There's a particular expression I've heard from music teachers around my metro that saddens me each time I hear it:
"Kids these days don't care about learning instruments."
When I'd first heard it, I may have been inclined to believe it. After all, music is changing, and there's a growing number of popular artists who don't sing or play "old timey" physical instruments at all. Guitar and piano just aren't as prevalent as they were in radio music ten or twenty years ago. The question is whether the decline of live instruments in radio music will deflect kids who would otherwise be interested, and that's not likely to happen.
Guitar Isn't Dying Just Because It's Not On The Radio
The music market is drastically different than it was between 1950 and 2000. The jazz generation was the first to create a musical culture that was centered around the radio. Prior to the popularity of radio, musical preference was largely dependent on the region the listener lived in, but the advent of radio allowed artists backed by labels to have national reach. The label and musicians would profit off of both licenses paid for by radio stations, and record and ticket sales that those stations helped promote by providing publicity to those musicians on a massive scale. Because of this, the music industry was "make it or break it." If an artist could land a record deal with radio syndication, they were all set. When satellite radio and streaming became more popular, the masses had new options for discovering music. I spent most of 2016 and 2017 playing local shows in the Virginia Beach metro (not an area famous for its music scene.) The primary act I played for was an alternative rock/ post hardcore band, not exactly radio pop, but we still had show turnout well into the hundreds pretty regularly. About half the people at the shows were in high school. That's right. The kids. One of my more interesting discoveries was that these teenagers were some of the most engaged people in the scene. You would see some of the same ones turn up regularly, and they were the most likely to be singing along with the local bands.
Radio pop stations pay more exorbitant fees for song licenses than they ever have, so they play less songs. If you had the opportunity to chose specific styles of music you enjoy, where you can have a wider variety of listening, why would you listen to the radio exclusively? Now, most artists don't build the massive followings that they used to, but the middle class of musicians who build their followings as independent artists through streaming are big enough to have an impact on kids. The death of the guitar hero doesn't equate to the death of the guitar.
The Kids Aren't The Problem, The Teachers Are
Like most disciplines, music evolves faster than music educators do, and I mean much faster. Even in the 80s, radio rockers were largely self-taught musicians who might have had a book or two for help. Many of them didn't pick up music theory until after they were big. While this is no means taking a blow at music theory, the reason guitar teachers complain about disinterested students isn't because students don't want to put in the effort to learn their favorite songs. They do. As a matter of fact, "song-first" teaching was School of Rock's claim to fame, and they've become an Entrepreneur 500 franchise within their first 15 years, and are frequently listed as a top education franchise. I make it a goal to have students learn a famous song within their first month. As a result? Low turnover, happy and driven students, and proud parents. Don't make your kids learn key signatures before they're learning songs, and don't make students crank out the entire Faber method of public domain nursery rhymes before they're allowed to learn "Thinking Out Loud." I'm not saying don't make them learn scales. I'm saying show them scales later down the line, and show them how to write and improvise with them. I'm not saying don't include sheet music in your guitar lessons. Just make sure your kids fall in love with music before they're reading it.
Brandon Giltz is a Bassist, Guitarist, Flutist, Composer, and music teacher operating in New Orleans. He works with students of all ages, plays in a number of classical and contemporary ensembles, and has scored music for trailers and games.