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Deal with it, parents: Violin lessons are pointless

Parents who drag their children through music and dance lessons in order to give them skills for life, are wasting their time. Such lessons are pointless - but that needn't be a bad thing.

Children playing the violin.
Studying the violin just isn't for everyone. Photograph: Stephen Shaver/Getty Images.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com.

Our daughter Rebekah, who is in second grade, takes three after-school classes every week. On Monday there is violin; on Wednesday, Hebrew; and on Thursday, ballet. One of these classes connects her to a religious tradition going back three thousand years. Two of them are pretty well pointless.

I don’t mean that as a bad thing. Pointlessness rules, as far as I am concerned. Lots of great activities have little or no point, at least beyond the fact that somebody likes to do them. My annual viewing of Dazed and Confused is pointless (it’s not as if I didn’t get all the nuance by the fifteenth time around). Candy corn is pointless. Watching local Pentecostal preachers on public-access cable is pointless. Hobbies are all the better for having no point beyond the fun they provide. Rebekah enjoys her violin and ballet classes, both after-school at New Haven’s terrific Neighborhood Music School. She loves her teachers, and she is proud when she makes progress. That’s good enough for me.

But that’s not good enough for some parents, who make claims for the utility of music and dance lessons that are, I think, unfounded and overblown. Lessons are fine, and I think it’s especially important that all public schools offer music and other arts in their curricula—both for their educational value, and so arts instruction does not become the province only of Americans who can afford to pay for after-school classes. But Americans’ emphasis on certain kinds of lessons—like ballet and classical instruments—are just accidents of history, entirely contingent. And if we look closely at why we encourage our children to study music and dance, and what the real benefits are, we will see that our children are taking the wrong lessons, and for the wrong reasons.

So why are so many children taking ballet, violin, piano? Lately, I have been asking my fellow middle-class urbanite parents that question. About dance, they say things like, “Ballet teaches them poise,” or, “Ballet helps them be graceful.” And about violin or piano they say, “It will give them a lifelong skill,” or, “They’ll always enjoy listening to music more.”

It does not take a rocket scientist, or a Juilliard-trained cellist, to see the flaws in these assertions. First, as to ballet, I propose a test. Imagine we took ten girls (or boys) who had studied ballet from the ages of five to twelve, and then quit, and mixed them in with ten girls (or boys) who had never taken dance. Let’s say that we watched these twenty tweens move around their schools for a day: around the cafeteria, the library, the gym, passing notes, sneaking out behind the middle school for a smoke, all the stuff tweens do. Does anyone really believe we could spot the ones who had spent seven years in weekly or biweekly ballet class?

I do not doubt that a ballet teacher or dance aficionado might spot some tell-tale moves—a slip into first position here or there, a certain elegance in a jump during a game of ultimate frisbee. And probably one or two of the ballet students, the best of them, really would appear more graceful than the others. But for the general mass of kids, the dance classes will not have had much impact on how they move. If you don’t believe me, then please visit a middle school in a wealthy town, watch children in the lunch line, and try to pick out which ones had studied ballet.

As for the enduring value of music lessons, I propose an even simpler test. Go on Facebook and ask your friends to chime in if, when they were children, they took five years or more of a classical instrument. Then ask all the respondents when they last played their instrument. I tried a version of this at a dinner party recently. There were about ten adults present; I was the only one who had not played an instrument for many years as a child. All of them confessed that they never played their instrument. Whatever it was—violin, piano, saxophone—they had abandoned it. The instrument sat lonely in a closet somewhere, or in the attic of their childhood home. Or their parents off-loaded it in a tag sale years ago.

And the music that these friends listen to as adults—klezmer, Indigo Girls, classic rock—is in each case quite far from what their parents paid for them to study. Their studies of cello had not made them into fans of Bach. And unless I am mistaken, Shinichi Suzuki didn’t include Rush in his violin books.

Now it is clearly the case that if nobody studied ballet or violin, we would have no professional orchestras or ballet companies. That would be a great loss. But for such art forms to persist, it is only necessary that the most eager and gifted students persist in their studies. I’m all for lots of children trying classical music or dance, but we no more need millions of fourth-year violin students than we need millions of fourth-year origami students. We all love paper cranes, I think, but we aren’t rushing to give our children to the cause.

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Before the twentieth century, there was a good reason for anyone to study music: If you couldn’t make the music yourself, then you would rarely hear it. Before the radio and the phonograph, any music in the house was produced by the family itself. So it made sense to play fiddle, piano, jug, whatever. And before urbanization and the automobile, most people did not have easy, regular access to concerts. Of course, small-town people could come together for occasional concerts, to play together or to hear local troupes or traveling bands. Growing up in the sticks, you still might see Shakespeare performed, and a touring opera company could bring you Mozart. But very infrequently. If music was to be a part of your daily life, it had to be homemade.

