]

I'm curious if it's true that a lot of folks who start with piano move on to other instruments. I played piano for ten years, then tried to learn guitar for over a year. I just couldn't wrap my head around it. I have a lot of friends who had similar experiences.

I wonder where he stands on the recorder. The music teacher at my kid's school starts them on it in junior kindergarten. It's ghastly. In grade 1 they add xylophone, and in grade 4, hand bells. Lucky for me, they don't bring any of them home to practice.
posted by looli at 11:35 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I guess nobody should learn to sing, either, the monophonic nature of the voice being what it is (unless you're Bobby McFerrin).

Wait, no, actually, singing parts taught me a ton about theory. I'll admit that I don't know if it some of it would have come together for me in the same way if I hadn't also messed around with the piano a lot, but I'm pretty sure my basic feel for theory came from using the monophonic instrument in my throat, particularly as part of an ensemble.
posted by weston at 11:37 PM on December 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

Artw:French is a bit rubbish, too. Where is it useful that isn't France and doesn't have a lot of english speakers? Nowhere you'd want to go.

Only a tiny bit of the world called francophone Africa. Personally, I'd love to go.

(PS: I read your comment as tongue-in-cheek, but couldn't let it stand unanswered...)
posted by Harald74 at 11:40 PM on December 12, 2011 [13 favorites]

I work at a school with a strong arts program. There are a ton of kids in our band and orchestra program who are in rock bands. Many of them play piano, too.

In the article, he writes that he quit piano because he was only ok at it, while he was a quite good clarinet player and he only had time for one (in fifth grade). I don't know that extrapolating his own experience into an "all kids should do this" thing is, as the saying goes, logically sound.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:43 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the man has a point, if you consider marching band as a musical activity. Personally, at my ripe old age (37), I consider the main point of marching band to be a social activity that teaches teamwork and self disipline. The music part is just a bonus.
posted by Harald74 at 11:44 PM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is an interesting one for me. I started off playing saxaphone, and played it from Grade 5 until I gave it up out of seething boredom in Grade 11 to the huge chagrin of my music teacher. I HATED jazz (still do) and EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF GODDAMN MUSIC FOR THE SAXOPHONE. I can find few exceptions beyond Coltrane. I was pushed into it exactly as he says - that you shoudl just pick an orchestral instrument, and that decisionmaking process is based largely on how wieldy it looks and whether you want to blow or bow. That's about it. No consideration for the future is made.

You do your children a favour by teaching them an instrument that they're likely going to play in the future. I disagree that everyone should play guitar or piano - but I figure that most kids will end up listening to popular music anyways. Why not leverage that interest in their musical educations? I gave saxophone up to play guitar and never looked back. I'm a worse guitarist for it because I didn't learn on that instrument and am self-taught.

Forcing orchestral instruments on kids these days is kinda like saying - HEY, Johnny, we want you to play sports. But, football, baseball, basketball and hockey aren't what we call 'real sports'. You have a choice of polo, horseshoes, fencing or bocci. Your call Johnny! They're all fun! Choose wisely! One of them involves horsies and another has balls. They're all fun!

Fuck that noise. Bring education to a point where kids can see useful, practical applications for their time and energy and you'll take them further. End of story. About 1 in 800,000 people plays the viola on weekends. Don't waste your kids' time. Let them explore it in the future if they gravitate towards that.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:45 PM on December 12, 2011 [15 favorites]

Facility with the piano translates to a universal payoff in terms of grasping music theory (and form) which can be carried forward to appreciating works written for other instruments.

This is true, but it has downsides, too, right? Not ever learning to deal with anything other than 12-TET (and don't even think about microtones). Not really grokking the relationship between breath and line, or the beauty of the harmonic series. Limited sustain, limited ability to influence the sound of the note beyond the attack. Relatively limited range of sounds available. Learning to fit into an ensemble as a single, one-note-at-a-time voice rather than The Piano.

I guess the compromise solution would be have to a piano primer semester or two before students adopt an instrument.

Or just teach music theory and let everyone learn their instrument of choice. I'm partly playing devil's advocate here because one thing I would agree with is that it's much easier to learn music theory, in the "how Western art music is structured" sense, if you have a piano handy. But I don't think being able to sit-down-and-play-a-song play it is a requirement at all.

If your child comes home from school clutching a trombone and says "look what I'm learning!" you give them every encouragement and opportunity to do so. You don't piss on their dreams.

Yeah, right on. The correct response to "My kid plays trombone and there aren't enough interesting solo pieces at her level, it's hella boring and pointless" isn't "Make her switch to piano", it's "Learn an instrument yourself and play duets with her".
posted by No-sword at 11:47 PM on December 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

If your child comes home from school clutching a trombone and says "look what I'm learning!" you give them every encouragement and opportunity to do so. You don't piss on their dreams.

Absolutely - for sure. If they're enjoying it that's awesome.

In my case it was 'don't let the teacher find you playing Nirvana with a bass and drums while he runs off on a piss break before getting back to the Woodchoppers Ball OH GOD KILL ME'.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:51 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Fuck that noise. Bring education to a point where kids can see useful, practical applications for their time and energy and you'll take them further. End of story.

I feel that fits with all education, sadly though, from experience it's not the norm. :P
posted by usagizero at 11:58 PM on December 12, 2011

John August did The Remnants. GETS A PASS FOR LIFE.
posted by Roman Graves at 11:59 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

god I wish I could have learned piano instead of getting stuck with trumpet. I was good at it, but it was such a wretched instrument I had no interest whatsoever in continuing to learn music.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:05 AM on December 13, 2011

I started on guitar but a meager one semester's worth of piano lessons did volumes for my larger grasp of theory.

So yeah, I'd recommend that anybody who wants to learn music should start on piano.

And I'd recommend guitar for anyone who wants to get laid.
posted by bardic at 12:06 AM on December 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm just shocked at his notion that schools still teach music. IF ONLY.
posted by incessant at 12:09 AM on December 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

He's right. He's going to piss off band leaders, who already have a hard time getting enough kids playing all the right instruments, but from the kid's point of view the best instruments for lifelong happiness are piano and guitar. Learn one or both. And then learn the trombone or clarinet or flute or whatever.
posted by pracowity at 12:25 AM on December 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you're going to teach kids band instruments, at least teach them more than just how to read music. THIS is more actionable advice. I'm a guitar player, and I've sat down with people who have been playing violin for 6-7 years who don't know how to riff over a simple chord change. Seriously, what the hell is up with that? We need more improvisation in music ed. Maybe jazz is a good entry point.
posted by victory_laser at 12:47 AM on December 13, 2011 [7 favorites]

I took guitar lesions when I was really little, and then did saxaphone in like sixth grade. I think I only have a few guitar lessons and never practiced, but I did the sax for a while. I totally wish I'd learned guitar -- I actually tried to pick it up again when I was an adult... but didn't practice. I don't really miss playing the saxiphone, even though I was much better at it then I ever was at the guitar.
posted by delmoi at 12:48 AM on December 13, 2011

For lifelong happiness the best instrument is guitar, sure. But guitar is easy enough if you already understand music, which you can get from any instrument. I played french horn all through school and haven't touched one in the many years since, but what I learned in band class made it much easier to learn guitar (and later banjo, and mountain dulcimer) on my own. Also, a big part of the idea is giving kids the opportunity to play in an ensemble and to perform; are we supposed to have concert bands made up of 40 guitarists? Or do parents get to sit through 40 solo performances on concert night?
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 12:55 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

This post is particularly interesting to me, speaking as a trombone player. I started out as a clarinet player, didn't like it and switched to the awkward brass instrument instead. I loved it. While other kids may have ditched their instruments as soon as they graduated high school, I kept playing throughout college and into my professional career. That is, I held a day job and became a weekend warrior.

