Raising the next Dvořák

The Czech approach to musical training for children

The Czech Republic has a rich classical music tradition, dating back to international composers Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana and continuing to modern day orchestral and choral performances in halls like the Rudolfinum in Prague's Old Town. The Prague Philharmonic Symphony, a performance symphony comprised of the best musicians from all the Czech orchestras, is among the most-recorded symphonies in the world, recording everything from CDs for contemporary artists like Jonas Kaufmann to Star Wars: The Clone War. But the talents of Czech musical professionals weren't born overnight. Where did modern day Czech professionals get their initial musical training as children?

There is an old Czech saying "Co Čech, to muzikant," meaning that “every Czech is a musician.” For generations, musical literary and the culture of music belonged to the basics of general Czech education, both in the school and at home. Although in modern day, music training has become less widespread; if you ask a grown Czech, it’s likely he or she has played at least one instrument or has spent a few years of childhood singing in sbor (a choral group).

On the opposite end of the classical music spectrum, there is a strong Czech folk music tradition, associated with “tramping” or singing with a guitar around a campfire. Folk songs go back to ancient Slavic roots or sometimes have a Western, even country influence. During Communism, Czechs were forbidden from singing or playing songs that came from the free West, which added to their allure. After the fall of Communism in 1989, music from the West became popular.

My husband’s grandmother sang in an informal family group with her six adult siblings during Communism and in the years after the Revolution. Whenever we visited, she’d encourage our children to sing a nursery rhyme or a folk-style children’s song with her. Music as a social outlet as well as high-art still exists in Czech culture today.

The Czech Republic offers a variety of options for high-quality musical training for children starting at a young age. Communism can be credited for giving the Czech nation an extensive system for musical instruction for children and young adults which endures today. The ZUŠ (základní umělecká škola), which was called LŠU before 1989 (lidová škola umění) exist in most local communities. These organizations are state-funded art centers for school-age children and adolescents. The schools employ music professionals to teach music and music theory. Later on, children perform with their ZUŠ in orchestras, chamber groups and folk ensembles. In addition to musical training, the centers provide an introduction to drama, dance, ballet, painting and manual arts.

Jiří Pinkas, who plays the viola professionally in the Bennewitz Quartet, one of the top international chamber ensembles, remembers in his youth during Communism, “There was a LŠU in every bigger town, sometimes even in the villages. When I was a kid, the cost was 205 CZK for a semester. Now it is 1500 CZK, which makes it still a very cheap after-school activity, considering you have one lesson of an instrument (one to one) and one lesson of music theory a week.”

According to Pinkas, “The ZUŠ system is rare in Europe nowadays. They do not have them in neighboring Slovakia, for example as the state doesn’t support this type of education any more. We are quite lucky. There are also music lessons at DDM (Dům dětí a mládeže), but in the ZUŠ you usually get a bigger range of activities.”

Although Pinkas left ZUŠ to study at conservatory at the age of 14, his wife describes her own musical upbringing, “I grew up with my ZUŠ youth orchestra, remembering it as my best years, even when I was in puberty.” She played at a ZUŠ from the age of 8 till 20. During this period, she visited the US twice to perform.

Today, Pinkas performs with his quartet internationally at major venues both in the Czech Republic and abroad, including in London, Paris, Berlin New York City and Seoul. The quartet’s most recent project was a CD of Smetana’s String Quartets, released about a week ago.

In addition to his professional work, Pinkas stays busy attending the musical concerts of his own three children, aged 4 to 10, who already play and perform on multiple instruments, including the violin, piano, violoncello and flute. His youngest daughter played a song on the piano before her third birthday, and one of his sons was able to sing a complicated song before he was two. However, Pinkas says talent can only take a musician so far. Regular practice and dedication to the instrument are key, even for young children.

Excluding the children of professional musicians, the average child in the Czech Republic starts playing an instrument in his or her final year of preschool or the first year of elementary school, around age 5 to 6. Many Czech children take their first lessons in ZUŠ. Although the ZUŠ system is not as popular today as during Communism, perhaps because there are a variety of other after-school activities available for children.

DDM are another type of publically funded centers for after-school and leisure activities for school-aged children. There is usually at least one DDM in every Prague neighborhood and similar centers exist across the country. I signed my children up at the ages of 5 and 8 for guitar and piano lessons with a DDM in Prague 6 and was satisfied. Still, most Czechs with musical background tell me that for good quality instruction at a reasonable price, the ZUŠ is best. The ZUŠ also teaches music theory, which is sometimes overlooked in private or DDM lessons.

A common choice for Czech child’s first instrument is the fletna (a plastic recorder) which is sometimes mistakenly translated into English as a flute. The piano, violin, guitar, standard flute and drums are also popular choices, although we know a 10-year-old who’s been playing the harp for two years and an 8-year-old who plays the saxophone. Choosing the correct instrument is important, and several of my friends have said their children tried more than one instrument before settling on one.

In addition to playing a musical instrument, there is a strong choral tradition among Czech school children. At the beginning of the school year in Prague, choral leaders visit Czech elementary schools, test children on site and give chosen children information about choral sign-ups. The most famous Prague children's choir is called Kühnův dětský sbor founded in 1932 by Jan Kühnem, an important singer, director and choreographer. The choir was originally created for the needs of the Czechoslovak radio in Prague. With over 600 members, it is the largest children’s choir in the Czech Republic. It performs regularly for the National Theater and tours internationally. Another newer choir, Rolnička, was founded in Prague in 1978. This ensemble numbers 200 young singers, aged 5 to 18 years.

If attending a music school seems too intimidating for your child, there are also options for individual music lessons for children at home and in private music schools. Prices start at 200 CZK/hour. Check hudebka.cz or the Yamaha music school's website to find lessons across the country for children and adults on numerous different instruments.

Although the Czech Republic is a mecca of musicians as far as earning money, the wages for a professional Czech musician are about one-sixth of what is common in other European nations. Pinkas says, “That’s why so many Czech musicians travel abroad all the time. Normally, professional musicians also have a contract in an orchestra, play gigs or teach in a ZUŠ or privately to supplement their income.”

Today, two of my children attend singing lessons at their elementary school and one goes to private guitar lessons, too. They practice songs in English and Czech and seem to enjoy the balance. I'm under no illusions that I'm raising the next Dvořák. However, my children enjoy their classes, and I am grateful for them to experience music as a part of their Czech heritage.

Whether or not your child ends up making his living as a professional composer or playing classical music in a symphonic orchestra, if he or she has a desire to learn music, it makes sense to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities here.

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