Tickling the Ivories

It’s fair to say we’re a pretty musical family. Music is what puts food on our table and pays the bills. The house is littered with instruments we’ve acquired over the years and we are the proud owners of a lovely piano, bequeathed to us by my late step-father who was himself an accomplished and respected musician and teacher. Our daughter and her younger brother have both taken piano lessons since they were 6 years old and are progressing through their grades…but, you see, we have a bit of a problem.

Whilst our daughter embraces the process of learning the instrument in a formal way, our son regards his teacher (a warm, friendly and very relaxed lady) as his arch-nemesis. The colour drains from his face at 3.45 on a Wednesday when the doorbell announces her arrival, and getting him to practise even twice a week, let alone daily, without tears and arguments is but a pipe-dream. We’ve read every ‘How To get Your Child To Practise’ manual from cover to cover, but we are at a point now where we believe that to continue his formal tuition would be detrimental to his happiness and our sanity.

I can hear the gasps from ‘proper’ musicians out there. Yes, we’re aware of the statistics – only 10% of children take musical instrument lessons but 90% of adults wish they had. I agree whole-heartedly that for those children who take to the discipline, whose characters and personalities lend themselves to the structure of working through grades at a young age, the benefits are enormous. But here’s the thing; before starting lessons, our son would happily sit at the piano of his own volition and amuse himself with the sounds and rudimentary tunes he could elicit. He showed a natural musical ability, which we hoped lessons would enhance and develop. Unfortunately this has not been the case, and slowly we’ve seen his joy in playing the piano diminish. So, after much soul-searching, we’ve decided to knock it on the head.

I recently read a fascinating blog by Charles London, entitled ‘Boys Don’t Read, Except When They Do’ which, as the title implies, tackles that ubiquitous educational issue of boys showing significantly less enthusiasm for reading than girls. I urge you to have a look here. London argues that ‘boys today are consuming more text than at any time in human history. Adults simply are not valuing the reading that boys are doing.’ Indeed, he goes on to explain how research has shown that boys themselves don’t regard the literature they enjoy (gaming manuals, comics, sport magazines, fact books) as ‘proper’ reading. And why would they when, throughout their early education, little more than lip-service is paid to the subject matter and styles of text they find stimulating. This is especially noticeable in the literature used to assess their reading. How can a boy’s ability to analyse and interpret text be fairly compared to that of a girl, when that chosen text is significantly more suited to the tastes of the latter.

So how does this excellent article relate to our problem? Well, one reason our son gives us for not wanting to continue piano lessons is that, unlike his sister, he doesn’t consider himself musical. Yet after much deliberation, reflection and discussion, my wife and I realised that he does have a passion for music, but it’s a passion which sits outside the regime of timetabled lessons, practising scales and negotiating his way around a stave.

For instance, on car journeys he loves being in charge of the in-flight playlist, treating us to an eclectic mix of Neil Diamond, Led Zeppelin, Ludovic Einaudi, Jeff Buckley, Ministry Of Sound 80s Anthems and some nasty thumping techno pop which, to quote Morrissey ‘says nothing to me about my life’! When he thinks no one is listening he plugs in one of my old electric guitars (the expensive ones are off-limits) and simply makes noises, exploring the fret board and wreaking havoc on the whammy bar! We’ll often find him with drumsticks, beating out increasing complex rhythms on different surfaces – sometimes drums, sometimes his thighs, but mostly the furniture. And then there’s his keyboard, with over two hundred different pre-set sounds and rhythms to choose from. Without any parental coercion he regularly just sits and amuses himself with all the machine has to offer. He’ll pick out familiar tunes, experimenting with different sounds and beats. He’ll try to work out the chords to his favourite songs (currently it’s the delightful ‘Sideburns Song’ by Tobuscus – don’t ask). Oh, and he’ll spend ages repeatedly pressing the key that makes a fart sound.

Sadly, I can’t recall the last time he chose to sit at the piano just to tickle the ivories for his own amusement. Fingers crossed it won’t be too long.

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