Why kids give up

“I did a bit of piano when I was little”


How many times have you heard that? Do you even need to ask what went wrong?

The piano keyboard, whose design dates back to before the discovery of equal temperament, simplifies the execution of one scale (C major) and in so doing complicates the other eleven. What is more, because of its physical configuration, the correct division of function between the thumbs and the remaining fingers necessitates a high level of training to master.

A similar minefield awaits learners of other popular educational musical instruments. School xylophones replicate the difficulties of the piano, or else remove the problem by leaving out the black notes altogether. As for the recorder, the learning curve is so rugged after the first few nursery rhymes that it must have the poorest follow-through rate of any instrument ever invented. And this is not surprising. Since the pitch changes with airflow speed, upwards of 300 fingerings need to be mastered to keep it in tune at all dynamic levels. Its only justification is surely price.

And why do we start kids on C major anyway? As I mentioned in a previous post, my saxophone beginners all wanted to start on tunes in “exotic” scales: Simpsons Theme, The Pink Panther, Mission Impossible, James Bond. And when it came to learning scales, the Blues scale was the outright winner.

The classical musical instruments of Europe have rarely been designed with learning curves in mind, if at all, and students without the patience to go through the process of learning to read music on a technically demanding instrument often fall by the wayside until they discover some less demanding “ethnic” instrument like the kena, the kora, the balafon or the gamelan. Or the guitar.

the guitar as teacher

The enormous success of the guitar in the last century reveals one of the main design criteria for a successful improviser’s instrument. Because people conceive and recognise a melody by its intervals, the improviser’s ideal would be an instrument on which an interval looks the same regardless of its transposition. (For still more efficient single line improvising try retuning the guitar to “oriental” tuning in fourths, viz:  E A D G C F.) You could say the guitar’s most important role has been as a surrogate musical university for musicians who hate reading or Beethoven or both. The problem is that guitarists tend to hit a wall when they discover its limitations compared to keyboard instruments.

When the problem is properly described the solution stares you in the face. Kids want to play music. But they don’t have a particular fondness for major scales (at least the boys don’t). And they certainly don’t want to have to learn 12 different routines for playing them, for no perceptible added pleasure, or be told they used the wrong finger for no discernible reason. Kids know when they have been led up the garden path and often give up music as a way of punishing their elders for not having warned them of the difficulties to come.

so what would I suggest?


Just have one of these double-wholetone-row xylophones somewhere in the house or classroom and your children will have something to beat on from a very early age. Once in a while you can show them where to find a note when they’re struggling, but avoid the temptation to give structured lessons. Even grown-ups cannot pay attention for more than 20 minutes, according to Oren Klaff. Let them discover intervals at their own pace, at the same time as assimilating the whole tone layout. Every type of scale has only two “shapes” to discover (rather than “learn”). Transposing between keys loses all its mystery and is something they won’t even need to think about.

So much for the process of conceptually mapping the notes. Sound production on a wind or bowed instrument is a different kettle of fish, and belongs to a different stage of learning. If a child wants to learn the whole tone panpipes, I would let them begin with a single bamboo tube closed at one end, which they can carry around in a pocket, and toot whenever the fancy takes them. At some stage they could be challenged to lip down a semitone.

A different problem comes with the violin, where it is often the tolerance of the siblings or parents that gets put to the test. Why not start with a four-string mandolin? Even beat up old mandolins can take the tension of four, rather than eight, strings. The tuning is the same and that way a child can see at a glance where notes are without the added discouragement of learning to bow and hold the thing properly (keep that arm up!!!).  Too many problems to solve at once are a recipe for confusion.

Follow me on Twitter @jazzpanflute

About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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