And you know what? I've played on the Warped Tour in a ska band. Trombone for all intents of purpose was my "main" instrument, and from there on I branched into learning guitar and bass as a hobby. And to add to that, I've been taking drum lessons all this year. But I'm still playing in ska bands. I've also played in reggae bands, rock bands, garage bands, jazz bands, subbed in swing/big band gigs, and of course the usual community orchestra...

...ok, I'm the exception.

But you know, when you play a unique instrument, there's much more applications than you'd think. For a while (and still somewhat on-going), many indie rock bands have been starting to incorporate more brass and woodwinds into their mixes, both studio and live.

Okay, so you snuff out those kids that learn trumpet, clarinet, tuba, whatever... now who's going to fill in the rest of your sound? Let me tell you, the chops required to become a decent clarinetist or trombonist does not come in just a few years...

And also you know what? Pianos and guitars are dime-a-FREAKIN dozen. You throw a stone and you hit 93745345 guitarists. I feel kids are going to be burnt out because they'll be competing against all the other same guitar/piano kids. You're a trumpet? Great - because now not only can you sub in for big bucks in a banda, but if you're in a punk band you can also go mariachi.
posted by xtine at 12:56 AM on December 13, 2011 [7 favorites]

Oh and this guy thinks Marching Band is cakewalk? Oh geeez... has he never seen DCI?
posted by xtine at 12:59 AM on December 13, 2011

Ad hominem, I hate to break this to you but I am already the world`s greatest dinolaserturbophone player and I will not hesitate to unleash prehistoric laser shockwaves against your kids if they even come close to outperforming me. Have a nice night!
posted by overglow at 1:05 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I took guitar lesions when I was really little,

Sounds painful, delmoi...
posted by Harald74 at 1:15 AM on December 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

This is something else I don't get - most every kid in our music program plays three or four instruments. Is it really typical for music program to force kids into playing one instrument? Preposterous!

We're about music education not about instrumental education.

Though everyone, in my opinion should learn basoon. But, see, I'm a fan of that particular set of brothers...
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:20 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, a big part of the idea is giving kids the opportunity to play in an ensemble and to perform; are we supposed to have concert bands made up of 40 guitarists?

Good point, Pre-Taped.

Pianos and guitars are dime-a-FREAKIN dozen. You throw a stone and you hit 93745345 guitarists.

But this also means more commonality, more chances to share with others, and more chances for wonderful impromptu musical get-togethers. It's a trade-off, to be like everyone else, I'll admit.
posted by victory_laser at 1:20 AM on December 13, 2011

Sounds painful, delmoi...

Uh.. it wasn't painful that I remember. My mom even got me a little mini-guitar. But I didn't practice very much, maybe that's why.
posted by delmoi at 1:29 AM on December 13, 2011

Can somebody point me to the place where he says that a kid should be denied lessons in an instrument they want to play? I'm pretty sure the suggestion is that if you're going to assign your kid something to play, you start them there, and then let them pick something else later if they want.
posted by MadGastronomer at 1:31 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

So, this was me. Cornet, trumpet, flugel horn, euphonium, baritone, then finally French horn. Brass bands, marching bands, youth orchestra, band camp, the works. I was pretty bloody good at French horn - good enough to be first among much older, more experienced kids. Even today, twenty years after I stopped playing, I have a pretty good grasp of music theory, can remember all the fingerings, can double and triple tongue.*

And I'd give it all away if I could play guitar or piano.

*OK, those came in handy eventually.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:33 AM on December 13, 2011

This is why we can't have nice things.

Like, you know, opinions...
posted by Samizdata at 1:47 AM on December 13, 2011

And, of course, when I am making decisions that can affect the future of my possible offspring, I only consult with writers, as they are the only ones who truly know the art of music.

That is why they are writers...

(GIFT, again. Again, and again, and...)
posted by Samizdata at 2:01 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would have been really grateful, in retrospect, if my parents hadn't immediately caved when I said I wasn't really interested in learning to play an instrument. I really want my kids to learn to play something, even if it's a euphonium.

Would it be utterly unreasonable for someone now in their early 40s (i.e. me) to try to learn both piano and guitar (as well as how to read music) from scratch? I feel like it's a challenge I might enjoy, but I'd be interested in knowing whether it's something an adult brain could handle.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:01 AM on December 13, 2011

I think it's great for kids to play an instrument - any instrument - because there's a value it teaches that is absolutely solid gold as a life lesson, and it's one that many kids can skip in other applications where it may come up. This lesson is this: Hard work makes you better.

Nearly everyone - even if they have a modicum of talent - is shit at an instrument. You don't start out good at it, you're shit, you sound shit, it's really hard. But if you practice, you get better. It doesn't matter if you don't have a "talent" for it, or perfect pitch or what-have-you. If you practice, you get better, and it's very linear: the more you practice, the better you get (and conversely, if you practice less, you will probably get shitter, too). And it's super-dooper obvious, even to children. A true meritocracy in a world where there are very few.

As a kid who was moderately bright myself, I spent much of school skating through things based on a good memory, some native cunning, and the ability to speak well. Didn't get a lot of As, but got a few; didn't get any Cs, though. When I arrived at university where "skating through" is really reserved for prodigies and the like, a lot of chickens came home to roost for me.

I like to think the six years of piano lessons and five years also of high school music helped me understand that if I was to get through, I needed to work - just like I did back in the day when I was practicising for an hour in the morning, and an hour at night, every day.

The other thing it taught me I suppose was priorities. The kids who were kicking my arse at piano were the ones practising for four hours a day, or more. I was jealous of their mad skillz with the old Bartok, no doubt, but even then I knew I didn't want to spend four hours a day practising piano.

Valuable lessons, I think. Would have got them with euphonium or clarinet or trumpet, too. (which I did dabble in. Could never do guitar, two hands for one note + callouses just destroyed me).
posted by smoke at 2:23 AM on December 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Very difficult. I learned voice and piano/organ first. Then trombone.

When were you ever with a group of friends, and someone pulled out a flute and everyone was like, "Oh boy! Music!"? Conversely, when did you ever see someone come off a plane carrying a piano?

That's not to say band instruments aren't worthwhile. They have their place. If you are raising a musician, then piano/voice/guitar, then other things. Great advice! If you are raising a child, exposure and choice is the ticket.
posted by Goofyy at 2:29 AM on December 13, 2011

he's half-right - anyone who's really serious about music needs to learn piano well enough to pick out chords - they don't have to play it well, but need to be able to find the notes and play them together

guitar's a great instrument, but really isn't all that useful in that respect - my knowing how to play piano first helped me learn guitar

but for a kid learning an instrument to play in a marching band with no real thought of making a career of it? - learning piano is still good, but i don't think it's necessary in that case

as far as slaughtering geese onstage, one can simulate that a lot better with a loud guitar or an aggressively patched synth than you can with an oboe - in fact, given a speaker loud enough and a cage in which to put the goose, it may be possible to literally slaughter them onstage

Pianos and guitars are dime-a-FREAKIN dozen.

go for bass and stand out from the crowd - in the back, near the drummer - but it's a good place ...
posted by pyramid termite at 2:41 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

They told me this was a bass players' convention...
posted by Spatch at 3:19 AM on December 13, 2011

Entirely sensible – if a bit reductive – article. Nontroversy. Exactly the way my daughter (born musician) is learning. I only wish my own training was as good.

On preview — where did all the bass players come from? I only had the money for one.

If you are not flapjax and you get that joke, you win.
posted by Wolof at 3:31 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

are we supposed to have concert bands made up of 40 guitarists?

No, but I'd teach them piano first, maybe offer guitar on the side, and then have them each choose an orchestral instrument.

