Music education, be it a music school or private lessons, can be challenging both for kids and parents. How can we inspire our kids to play a musical instrument without constant fights and rebellion? We know how useful music lessons are, as music improves coordination and memory, directly targets imagination, discipline, attention and self-control and finally it teaches how to handle stress and pressure. In conversation with violinist Liana Tretiakova, Head of Zakhar Brons School of Music in Zurich, we have discussed how to help your child through the process of music learning. On a personal note, while being a professional musician myself, I do struggle sometimes with helping my own son with his music lessons. But talking to Liana did help. A lot actually.

Liana Tretiakova with a student @Olga Jegunova

Wunderkind vs Talent

“Wunderkind” is a child that realises all of their talent in early childhood. When children are programmed into this “wunderkind” wave, constantly expecting to go higher and higher, psychologically, it can be really damaging in the long-term. Unfortunately, we know many cases where “wunderkinder” do not continue to live up to that term in their later years. Something goes awry in their fate, or what they expect their career path to look like doesn’t come to fruition. It’s important to say what “talent” means and why having talent is not the same as being a “wunderkind”. Talent is when someone is undoubtedly gifted in a specific area, this can be something that isn’t related to music, of course. This talent develops harmoniously and holistically, with every year, and every new turn in life, this growth is always on a positive trajectory. While a “wunderkind” is when all of that development occurs in childhood. Then, of course there are examples where it turns into a brilliant career, for example in the case of Vadim Repin, or Maxim Vengerov. However, each of them had to face serious personal hardship on the way. Maxim did not play for ten years because of his shoulder injury, for example. Overcoming these took a phenomenal amount of internal work, where the wunderkind cliché did not help either.

Maxim Vengerov @Olga Jegunova

How to recognise a talent?

Everybody is different, and depending on character, talent may flourish at different stages of development. There are children who develop clearly from the beginning. Other children may open up overtime, they need to “ripen” so to speak. When a child is better on stage than in the classroom, it is the first sign of talent. Their inner spark that lights up in front of an audience, and gives them this extraordinary energy, is among the driving forces for further work. It’s that extra kick which the child receives from a slightly stressful situation – it makes them play better, like a lightbulb turning on inside them. The other sign of talent is if the child masters musical text (notation) quickly. Maybe they can sing, clap or play it as soon as they’ve seen it without doing any additional work at home. There are kids who hear in colour, and those who could repeat a virtuoso masterpiece on violin upon simply hearing it. This is of course a level of giftedness that can be called talent. Quick reactions and dexterity are among the skills, too.

When to start music lessons?

Prof. Zakhar Bron with Ilva Eigus @Olga Jegunova

It’s important not to overdo it. Some Chinese schools start with 2 or 3 year olds, but probably a good age to start is when the child is 5 years old. It depends on the child’s development. Kids who are spoken to a lot, and read to, and who participate in lots of different activities tend to be ready sooner because playing an instrument first and foremost requires a certain level of concentration. At first, it is not the expression of emotion, but a completion of complex coordination training between the two hands.

Especially for parents

Music lessons is an investment. We are not talking about finances, but about the time, energy and commitment parents can dedicate to practicing with the child. Especially at first, it’s important to help them practice regularly at home, which parents need to be aware of. Presence at the lessons is important. If parents are attempting to help at home, please apply no pressure or expectation, but only offer help. If parents take notes in the lesson, they can offer support at home. The early stages need to be discussed separately. In Zakhar Bronn School of Music, very young children don’t practice at home. Many other Russian music educators do this as well. This is because wrong practice often stops the child progressing further. There is a system where three times a week children come to the school for 20-30 minutes, if logistics allow. This frequently replaces homework.

“Mum, I will do it myself. You don’t understand violin!”

Normally children don’t let their parents help with homework. It works like this: “Mom, I will do it myself. You don’t understand violin. The teacher knows better.” If the parent can agree with the child and they help a little at home, these parents already deserve a medal because this is ultimate diplomacy. In most cases, conflict occurs quickly. Musician parents create these conflicts fastest and they are much more in-depth. Professional musicians just have less developed patience. They want everything to happen right away because they see that it is possible. Non-musical parents are much more delicate, and try not to get involved in the process. They help the child rather than direct the process. That’s when the child feels that their parent is a friend and helper, which is most important. It’s important to try to come to an understanding because for a while, the child won’t be able to practice on their own. Few are able to do that. It is a process which is mostly taught by mothers, as strange as that may sound. Those parents who taught children to prioritise their time at home and gave them basic working skills (which has more to do with the parents’ approach to life), have children who are capable of practicing on their own. Those parents who have chaotic organisation of time end up with children who cannot practice on their own for a longer time.

When to practice?

Vadim Repin with Ilva Eigus and Sophie Branson @Olga Jegunova

If your child is an early riser, it would be better to practice before school when they are most awake and receptive. If they are a late riser, then before dinner or after dinner is probably optimal. I think it should be a specific fixed time so that the child can get used to a specific routine.

Specially for “tiger”mums

It’s important to highlight that goals can be reached without abuse. Contemporary pedagogy implies this. There is a humanistic pedagogy, and it is important to learn about what can be done differently and how discover different routes to success. All children are different: some are more responsive to and motivated by a stricter approach, and others are not responsive to raising of the voice and are very sensitive; there are some that cannot take any pressure at all. Humanistic pedagogy is based on the theory that the more the child is respected, the more they believe in their abilities, and the more they give back. It adds to their self-confidence and they know that they can do better, and better. The pedagogy should not be spineless either because if we never point out the problem, it cannot be fixed. The teacher and the parent must clearly see what the problem is, and without shouting at the child, resolve it constructively.

On June 11 you can hear some very talented kids perform in London. Do come and support them with your warm applause. Liana will be there too in case you have more questions.