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Parents' role key in child becoming accomplished musician, scholar says


Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

Gary McPherson
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Research by Gary McPherson, the Zimmerman Professor of Music Education, focuses on why and how some young music-learners develop into accomplished musicians while others do not. He believes – and his research supports his theory – that parents play a key role in determining the outcome.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thinking of buying a guitar for little Jim or Kim this holiday season, but afraid to spend too much for an instrument that might ultimately spend too much time in its case?

Don’t fret. Some useful, practical knowledge to assist with such decision-making may be plucked from the research of Gary McPherson, the Zimmerman Professor of Music Education at the University of Illinois. McPherson, whose work focuses on why and how some young music-learners develop into accomplished musicians while others do not, believes parents play a key role in determining the outcome.

“The parents’ role is absolutely crucial, and the emotional climate in the home is very important,” said the U. of I. professor, whose research specialties include psychological aspects of musical behavior and giftedness and talent in music.

“We’ve found that parents of successful kids tend to provide support and encouragement for them during the early stages of musical learning and that this tapers off as the children become hooked on music and more independent with their music learning,” he said.

“In contrast, children who give up playing tend to come from homes where there is little parental involvement during the early stages, but greater amounts of parental pressure to practice during the teenage years, when it is obvious that motivation is waning and when the parent tries to make a last pitched effort to keep the child learning.”

The overarching message for parents is, he said, “Never, ever give up.”

Among the many misconceptions associated with learning music, the most problematic is “the commonly held view among the general population that musicians are born not made,” he said. “Most research shows the opposite.”

McPherson’s own extensive longitudinal study with colleague Jane Davidson, focusing on 160 children learning instruments, supports that conclusion. The continuing study, the first and most substantial of its kind, has documented the musical development and practices of 160 Australian schoolchildren since 1997.

Among other outcomes, McPherson said, the research indicates that “it is almost impossible to predict which children – in the first couple of years of learning – will eventually turn out to be the most successful musicians.”

“The key factor again is parents,” he said. “Parents who provide early encouragement and gentle ongoing support, are far more likely to see their child succeed with music.”

And, he said, contrary to what some might think, those students who have excelled aren’t necessarily from musical families.

“Many of the most successful learners in our studies have come from families where neither mum nor dad had any musical experience whatsoever,” McPherson said. “But in the early stages of learning, these children had opportunities for intense praise, such as when they played to a delighted grandma or when their parents made it clear to them that they could do something they couldn’t. They had loads of opportunities to feel special.  

“One of the main problems we see in music learning is that very early after the child begins playing, parents begin to make judgments of whether they believe their child does or does not have what it takes to succeed musically,” he said. “So, if a child doesn’t seem to be making progress right from the start or has periods where he or she isn’t practicing, it’s not uncommon for parents to reduce the level of their involvement and support or even stop issuing gentle reminders to practice altogether.”

Providing further evidence to support the theory that musicians are made, not born, McPherson points to Mozart.

The U. of I. professor believes the composer – regarded by many through the centuries as the ultimate child prodigy because of his prowess on violin and keyboard – developed into a great musician largely as a result of his environment.

“If you think about Mozart, at the time, children didn’t travel much,” he said. “But by an early age, Mozart had traveled to about 80 towns, performed for royalty and undertaken literally thousands of hours of practice – something that is unheard of even today. He also had a father who was willing to spend hours each day teaching his very young son, which meant that by the age of 8 or 9, Mozart had probably accumulated as much learning and practice as many students who are entering specialist music courses in today’s universities. He’d just packed it into a much shorter amount of time.”

Likewise, McPherson believes 11-year-old wunderkind-pianist Tiffany Poon, whom he has known and observed for more than four years, has blossomed as an artist through similar circumstances. Poon, who is performing Nov. 16 at the U. of I.’s Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, demonstrated an interest in learning to play the piano at a very early age and began formal lessons as a 4-year-old in Hong Kong, but went through several teachers before her parents connected with McPherson for advice and direction.

Poon has performed at Carnegie Hall and has a full scholarship to attend the Julliard School in New York, where she is the youngest student ever to be allowed to perform a solo recital.

“Her extraordinary ability can be attributed to a combination of many factors, the most important of which is the love and support she receives from her parents,” McPherson said. “All of her early musical involvement has shaped what we now see – a remarkable ability as a ‘deep learner’ and the intellectual curiosity and emotional engagement needed to perform music at a level well beyond her years.” 

Among the U. of I. professor’s most current research is a new article that details the role of parents in children’s musical development in the October issue of the journal Psychology of Music. In the article, he proposes “a framework for studying parent-child interactions.”

Such a framework is needed, he said, because to date, only a handful of studies have considered how parents factor in to children’s musical success.

Editor’s note: To reach McPherson, e-mail: