Two Ways to Start (and Continue) Playing an Instrument

Two Ways to Start (and Continue) Playing an Instrument

Here are two scenarios used in recent child development research. A four-year-old child is handed an unfamiliar toy and invited to play with it. The child is delighted to discover it squeaks when squeezed, and keeps trying different things with it, playing with it to find all the different things it can do. Another four-year-old is handed the same toy with the guidance, “Here’s how this toy works; give it a squeeze like this and it squeaks.” The child takes the toy and squeezes it, happy with the experience, repeating it, but not trying anything else with the toy.

Can you feel the implications of that finding for Sistema programs? Students, especially young ones, are extremely sensitive to pedagogical intent, and follow instruction even when it is only subtle or implicit. If you hand a child an invitation into music that is delivered with a pedagogical directive, the child will follow your intent and probably enjoy it—in a limited way, with an extrinsically motivated relationship to the instrument. If you hand a child an invitation into music and allow discovery and play and experimentation, you get a different relationship to music, and you get an intrinsically invested explorer.

Follow the implications of those two approaches that were the basis of a particular study, and the wider research suggests it is probably true that the first child will learn to play that instrument more quickly. Since you have to get an early jumpstart to achieve at the highest levels with orchestral instruments, the controlled-focus approach is important to give kids a chance for success in the classical music world. No wonder that pattern is so dominant in music education. However, there are two serious costs to this dominant pattern: resilience and motivation.

1. Going back to the experiment with the four-year-olds, the researchers find that kids who are allowed to explore and play in the discovery stage of learning develop more resilience as learners. This is crucial when they encounter difficulties and when they encounter new challenges – which is only all the time in long-term skills development. Many readers are probably noting how consistent these findings are with the research on fixed vs. growth mindsets. The more open entry into an area of learning encourages a growth mindset, and the instructional entry into learning encourages a fixed mindset. The WolfBrown-Longy research on U.S. Sistema programs found that they are succeeding in developing growth mindsets in their students.

2. And motivation. I have said a thousand times that “El Sistema is in the intrinsic motivation business” – we can fully succeed in our high ambitions for social change through music only if our learners are driven by personal curiosity and passion. If students are compliant or even dutiful in following instruction, we may end up with well-behaved musicians and good orchestras, but we don’t get life-transformative results. There are deep bodies of research about practices that enhance the development of intrinsic motivation, and practices that discourage it. Traditional music education does not align with these motivational priorities, and Sistema programs must. The implications of the squeaky toy research matter if we are going to nurture sufficient interest and passion to influence the trajectory of a child’s life. When we introduce musical instruments to children, it’s the pedagogical intent with which we introduce them that matters most, and ultimately determines whether we succeed in the global Sistema experiment or not.

The research and its implications come from Alison Gopnik’s new book The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children. The book describes two different approaches to child-rearing, encapsulated by two analogies: raising a child in a systematic “parenting” way that prioritizes achievement (using the analogy of carpentry) vs. raising a child in a discovered formative way that responds to organic and unpredictable elements (the analogy of gardening). Traditional music education is profoundly carpenter-minded, and can proudly boast the highest level of musicianship among its serious students in history as a result. Sistema-inspired music education requires a healthy balance of gardening to achieve its primary goal of persona and social change. That is the great experiment of our field. And Gopnik’s book is illuminating and inspiring reading to support our experimentation in the hundreds of Sistema gardens around the world.

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