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.