If you start them a little late on the flugelhorn, they might never become the flugelhorn masters they would have been if you had put flugelhorns in their hands at birth, and your band might never win at All County, but I think the kids are going to be happier in the long run.
posted by pracowity at 3:33 AM on December 13, 2011

Now I want a sharkordion. :(
posted by Pyrogenesis at 3:53 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Piano/theory study should be concurrent with study of another instrument. What a fucking moron. Stick to your day job, Mr. August.

I think he'd probably agree with you. But probably not the part about being a fucking moron. Rather, I really don't think his post is about honing professional orchestral musicians. Such musicians already have a vastly different experience of musical training to the norm. They can learn piano and x concurrently because they are (usually, I've known late starting pros) devoting so much more time to training from an early age.

But if you're struggling to persuade your child to practice 30 minutes a day, and they express no hope or interest of going on to a career in music, then yeah, let 'em learn something they might actually use as an adult, and which better improves their grasp of musical theory.

I don't see the proposal as apocalyptic. Lessons other than piano and recorder don't typically start until 11 in British education. Maybe there is a drought of British professional musicians, but given that most of the sizeable number of professionally trained people I know have retrained into a related field for lack of opportunity, I rather doubt it.
posted by howfar at 4:04 AM on December 13, 2011

As a fifth-grade flautist who dropped out quickly, I can honestly say that I wish I had learned guitar.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:14 AM on December 13, 2011

I started as a cellist. I wound up as a music professor. Case closed.
posted by spitbull at 4:15 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to teach music in a school where practically no child had any previous formal music education.

if you are serious student, with rich parents, it's unusual not to study piano in addition to your main instrument .

For the rest of the world, the polyphonic point is key. The guitar and piano are more valuable as compositional and educational instruments, that encourage individualism, enthusiasm, and creativity from an early stage.

It's tricky to catch late developers with a monophonic instrument with a vague promise of orchestral play in an unimaginable future.

Playing a monophonic instrument in a school orchestra or marching band, well that doesn't sound like much of an incentive to most kids I taught. Most would have given up.

Guitar is great fun, but is an inferior instrument, no sustain, cluster chords near impossible, but it's a social and accessible instrument, well worth learning.
posted by choppyes at 4:16 AM on December 13, 2011

Beethoven pioneered the trombone in symphonic music, in his 4th and 5th symphonies (they premiered on the same night.) His patron for the 5th reportedly wanted five tympanists, to which Beethoven replied, "Three trombones can make a bigger racket than ten tympani!"

A case both for and against the trombone can be made by his 3 Equali for Trombone Quartet.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:25 AM on December 13, 2011

At our schools, everyone learned an instrument and was expected to own one. You can't expect every family to cough up for a piano at home, nor the school to provide them for all. There is something to be said for the size and price and convenience of a small mass-produced instrument. Especially for kids (and/or families) that are not initially interested and are being told/encouraged to do it.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:30 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

You can't expect every family to cough up for a piano at home, nor the school to provide them for all.

Contra-Bassoonists are the 1%.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:35 AM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Harlequin the cost of renting an alto sax for a year is more than the cost of purchasing a starter digital piano. Band instrument rental is a lucrative business, and a monopoly in most towns.
posted by headnsouth at 4:48 AM on December 13, 2011

You can't expect every family to cough up for a piano at home, nor the school to provide them for all. There is something to be said for the size and price and convenience of a small mass-produced instrument.

They teach computers in school even though not all kids can afford to own a computer. Aren't there some pretty good electronic keyboards with a piano-like feel now? They could teach the rudiments using those small mass-produced instruments.

And I have the feeling you could get some generous donations from piano manufacturers if you made it clear to them that you wanted to start creating dozens of potential new customers for them every year.

And many people have used pianos ready to donate to the first person willing to carry it away.
posted by pracowity at 4:49 AM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

I was snarky about it above, but this subject really matters to me, so I'm going to get personal on this, but the bottom line is that you should get your kid(s) into music, but don't worry about what music, what instrument, or even whether it's in school or out of school. Any music will do. From the youngest age possible. There's science behind that statement, although I won't go into it. More than that, I speak from experience. Mozart is no better for your kids' musical or cognitive development than Johnny Cash or Bob Marley. Anyone who says otherwise is talking bullshit from the perspective of what little solid science we have on any of this (and which I know very well).

If your child loves music, let her/him choose any instrument s/he wants to play. But then make sure there is a keyboard -- any weighted key keyboard, you don't need a piece of 19th century parlor furniture -- in the home. Get your child music theory lessons or into a summer music theory course. Get them basic music theory/ear training software (Practica Musica is the behemoth in this category, MacGamut is also good) and a MIDI keyboard for input. And help them -- this means driving, mom and dad -- form and play with a band or group nothing matters more.

I begged my parents to let me start playing the cello at age 8. Begged. Both of my parents were musicians and we had a piano in the house. I begged because what I really wanted was an electric guitar, but my parents were adamant that I could only have this magical thing I wanted so much if I took a classical instrument seriously first for a year. I was in a hurry. Music already was the center of my world. So I settled on the cello and fell in love with it immediately -- so much like singing (which was, and remains, my real musical passion, and I believe that to be true for every real musician I have ever known).

A year later, after it was clear I was serious and practicing every day out of love and not just obligation, they bought me my first electric guitar. I grew up playing the cello hours every day, taking lessons, playing in orchestras, etc. while teaching myself to play rock guitar, joining bands, and all the rest. As an adolescent (luckily, in the UK at the time, where this was taught in school) I started taking music theory classes, and was soon teaching myself piano and composing at the piano, especially since we had one in the house. By the time I was a senior in high school (back in the US) I had completed the music theory/ear training sequence for music majors at my local university.

Needless to say, I went to college on a music scholarship, where I promptly dropped the cello entirely, majored in music, took advanced theory courses, and focused on composition, discovered digital music technology (this was in the early 1980s, we're talking Lexicon and Eventide gear and the first Apple midi interface) and really focused on my guitar playing. I went off to grad school (for music, although I switched to a social science field a year later) and made my living as a rock/GB guitarist for the next 6 years. Even with a social science PhD, I wound up tenured and the head of that department a few years later. Now I spend my life surrounded by and immersed in music, and get paid for it.

At *no* point in that process did I ever take a formal piano lesson or guitar lesson. Those instruments were just always there around me, tools I needed, sounds I loved. They key things I learned I taught myself, with little difficulty because I was so highly motivated by my love of music. The cello taught me discipline, how to hear pitch and intonation, how to play in a group, how to listen as a member of a group, and how to translate expressive intention into technical execution. Most of all, it taught me how (and why) to practice until my fingers bled. Carrying this over to the guitar was a snap, since the dexterity and coordination were easy on a fretted instrument compared to a cello (if you don't think violins and cellos can play polyphonic music, listen to Bach suites or partitas, btw). Picking up enough piano to pass proficiency exams and hack out chorale harmonizations was like learning how to drive a stick shift, not learning how to drive for the first time. I taught myself classical guitar fingerstyle techniques (and blues, bluegrass, country, heavy metal, reggae, you name it).

By the way, apropos of some earlier comments:

Decent weighted digital keyboards can be had for a couple of hundred bucks these days. No family should buy an acoustic piano on spec. They are 19th century furniture. You can't take them to band practice or your room, and you can't hook them up to your computer. Any serious musical kid would prefer a digital keyboard these days, and learn a lot more from that.

A decent acoustic guitar (I recommend Yamaha for best combination of sound and durability) can be had for $150 or so. Buy one to have around the house. If you have a musically inclined kid, s/he'll start playing it.

And in my opinion, the computer audio workstation is the "piano" of the 21st century. If I were serious about raising a musical kid, the most important things would be to get him/her *singing* (nothing teaches you more about musicality) and actively learning how to use GarageBand, Logic, Reason, ProTools, etc. Really, forget grand pianos. They are as obsolete as printed books.

