The musical journey: are we there yet?

Learning to play a musical instrument, like a road trip, has three phases. First comes the excitement of setting out on a journey. During this phase, normally undertaken in grade 4, everything seems fun and new. Students are pleased just to be able to make a sound with their instruments. Very few students quit during this phase.

In most cases, the excitement lasts for the first year and into the second. Fifth graders return to school in the fall still excited to continue the musical journey begun the previous year.

However, after a time, excitement gives way to impatience, and we enter the are-we-there-yet phase. In my experience, this phase usually arrives about half way through grade 5. The novelty has worn off, and the destination seems far away. For some students, the journey ends here. The phrase that announces a student's intention to quit is almost always a variation of "It's too hard and just isn't fun anymore." However, I don't believe that quitting at this point always has to do with the level of difficulty. Rather, it's about not knowing where the journey is leading. I will have a few words to say about that below.

If students are lucky enough not to turn around and go home at this point, they begin to approach the third and most important phase of the journey: arrival. The meaning of "arrival" is a bit complicated in music. The truth is that musicians who make it past the second phase are constantly arriving at new heights of achievement if they continue to make an effort. Playing music becomes more enjoyable the more we learn and the more effort we put into it. It becomes a virtuous (and yet still challenging) cycle.

Mountains. Switching from the metaphor of road trips to mountains, there is a reason why I say in the Owl books that playing a musical instrument is like climbing a mountain. Both activities are extremely challenging, but also exceptionally rewarding. No one gets to the top of a challenging mountain or learns to play an instrument without extensive preparation and effort and without overcoming many obstacles.

At the halfway point of grade 5, a child may be thinking, “This just isn't very fun anymore” in the same way that a half-frozen climber who is halfway up a Mt. Everest may be wondering desperately, "Why did I ever think it would be a good idea to climb this mountain?" Both have lost sight–or never had a clear idea of–the destination.

A parent's faith. It's during the second phase of the musical journey that parents become so critically important. Most kids willingly sign up for band in grade 4 without any pressure from their parents. However, carrying on the journey during the second phase requires something more than pure excitement. That's because learning to play a musical instrument is not just an activity.  It's also an act of faith, a belief in something we cannot yet see.

Children don't know what lies ahead when they begin to play an instrument. They start because it seems fun. They begin with a sense of fun and excitement, but they don't know what the view from the top of the mountain will be. So they must have the support of those who have faith that the view from the top will be hard but worth all the effort. Excitement will only go so far, so it's a parent's faith that sustains a child's journey up Mt. Music. As I've said elsewhere in this blog, without parental involvement, there simply would be very few musicians and therefore very little music in our world.