September is a busy time for families, with back to school and the start up of extra-curricular activities.  Perhaps you are thinking of beginning, or of continuing with music lessons.

Choosing a music teacher and/or school is a daunting task for parents.  We want our children to enjoy music and to be able to play for fun.  We want our children to learn to play properly and to get a good music education.  How do we know if we have made a good choice, especially if we have no background in music ourselves?

When our children are 5 or 6 years old and we are signing them up for their first piano, guitar, violin lesson, we usually aren’t even thinking about the possibility that they might want to pursue music in University or as a career … but, your teacher or school should be.  As parents, we are always trying to keep all options open so that our children can pursue the career of their choice.  If they need it, we get them extra tutoring in math, science, language skills, because we have a good idea what is needed for them to qualify for higher education in these fields, but what about music?  What do they need in order to be prepared for music as a career, and are they getting it at their school or in their private lessons?

My son, and some of his friends, did not decide until their grade 12 year that they wanted to study music in University.  My son was lucky because I had forced him to finish his grade 8 piano and had sent him for written theory and history exams, and he was prepared for the University entrance requirements (even though he still struggled with some of the musicianship skills after he got there).  Some of his friends, however, were not so lucky.

I can’t imagine the stress and anguish of a parent who, after spending many years and many thousands of dollars on music lessons, finds out that their son or daughter does not meet the entrance requirements to continue their education.  These were all amazing young musicians with experience playing in youth ensembles, who had to take a year off school in order to upgrade their knowledge base and re-apply.

So what are these entrance requirements, and how do we ensure that we can keep that door open for our children?

Entrance requirements will vary from one institution to another, but generally, after academic acceptance, your child will have to pass an audition on their primary instrument.  After that, they will be required to pass a piano grade six (sometimes grade eight) RCM equivalency test plus a written theory placement test, which can be at about the RCM advanced rudiments level.  This applies to all music majors, irrespective of their instrument or planned area of study.  If they do not meet these requirements upon acceptance, they have to take remedial classes in theory, and they have to complete their piano equivalency in order to graduate.  Keeping in mind that the work load of a music student is quite heavy, with lessons and master classes on their primary instrument, rehearsals and performances, as well as required concert attendance and evaluation in addition to their full class schedule, this would not be an easy feat!

But how does this information relate to your children who are just beginning their music lessons, and how does it help you, as a parent, make an informed decision when choosing lessons?  There are a number of things you can look for in music lessons in order to ensure that your children are getting the best possible music education:

  • Are they actually learning to “read” music? …. Can they name the notes?  Can they clap the rhythms?  This can be an issue when studying any instrument, but especially important if your child is studying the guitar where “tabs” have become very popular.  Tabs are a wonderful tool which make playing guitar fun and provide immediate gratification, but they are like “following the bouncing ball” and do not give your child a usable music education.
  • Are they learning to play by ear? … Orchestral instruments require a lot of ear training in order to hear when the note is “right”, but what about the piano?  Traditional piano lessons are often based on “see the dot and press the key”.  The exam process requires that students play and identify different chords and intervals, but are they learning how to use these skills to make music?  Can they figure out how to play a song just by knowing how it sounds?
  • Theory and history …. Are they getting any?  Aside from knowing the letter name or duration of a note, are they learning anything else about the music they are playing?  Can they decode every word and symbol on that page?  Are they learning the structure of the songs?  Are they being exposed to all different types of music … in different styles, from different time periods … and do they understand why they are different?
  • Chords … do they understand what chords are and how to use them?  Most of the music our students will be playing is based on chord progressions.  Understanding how to identify the chords  and how to use them is an essential key to understanding the music we see and how to create our own.  Why do we practise triads, chords and arpeggios if not to use them?
  • Singing … are your children being encouraged to sing or hum as they play or as they identify intervals?  Are they being asked to play a song that they know how to sing? My son went into University with grade 8 piano and grade 7 double bass, and he had great difficulty with the singing and sight-singing requirements in his first year “skills” class.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when choosing lessons for our children is that excellent instruction on an instrument does not always mean an excellent education in music.  If you want your children to receive a well-rounded education in music, then you need to find a teacher who shares the same goal.