Also, the one major deficiency I find in so many "classically trained" student musicians I meet (which is scores every year) who started on piano, especially, is rhythm. Playing an instrument you mostly play by yourself means you don't get enough experience playing in coordination with other people. I cannot tell you how many amazing student keyboard technicians I have met who *cannot* improvise, and who have very little sense of groove, which is no less important than mastering harmony or polyphony to being a musician.

And the most important thing you can do, truly, is play music yourself around and with your kids, doesn't matter if you suck at it, or if that means playing your favorite records and singing along to them. Expose your kid to a wide range of music from the earliest age. I remember both Gregorian Chant and Charlie Parker (along with Bach and the Beatles) from my earliest years. Is it any wonder what I wound up doing for a living?

There are two profound books on music education and childhood development that have influenced me more than any others. One is *A Commonsense View of All Music,* by the late, extraordinary British musical anthropologist John Blacking. The other is *Songs In Their Heads: Music and Its Meaning In Children's Lives,* by the brilliant music education scholar Patricia Shehan Campbell. I recommend them for anyone who really cares about children's musical development and its role in general social and intellectual development.

Music is no less a human birthright and faculty than language (in fact, the two are not ultimately that distinguishable on a neurobiological or social level). A child deprived of the chance to make music actively from a young age is a child deprived of something fundamental to human development. The details are far less relevant.
posted by spitbull at 5:05 AM on December 13, 2011 [43 favorites]

By the way, I have enough interaction with the piano business to know for sure: the sale of acoustic pianos in the US has dropped off a cliff in the last decade. Almost the only families that buy these instruments for their kids are East Asian immigrant families, and the market for acoustic pianos is booming in East Asia to the point that Yamaha just built a factory in China (the cost of transporting pianos is such a huge part of their price that this is not just a labor-cost saving thing, but a matter of making the instruments closer to their markets). The major instrument manufacturers are in fact *freaking out* right now over the decline of formal musical instruction in America's public schools. And the piano business in particular is suffering wave after wave of bankruptcies among dealers and manufacturers.
posted by spitbull at 5:12 AM on December 13, 2011

I neglected to say the one thing I think is most important for parents to hear: there is no such thing as a musically "untalented" child. None. Doesn't happen. "Talent" is a socially constructed category, and we have very little real evidence that there is a discrete cognitively specific "talent" for music that some people have and others do not. And even if there were so what? You don't deny verbally "untalented" children lessons in reading and writing, do you? In fact, quite the reverse: the talented one (which really means the ones who are exposed to more input at home from a younger age) don't need instruction as much as those whose home lives were more musically (or linguistically/bibliographically) deprived.
posted by spitbull at 5:25 AM on December 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

The argument that French horns and oboes sound terrible at the student level is especially specious. Everything sounds terrible at the student level. You can't leave a piano unattended in a classroom or church for five minutes without some terribly eager kid going, "Hey listen, everyone, listen! I can play Beauty and the Beast!" CHoRD CHORd deenkleplink deenkdonk......plonnk...................CH0RDd. "Okay that's all I know."

In retrospect, I wish I'd learned piano, but I didn't want to when I was little. And although I was never phenomenal and stopped playing after high school, I am really grateful I got to play the oboe.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:25 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'll add something else from the perspective of a college music professor, sorry to pepper the thread. I just care so much about this subject.

Many parents want their kids to learn an instrument (especially a classical instrument) to improve their long-term odds of getting into a good college, maybe even with some scholarship support (perfectly reasonable justification too).

Well, "talented" pianists are a dime a dozen. They vastly outnumber applicants who have reached any level of mastery on any other instrument (or voice) among the applicants to elite colleges (and especially so among international students from East Asia, whose numbers are increasing dramatically at elite American schools). Speaking from the point of view of my own department, there is nothing all that exciting about applicants who are able to play Rachmaninoff concertos perfectly on a piano. We see hundreds in the pile of CDs we audition on behalf of the admissions office every year. We can't even accommodate some of the very good ones who are admitted with lessons or performance opportunities or even sufficient practice rooms. We don't need them.

We *need* oboe and trombone and viola players to stock our orchestra and chamber music and jazz performance programs. A very good oboist has a *much* better shot at a top rating from our faculty sent back to the admissions office than a freaking awesome piano player.

Plain truth.
posted by spitbull at 6:33 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

All schoolchildren should be issued two turntables and the complete set of Ultimate Breaks and Beats.
posted by echo target at 6:33 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're only going to have your kid learn one thing, I do think that piano or guitar is better; voice also works as far as future utility for more average people. There's no particular reason your kid needs to learn only one thing. Multiple instruments is a terrific idea, and I think they compliment each other very well, and if your kid really has a desire to play something, go with that. But looking back, I've heard similar things a number of times from the people I used to be in band with: They *miss* having the music around, later, when they're no longer really in a position to play with a group anymore. Most kids who learn an instrument will never be professionals at it. I loved playing clarinet, but I'm very glad now that I got some piano fundamentals, even though I'm not a fantastic pianist by any means.

And as instruments go, a modern weighted-key digital piano does not cost any more than a modern not-crap clarinet. (Arguably less, I think you can get a *new* weighted-key digital for about $500, and the cheapest actually-wood clarinet I could find after a poke around on WWBW was $800.) If you're willing to start your kid on a $200 woodwind, you won't kill them by starting them on a keyboard at around the same price point, and lots of people have available avenues to borrowing a piano. My church has let members come in and use the practice piano downstairs before, for instance, and if a friend lamented to me that they wanted their kid to have lessons, I'd let them come to my place and use mine anytime I was home.

Granted, I had the piano lessons and I still miss the clarinet, sometimes, but I miss the experience of playing a clarinet that my economic bracket was really not going to let me have. A plastic clarinet that we could never afford to keep properly corked and padded with the cheapest reeds we could find was not a recipe for long-term success. I guess I can't speak to anything newer, but my nearly-20-year-old digital piano has never needed that kind of upkeep.
posted by gracedissolved at 6:39 AM on December 13, 2011

This is another example of some random nobody spouting off on the internet, and a bunch of other random nobodies getting their undershorts all twisted because of it. And while I know that this is what makes the wheels here at Metafilter go round and round, one would hope, now that we're a nearly 20 years beyond the dawn of the internet, we'd be able to move beyond it.
posted by crunchland at 6:46 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, crunchland, the thing about Metafilter is that this discussion has already moved well beyond the original dumb blog post to which we are responding. I see that as a feature, not a bug.

And it's useful. John August's opinion contains elements of "common sense" that are widespread among millions of parents and educators, and no less wrong for that.
posted by spitbull at 6:50 AM on December 13, 2011


I'm just a pianist now but I used to play oboe through middle and high schools. August completely misses the point of training the ear! Sure, anyone piddler can play the piano in tune, but that doesn't go for the oboe or many other wind and string instruments at that. Part of the "holy crap it sounds like kittens are getting murdered" is that you're learning where pitches are supposed to be, something the piano or guitar won't get you. Guitar and piano tuning last a while but wind players (am talking oboe here) especially requires constant tiny changes to stay in tune. Sure there are ear training exercises that you can do, but that really only teaches absolute and not relative pitch.

Another completely missed point is that you never learn how to play with others on piano or guitar as a kid. You're not going to get organizing or playing in any chamber groups. You never learn how to play well with others, literally! You need to be both cog and soloist if you ever want to grow as a musician. August seems to think that band is just you play 1 part and only that part, but there are lots of opportunities for solo clarinet/oboe/violin/etc playing especially if you're taking private lessons. His whole argument about not knowing chord progression and forgetting how to read bass clef just sounds like someone didn't pay attention to music theory class...

