As parents, we want to give our children every opportunity we can afford. I knew that’s what my parents had in mind when they insisted that both my sister and I take piano lessons. Back then most people were unaware of “tablature,” a music notation that made it much easier to learn where the notes were on an instrument. And so we learned music the traditional way; we learned to read those elliptically shaped thingies that guided us to correctly play a tune. Fine. Wonderful. But I hated piano lessons. I wasn’t overly fond of the sound of a piano. At least not then I wasn’t. But my sister loved the piano. She thrived on it. And so, as I stubbornly refused to practice, my sister welcomed the piano with open arms. The lessons paid off for her because today she’s an excellent pianist.
I eventually found my way to stringed instruments. My love for the guitar began when my dad pulled his old tenor guitar out of the closet one evening, and I was entranced when he began to strum and sing along with it. (I’ve already talked about this in a previous article.) I learned to play stringed instruments by first strumming chords and singing along. Eventually I tackled the guitar from a classical guitar point of view. That is, I used the music reading skills I’d learned in my piano lessons and applied that to the guitar. I didn’t need a parent to nag me to practice like my mother did with those piano lessons I was sure I didn’t need. I loved the guitar and devoted myself to it for some years.
I’ve given a lot of guitar lessons, but you might be surprised that I seldom put students in a formal music book. I tried that and found the students were as bored with it as I was with taking piano lessons. And so I quickly changed my tactics. Most kids (and adults!) wanted to play rock and roll. That made it easy for me. I found a book that had a load of easy bass patterns played on the lower strings of the standard guitar. The Beatles and the Animals and the Stones were big bands then. So I also taught my students patterns from their hit songs. I also taught finger-picking patterns made popular by folk musicians of the time. My students loved all this, of course. I stayed away from pressing them too hard with standard music notation. It was abstract to them, as it is to many music students when they begin to learn it. I would just play them the patterns, and then I’d have them play it over and over, hoping they’d remember it. They always did. When they would come back for that next lesson, they always had down the pattern I’d showed them the week before, ready for another. They were like baby birds, hungry for more.
Were the piano lessons I was encouraged to take as a child of any value to me? Yes. I learned where the notes were on the keyboard. I learned how chords were constructed, and I learned how that framework of notes varied in different keys. I learned about the circle of fifths. I learned where those blues notes were. I learned a lot, and I, too, was a baby bird, hungering for more. But I didn’t learn this so much from my formal piano lessons. My piano teacher had me playing very straightforward stuff, which was why I didn’t like to take lessons. But that image of the piano keyboard helped me immensely because it showed me note relationships—especially the sharps and flats on the black keys. But I didn’t dig into all those fascinating elements until after I began playing the guitar. I would often transfer my piano keyboard knowledge right onto the fretboard—especially when I was trying to figure out guitar chord fingerings on the fly. This knowledge eventually made it possible for me to start writing how-to music books. You can’t compose authentic tunes unless you know how it all fits together, musically. Even if the composition is a melody with no chords in sight, you still have an easier time of it if you “hear” the chords as you play that melody you are composing. So the piano was immensely useful to me because it gave me a music background to build on.
Do I recommend that children be forced to take piano lessons? No. Let your child make the choice. My daughter is a professional cellist, and she made this decision when she was in 7th grade. She never had a piano lesson until she went to Juilliard where they require a year of keyboard, even if they aren’t majoring in piano. It might seem like we’re spoiling our children if we let them discover their muse. But I don’t think so. If your child wants to learn to play blues harmonica, don’t force the child to take piano lessons first. If you know how to cross-harp on a Hohner Marine Band harmonica, you will know that piano lessons won’t motivate or help your child. Cross-harping the blues is a by ear thing, something that a formal music education can’t teach you. Let your kids figure out their own paths. Most music students aren’t going to end up writing how-to music books, like me. They will hopefully be playing the instrument they love just for the sheer joy of it. And that’s the way it should be. Learning how to play an instrument should not be work; it should be fun.