Monday, May 9, 2011

What makes musical kids?

"I wish [insert name of child here] played an instrument." The number of times I've heard that over the past few years I can't even begin to tell you. What have "musical" kids got that other kids haven't? Can a kid become a fabulous musician without parents being mean? Do we have to be Tiger Mothers? Or can musical parenting come from a more organic process?

Musical kids have:

1. a listening library in their heads that is constantly being restocked: These kids hear music everywhere they go, and in diverse genres. There's always something in the CD player at home, or a good WMPG or NPR program (blues, bluegrass, Cajun, Celtic, Caribbean, classical, Latino, local...). Bedtime songs that are eventually sung in harmony. Sing-alongs in the car with real musicians (as opposed to made-for-kids bubble gum muzak - ick): Pete Seger, Leadbelly, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Emmy Lou Harris, Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road, Gilbert & Sullivan, You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Revels, Afro-Brazilian, Flanders and Swan, Beatles. Classical music while they do homework. You name it, they've heard it.

2. musical role models: They have relatives, friends, babysitters, or neighbors who play instruments and sing, and their families hang out places that have good music. If your kids' music lessons are not happening at a place that encourages jamming and like-aged groups, where music is happening outside the practice rooms as well as in, where people are talking about music, where random people of all ages encourage your child as they walk by, or stop to show them a new technique, you're in the wrong place.

3. parents who listen to a wide variety of music, share music, sing, and play/learn an instrument. Consider signing up for lessons on the same or another instrument. Practice as often as you expect your children to practice. Share your learning joys and frustrations, talk about what goes on in your class, and ask your children for advice.

4. many opportunities to go to performances and talk about them afterward: This doesn't have to mean $60 symphony tickets. It can be a free noonday concert, a college recital, a street festival, or a middle school band concert. It can be an outdoor music festival where the bands play on and on while the kids play frisbee, roll down the hill, and eat pie.

5. schools that actively value instrumental and vocal music, not as a 'special' or an extracurricular activity, but as an integral part of a whole child's education.

6. opportunities to share their music, whether at a nursing home, in regular 'concerts' at home, performing on the street, or as part of an ensemble.

7. music practice time that is as important and regular as their homework time. It has structure and repetition, with time for noodling at the end.

8. instruments that are out on stands in a high-traffic area of the house, not hidden in a case under a bed. The more often they see their instruments, the more often they will want to play them.

9. encouragement to explore, compose, and switch genres. A good teacher should be able to work with what your child wants from an instrument. Sometimes a switch of instrument or the addition of an instrument is in order. It can be temporary or it can lead to a complete change.

A young musician comes from his or her surroundings. It is a holistic endeavor that can begin with a supportive school program, but must be embraced by a musically nurturing family. Tiger Mothers get results, but at what cost? The goal should be for each child to develop a lifelong creative outlet that gives him or her joy and respite from the stressful world we live in, rather than being an additional stressor. Surround your kids with music. Instead of wishing your child played an instrument, or asking whether they'd like to, ask which instrument they'd like to play and when they'd like to start. Then follow through.


Kimberly Simmons said...

Alfie has me thinking & thinking (gosh darn it)... is "musical" a value that transcends individuality? Or are some kids pulled toward music and others just aren't? Reading your ideas, it feels like a kind of literacy - but is mastery of an instrument necessary? Don't know quite where I'm going, but find myself questioning the adult-imposed element more than I had before, while agreeing that what we do in our environments matters a ton, and music is important for all kinds of reasons

Maya said...

If we don't put the foundation out there, there's nothing for a kid to build on later. Algebra and critical literary analysis are adult-imposed requirements for all children, and yet I've found no use for either of them in my adult life. Scientists, mathematicians, and others have been able to build on a foundation with which they were provided through adult imposition, when perhaps they were not thrilled with math or 'higher order thinking skills' development in middle school. Music should be an integral part of the core curriculum because of its ability to both define and transcend cultures, while allowing a person to produce joy and solace for themselves and others. Not to mention the math, language, physical, and organizational skills it builds in students.

Maya said...

PS - I would argue that, as you stated, musicality is indeed a type of literacy, and it requires the same support from home and the community that literacy and numeracy require. The kids who get that support are the ones who have a chance of excelling. We can extend that to science as well. The kids who maintain scientific curiosity through their school years are those who are surrounded and encouraged in scientific exploration and questioning at home. Our society's almost exclusive emphasis on literacy and numeracy in the elementary years is creating a generation of kids who are either good or not in a very limited number of things.