The point of having a kid learn an instrument isn't so they can play socially 20-30 years later. It's so that they can discover music on their own. It doesn't matter how they do it, whether through singing, playing French horn, piano or guitar.
posted by astapasta24 at 7:11 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

My elementary school didn't have a band program, but one year a private outfit began offering after-school music lessons in my town. I wanted to play guitar, but was brusquely told that they didn't offer guitar lessons because kids' hands are too small. (This was in the days before you could buy a good quality pacific rim import of pretty much any kind and size of fretted, stringed instrument for a couple hundred dollars or less.)

So I wound up on trumpet. I don't remember why I picked trumpet - possibly because my best friend was already taking trumpet lessons. I remember it was interesting in a detached, academic way; learning to read music was absolutely a worthwhile skill to have acquired. I can't sight read to save my life these days, but give me long enough with a piece of standard notation and I can usually grind it out eventually.

But trumpet wasn't fun at all. The music sucked and there were no rewards built in; it was just getting good enough at playing Twinkle twinkle little star so that the teacher would say, "very good, now you can start working on Row, row, row your boat!"

If there had been a band or orchestra, I think I would have taken more of a shine to it; playing music with other people is an amazing thing, and I think Mr. August has missed that point altogether. As it was I did get an electric guitar for Christmas a couple of years later, and played in a couple of half-assed bands throughout high school and one super awesome fun band in college. Music waxes and wanes as an interest in my life, but the one thing that is consistently true is that having the external pressure of a performance (even a casual one) with other musicians is what keeps you from plateauing; A kid practicing guitar or piano on their own is going to get bored with it just as quickly as a kid playing oboe or french horn on their own.

Then again, what do I know? I grew up into a banjo player.
posted by usonian at 7:26 AM on December 13, 2011

Everyone seems to know what they are talking about here, and opinions are all over the place. Quel surprise!

It is tradition in many families to start their kid out on piano and then let them choose an instrument. It is imperative in music school that you learn piano. Why? One reason: you can see the relationship between notes. Being a pretty visual species these days, that has a lot of value when playing any instrument (including your own voice). I totally get that starting on a bowed or blown or plucked instrument adds the value of more directly producing the music and being in control of the pitch.

(Me: piano to flute to horn back to piano when the jazz bug bit me. So, yeah, I'm a little partisan.)
posted by kozad at 7:29 AM on December 13, 2011

Artw (Not to only pick on former Axis countries, French is a bit rubbish, too. Where is it useful that isn't France and doesn't have a lot of english speakers? Nowhere you'd want to go)

In addition to Francophone Africa as linked above:

Belgium, Cambodia, Luxembourg, Morocco, Monaco, Seychelles, Switzerland, Quebec, et cetera.

Obviously some of those places are going to have English speakers. But speaking French will ease your way.

Harald74 I read your [Artw] comment as tongue-in-cheek

I hope it was, so hard to tell with him if he is taking the piss or being obnoxious. If the latter, it was a profoundly ignorant thing to write.
posted by mlis at 7:37 AM on December 13, 2011

Just on a practical note, a Casio CDP120 with 88 weighted keys costs about $350. You can go lower for a small keyboard primarily intended as a MIDI controller and still get weighted keys and decent features, but that's the low end sweet spot right now if you want something close to an acoustic piano experience among your many options.

Another value to a digital keyboard: not only is it portable, useful as an interface with a digital workstation (or many other computing devices these days), never needs tuning or maintenance (you will spend a couple of hundred bucks a year, minimum, keeping up an acoustic piano and keeping it in tune), and contains tools for making complex music right to hand. Best of all, it can be practiced *privately* unlike nearly any other instrument. Many kids are shy about playing music even when they love it. The ability to make music just for yourself until you gain some confidence (and desire, because yeah, being a musician will always be cool if you do it right) gets (or could get) many kids over a key hurdle, I suspect, in carrying early musical exposure and play forward into skilled and disciplined learning in the future.

And one of the key things music eventually teaches you -- and I think this is more true of music making that is oriented primarily toward group experiences and socially coordinated performances) of lifelong value is how to *perform,* so it is of such great value to shy and anxious kids (as I was). Nowadays I spend a lot of my life giving academic talks and radio interviews and guest-teaching classes, and doing most of it pretty much off the top of my head. The skills of improvisation, audience awareness, sense of timing, etc. that that I gained from being a performing musician from a young age have served me as deeply and well as the ideas I was learning from reading books as a child. I would in fact argue they have been more important to me than skills I learned in classroom settings. There is virtually no area of life where the ability to improvise an effective, coordinated, context-sensitive, other-directed performance (especially in a team setting) is not a signal social advantage that can act as a hell of an equalizer against more socially privileged or technically skilled competition.

Oh, parents: here's a link to Practica Musica 6, from Ars Nova Software. This is the gold standard music theory/ear-training software in use across the country in major conservatories and music schools. A musical kid who put in 20 minutes a day on this for a few years would develop the key musicianship skills necessary for any career in music in short order. It's private, interactive, uses cutting edge learning technologies, and not particularly culturally chauvinist. You just need a computer with a sound card, headphones, a decent mic, and ideally a MIDI keyboard. If this had existed when I was a kid I would have benefited so much from it.
posted by spitbull at 7:41 AM on December 13, 2011 [10 favorites]

Tuba solos, while rare, are indescribably precious. Mr. August truly is deprived if he's never encountered one.
posted by muddgirl at 7:46 AM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

I played trumpet from fifth grade through high school. Marching/pep/concert band as a class, plus going in early on Wednesday mornings for jazz band. I even would be excused from school for a half hour or so whenever there was a local funeral for a veteran, because the American Legion color guard needed someone to play Taps. Thanks to that, plus general music education in grade school, I can pick out chords and play simple things on the piano.

But after high school it all fell away. Marching band in college was scheduled at the same time as a certain physics class I needed, so I didn't make the jump. The trumpet went into the closet. I didn't have space for my keyboard in the dorms, plus cash was tight, so I sold mine after someone made a good offer. After college I would have had space for one again, but I was out of the habit and it didn't cross my mind.

A decade and a half later, I was laid off from my newspaper job and ended up moving back to the tiny town where I grew up. My former high school band teacher's wife found out I was back and tracked me down: Did I still have my horn?

Yep, though I hadn't played it in so long that my chops were dead.

That was just fine; they'd started a community band seven years ago and were always looking for people willing to play. The lips, the breath, they'd come back.

So now on Monday nights I go down to the high school and play for an hour and a half with about 30 other folks, ranging in age from high school to retirees. We just played a Christmas concert this weekend in a neighboring town, and I'd forgotten what it felt like to be on a stage, under the lights, waiting for the director's hands to go up and hoping that everything would go right.

I'd missed that. I'm glad it's back.
posted by rewil at 7:50 AM on December 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

"they'd started a community band seven years ago and were always looking for people willing to play."

Man, I want this so bad. I was just thinking about it last week. I think if our schools sponsored an adult community band, we might get more community support for student music, and we have beautiful rehearsal and concert spaces that aren't in use every evening ...
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:00 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Inspired by this discussion to find local community bands and/or ochestras in order to play with a group again, I discovered this: Community Band and Orchestra Contact Info. A what seems to be incredibly comprehensive list of community bands/orchestras all over the US. My clarinet and trumpet have been collecting dust for way too long and methinks it is finally time to pull them out again.
posted by ruhroh at 8:14 AM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

And hey, on the subject of the value of French, why not mention the entire Francophone Caribbean, which comprises another few million people?
posted by spitbull at 8:17 AM on December 13, 2011

It is imperative in music school that you learn piano. Why? One reason: you can see the relationship between notes.

