Carmen Rasmusen Herbert: Practice makes me panic

Published: Thursday, March 15 2012 6:37 p.m. MDT

This week I attended a violin lesson with my 7-year-old niece in Murray. My sister allowed me to tag along to meet her teacher — an amazingly talented person — and see what the possibilities were of having my son take lessons from her as well. Before I went inside, I asked my sister how demanding learning the violin was on her little girl.

“Well, how much time are you willing to put into it?” she asked. “For the first several years, it’s really all about the parent and how hard they’re willing to work.”

I couldn’t help but think of Amy Chua in her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” and her constant, often relentless demands of her two girls to practice their instruments while growing up, often going for hours on end with no stop, including missing dinner and bedtime to get a piece absolutely perfect. Chua even included a copy of some of the notes she took at a lesson for her daughter in the book that were extremely detailed. Every rest, every note, every measure had some reminder written by or above it.

I don’t think I’d be that anal about practice time. But I saw a quote on the violin teacher’s wall while I was there that made me really think about teaching my children good practice skills. It read something like this:

“Amateurs practice until they get it right; masters practice until they can’t get it wrong.”

I Googled the quote when I got home and it turns out there are several different versions of that thought, but the idea struck me as obviously true: Perfection is painstakingly earned. And that makes me get a little anxious.

Do I have what it takes to help make my children masters in their own abilities?

Only a few weeks ago I tried to teach my 3-year-old son “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano. Naively, I really didn’t think it was that difficult of a song to begin with. Turns out just learning what fingers went on what keys, and for how long, and how hard or soft was extremely challenging.

I actually started raising my voice at one point while trying to get him to play a single note: “No, press the C key. The white one. With your thumb. YOUR OTHER THUMB!”

After that is when I decided I might not be the best music teacher for my kids. Either that or I was going to have to practice some serious self-control every time we played an instrument.

“You can’t expect him to focus very long,” the violin teacher said at the end of my niece’s lesson as I horrifically watched my son bounce from one end of her couch to the other. She smiled. “He’s 3!”

Yes, he’s 3. But many families have their children starting musical instruments at that age.

Don’t they?

Angie Davies, Monkey Music and Supernanny expert, recently talked about what age is best for children to learn an instrument.

“From my own experience I have found that very young children enjoy music more as part of a group,” she said. “I prefer to encourage them to join in with musical activities such as singing in choirs, learning the recorder or belonging to a music group which aims to be fun while exploring basic musical concepts.”

Her optimal age for learning a new instrument? Seven, my niece’s age.

“Seven years old is an ideal age to start most instruments as by now most children are settled into school and will probably be reading quite well. At this age they will make rapid progress learning to read music and be ready for the physical challenge of learning a musical instrument.”

So maybe I’m a little too ambitious thinking my barely toilet-trained toddler is ready to begin his journey to Carnegie Hall. But artists such as Jenny Oaks Baker have their little darlings practically in a family orchestra by elementary school. (By the way, I heard the Baker kids play live at a “Time Out for Women” event in Virginia and was blown away.)

Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes, and perfection takes time and dedication. I hope I can be as diligent as these women when it comes to helping my kids learn instruments.

For now I might have to be satisfied with him memorizing songs from “Cars.”

Carmen Rasmusen Herbert is a former "American Idol" contestant who writes about entertainment and family for the Deseret News.

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