Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Music Lessons

Living in Silicon Valley sometimes feels a lot like living in Singapore for one reason: sometimes, it feels as though people around here (the ones with kids anyway) engage in competitive parenting more than any other sports. At one point, someone told me about how she forced her kid to practice music in order to earn hours at video games. And then there's the mandatory after-school Chinese language lessons (for those who are Chinese). There's nothing like useless jumping-through-hoops hyper-competitive parenting to make kids resent the subject.

You hear a lot of junk science about how this is supposed to teach kids self-discipline, or teach them to persevere to be good at something. There's also the frequent comment that it's harder to learn music as an adult. There's the real-science behind it mentioned in Brain Rules for Baby, which discusses how about 10 years of music lessons is correlated with better understanding of emotions or empathy. (I don't remember which)

Anyway, Xiaoqin said, "if those parents like music so much, why don't they learn the instrument themselves instead of making their kids that way?" My tip for kids is to make this bargain with their parents: they'd spend precisely as much time practicing their instruments as their parents spend playing Bloodborne. (Those kids who want to have mercy on their parents can choose an easier game like Uncharted 2 instead) (No, I'm not afraid of my kids doing this to me --- I've been secretly practicing video games)

In any case, I grew up hating piano lessons as well, just like many other Asian kids. Thankfully, my parents let us give up on those lessons before any permanent damage was done: I'll never love classical music, but at least I can enjoy some music.

In any case, I'd always thought that I'd enjoy the flute. I bought a tiny white recorder-toy for Bowen, and could play a few tunes for him, but the recorder's range is pretty limited. And then during a re-watch of Battlestar Galactica (we knew to stop at Season 3, Episode 4), I heard Wander My Friends, which captivated me. Coupled with my wife's comments about learning an instrument, I decided to buy a cheapo flute and a book and try to learn how to play.

A few days into it, I realized that learning an instrument from a book was a recipe for giving myself bad habits, and engaged an instructor for private lessons. A couple of weeks of practice later, and I'm beginning to hit high notes. Most of all, I'm now actually able to play tunes that I like, albeit not mistake free, and perhaps at a halting tempo. (I've long been able to play anything by ear, with minor experimentation, so this is not a surprise --- my sight reading skills are still piss-poor, however, mostly because playing by ear has made me neglect those skills)

The flute's a much tougher instrument than the piano: rather than just working your fingers and hands, you have to form an embouchure. Worse, the embouchure varies from note to note, so you're changing the embouchure and your fingering at the same time, which makes for challenging practicing. On the other hand, it's a much more fun instrument than the piano.

For one thing, you don't have to sit! I never realized how much I disliked sitting in front of a piano until the day I realized that the flute didn't have to be played sitting down. I can stand and play, walk around and play, and generally move around. The instrument is portable, and if I ever got really good at it, I supposed I could hike and practice at the same time. If you're a cyclist, hiker, sailor, a piano is a ridiculous thing to bring with you on trips, but it's entirely feasible to bring along a flute, or its cheap but robust relative, the fife.

So a couple of weeks later, my cheapo flute developed an air-leak that made me unable to play certain notes. My instructor looked at it and asked me how much I paid for it. When I told him, he said that he was surprised that it even made any noise at all. He recommended that I upgraded to the Gemeinhardt. That darn thing cost $300, but it was a revelation! Now I can easily hit every note I can form a decent embouchure for, and I could now play Wander My Friends. The day it arrived I spent a couple of hours playing it because it was so much fun being able to play whatever I wanted without the instrument getting in the way!  I was never that motivated as a kid! Note that the technical practice still sucks. It's still boring to repeatedly play the same piece over and over again, and it's still annoying as heck to fail for 4-5 days until suddenly everything clicks and you can do it on the 6th.

So the argument that it's easier to learn music as a kid doesn't really pan out for me. As an adult, it's easier for me to tolerate having to do technical exercises in order to get better. I've learned to reward myself by playing tunes I like after I'm done with the technical exercises. I also have low standards. I'm not going after orchestra-level performance: I'm playing for my own satisfaction and fun. When it gets boring, I stop.

And of course, Bowen after seeing me play, wants to play too. But even if we start him on lessons (most music instructors will agree that 5 years is about the right age to start, not earlier), there's no way I'm going to make him practice or let him treat music as anything but fun. Though having read this answer on Quora, I'm tempted to force him into music lessons and use math or cycling as a reward instead.

I think as far as music lessons are concerned, the advice written by Antoine de Saint Exupery from decades ago applies, more than anything else:
"If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."
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