This is a terrible goddamned myth that has prevented generations of suckers from ever "learning the relationship between notes." The piano is an aid to theory learning only if it's used as an occasional reference against the notes that you're audiating in your head. Of course, no one ever uses it that way, instead preferring to do entire exercises at the piano; what this teaches you to do is to shuffle some circles between some lines and then translate that to a pattern on the keyboard. The people that manage to internalize the grammar of tonal music by that process do so only by accident.
posted by invitapriore at 8:32 AM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

As to the main point of the FPP, little kids have no imagination, so you can't trust them to know what instrument they're going to want to have learned to play. Trust me, I know. I was one. It's once you get into your early twenties that you thank your lucky stars for how much cooler being a trombone player makes you than all those boring monkeys that can play you a nice rendition of Debussy's Arabesque No 1 and maybe a few Ben Folds songs but are quite plainly uninspired musicians.
posted by invitapriore at 8:39 AM on December 13, 2011

Forcing orchestral instruments on kids these days is kinda like saying - HEY, Johnny, we want you to play sports. But, football, baseball, basketball and hockey aren't what we call 'real sports'. You have a choice of polo, horseshoes, fencing or bocci. Your call Johnny! They're all fun! Choose wisely! One of them involves horsies and another has balls. They're all fun!

Your example is flawed, in that Polo, Horseshoes, Fencing and Bocci are all WAY more awesome than football or baseball or whatever. Baseball vs. Fencing? Really? "You can either have the most boring sport in the whole of the Americas, or you can FIGHT WITH SWORDS. Pick one!"
posted by FatherDagon at 8:41 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bravo (brava?) invitapriore. Music is not a visual idiom. Our thinking is culturally clouded by the western privileging of notated music and musical literacy. "High" pitches aren't objectively "high" on any spatial dimension by nature, just high on the page when written. (In physical terms, they are faster and smaller in three dimensions.)
posted by spitbull at 8:43 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

We started both our kids on piano at age six, though lessons are pretty informal. Now my daughter is in 5th grade and wanted to play French horn in band. I was reluctant at first because she has a hard time hearing when she is playing the wrong note on the piano, and brass is so dependent on having a sense of pitch. What a surprise. She has worked so hard -- just playing long tones along with a cd -- and she can suddenly hear the right notes! Her piano and singing have also greatly improved. Yay band, for developing her ear, and showing her that she is musical, after all.

As for me, I still play the flute daily, take lessons, participate in amateur chamber music, play occasionally at my Dad's church. I'm amazed that the smaller woodwinds especially aren't considered practical instruments. My instructor is an improvisational flute player with a bluegrassy backup band that gigs in bars all over town.
posted by Malla at 8:44 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is only vaguely related but I want to encourage all of you cool, future trombone-playing daddy-os and mammy-os to not take your instrument's nickname too far. My only connection to that band is having incredulously seen their poster up at a local music venue.
posted by invitapriore at 8:50 AM on December 13, 2011

"High" pitches aren't objectively "high" on any spatial dimension by nature, just high on the page when written. (In physical terms, they are faster and smaller in three dimensions.)

I've always wondered if that association could be reversed. Do you think it came about because of where a high pitch resonates in the throat versus where a lower pitch does?
posted by invitapriore at 8:51 AM on December 13, 2011

Tuba solos, while rare, are indescribably precious. Mr. August truly is deprived if he's never encountered one.

Hmmm...maybe that's about to change. Unlikely as it seems, we've recently seen a rash of tuba thefts at Southland high schools.
posted by malocchio at 8:53 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I grew up playing stringed instruments, but one of my favorite musical sonic palettes is a sax quartet because the sound of three or four people using monophonic instruments to do the work that is normally covered by one hand on a piano has a unique shimmering quality that isn't present on that piano or guitar. Besides, it's worth thinking about the fact that certain instruments practically demand a level of musical cooperation that piano players, guitarists, and shithead lead singers get to just stomp right over.
posted by SharkParty at 8:53 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've always wondered if that association could be reversed. Do you think it came about because of where a high pitch resonates in the throat versus where a lower pitch does?
posted by invitapriore

The metaphorical mapping of pitch space as high and low is not cross-culturally universal. Other bodily metaphors are common, as are topographical ones. Indeed, early Western music theory famously viewed pitch space anatomically (the Guidonian hand, for example).

There's no way to know for sure, but the key basis for the metaphor of musical pitch space as vertical derives from the particular quality of western musical notation (not even other advanced civilizations' notations systems necessarily use that metaphor).

Of course, on a string instrument, the "higher" pitches" are achieved by playing "lower" on the neck (that is a physical universal, as is the point you raise, about relative resonance in the vocal tract). On a piano, the are achieved by playing left to right. So all the piano keyboard does visually is give you a different notational system (not one that is more accurate to any physical reality) with which you interact directly, as opposed to a musical score.

Anyway, digital technology has changed all of this. Modern musical literacy has much more to do with understanding composite waveforms as descriptive musical notation, and MIDI patches as prescriptive notation.

It's really taking the digital generation longer to wrap it's head around the way in which digital technology has exposed the temporality and relativity of western musical values of the last two or three centuries, and obsoleting the technologies used to embody those values. We take it for granted that the printed book is on its way out. We walk around with quality recording devices and high fi playback systems and huge music libraries in our pockets. The obsession with retaining music educational standards that are clearly obsolete in the broader culture is fascinating.
posted by spitbull at 9:16 AM on December 13, 2011

ugh -- wrap ITS head around....
posted by spitbull at 9:18 AM on December 13, 2011

I started on piano, then voice. Recorder and xylophone in grade school. And then violin, string bass, oboe, mellophone, baritone horn, trumpet, flute, sax. Picked up string bass on my own in high school, played a gig or two in a crappy band. Had a brief love affair with the tin whistle, much to the annoyance of everyone I lived with. I sometimes think I'd like to learn guitar, but then, mandolin or lute might be more fun.

All of which is to say: yes, starting on piano gave me a leg up learning the other instruments, mainly because my piano lessons involved a lot of theory and my other lessons didn't. But really, the single most important thing I had (besides parents who supported my desire to play all the the things! ) was a series of music programs where the teachers encouraged us to play around with the different instruments and see which ones really fit. He says "If you’re good but not great, you may be asked to 'take one for the team' and switch to an unpopular instrument like tenor sax" like that's a flaw in the system. (Also, low brass has the most fun of any section in the band).

"Because here’s the secret about marching bands: not only is the music fairly easy, so are the instruments. In fact, it’s common to switch players between instruments to make up for gaps in a marching band. We break out the mellophones and the marching bells and somehow it all gets done. Students with a good musical background can pick it up quickly. And they’ll have a good musical background if they spent years on piano or guitar."

Ha. Tell that to my fucking ulcer I got in marching band. Switching from oboe to mellophone--or piano or guitar to mello, for that matter--isn't exactly a walk in the park. Picking up the fingering isn't that hard, but the embouchure is entirely different matter. And then there's memorizing the marching patterns, memorizing the music, learning entirely new ways of walking. Add that to the fact that you have to keep up with your original instrument so you don't die come concert band season (try playing a nice oboe solo after not playing for three months and enjoy the pain), and you live, breath, eat, and sleep marching band for four to six months to get it all done. My summer before marching band: wake up at 4:30 in order to get to practice by six. 6-12 marching practice. Half an hour for lunch, and then work until 4:30 or 5 on mello lessons. Home for dinner, and then back at seven for concert practice. Home again at nine, and then you were supposed to fit in private practice/memorizing all the music somewhere. Rinse, repeat, five to six days a week for three months.

So yes, a musically knowledgeable kid can pick up mello and play well for marching in a couple months of practice. You may not be able to eat anything but yogurt and soup for awhile because the muscles in your mouth stop working, but yeah.

