Why Is Practicing Still Considered Necessary To Music Education?

Matthew Healy Dad, blogger
Matthew Healy
Dad, blogger

Taylor Swift. Miley Cyrus. Duran Duran. Ed Sheeran. Nick Jonas. Maroon 5. Nicki Minaj. U2. Guns N’ Roses. Walk the Moon. The Beatles. Carly Rae Jepsen. Ray Chen. Fifth Harmony. Calvin Harris. Pitbull. KE$HA. Fun. Justin Bieber. Kurt Cobain. Ariana Grande. Lady Gaga. Ellie Goulding. Gotye. The Wanted. Kanye West. Bon Jovi. Irving Berlin. Beyoncé. Eddie Van Halen. One Direction. Jimi Hendrix. Jerry Garcia. Katy Perry. Bob Dylan. Selena Gomez.

What do these musicians all have in common, besides of course their musical brilliance and worldwide fame? They didn’t practice. Nor did they need to in order to produce some of the most incredible music of all time. Why? Because practicing is an archaic custom that only hurts our children today.

My wife and I signed our daughter Stella up for classical violin lessons when she was five. Stella showed a lot of musical promise as a toddler, always singing along with whatever my wife and I would listen to around the house (usually U2 or Duran Duran). She would even identify the song as “slow,” “fast,” or “flow” (my personal favorite, meaning “in between fast and slow.” Like, “Ordinary World” was “flow,” and it was our song).

Stella loved music and she started begging to play the violin. So naturally we had her start lessons right away. Stella loved it. On violin days she would put on her coat, pick up her violin all packed up, and wait by the door saying “ready!” when the lesson wasn’t for another six hours. Her teacher was a sweet woman named Julie, and lessons were filled with giggles and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It made Stella happy.

“If music be the food of love, play on.” –William Shakespeare

But then something happened. During the third lesson, Julie gave Stella a talk about practicing. She very gently explained to Stella that if she did not practice her violin every day she would not improve, and that that would be “no fun for anybody.” So, being the kind of parent who simply wants the best for his child, I would tell Stella every day when she got home from Kindergarten that it was time to practice.

This started an ongoing battle in our house, filled with tears, screaming, and—eventually—practicing. Julie was thrilled, remarking on how much straighter Stella’s bow was and how her sound was cleaner. But to be honest, I really didn’t hear much, if any, difference in Stella’s playing. It had been six weeks and Stella was still playing “Twinkle.” Though Stella’s technique was slightly improving, her musical genius was stagnant.

After one lesson, Stella and I were on the subway back home. Stella’s arms were crossed and her feet, not touching the floor from her seat, were swinging back and forth (something she loved doing when she was happy). But this time the swinging was almost violent. I broke the silence and said, “Julie sure has had you working on “Twinkle” for a long time.” Stella’s feet stopped. She looked up at me with her big beautiful, innocent eyes. Since the practice battles had started, Stella had not looked at me in this way, so I welled up a little. She replied, “Yeah. I used to like that song. Now it makes me mad.”

When Stella said this, I realized that it represented the whole situation. Stella used to like music. And now it made her, and me, mad. Because she was forced to practice.

Studies have shown that practicing for hours a day has no real impact on natural-born talent. In a 2014 survey of 120 music students in the tristate area who practice everyday for more than 45 minutes, 98 percent of them claim that practicing daily, though improving their technical ability on the instrument, has not heightened their level of pure musical talent. Additionally, 96 percent of parents claimed that the more their children practiced, the less they loved music. Other studies have even suggested that practicing could make a child more at risk of being a psychopath or developing a gluten intolerance.

“I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene.” –Ray Charles

Sure. Before electricity and recordings there was a need for people to know how to play an instrument and understand how music worked, if you ever wanted to hear music. Technical ability on an instrument used to be a valuable skill. But in today’s world of mechanical production and manipulation, pure musical brilliance can shine through without creativity-stifling work.

“Music should be your escape.” –Missy Elliott

Stella quit the violin, a decision I supported. She is back to her music-loving self, singing along with the music, dancing around the house, and occasionally even making up her own songs. And they are lovely. Though Stella is fortunate to have the parents that she does, many kids are not as lucky, still being forced to practice. A practice-free system of teaching is far from being accepted. Educators (and therefore parents) still insist on their students practicing, and this only deters students from pursuing something in which they might otherwise have interest. For all we know, the world could be depriving itself of the next Taylor Swift!

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” —Plato