Yesterday my friend (a fellow musician and teacher) shared an article from a parenting blog about the “high cost” of music lessons.
The author does a hatchet job on a straw man piano teacher for charging $60 an hour for lessons.
She notes that at that rate, given a (purely mythological) 40-hour workweek, piano teachers make $120k per year, which is more money than performers (and those in many other worthy professions) earn. She went so far as to call teachers “out of work musicians.”
My first instinct was make a point-by-point rebuttal to her article. Given the angry comments on my friend’s post––and the fact that the article has since been pulled from the parenting blog––it seems that I’m not alone.
But rather than getting obnoxious and indignant about it, I think maybe we’re all better served by looking at the actual value of music lessons and how to maximize the return on your investment.
The Real Reason Your Child Takes Music Lessons
Many of the comments criticizing the article are the same general arguments you hear for keeping music education in schools: better-rounded kids, an appreciation for art and culture, and improved student outcomes.
None of these are anything to turn your nose up at, but (as the blog author notes), they seem awfully wishy-washy when compared with other, more concrete items on your monthly budget. This is doubly so when you consider the high rate of washout.
But I think they miss a much larger benefit.
The Case For Music Lessons As Life Lessons
The very real value of studying music is what it teaches students about life.
We enroll kids in team sports not because we think they’ll be professional athletes, but because it teaches them about hard work, cooperation, and commitment.
Enrolling kids in music lessons, when approached the right way, also teaches them about hard work, cooperation, and commitment. But there’s a fundamental difference.
Becoming a musician requires private, self-directed study.
Anyone can run another lap when the coach is screaming at you.
But making time to practice? Leaning into the uncomfortable stuff? All on your own?
That takes initiative. Dedication. Courage. Curiosity. A willingness to be wrong, to fail. Drive. Independence. The ability to make connections and see patterns. Willpower. Priorities. A longer-term view of success.
You know, all of the things a person needs to be an awesome human.
If you spend even a few minutes skimming this site, you’ll quickly notice that I’m writing about life at least as often as I’m writing about learning guitar. They’re the same thing.
I really don’t think it’s an accident that my musician friends are the most well-read, widely-traveled, fascinating people I know.
It’s incredibly common to see someone take the skills that made her into an excellent musician and bring them to bear on photography, writing, cooking, languages, entrepreneurship, or a dozen other worthy and satisfying pursuits.
Getting Your Money’s Worth
Seeing the value (and not merely the cost) of music education isn’t even half of the battle. You still need to put in a little daily effort to make sure you’re not flushing your money away.
These five things will take you most of the way there:
- Treat music with the same dedication you treat sports. Parents that wouldn’t dream of letting their child blow off football practice give basically zero attention to whether or not their child is practicing guitar, effectively turning a weekly music lesson into really expensive babysitting.
- Get involved. It doesn’t take much. Keep the lines of communication open between you and your child’s teacher. Ask if your kid has been practicing. If they need to be working on something that’s being ignored. What the specific assignment is for the week. If the guitar needs new strings. Anything.
- Redefine success. Effective practice requires seeking out the edges of our abilities, but our school system celebrates having the right answer. This means good practice feels like constant failure. Reinforce the growth mindset, and shift the focus to daily process-based goals. It doesn’t matter how well you can play the piece. What matters is that you won today by showing up and putting in your x minutes. Even 5 minutes of consistent daily push yields tremendous results.
- Make practice visible. Get a kitchen timer, a yearly wall calendar, and a big red marker. Set the ground rules: every day, you’ll get set up & tuned, and put your phone or other distractions in another room. Set the timer, then work as hard you can on the assignment your teacher gave you until the timer goes off. Mark a big red X on the calendar for each day that you succeed. Everything else will take care of itself. Consistency trumps hard work.
- Be prepared to hunt for a good teacher. Not all teachers are created equal. Sadly, there is some validity in the snarky out-of-work-musician comment. I’ve definitely crossed paths with my share of teachers who were phoning it in, and/or whose methods weren’t giving students what they need. Try a few out, ask around about who’s the best in your area, and expect that the best teacher might not have an opening for you. But most of all, keep in mind that teachers aren’t miracle workers. He only sees your child for a half hour. The rest of the week is up to you. If you’re not willing to do 1-4 on this list, don’t expect a good outcome.