Also: "I don’t know what twenty-five kids on piano looks like, or sounds like. Ditto for guitar. These instruments just aren’t meant for parallel play."

My little sibs went to a different high school than I did, a non-traditional charter school that focused on the arts. Some of their music nights did, in fact, involve ensembles of 15-20 guitars or pianos/keyboards (they also usually had a percussion ensemble). It was pretty neat! (There were also lots of piano/guitar solos, four-man-rock-band mini-sets, ect.)
posted by kittenmarlowe at 9:47 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow- spitbull really nailed a lot of the things that went through my own head as I read the OP and subsequent commentary.

There are a lot of commonalities in the discussion above - for example, that ensemble playing is really important. Maybe one thing that hasn't been addressed is what assumptions we make when we think about "learning music". For example, for a lot of people ensemble playing means bands and orchestras. In fact, there are musicians for whom that is their daily life. For these people, privileging piano and guitar instruction is really insulting. Their experience is very real - but it is different than a lot of other peoples' experiences, people for whom learning music means learning how to play and sing songs. For these people, who might not have any referent for band and orchestra music, it seems obvious that piano, guitar, bass, drums, etc. will be more useful to a child than piccolo or french horn.

I talked with one of the people in charge with administering the british music education system, and asked him how learning popular music styles fit into the music curriculum. His answer was that it was welcome, but difficult to incorporate since there is no systematic progression to guide students through learning how to play the repertoire. (Essentially, he seemed to feel it was a bad fit for music education curriculum). To me, that seems like a copout, since there have been programs, like kittenmarlowe describes above, with ensembles of guitars and pianos, and using popular music as a referent.

I think the issue more comes down to the kind of musical culture we want to impart to students. (By the way, it also seems like most people aren't really conscious of this issue.) A common argument is that we don't need to teach kids about pop music - that they learn it on their own - and that if we don't teach them classical music, band music, swing big band music, or whatever, that these kinds of music will disappear. Another common argument is that we need to teach orchestral instruments to students so that we will have musicians with the training to fill our orchestras. I think it is crazy, though, how many people get bachelor of music degrees in instrumental performance on orchestral instruments.

Getting back to the OP, obviously John August's referent for learning music isn't band and orchestral music. Why, for example, is he ok with kids learning drums rather than french horn? I agree with him that learning more than one instrument leads to a better understanding of music. Why is it that we need musicians to begin rigorous practice at age 6? There is a reason why people claim it is important, of course, and some kids love it, but I think that for most kids it would be really helpful to have a diverse musical experience - both in instruments and in musical experience.

(BTW, I agree that singing is one of the most important skills any musician can learn, and am shocked at how commonly it is overlooked).
posted by ianhattwick at 10:19 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is imperative in music school that you learn piano. Why? One reason: you can see the relationship between notes.

This is a terrible goddamned myth that has prevented generations of suckers from ever "learning the relationship between notes."

Just an opinion from a pianist, not a terrible myth. Of course the ear is more important than the eye. It's music. And maybe learning to sing is more important than learning piano. It's different for everyone, no?

Playing the polyphonic piano has its advantages (especially in solo work), but I would hardly call it "the king of instruments," as some have done. Ensemble playing is vital. Most of what I know about music I have learned by playing with people who were better than I was.

Now I see why John August closed his thread to comments. People get very emotional about this subject. Well, music can be pretty emotional in itself...still, I'm a little bemused about how convinced people are about their opinions here. It's worse than political threads.
posted by kozad at 10:41 AM on December 13, 2011

I kind of doubt that Future Miss Julliard's parents are taking their cues from a screenwriter on this subject. For the majority of the rest of people (at least in the west) guitar and piano will stick with you for life, while other instruments are more likely to fall into non-use after 12th grade. And even if they don't, knowing guitar or piano or both will probably help you be better at that other instrument, so you should learn it first or concurrently.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:54 AM on December 13, 2011

The most popular form of music in Mexico and the Mexican-inflected parts of the US these days is banda, which is all about the grunting tuba beat. Or are we just talking about suburban white kids here? Personally, I think it should be illegal to play guitar, the way most people do it.

The Seattle Sounders soccer team has a marching band, and the tubas very definitely get to solo. A good time is had by all, especially when the tubas swirl their instruments around their waists like hula hoops.
posted by Fnarf at 11:33 AM on December 13, 2011

Which opinions don't you find so convincing, kozad?

We're talking at cross-purposes here maybe. In my story above, I emphasized that I was born into a house with a piano (and a pianist, my mom, at the helm), exposed in practical ways to both live and recorded music of diverse genres and styles (no small amount of which was my mom at the piano) from my fetal years forward (that is, I spent my first 9 months with my ear jammed against a keyboard, as I like to say), and that I encountered the keyboard as a technical tool from an early age as a student of music theory and composition. My own musical imagination is quite pianistic as a result. I too have worked out countless chord progressions by seeing how my fingers wanted to go between voicings, and banged out 3 or 4 bar examples on the Steinway Bs in our classrooms to explain a harmonic pun or the concept of suspension more times than I could ever recount. I've even played keyboards in bands, and I've certainly punched in plenty of stuff on a keyboard in the studio. When I hear harmonic music and want to analyze its structure aurally, I sometimes visualize reproducing it on a keyboard (more often on a guitar, however). But I've never been a pianist as such. I've mastered a few little pieces -- Bach two part inventions and the like -- for piano exams in college and high school. I feel no expressive relationship to the piano (or keyboard, slightly different) as an instrument, the way I do to singing or the guitar, especially. But I would not ever discount the value of learning musicianship (as opposed to pianism) at the keyboard for any student musician, certainly for anyone with ambitions to pursue jazz or classical music as a serious or professional performer or at an academic level beyond the secondary school years.

I'm not knocking the point that western musicianship is very efficiently curated -- as it has been for about 400 years or so at most, a period now in evident decline as musical cultural globalizes and re-technologizes -- at the keyboard, but there are so many other fundamental dimensions, including emergent technological ones and universal rhythmic, bodily, and vocal ones, to full musicianship. The keyboard remains central to western musical culture. You'd be nuts to marginalize it in music education entirely, and certainly in specialized music education (what we mostly do now, favoring a few individual students over the majority, another story of what 's wrong).

There's no reason to make the keyboard a prerequisite point of entry, nor to restrict primary and secondary musical education to a keyboard centered vision. That's just how generations of music teachers have been taught themselves in America's big schools of music -- not its Juilliards, but its big public university music schools, especially. It's freaking retrograde, and I say that having spent my entire life around it, virtually.

There's a hell of a lot of musical creativity -- inarguably the vast majority of it -- that happens completely beyond these formal educational settings we are mostly discussing here anyway. And the skillsets to succeed in those domains are being very efficiently taught in an open-source culture. They're developing in computer labs and art schools, among people for whom a high level of literacy in editing digital media is the equivalent of being able to play the complete Art of Fugue on a harpsichord. School music could learn so much from embracing community music for its curricular inspirations.

Plus, we really have marginalized the body within music education. That has to change. Music education should be physical education. The fit is so natural it's criminal that the idea hasn't taken root in American schools.
posted by spitbull at 11:38 AM on December 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

As a lifelong musician and a skilled guitarist I say MORE WIERDO INSTRUMENTS.

there are too damn many of us guitarists in the world, and we're boring. Encourage/empower your kids (and your adult self) to play didgeridoo, diddley-bow, zither and nose flute. (or, if that's too hard, euphonium and oboe and timpani will be acceptable).

Mostly, let it be about love and enthusiasm. Music is not about perfection, it's the soul in between the notes and the love that gets you there. All the rest is meaningless.
posted by Erroneous at 12:15 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I teach elementary school music and I do so with hand drums, xylophones, the body and the voice. I place a very high premium on kids finding their way into music with their own power, under their own control, and really listening to, and absorbing, the results. Expression, self-control, measured choices are the key.

