Kid Musicians: Promise and Problems
Some people, maybe even many, think I’m something of a curmudgeon because I’ve often been slow to jump on the runaway train that heaps vast praise on young musicians playing in family bands or with other youth who appear to show promise. I’ve been, I fear, noisily critical of what I see as the exploitation of children, whether they’re truly talented or not. They’re often placed on the stage too soon, for too long, and receive too much praise and adulation for promising but often far from expert performances. When I see these maybe precocious kids competing in band contests – which they occasionally win – it drives me to frustration. In those instances, I watch more polished, stronger, more deserving bands lose to what I call “the cute factor.”
What do I think is the most important issue here? How do I think talented children should be brought along in music? How can we lead them toward getting the most from playing music, and leave them with either rich, satisfying memories of wonderful experiences, or the off-chance of a successful career in music?
We live in a period in which parenting has become an all-consuming experience. Many parents, in their desire to protect, nurture, and develop their children, engage in a hovering behavior some call “helicopter” parenting. Out of a well-justified desire to see their children excel, parents become so involved in their children’s activities that they lose sight of their ultimate parental responsibility: to raise children to become independent, thoughtful, self-fulfilling adults who are capable of functioning in a difficult and often confusing world, filled with change and challenge. In their desire to ensure their children receive recognition and success, I think they make some crucial – and perhaps in the long term, damaging – mistakes.
While I have had my difficulties with the home schooling movement, I see many children benefiting from parents who devote their attention to directing their education. I remember, several years ago, talking to a very talented pre-teen fiddler who had traveled with her family band to Ohio for Musicians Against Childhood Cancer (MACC). She chatted excitedly about the preparation she had made for the trip to Columbus. She studied a map of the trip, helped to define the route, and studied the towns they would be traveling through during the trip. She excitedly chatted about the towns they passed through and the historical importance of some of them. I also remember a conversation with a young member of an award-winning family band at a festival in central New York. I casually asked him about his route, and found his lack of interest in the process – and in where he had been and where he was – monumental. I thought it to be quite a waste. I can report, however, that young man has developed into a fine husband and a solid musician who travels with an emerging band. He’s a thoughtful and attractive adult. My conclusion is that there are no absolutes, but there are pitfalls and risks that need to be constantly in the forefront.
Like athletics, music presents participants with a ruthless and often painful set of barriers to success that separate the able and talented from the merely showy or precocious. Stories of the young Ricky Skaggs performing with Bill Monroe at age seven or Chris Thile playing in the youth band Nickel Creek at age eight inspire parents to seek similar paths for their children. Much more often, child musicians who are pushed to pursue such paths wind up falling by the wayside. The best one can hope for promising child musicians is that they find a lifetime of pleasure and satisfaction in playing music. One hopes they’ll do well performing in local or regional bands while pursuing more lucrative and secure careers, and view music as an important, but not all-consuming pleasure in their lives. Instead, I fear that many of them drop their instruments in frustration over not reaching goals set for them by others.
Perhaps my greatest fear for young musicians is that their talent is being exploited by their parents for financial and psychic reasons that have more to do with themselves than with the development of their offspring. I have so far resisted the almost overwhelming urge to ask parents of children performing in family bands, “How’s their educational savings account coming?” In other words, is at least some of the money earned by touring as a family band being saved and invested for college tuition or other educational purposes that could lead to a productive and independent adult life? Have the parents considered the long-term risks of removing their children from the choices, challenges, and different ideas, different kinds of people they’d encounter by living in the real world?
What do I consider to be wholesome activities for young people, that will lead to lifetime participation in music, regardless of whether it’s at the professional level or not? Models abound in bluegrass music. Most of the festivals we attend in the summer offer something like a “Kids Academy.” There, young children get to play with others of their same level of performance in a structured setting that leads to, but is not wholly about, a performance on Sunday morning. Many of these camps within a festival setting are directed by professional musicians and music educators who give their time to develop and encourage children’s abilities. More experienced kids coming to Kids Academy can help younger ones develop.
There are specific festivals and festival experiences that are strongly oriented toward picking and demonstrating performance skills. We enjoy going to HoustonFest in Galax, VA, in the spring, where young bands perform and spend the rest of the day forming small groups who jam together, make music for fun, and develop healthy relationships with each other. Kids on Bluegrass at the annual IBMA World of Bluegrass presents rich opportunities for more advanced young musicians to interact and learn about accentuating their strengths and where they need to be headed if they wish to develop as professional musicians. The most exciting element of these get-togethers is to watch kids being kids, playing music together. We’ve never attended the renowned annual Fiddler’s Convention at Galax, but all indications are that this is another place where children roam freely, experiencing music in a rich environment. Jamming freely with other kids and then later with those who are older and more experienced than they are is perhaps the best path toward real, meaningful musical growth.
Two young musicians currently emerging as, perhaps, future stars in music suggest some of the possibilities of immersion in music. John Meyer, at age 21, plays with the Kenny & Amanda Smith Band and tours with Jimmy Fortune on occasion. He has pretty much left the Meyer Family Band from Missouri to pursue life as a touring sideman. I suspect that it won’t be too long before he emerges further, but what manifestation that will take is not at all clear to me. He appears to have many paths he might follow.
Similarly, 15-year-old Jacob Burleson, a brilliant young musician, has also joined the Smith Band on mandolin. Jacob is the son of Jason Burleson, banjo player for Blue Highway. I remember him as a very young, shy player consumed with music in any form. He would arrive at a festival and run off to find others to jam with or to play by himself. At a festival in North Georgia several years ago, I heard him noodling jazz on a convenient piano, all by himself. He’s emerged as an enjoyable young man who interacts easily with adults and takes great joy in his music. The loose but observant eyes of his parents, Jason and Shelley, certainly have contributed to his success. These two represent the possibilities, but no one can count the number of young people who have put down their instruments forever because they reached the top of their ability only to discover discouragement, or because of the stress and difficulty of being pushed too hard, too fast, and too far.