Unschooling Articles from Live Free Learn Free

Music Makers
(May/June 2005)

by Shana Ronayne Hickman

There are few things more satisfying than making one’s own music – putting something out into the world that wasn’t there before, creating something beautiful.  Children, however, are rarely trusted to learn to make music in their own ways, in their own time, and with instruments that have the ability to inspire.

Real Instruments vs. “Kid” Instruments

Sure, most kids have instruments at home – maracas, triangles, ridged sticks, kazoos, maybe a toy drum – all stuffed away somewhere.  Sure, they make noise.  Sure, all kids can get sound out of them.  Sure, they’re cheap to buy and easy to store.  But the point of these instruments is that there is nothing to learn. All children play them equally well, and playing them more will not result in a more profound understanding of music or its ability to enter into the human spirit. What passionate musician has ever declared, “It all began with a plastic, bean-filled egg”? 
Like watercolors or poetry, a musical instrument is a medium that allows a person to express deep desires and fears; it allows a musician to convey her or his true, raw self.  In order for an instrument to do this, however, the player must be able to express a range of emotions through it – something not possible of a triangle.  Just as buying real art supplies for children drastically changes the way they view artwork and their ability to create, allowing them to play real instruments can make all the difference. Of offering children the use of quality paint and brushes, John Holt says,

          “Freed of the limitations of bad tools, they can then begin to explore, express, and enlarge their own artistic
          powers. We should not assume that they will be too clumsy, impatient, and uncaring to use these tools

          Learning All the Time, Revised Edition, Perseus Books
, 1983

Acquiring Instruments

Do you have an instrument sitting in a closet (an old guitar or flute, a set of bongos, a cornet from junior high, that violin you never practiced)? Get it out.  Play it for your child – whether you know how or not.  If you can’t churn out a sonata, pluck a few strings or blow a few notes.  Then, hand it over, and let her or him be.  Don’t hover over and tell the child how to hold the bow or finger a scale.  Don’t worry about the child breaking the instrument.  Just step back, and wait for questions, if there are any. 

Then, even if the child shows little or no interest, invest in an instrument stand. If an instrument is out and in plain sight – next to a comfy chair, perhaps – it will get played.  Maybe only every once in a while, but it will be played more often than if it were sitting in its case somewhere.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself playing now and again!

And if you don’t have an instrument, or you don’t have the instrument your child longs for?  Borrow from friends.  Put up a “wanted” ad.  Offer to barter for it.  Ask other homeschoolers.  Comb thrift stores, garage sales, and pawn shops.  Scour the Internet (especially eBay).  No, it doesn’t have to be top quality, but make sure it’s playable (and tunable)!  If you don’t know how to do this, enlist the assistance of a friend or find a helpful music store employee. (They’re out there; most people who work in music stores do so because they’re passionate about playing.  Many are thrilled to help beginners.)


There is no surer way to squelch a person’s interest in music than to force that person to practice or to set up a “practice schedule” that is not initiated by the learner. 

When I was eight, I decided I wanted to learn to play the piano, and my mother signed me up for lessons.  The first few months were wonderful.  I attended a class with a group of young children, during which we played musical games and were allowed to try our hands at any instrument in the room – guitars, drums, electric keyboards.  The teacher decided I was doing well enough to have “real” lessons and recommended another teacher – a teacher who presented only simple, dull songs from graduating books.  My mother watched as I practiced a half hour each day.  As I progressed, the songs became harder (and duller).  I secretly played a few pop songs I learned by ear, but these obviously wouldn’t do for recitals.  I began dreading lessons and my daily practice, and it wasn’t long before I convinced my mother to let me quit.

During this time, I also took up the violin for the school orchestra.  In fourth grade, members of the elementary orchestra gave a presentation on the different instruments we could choose to play if we signed up.  I fell in love with a tiny violin played by a tiny, blonde-haired girl.  I couldn’t contain my excitement and begged my parents to let me join.  When my mother surprised me with a new violin, however, I almost cried.  It wasn’t tiny at all!  She had decided to invest in a full-sized violin so there would be no need to upgrade each time I had a growth spurt.  Sensible, of course, but the only reason I wanted a violin was its cute size.  After a half hour of practice a night, I quickly grew tired of the thing.  I continued to play through high school, but never felt truly comfortable with it, and, for the most part, kept my place at the head of the second violin section.  Every teacher pushed and prodded, told me again and again that I had the ability, if I’d only put some effort into it.  I could be a wonderful player, they said.  They signed me up for honors orchestra, for Strolling Strings, for recitals, for UIL competitions – all to no avail.  I simply didn’t care.  After high school, I never played again.