The kids learn the most, I think, from singing a capella. I teach them to find notes, to use their head voices, to feel the shifts in the music. But body percussion (claps and pats and so on) and hand percussion are important too.

My goal is for music to become within their locus of control, so that they can feel it stay there the rest of their lives. If this happens with percussion, piano, jaw harp or digital workstations is of little interest to me. They're all means to an end.

I do agree that our music education infrastructure is archaic. It trains children to play in instrumental ensembles of the sort we don't listen to much any more. 100 years ago every small town had a band shell and dance bands, wind ensembles, junior orchestras to play patriotic fanfares. We teach as if this were still true. We also get kids to a certain age and stop teaching them to invent and improvise music. Bad idea.

Also, most music instruction leads with a) finger training and b) decoding sheet music, both of which should be in the last stages of learning music. Start with the sense of music, and it's grammar of rhythms and tonalities, and the rest is fairly trivial.

But most music teachers were conservatory instrumentalists, or at least played in ensembles during their education. So they tend to teach as they were taught.
posted by argybarg at 12:46 PM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Talent is one thing, motivation is another. I will echo others here that that should be primary -- keeping the kid's motivation, not cultivating talent. I'm probably going to get shit for this, but objectively, music is *not* as important as reading and writing, and kids should not be "taught music theory" so they get the basics no matter what -- they should learn how music is made. Which is subtly different.

I took the required music course in elementary school. I tooted "Mary had a little lamb" badly on a recorder, being demoted to drums (really, "drum") and bristled at the complete arbitrariness of A-G and having to remember where stupid sharps and flats go (still don't.. isn't there a missing one somewhere? Why *is* that? Why should I give a shit?) -- and basically that was it. I was done with creating music and the really dumb instruments I had to learn for no good reason. While in some respects I do regret not learning an instrument more completely, I feel that learning to make music was not universally important. Still don't.

Piano was probably the most interesting instrument to me, because, from my perspective at the time (and now), it seemed the easiest to get good sounds out of. However, at the time, synthesizers for home use were shitty simulacrums and weren't *that* cheap -- and I really didn't care enough to learn.

But the funny thing is -- I did kinda sorta pick up the bug of creating music again 20 years later. Not even part-time amateur level -- but every once in a year, I'll load up a mod tracker (or the DAW equivalent nowadays) and splat out a stupid (not very good) repetitive chunk of noise. And I'll spend a couple days on it... perfecting nonsense. All this is fun, but still not important. I juggle as a hobby, and I'm much (much) better at that than musicianship -- I don't think juggling is important for a well rounded life.
posted by smidgen at 1:33 PM on December 13, 2011

If Mr. August ever needs anecdotal evidence, look here:

I was blessed with the ability to be failry competent on any instrument handed to me, but the saxophone is the one instrument I was ever truly good at. In 8th grade, I told my band teacher I was going to sell my sax so I could buy an EPS sampler, and focus on writing and recording my own compositions. He was very distraught, urging me to reconsider because a student of his with similar talent was now a professional saxophonist, ON A BOAT. I protested that I didn't want to be limited to one note at a time, and his response was a befuddled "but he plays saxophone on a BOAT".

20 years later, I'm putting myself through school with income generated by my compositions, and there's a certain Lonely Island song that resonates with me on multiple levels.
posted by yorick at 2:55 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

He was very distraught, urging me to reconsider because a student of his with similar talent was now a professional saxophonist, ON A BOAT.

did he think that pays better than being a public school music teacher or the job security was better? that strikes me as being depressing and self-contradictory career advice
posted by pyramid termite at 3:37 PM on December 13, 2011

But I'm not sure there is a difference (subtle or not) between music theory and "how music is made."

I think there is. It would be the difference between practical grammar and linguistics.

A solid sense of how music works would allow you to feel the difference between major and minor keys, and how to modulate from one to the other. Music theory would explain why major was called major, along with how the major scale relates to the harmonic series.
posted by argybarg at 4:48 PM on December 13, 2011

I am loving the comments in this thread, especially yours spitbull, thanks.
posted by smoke at 5:03 PM on December 13, 2011

My pleasure, thank you smoke.
posted by spitbull at 5:50 PM on December 13, 2011

Would it be utterly unreasonable for someone now in their early 40s (i.e. me) to try to learn both piano and guitar (as well as how to read music) from scratch? I feel like it's a challenge I might enjoy, but I'd be interested in knowing whether it's something an adult brain could handle.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:01 on December 13 [+] [!]

Simply, no.

On a brain level, the plasticity might not be the same as for a ten year old. But one might be able to make up for it with practice time. As for learning both instruments, I would start with the piano, get a grounding in that, then pick up the guitar.

If you're lucky enough to have access to group music lessons, literally a classroom situation with multiple students where all are proceeding at the same pace on the same instrument, that would be worth doing.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:14 PM on December 13, 2011

I rather wish I had been able to get piano/keyboard/music theory lessons when I was younger. Yes, I see the importance of other instruments, but I figured quickly ducks that by having a good grasp of music theory and the ability to effectively play the keyboard, I could sort of fake the other instruments, and get the music out of my head onto paper, or computer, or whatever.

runs and hides from the musically talented MeFi's, deciding he probably said something insultingly simplistic
posted by Samizdata at 9:29 PM on December 13, 2011

The whole argument is like saying it would be much better if American kids ate more leafy greens and less sugar, and that therefore we should only serve spinach in schools and look down on parents who serve anything other than greens. But oh, leafy greens cost $40 a pound and are only reserved for a certain percentage of kids. The rest get gummy bears for dinner.

No question kids need their leafy greens. But at this point we'd settle for making sure most of them at least got a V8 or something once a day. There's a vast territory between kale and gummy bears.
posted by spitbull at 6:06 AM on December 14, 2011

(Meanwhile, it's cheap and easy, by the way, to grow endless quantities of kale that tastes like candy in your own living room.)
posted by spitbull at 6:08 AM on December 14, 2011

What do you mean?

You are better educated on this than me, so you're making the assumption I know more than I do. This rant was written from the perspective of me being taught by my teachers at the time.

Obviously, I'm not talking about the letters themselves -- that would be dumb. I'm talking about why 8 and those particular 8 plus assorted flats? Etc, etc... *none* zero zip of the teachers explained that other than "this is the way it's done" or "it sounds better". eh... If I label a teacup, a metal bar and a wooden table as alpha, lambda. phi and I could create my own music notation... :-)

Now I know better, a little, but only in a mathematical sense. And even mathematically, the pitches don't quite line up...

you need to play the notes in those particular arrangements. You don't have to play notes arranged in a harmonic minor scale, for example, but if you don't play those particular notes, it won't sound like that particular key

And here is the problem -- what? None of this made sense to me. Yes, if you press different keys you get different sounds. Just like banging a coffee cup with spoon to different from the radiator. :-) That's not an explanation -- it's a way of explaining how to understand how to transpose something already written down -- but why was it written that way?

'm not asking for a lesson here, I'm just showing that the lessons I got were piss poor.

The thing is, I have had and continue to have a lot of the same complaints about high school math that you have about school music. The difference is that when I'm complaining about math, I know I'm completely wrong to do so.

I don't think I deserved that. I'm not wrong to complain, neither or you. I'm minimizing music instruction slightly, maybe more than is fair because I don't get it. But my criticism stands *because* I don't get it -- and I know a lot of people like me. Similarly, those who are math illiterate because of bad teachers *are* in fact qualified to comment on the experiences that turned them off and the misunderstanding that result.
posted by smidgen at 2:33 PM on December 15, 2011

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