Have you ever noticed your child being good at something? They loved what they were doing and it seemed to add something to their personality? Chances are high that your child was in their Element - and here is why that is worth pursuing.
What's the Element? (...and why should I care as a parent?)
"When people are in their Element, they connect with something fundamental to their sense of identity, purpose, and well-being."¹ (Ken Robinson)
Now, who would not want that for their child? A parent's job, among many others, is to help their children form their own identities and make them happy - bluntly said. Ken Robinson describes in his book "The Element", how much some people love what they are doing in life. He explains how others might be able to find the same sense of passion and why it is important to pursue a state he calls "being in your Element".
While this expression might not be new to some people, it is still worth trying to describe this phenomenon inside of music environments and how we can support children in finding their Element inside of this wonderful domain. Maybe it is your child's way to a life full of passion and joy.
Two Key Features
In his book (co-authored by Lou Aronica), Ken Robinson gives us two key features that indicate that a person is in their Element:
"The Element is the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion."² (Ken Robinson)
What he describes as a feeling of "I get it"³ is something that also we adults know very well. We are doing something, whatever it is, and just have this feeling of ease. Everything just works and we are in control of the flow of our actions without the need of really thinking about them. "It is an intuitive feel or a grasp of what that thing is, how it works, and how to use it", Robinson writes.⁴
In music this is often felt when we play a piece without difficulties. Everything just flows and we really feel like we "get the hang of it". It can also be felt in many other situations involving music, like:
Making music in a group
Writing your own music
Performing music (for example as a concert)
Expressing music through dance
Understanding music (for example really understanding the lyrics of a specific song or feeling and understanding the dynamics of a certain piece)
(You can read more about this in our article "10 Wonderful Ways to Enjoy Music")
Now, what we can see here is that there always seems to be a certain degree of skill involved. When we say a child is "talented", we usually only remark this when we see them doing something is a skilful way. This can also involve simply having a lot of knowledge about something. In fact it is hard to imagine the one without the other, for one must have knowledge about something to be skilful at it. (Although saying someone is "naturally talented sometimes implies that they just naturally perform well in the activity, without really knowing about it).
What does that mean for your children's music education? Check your child's (natural) musical abilities and their goals and then make sure they improve their skills the right way to get from the first one to the second. That sounds almost too simple? Well, many parents or music educators think music lessons in exactly this way. There are certain basics one needs to learn. Then there are the so-called "classic pieces and composers" one needs to study. At some point then the child could be called a musician. This seems a little blunt and "cold" to you? That's because music education should not only focus on the skill, but just as much on the passion.
Maybe somebody has told you before "wow, you are really talented" (at a certain activity). Many of us then usually react in a very humble way, saying "no, I don't think so". While this has something to do with sorting your own skill level into some kind of ranking with other people, there is another component that you could not like about somebody saying that.
People regularly assume just because somebody is good at something they also like what they are doing. Many people who perform well in their job in reality don't really like it. They would disagree with our former statement. Feeling some kind of passion for the activity one is carrying out is a crucial factor of being in your Element.
"Being in your Element is not only a question of natural aptitude. I know many people who are naturally very good at something, but don't feel that it's their life's calling. Being in your Element needs something more - passion. People who are in their Element take a deep delight and pleasure in what they do."⁵ (Ken Robinson)
This also uncovers a big misconception that many parents have while sending their naturally musical children to music lessons: The fact that a child is good at playing an instrument doesn't necessarily mean that they also enjoy playing an instrument. If parents would more often check on their child's degree of passion than on their level of skill we would have many more happy children in music classes.
Here are some ideas for how to do so:
Ask your child if they enjoy playing their instrument on a regular basis. If they do ask them why or on which moments in particular and try to support them in these specific points. If they don't enjoy it find out what exactly they don't enjoy (anymore) about playing.
Make sure to understand why your child wants to have lessons in the first place. Although we are aware that children in these situations often say "I don't know", we also believe that you as a parent should know them best: Try to understand what awoke their interest in music and what their goals might be. Disclaimer: It is not always a professional career in music that your 10 year-old has in mind.
Make sure that if your child has a private teacher, he/she understands that it is your wish to support your child's specific love for music - not just their good performance. Many teachers will actually appreciate you mentioning that because they encounter many parents who are solely concerned about their children's level of skill. Until they find out too late that playing doesn't make their child happy anymore.
Where everything falls into place
A music class for children (like every other class) should have one main focus: To look for a child's drive to engage in music and to support that engagement towards the direction that the child's skills and passion lead. It is essential to stress out that this doesn't always mean having a clear goal. Music teachers who regularly ask children in trial lessons "So, what made you come here today?" will know that they usually don't give you a clear answer. The reason for this is very simple: They don't have a clear answer that they could express. It is most likely more of a feeling. Therefore there just simply might not be a clear goal in the beginning.
Watching these two things, natural aptitude and passion, and trying to bring them together for a child's music education can be game-changing. It turns something that has been a fixed, linear path for decades into a doorway to a land of possibilities and lifelong passion.
Sources and Links
¹ Robinson, Ken: "The Element", p.21 (2009, Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica, Penguin Group)
² Robinson, Ken: "The Element", p.21 (2009, Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica, Penguin Group)
³ Robinson, Ken: "The Element", p.22 (2009, Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica, Penguin Group)
⁴ Robinson, Ken: "The Element", p.22 (2009, Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica, Penguin Group)
⁵ Robinson, Ken: "The Element", p.24 (2009, Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica, Penguin Group)
How can I find music activities?
Find more activities like these on our website: https://www.paupa.org
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