School is letting out, summer camps are doing their final clean-ups before opening day, beaches are open, grills are fired up… and exhausted parents are collapsing from a year of driving kids to soccer, piano, karate, birthday parties, and the endless list of other activities.
No one, just this minute, wants to think about summer music lessons. Except that pesky music teacher.
Summer vacations are a controversial topic among educators, whether they teach math or music. Education Week’s Leadertalk blog calls summer vacation “a major obstacle in U.S. education,” pointing out that it “harms low income students as well as other students in other economic groups if they are not engaged during this time period.”
Kids from upper-income families, of course, lose less because their summers are filled with enrichment activities, whether it’s non-academic volunteer work, new skills learned in summer camps, and experiences at art camp, music camp, sports camp, or travel programs. Kids from economically-disadvantaged families remain disadvantaged, rarely having access to the shiny opportunities available to their better-heeled peers. As a result, reading levels drop, math scores plummet, and hard-learned skills, such as how to read notes and count rhythms, erode. September is a month of repetition and frustration. The Green Day song, “Wake Me Up When September Ends” might resonate with kids — but believe me, it resonates with teachers. too.
The erosion is especially true with music lessons, perhaps because the skill of learning an instrument is so multi-dimensional, involving reading, hearing, feeling, moving, repeating given motions, and responding emotionally, intellectually, and physically.
Summer Breaks Equal Erosion of Skills, Frustration
From my own studio, I can give the example of a child who was moving along quite well in her first year, then stopped for the summer. The next year, we had to backtrack and it took her until February to get back to where she had been the previous June. Fortunately, this little girl has a happy disposition, and doesn’t seem to be easily frustrated; a less even-tempered child might have given up at the prospect of, essentially, being “left back” and having to repeat more than half a year’s worth of work.
Of course, kids do all kinds of things during the summer: I admit that I myself never took summer music lessons, being otherwise busy with figure skating camp and sleep-away summer camp. But I did practice. The problem is that most kids can’t sustain a regular practice schedule on their own. They can’t self-correct, they need both guidance and motivation, and they need someone to pull them back on track when they forget how to read notes or rhythms. For most kids, practicing without adult supervision throughout a summer a) isn’t going to happen and b) even if it does, the end result will be having to deal with a tangle of well-practiced mistakes in the fall. The resulting frustration can easily lead to a change of attitude, and maybe even quitting lessons.
My own studio policy is flexible in the summer, but I do strongly encourage at least bi-weekly lessons if kids are in town. Most are, for at least part of the summer, and bi-weekly lessons, with maybe some popular songs and “fun” stuff thrown in, help kids maintain their skills so that in the fall they can at least pick up where they left off. I find that a summer change of pace is a good idea for many students: One year, we made CDs, which was a rewarding project. Some teachers offer group or ensembles or “summer music camps” to keep things light and fun.
A final point: learning music has many academic benefits, but it is more than a path to better math scores. It is a creative expression and an art form, and it’s supposed to be fun. Indeed, summer should be a time to explore MORE about music, to play with it, kick back and relax, to enjoy it, experiment a little, and to take the time to reinforce and enjoy the skills a student has learned during the year. Unlike schoolwork, what we envision when we teach children music is that it is something they will enjoy and use to express themselves; something that will enrich and augment their lives. Music is about enjoyment and recreation: Why, then, give it up in the summer?