Child prodigies have a long history in bluegrass. Rhonda Vincent, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, and Chris Thile are just a few of the top performers who had been turning heads in bluegrass circles before they were old enough to drive.
It’s always difficult to predict which talented youngsters will go on to a career in music, and questions about how to help prepare a precocious child in any field of endeavor are ones that plague parents with responsibility for those who show interest and aptitude as pre-teens.
The following contribution comes from Deanna Kerr, a writer and teacher in central California, who is raising her own young musician, Daisy. Here Deanna shares some of what she’s learned about coaching and training a budding whiz kid.
At the age of 10, Daisy Kerr plays the guitar and sings like a professional. Out of approximately 30 of the most talented kids in the nation chosen to play in the Kids on Bluegrass (KOB) program at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Business Conference and Expo this year, Daisy was the youngest. Her success as a musician was not because she was born with an unusual amount of talent, but because her parents taught her the secrets of focused practice and found opportunities for her to gain experience performing.
Daisy has learned to use several methods to observe herself while she practices. Watching how she plays is important because it helps her to quickly discover her mistakes and fix them before they become bad habits. The less a parent interferes, the more encouraged and relaxed a child feels.
Daisy’s self-observation includes focusing her attention on feeling what her fingers are doing. The minute she discovers a problem, she fixes it. She plays slowly and correctly until the right way becomes second nature. Then she speeds up her playing.
Daisy also records herself and then listens to what she has just played. It is an excellent way for her to find problem phrases on her own. A smartphone is a fantastic recording device. Children can easily stop in the middle of a song, go back, and listen again.
The final method important for a focused practice is playing with a metronome. Sometimes, kids tend to speed up and slow down when they play a tune. A metronome helps a kid discover irregular timing spots.
Daisy also learns emotional self-control while she practices. Temper-tantrums, bad attitudes, and self-doubt are the quickest way for any child to loose focus. Mistakes are inevitable and how Daisy reacts to them makes the difference between whether she plays well or plays poorly. A positive, can-do attitude is encouraged and a bad attitude is strongly discouraged.
The result of focused practicing is Daisy’s desire to play music well, that in turn fuels her motivation to keep practicing. It inspires her to feel the emotional message of a tune and play accordingly. Her parents can also nurture her desire by jamming with her from time to time.
Family jamming is a great way to encourage a child to try something new or to discover that some mistakes can sound awesome. It is also a great way for her to relax and enjoy the music without the pressure.
Jamming with her peers as well is a fantastic opportunity for her to learn new licks, get fresh ideas, and make new friends.
In addition to focused practice, Daisy had to learn how to perform. The experience of playing in front of an audience is the only way to learn how to play under pressure. The more she performs, the more comfortable she feels. The more comfortable she feels, the less the people and the spotlights disturb her concentration. The less her concentration is disturbed, the more she is able to focus her attention on her music.
Daisy’s musical success is not unusual. Eleven-year-old Presley Barker played in the IBMA Bluegrass All-star Band finale of the Awards Show this year. He played with Bluegrass legendaries such as Bryan Sutton, Sam Bush, Del McCoury, and more. Like Daisy, Presley’s parents says the secret to his success is the desire in his heart to play music.
Fifteen-year-old Jake Gooding started playing with the KOB program at the IBMA Business Conference and Expo two years ago. He says he enjoys family jamming with his brothers because they “get to mess around.” His younger brother, 14-year-old John Gooding, says he thinks it is important to “surround [himself] with people [he] feels comfortable with.”
Daisy Anderson (not to be confused with Daisy Kerr) was one of the youngest kids to ever participate in the KOB program at an IBMA Business Conference and Expo. One of her greatest accomplishments was performing with her family band at the Hardly Strictly festival in San Francisco, California in 2010. She says that the secret to her success “is not really a secret. You just have to work hard and have fun. Having the whole family involved made it a lot easier to stick with it.”