Thursday, October 10, 2019

Playing from the Heart: Anthony Pfluke on Music & Mistakes

"I've hit plenty of wrong notes.
What comes after that when you find the right notes--
it’s the journey that is really beautiful." 
- Anthony Pfluke

One of the best aspects of my job is getting to talk to musicians from a variety of backgrounds. Recently, I spoke with Anthony Pfluke, Hawaiian musician from Maui. (He is finally old enough to vote!) I met Anthony several years ago at a quaint one-room church that hosted a weekly 'ukulele jam session called "808 Jams."

When I caught up with Anthony this time, we talked about his childhood and performing. His mother taught him how to play the piano when he was young but he was not too interested. Still, he continued to learn and got the basics down. Through these piano lessons, Anthony also developed the ability to play by ear.

Years later, when Anthony was 10 years old, his parents heard about "808 Jams" and decided to check it out. They only had one 'ukulele between the three of them, so they had to borrow 'ukuleles when they arrived. After that first session, however, Anthony's interest caught on. He kept coming back, and three months later, he wrote his first song. Since then, he has performed internationally and released two albums.

What I love about Anthony's story is that his parents supported his music-making in a way that I would like to call gently and musically supportive. "Less is more," explained Anthony. "My parents really took a step back. They didn't really put their two cents in. I wasn't thinking from an early age that this is good or this is bad." Anthony's parents had already provided a musically environment when he was young, and the weekly 808 Jams communal music-making infused Anthony's world with Hawaiian music, which he now "speaks" fluently through his Hawaiian vocal, slack-key guitar, and 'ukulele music. That's great advice for all parents: enrich your child's environment with a lot of music when they are young, and let the child have more and more say in their music-making as they grow. 

When I asked Anthony if he has any advice for young musicians, he emphasized the importance of being present and embracing mistakes. "When the flow is there, and you are receiving this gift and sharing it and not worrying about wrong notes or mistakes, it’s a big feeling. I've hit plenty of wrong notes. What comes after that when you find the right notes--it’s the journey that is really beautiful.  People don’t want to see a perfect performance. They want to feel the spirit that is behind that."

Mahalo, Anthony, for your reminders about savoring the journey and enjoying the music. What a privilege it has been to listen to your music and hear your wisdom.

Anthony's website is

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Setting a Solid Foundation: The Musical Child Pyramid

Most parents come to me when their child struggles with practicing their instrument. I try to tell them the importance of creating a musical environment so that their child can first develop a love for making music and then practicing becomes less of an issue. But often, that's not what parents want to hear. They want me to give them a few ideas they can use to fix the problem. What they don't realize is that their child's difficulty with practicing is usually a symptom of the problem, not the actual problem. The best way to solve this problem is to begin from the root. One must fertilize the soil so that a healthy musical plant may grow tall. What parents are seeing are weeds that are crowding out musical development and joy. Cutting off the tops of these weeds will not magically create a sustainable practicing situation. Instead, parents must cultivate a musical family life first. Then, add a great music teacher. Once those two elements are in place, music practicing can flourish.

I created the Musical Child Pyramid to demonstrate the importance of first establishing a family life that is rich with music. Parents must bathe their child in music by playing a lot of music at home and taking their children to attend live music events. They must also enjoy music themselves, modeling a behavior that their children can imitate. After all, "children tend to be impersonators than listeners" noted Nancy McBrine Sheehan. Providing a musically fertile foundation then allows any seeds that drop in there to sprout vigorously.

The largest part of The Musical Child Pyramid is devoted to the musical family life. That is where most of a parent's attention must be continually focused throughout the child's life. Just because a parent nurtured their 5-year-old's musical environment does not mean they can stop taking their child to hear live music or listening to music around the house when that child turns 13. If anything, the teenage years are even more important for nurturing the child's environment. It just needs to be done differently. What works for a toddler will not always work for a teenager.

