Why Take Music Lessons?

Jim Zaroulis
Jim Zaroulis

by Jim Zaroulis

(read this and in the comments, let us know why you take or want to take music lessons)

It has been exactly one week since the beginning of the new year and I am sure you have been anxiously awaiting my most current points of view and witticisms. In all honesty, I hadn't planned on writing a new article this early in the year. However, like any artist, we must react with the moment. Whereas I did plan on talking about my plans for the new year, as it pertains to music and my students, I found myself deep in thought regarding some articles I've been reading, or have been pointed out to, pertaining to music education. Unfortunately, these articles showed a bit of disdain to music education (big surprise), but most shockingly to me was that the articles were written by a musician! I am hearing the gasps of horror coming from you as much as I can hear you asking, "Who would say such a thing?". The latter being irrelevant, but what IS of relevance is merely the question: "Why take lessons?"

The answer is quite simple: "Why not?" You're welcome, good night and please be sure to tip your waiters! What a great selling point though, right? Almost like using the Jedi Mind Trick on an interested student. But aside from this jocularity is a subject of great importance. With any new year, comes New Year’s Resolutions. Some set their sights on making more money, or purchasing a home, or paying more attention to their health. As a private piano instructor, our school is overrun with students of all ages looking to start the new year with the resolution of taking up an instrument. As I meet new students for the first time, regardless of their age, my first question is ALWAYS this: "So, why do you want to play the piano?"

Miss USA beauty pageant contestants have answered questions about US History faster than new students have answered my question. The responses vary, but not outlandishly. If I were to rationalize the responses of the students, I would say students ages 7-10 answer with: "My parents want me to", pre-teens (or are they called "Tweens" now?) and beyond reply with: "I don't know", and students above the age of 21, the popular  "Adult Student’s" reasons are usually finishing what they started when they were children, or amending their bucket lists. Of course with any delineating there are margins of error. Not EVERY student in those age categories give those answers, and I omitted the responses of my students aged 4.5 - 6 because you wouldn't believe how existential those little ones can be! But do you know what the response is that floors me every time I hear it (and I wish I heard it more)? "I just really love music."

I've written many times in my blogs how I believe "music" (quotations intended) is a means of communication and expression, and therefore it is a language. There are people who major in "Languages" in college because they LOVE a language. I've always spoken English, and being of Hellenic descent I learned how to speak Greek, but I would LOVE to speak French someday. But I also "speak" music because I love the language of music. The ability to express ideas and thoughts, and to converse with people either on the stage or in the audience. Or just sitting at my piano and seeing what happens when I  drop my hands…and then wondering what will come next…you would be surprised how fast 3-4 hours can fly by, and what "stories" you come up with. I also teach music, and as a pianist, I use the instrument as a vehicle of transmitting this language I call music. Which brings me to the article(s) by "Mr. Negative", who confidently avers that you don't need lessons to play music, you can do it on your own! Save your money, lock yourself in your room, look at me, so and so, I never had a teacher, etc, yadda-yadda, blah-blah, and it goes on. Shock factor #2…the author of said article also studied at the most prestigious colleges of music in the world. Are you as confused as I am?   

We could look at facts and statistics about how students who take lessons are more or less apt to excel at science or math, or how SAT scores are greatly increased. This is all fascinating and valid information. Students who excel in math and science may also grow up to be great scientists and physicists too and not great musicians. Beethoven studied under Joseph Haydn. Quincy Jones studied under the great Nadia Boulanger. Miles Davis studied at Juilliard. Would they have been who they became to be without the training? I really don't know. We all know of great musicians who are "self-taught". We've heard all the stories of how someone picked up a guitar one day and just started playing. Someone just opened their mouth and the most beautiful music came out. Someone sat at the piano and began playing the song they just heard on the radio. Would having formal training have helped or hurt them? Again….I really don't know.   

If you'd like a personal touch on this article, I'll talk about myself. I knew I liked music at a young age, no…I'm pretty sure I loved music. I don't come from a musical family either, meaning, no one in as many generations as I could search ever played an instrument. I never sang in church choirs, I never even liked singing "Happy Birthday". In third grade I got about as low as a score as you could possibly get on a General Music test (I'm sure I probably ended up owing the teacher points). Music was always playing in my house for some reason or another. My "calling" came at a family function when I heard my cousin playing a current song (I'm not saying what song because it will show my age) on their grand piano and I couldn't believe my ears. I also couldn't believe my eyes because about fifty people at this party (remember, I'm of Greek descent) crowded around the piano in awe and amazement!

I asked my parents for piano lessons because I wanted TO LEARN. If my cousin had been playing the flute would I have chosen that over piano….once again…I do not know…but I needed to speak music, and if piano was how to do it, then piano it was. This stroll down memory lane (pardon me while I wipe my eyes) isn't to spice up my article or fill it with clutter.  But to show that the reason we should educate ourselves in anything, is because we want TO LEARN. I know I've said "I don't know" a few times…but I do know that my teachers were the true heroes in my life…next to my parents who paid for my lessons all those years ago.

The Beatles were self taught, but never stopped learning….and we can thank Sir George Martin for that…and I'm sure Ravi Shankar deserves some props. Jazz saxophonist and pioneer of Be-Bop Charlie Parker was self taught…but was highly influenced by 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky, and even aspired to study with him someday. In my many years in this business, I have neither begrudged anyone who wasn't formally taught, nor have I ever proselytized the notion of having formal instruction. I teach music because I want to SHARE my love of music.  As teachers we are here to guide and inspire.  We are mentors, cheerleaders, coaches, and supporters. "Those who can do, those who can't…teach"?  Yes, it's a famous quote…but ALWAYS used in the wrong context. I do think that those who can't teach…shouldn't teach…just like those who can't salsa dance (present company included), shouldn't salsa dance. But if I ever wanted to…I'd find the best teacher.

Music is what you make of it. If you truly love it, and respect it, you will find every way in how to master it. And the best part about it, is that it never ends. Because even as teachers, we are always learning...my teacher taught me that!

Jim Zaroulis teaches piano lessons at Real School - Andover


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