During junior high, I joined the school band. I was one of three oboists, and was moved to first chair within a few weeks. I adored the oboe and dreamed of one day owning my own, instead of renting one from the school. I played often and found a woman who offered lessons out of her home. I listened for oboes everywhere. I discovered the English horn (basically an oboe with a lower register) and coveted the three that existed in our town. I began learning to make my own reeds. But, this band was a marching band, and oboes were not made to march. Because the oboe is a loud instrument, and playing while marching causes variations in pitch, I knew that it was best for me to pretend to play on the football field. The director realized this, as well, and occasionally smiled a knowing smile. When it was time to move on to high school, I was told I could no longer play the oboe in the band during marching season. I would have to choose another instrument to play most of the year, and after marching season was over, I could return to the oboe. Learn another instrument in order to march around a football field in freezing weather so that I would be allowed to play the oboe in six months? Were they kidding? That was the last I saw of the oboe.

My brother, however, was introduced to music in a vastly different way. He never played in the school band or orchestra; he showed no interest. And, after wasting so much money and effort on my failings, my parents were happy to have a break. 

At twelve, however, he decided he wanted an electric guitar.  “Oh, all boys want that,” our mother argued, but he persisted.  She finally bought a cheap guitar from a co-worker, and Donovan was off.  He ate, slept, and breathed guitar and routinely played until his fingers bled.  He chose to have lessons with a man who would teach him whatever song he wanted to know.  “Just bring in a tape,” he said.  It wasn’t long before Donovan knew dozens of songs.  He was able to pick out songs he heard on the radio and began writing many of his own.  He became interested in blues and jazz.  He copied the styles of the best players and combined them into his own.  He formed bands.  He began to teach lessons for extra cash.  He saved up and bought more guitars, amps, pedals, and gear.  He decided he needed to learn theory, so he researched and learned it on his own.  From there, it was on to learning other instruments in order to create demo tapes with a four-track: piano, drums, bass, mandolin, banjo, ukulele.  He found a job at a music shop and learned to repair guitars and amps.  Soon, he was the best repairperson in town, and the most sought-after guitar teacher.  What’s next?  He’s considering a degree in music, if he can find the time. 
He was never forced to practice. He simply played as often and as well as he could because he enjoyed doing so.
In fact, perhaps we should take our cue from John Holt and get rid of the word practice altogether. In Learning All the Time, Holt says,

          “What do I do with my cello? I play. I don’t spend part of my time getting ready to play it, and the rest of the
          time playing it. Some of the time I play scales or things like that; some of the time I play pieces that I am
          going to play with other people; some of the time I read new music; some of the time I improvise. But all of the
          time I am playing the cello.”

          Learning All the Time, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1989

Where We Are Now

I still have the violin, and I’ve found a smaller version for Kenzie. He plays occasionally, but hasn’t shown much interest. We have acquired a mandolin, a banjo, a ukulele, an antique upright piano, harmonicas, a flute, and a bodhran (Irish drum). We have several guitars that we leave beside living room chairs (along with the mandolin and banjo), and those get played often. Kenzie enjoys strumming and singing. He has a knack for hearing a song once and being able to sing it note for note, word for word. He makes up many of his own songs and sings them with a passion – for visitors, at the dinner table, while playing computer games, in the bathroom, at the park…. He has not, however, fallen in love with an instrument. He’s seven and is too busy playing in the neighborhood, collecting trading cards, riding his bicycle, and reading comics. Of course, with our many instruments, we’ve become a popular house for neighborhood kids. We have impromptu jam sessions frequently, and the players often switch instruments between songs. We’re still hoping to find additional instruments, but with the exception of brass instruments, we feel we have the bases covered, for now.

Kenzie finds himself surrounded by music. There is always music playing at our house, and I am working on learning the acoustic guitar. His father is focusing on the harmonica. His uncle is, of course, a professional musician, as is his grandmother (my mother), now. She took up the button box accordion several years ago and learned how to play in different styles, both by ear and by written music, all on her own. She travels to accordion concerts conducting workshops and playing as a featured performer. On weekends, she and a friend busk on the streets of Austin, playing for spare change and smiles. She took no lessons, and no one ever forced her to practice. Instead, she simply fell in love with the instrument and worked to play it as well as she could. She is now known internationally and has hosted many of the best players from around the world in her home. Jam sessions take place often, and anyone is welcome to join in. Including Kenzie.

And, perhaps, this is the most important component of learning to play musical instruments: not separating those who “can” play from those who “can’t.” When children are allowed to play music with others, to be surrounded by the enthusiasm of those who enjoy playing, whether professional or amateur, seasoned players or beginners, they will undoubtedly begin to feel enthusiastic about creating music, themselves.

Shana and her family live in central Texas. She enjoys writing poetry, folksinging, and spending long days with her son. She is the publisher and editor of Live Free Learn Free.




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