The middle part of the Pyramid involves music lessons and builds upon a musically rich family life. Once a child has listened to a lot of music and enjoys making music in an informal setting, a teacher can enter the scene. This teacher, however, must be a warm and patient person who truly enjoys working with children. As observed by researcher Benjamin Bloom in "Developing Talent in Young People," parents of concert pianists made sure that when these concert pianists were young, their first teacher taught in a way that continued the playful interaction with music while setting standards and expecting progress. Thus, music lessons must be guided by a knowledgeable and nurturing teacher. If there is not a good fit between the teacher and student, the parent must make it a priority to find someone who is a good match. Otherwise, music practicing is inevitably doomed. Who wants to practice an instrument when lessons are terrible? No one.

Once a a thriving musical family life and music lessons are in place, a child can play with joy. This results in music practicing that is easier and often done with delight. If you haven't done this yet, give it a try. But remember that the love of music can not be grown over night. It must be cultivated through joyful and playful interactions with music every day.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

How to Raise a Musical Child

Many people are under the impression that you are either born with musical talent or you’re not. Parents tell me all the time, “Timmy is so musical but his brother isn’t.” That makes me so sad because just as teachers’ attitudes toward children can influence those children’s IQ, parents’ opinions of their children will shape the capacity of their children. Sometimes I even hear parents will tell their children, “You are not musical,” which is a stab in my heart. Every child is musical. Not just some children, all children. They just need help developing that skill.

What most people do not understand is that music is a language, and to speak a language fluently it is easiest to begin at birth. Am I suggesting that you plop your newborn at the piano days after birth? No. But if you treat music the same way you treat your mother tongue (in this case English), then your child will learn to “speak” music. Think about all the words a child hears from the moment they emerge from the womb, which is anywhere from 3 to 11 millions words by the time they are 3 years old. No wonder most kids begin speaking English by then. Studies have shown that the more words kids hear, the better they perform in school. Apply that to music and you will have a similar effect. Children who hear music daily, consistently see those around them make music, and are immersed in a musically rich environment will become musical. Just like language, it is easiest to become fluent in music when you begin engaging with it as a young child. However, it is never too late, and as my teacher Caroline Fraser always reminds me, “the best time to begin is now.”

Once you see that every child is capable of becoming a musical child, you can begin to take the steps to help your own child develop this wonderful skill. Implement the ideas listed below and you will indeed raise a musical child.

1.     Play and enjoy music. Play music so that you and your child can listen to it. Do this every day! Play music that you enjoy so that your child can see you enjoying music. If you sing or play an instrument, then do it around your child. If you don’t, it’s not a big deal because they mainly just want to see you enjoying music. I grew up with two parents who did not play any instruments. However, I did see my dad enjoy music and he would listen to the radio and play the music he enjoyed on our record and cassette player. That made a huge difference.

2.     Take your child to musical events. Go to the symphony, the opera, a friend’s recital, a street fair, even church (I’m not religious but I remember going to church during college because I loved hearing the music!). It is best to take your child to see live music. There’s something magnetic about watching and hearing a musician completely immersed in making music. It’s also a lot of fun. It doesn’t have to cost much or even at all. Ask around or look on the internet for performances in your area. Many university music departments have concerts that are affordable or even free. Some restaurants have live music certain nights of the week.

3.     Choose the instrument your child will play. I know this sounds controversial, but you are the parent. You get to choose. Music is just another language. You chose for your child to speak English. How did you do that? By speaking English and surrounding your child with English-speaking people from they day they were born. The same can be said for music. Let’s say you want your child to play the cello. If your child grew up hearing cello music every day, seeing people around him/her playing the cello, seeing you and your family and friends enjoying listening to cello music, then your child will want to play the cello. Children only ask to play a certain instrument after being exposed to it.

