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Musical Training: Classical or Pop?

January 5, 2012

Electric ukulele at the Music School at Piedmont Piano Co.You may wonder, when researching music teachers, whether your child needs classical training if she or he is more interested in rock, jazz, folk or world music, for example. The past ten years have seen a proliferation of rock schools, musical theater programs, and world-drumming ensembles added to the traditional cadre of classical piano lessons, concert choirs and Suzuki violin studios.

Our national and state curriculum standards don't require adherence to any one genre and make the point that music of many cultures should be part of every students' music education. And research suggests that kids at the elementary school age are open to all styles of music; the real identification with pop styles doesn't strongly kick in until upper elementary and starts to get really strong in middle school. So how can parents and kids choose among all of the options?

Dr. Ruth Brittin, chair of the music education department at the University of Pacific, Stockton, says that the way to evaluate a teacher or program is not classical vs. pop, but rather "substantive, comprehensive, and effective", leading to interest and ability across "classical AND other". She says, “It is more important to have a comprehensive education, which depends primarily on the teacher. An effective teacher will make great progress regardless of the genre.”

Teachers and music programs, regardless of the style of music they are teaching, should focus on basic skills that will translate into good musicianship. Not every program does everything. Some programs, like choirs and rock ensembles, might not teach reading music, although that skill is essential to future musical development. It's also clear that the ability to improvise and develop advanced aural skills is important, and classical methods are often less strong on that aspect. Proper and relaxed use of the body is as valuable to the budding rock guitarist as to the concert pianist.

Unless your child is sold on one kind of music or another, Dr. Brittin says it’s good to find a teacher that’s accomplished in a breadth of styles. She says, “Look for ‘classical plus’ teachers....those teachers who have the best of classical training AND the ability (and willingness) to cross over into other genres in response to the students' interests.” 

Lisa Petrie is a writer and specialist in marketing and public relations for arts and education organizations. She earned a DMA in flute performance from SUNY, Stony Brook, and is the mother of two musical kids. Lisa was the Content Manager for the Kids and Families section of San Francisco Classical Voice during 2011.