But there were other, more complicated reasons that people took up instruments, or forced their children to. As the historian Susie Steinbach writes in Understanding the Victorians, in the mid-nineteenth-century the piano, which had always been handmade and tended to reside in upper-class parlors, became an accessible, middle-class status symbol, as fit for a tradesman’s house as for Emma Woodhouse’s. “By the 1850s and 1860s many pianos were manufactured in Germany and in the United States as well as in Britain,” Steinbach writes, “and were made by machine; both changes made pianos less expensive.”

Changes in financing helped, too: The advent of the installment plan brought pianos to people who did not have vast capital. As the price of instruments dropped, music lessons became the burden of the well-bred girl, or of the girl whose parents hoped to massage some breeding into her.

By the 1880s, when the United States began filling up with unwashed immigrants, a whole class of do-gooder, piano-taught ladies believed that one way to acculturate the new immigrants was to offer them, especially the children, musical instruction. The institutions of the settlement-house movement, as it became known, offered much more than music classes; they provided instruction in English, the trades, home economics, and many arts. But music was everywhere seen as one important key to the cabinet of proper, middle-class ways.

That belief helped animate the founders of  the Educational Alliance, Henry Street Settlement, and Third Street Music School Settlement, all founded in downtown New York City between 1889 and 1894; Settlement Music School in Philadelphia (1908); the settlement houses that became Community Music Center of Boston (1910); Neighborhood House, which became New Haven’s Neighborhood Music School (1911); and the Cleveland Music School Settlement (1912). Not all of those schools were founded specifically to teach music, but even those that were not, and many like them across the country, quickly included music classes in their offerings.

The schools have stayed, even as the nationality of the immigrants has changed. At the Educational Alliance, where my wife took piano lessons as a child, the clientele used to be mainly Jewish; more recently, it’s Chinese, Latino, and much else besides. But the music classes go on, the product of a couple centuries of parents’ aspirations for their own children and others’. The schools have long grown beyond their initial mission of acculturating immigrants, and are now educating the middle-class children and grandchildren of the first waves of students.

The classes are not a bad thing. Studying music or dance over a long time teaches perseverance and can build self-confidence. But then again, studying anything over a long time teaches perseverance and can build self-confidence. There is no special virtue in knowing how to play the violin, unless you have a special gift for the violin. Otherwise, you’re learning the same valuable lessons that you’d get from karate class, or from badminton. Or from endless hours of foosball.

I am not saying that children should stop learning stuff outside of school (although some days, when I see how overscheduled some children are, that’s precisely what I want to say). We just need to sign them up for classes that make more sense, given that it’s 2013, not 1860, and that I don’t need a violin-playing daughter to cement my class status. Look, I love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but one could make the argument that Rebekah would be better off learning to play the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” on guitar. That skill would certainly be more of an asset at summer camp.

We can probably all agree that it’s worthwhile for children (as well as their parents) to try new activities, and that there is virtue in mastering difficult disciplines. So what challenges should we be tackling, if not ballet and classical music? How about auto repair? At least one Oppenheimer should be able to change the oil, and it isn’t me. It may as well be one of my daughters. Sewing would be good. And if it has to be an instrument, I’d say bass or guitar. The adults I know who can play guitar can actually be seen playing their guitars. And as any rock guitarist will tell you, there is a shortage of bassists.

But I do not believe that all artistic pursuits, or all disciplines that one studies, should be judged for their usefulness. The sublimity of art is tied, after all, to its uselessness (cf. Dazed and Confused). More than anything, I want children to find pursuits, whether useful or not, that they can take with them into adulthood. For a while, a number of children in my neighborhood were taking ukulele lessons. I don’t much like the ukulele, and I think I successfully kept my daughters from knowing what their playmates were up to. But I was heartened by the whimsy of it all, and I kind of wish that the little gang of kids had stuck with it. Before too long, they might have gotten pretty good. At the very least, it might have kept them away from ballet.

As it happens, a trend like what I am advocating may be under way. My friend Noah Bloom, a trumpeter who works at Neighborhood Music School and used to be at Church Street School for Music and Art, in Lower Manhattan, told me that at Church Street there were “as many electric guitarists and young singers wanting to be Green Day or some hot pop artist as there were kids wanting to be classical pianists.” He also told me about School of Rock, a chain with dozens of franchised schools and camps, here and abroad, offering lessons geared specifically to aspiring kiddie-rockers. The School of Rock only teaches guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals, and drums. “They’re our competition,” Bloom said.

Rebekah, for her part, will continue with ballet. And violin. Periodically, we ask her if she’d like to quit, and she always says no. That’s good enough for us. If she finds a lifelong pursuit, that’s great. But if one evening, at her usual practice hour, she decides enough is enough, maybe I’ll suggest the guitar. Or maybe I’ll just ask if she wants to sit with me on the couch and watch Dazed and Confused.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com.