I’ve grown up around music. It was my second language spoken in my household as a child. And I learned it much as native-born children of immigrant families do – orally and aurally. I heard the sounds and the relationships. Sure, I learned to interpret pictures of chord shapes on the guitar, and scribbled out song lyrics and place the chord changes over them, but I never learned to transact in the written language of music. After a few years of playing guitar as a teenager, my ears told my fingers where to go faster than I could process the information visually.
I’ve gradually learned to read a bit, primarily through the tablature generating software I use with my guitar students. It’s cumbersome and slow, but I manage well enough for what I need to do. Truthfully, the written language is secondary support to the primary mission. My students generally come to me wanting to learn something in particular. If I am to help them unlock the many layers of mysteries in the six-string encyclopedia, it boils down to “inspiration leads to perspiration, and nothing else does”. If they aren’t excited about what they are working on, they simply won’t put in the practice time.
Being a music parent is not part of my job description in music, but it is in my 24/7 role as a parent. And what a different role that is! My daughter started the violin in group lessons after school in 1st grade, and by the end of the year she could play “Twinkle, Twinkle.” In my family, with so many musicians, I thought that violin was a great choice because frankly, “Daddy doesn’t play that” – and thus she might be a bit freer to develop her own relationship with music.
Over the past couple of years, she has quite clearly developed some skill as a fiddler rather than a classical violinist. She is learning to read, though most of the time already her ear is a far faster tool. And her musicianship is already evident in other ways, like not lingering over mistakes while performing or jamming with others.
What’s also evident is that she is a typical 5th grader speeding towards the teenage years. For a long while now, I’ve struggled to maintain the balance between encouragement and opportunity with keeping enough commitment to at least maintain her hard work, until she gets to a maturity where one might more enjoy practicing for practice sake. It’s a fine line to be sure – and above all it is essential that I not create a negative association with music that will linger for a lifetime.
One of my students is a classmate of hers since kindergarten. And in this past nine months since she started, her goal has been simply to play whatever songs Madeleine is fiddling so they can play together. When she comes for her lesson she often nags her “Madi get out your fiddle!”. It’s the best peer pressure for which a music parent might hope.
So, these past couple of weeks have been pretty joyful. The young musician was lucky enough to sing in our county’s 180-member 5th grade chorus one weekend. I took her and her classmate to the monthly all ages old-time and bluegrass jam where they play their batch of tunes with a bunch of adult musicians. And finally this past Friday, I just watched as the two of them played a traditional Irish tune together in the school talent show.
I want to say that I had nothing to do with it. Even more than that, I want to say that I did and won’t do anything to discourage it. It’s amazing to watch them learning this language together, becoming musicians in how they play together and perform for an audience. It is so different than my journey. I was a year or two older than they are now when I started playing guitar, and making the effort to practice and learn things. They are both so much farther along than I was at that age.
I was right about one thing. Her experience and relationship with music are far different than mine. And for that, I am grateful – mission accomplished.
Andrew McKnight is an award winning, touring musician, both solo and with his band Beyond Borders. Andrew has been writing for AR almost since the beginning and we always welcome his insightful literary contributions to our magazine. Visit Andrew at