The Illusory Promises of Training Wheels

training wheels.jpg

This morning, as my dog and I were jogging behind my daughter while she rampaged up and down a bike trail near our house on her Doc McStuffins bicycle, I started wondering if I’d been right to teach her to ride using training wheels.

Training wheels do exactly one thing: balance the bicycle so the child doesn’t fall off.

Which is the one thing they need to do themselves once the training wheels come off.

It’s really hard to do this when you’ve trained yourself to ride a bicycle in a way that ingrains certain techniques you have to re-learn later, while skipping the ones that are fundamental in being able to ride self-sufficiently.

This got me thinking about all the training wheels we use when teaching children to play instruments. Some years ago at a string teachers’ conference, a persuasive vendor talked me into buying a CelloPhant, a cute little device in the shape of an elephant that you place over the frog of the bow to train children in correct bow-hand shaping. I was excited, since one of the hardest things about setting up a beginner is training them to hold the bow naturally and flexibly.

The problem was that it didn’t work. Sure, it gets the kid’s hand into the right shape, but as soon as you take the CelloPhant away, the hand collapses into a supinated claw, because it doesn’t teach them what it actually feels like to balance the bow in your hand.

I thought more and more about all the crutches we make for ourselves when we try to learn musical concepts. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job here at the University of Idaho is that I get to teach a class in ear training and sight singing. I love this class, which I wanted to rename “Being A Badass 101” (though mysteriously, this was frowned upon by the writers of the course catalogue), because it trains students to hear and make music with the ears and eyes of a professional. In addition to the twice-weekly lecture, students visit me one-on-one each week to perform sight-singing exercises using solfege.

This can be a nerve-wracking experience for some of them–after all, what could make the average person feel more vulnerable than singing solo in front of a “judge”? However, sight-singing tests are just one of those character-building things that really help you articulate music theory and understand how music works.

If you practise it the smart way.

Here’s how to practise solfege wrong. You prop your textbook on the piano and play the assignment before you sing it. Perhaps you sing along with it. You do this a few times, nail it once or twice without the piano, and scoot off to your sight-singing lesson with that tyrant Dr. Wilson.

And you totally bomb it, because it turns out that you can’t replicate your practice-room success under the pressure of performance.


Because you trained yourself to imitate a skill without truly understanding how to do it self-sufficiently. And then you couldn’t perform that skill, because what happens in performance is a direct reflection of what happens in practice.

You thought you were riding a bicycle, when all you were really doing was pedaling. But when you ride a grown-up bike, you have to be able to balance before you can pedal.

The whole point of learning to sight-sing is that generating your own pitch. Of course you can use the piano to play a tonic triad; of course you can hit your starting pitch. But then you have to step away from the piano, otherwise those training wheels never let you sing self-sufficiently.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t learn by copying others–I’m actually a huge proponent of this, when it’s done thoughtfully. Neither am I saying that I expect everyone to be perfect when they’re first learning to sing using solfege: that’s why we start with the simplest exercises, excerpts that move in mostly stepwise motion, or outline the tonic triad. Julie Andrews wasn’t wrong when she melodiously opined: “Once you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything.” You have to master the fundamentals unshakeably before you can add the other stuff.

At this point, I’ve developed a near-clairvoyant ability to tell who has been learning music using the correct procedure and who hasn’t. Learners who use training wheels have to relearn everything they thought they knew because true self-sufficiency comes from practising like a self-sufficient musician.


Which brings me back to my bicycle problem.

A Google search and a few minutes of wading into the stormy waters of various bicycling and parenting forums alerted me to the phenomenon of the balance bicycle, which doesn’t have pedals, but trains children in the arguably more important skill of balancing first. I ordered one. We all have to learn to walk before we can run, but we also have to balance before we can pedal.


One thought on “The Illusory Promises of Training Wheels

  1. Hi Miranda. Mark Hadfield here, a pupil of your father’s. I’ve been following your blog for a while. I wouldn’t presume to disagree with you about musical education, but as a grandfather now with some experience, and a keen two-wheeler all my life, I reckon training wheels are fine. All a child needs to make the transition from a bike with training wheels to one without is 30 minutes, an empty grassy field and some encouragement.


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