Times change. Two hundred years ago, at the time of Jane Austen, every young lady who had any aspirations of a middle-class or higher life was expected to have “accomplishments,” among which was included music, especially singing or playing an instrument.

Today, even though learning to play an instrument or sing (with the right kind of lessons) has been scientifically proven to have lifelong academic, health and wellness, and even financial benefits, music has somehow fallen to the bottom of the priority list: after school, sports, vacations, convenience, and budgetary items like expensive coffee.

black and white photograph of pianist Van Cliburn playing a grand piano

Keyboard and Piano Player Van Cliburn
Stan Wayman

Last night, while waiting to fall asleep, I happened to come across an old episode of To Tell the Truth, in which the panel was supposed to pick out Van Cliburn‘s mother. One item that struck me was her answer to the question, “What was the first piece Cliburn played, and how old was he when he played it?” The answer was that he played Ave Maria when he was three. Of course, Cliburn was lucky enough to live with his piano teacher (his mother), a highly accomplished pianist who studied under a pupil of Franz Liszt. Most of us don’t have that kind of music teacher close at hand, and have to find the best teacher we can within a reasonable distance.

Unfortunately, in the past twenty years or so, the definition of “reasonable distance” and “best teacher” has instead become “whatever is most convenient and doesn’t require financial sacrifice or too much work for the student.” I have the documentation in my own books; what was considered first-year repertoire two hundred years ago almost no-one advances far enough to play. While musicians of my generation drove hours, or took trains or planes to get to our lessons, now the demand is for the teacher to come to the student’s house (which almost never works, by the way; there are too many distractions at the student’s house, and students don’t learn as well on their own turf as they do elsewhere). An accomplished teacher who comes to your house won’t be affordable because they must account for the travel time and increased expenses.

And alas, Gresham’s law (bad currency drives out good) applies to most other things as well. Music teachers with few or no qualifications far outnumber the accomplished teachers. In order to make the best choices, we have to look at long-term value, and, unfortunately, that is often neither cheap nor convenient. Then we must ask ourselves: Is our child’s musical education worth giving up the coffee shop, or driving an extra half-hour to and from lessons? Would you take your child to anyone less than the best doctor, the best sports coach, or the best tutor? Then why prioritize music so poorly?

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