4.     Find a great music teacher. Your child’s first music teacher should be kind, be musically skilled in that instrument, and work well with kids. When your child is first beginning lessons, it is more important to work on having your child develop a love for playing an instrument than becoming a concert pianist. That is why a teacher who can guide a child with love will also set a foundation for future success. You also need to figure out your goals in having your child take music lessons. Once you are clear on that, you can interview teachers and make sure they are a good fit. Ask to observe that teacher during a lesson, go to that teacher’s studio recital, and talk to parents in that studio. Get as much information as possible about a teacher so that you can be sure that your child will enjoy and progress through their lessons. If you want more information on how to find a great music teacher, you can check out this blog.

5.     Enjoy your child’s music. You don’t have to be able to read music or understand music theory. If you are truly committed to raising a musical child, learn how to spot and affirm your child’s progress. Ask their teacher each week what aspects of their playing are going well. Write those ideas down and look for them during home practice. If you are a two-parent household, one parent could take the role of PEP: Pure Enjoyment Parent. That means one parent helps with practicing while the Pure Enjoyment Parent only points out how much they enjoy your child’s music-making. Since I taught my children to play the piano, my husband always took the role of PEP. When my children were young and needed guidance during practicing, I was sometimes out of town or unable to be there to help them. During those times, my husband would bring his comfortable chair and sit near the piano while my daughter played. He knows very little about music and would only offered positive comments during those practice sessions. As a result, they often looked forward to those practice sessions with their dad.

6.     Give specific encouragement. Be specific about what you enjoy about your child’s playing. “Great job” works from time to time, but what your child really wants is to know that you were really listening to them and that you are celebrating their progress. Being raised by a tiger mom, I was not familiar with this type of verbal communication. However, I quickly learned that just pointing out what my daughter did incorrectly made music-making a frustrating process for my daughter and me. When I finally discovered another way to practice where I used words of encouragement that are specific and focused on her progress, our relationship improved greatly and she eventually began to enjoy making music. Here are some words you can use:

“I heard you playing the correct notes to that piece.”
“I heard you playing more correct notes than before.”
“I noticed you sitting with correct posture when playing that piece.”
“I enjoyed listening to the evenness of your notes.”
“I noticed you played that piece with a steady beat.”
“Thank you for playing that piece. I especially enjoyed the singing melody line.”

Of course, there are hundreds of other aspects you could focus on. If you are struggling to find encouraging words, ask your child’s teacher to help you.

7.     Groups are more fun. Find opportunities for your child to play music with others. There is something magical about making music with other people. Humans are social beings and we intrinsically enjoy being with others. Sign your child up for music lessons that are taught in a group. You could make music at home or in the car, even if it only involves singing together. Invite friends who enjoy making music to your house and have a jam session. Whatever you do, make sure to include this activity because it will help motivate your child to make more music.

Monday, November 12, 2018

How to Find a Great Music Teacher for Your Child

Choosing a music teacher for your child can be a daunting task. Should I look for someone who has a PhD in music? Or someone who has studied at Juilliard? What about the college student who is offering discount lessons? Years ago when my daughter was 4 years old, I was looking for a piano teacher but I had no clue how to choose one. I ended up finding a teacher who was not a good fit and we quit lessons after a few months. I then began taking piano teacher training courses so that I could become a better teacher. These courses and my experiences since then have taught me much more about finding a great music teacher. 

Why is it important to find a great teacher? Why not just someone who is mediocre or simply good enough? It is because music lessons with a great teacher means you have found someone who will support and nurture your child on their musical journey. Making music is an activity that can be enriching and fulfilling for the rest of their lives. If you find the right teacher, your child could develop a love for music that propels them to keep making music. Finding a great teacher ensures the foundation for what could be a lifelong passion that brings creativity, comfort, and joy.
Here are the steps to finding a great teacher:

1) Figure out why you want your child to learn an instrument. Is it because you want your child to become a professional musician? Do you want your child to develop a love for music? Or do you want your child to be able to write this on their college application? Whatever the reason, you must be clear about it. This is immensely important because the goals you have for music lessons will shape your search for the right teacher. If your goal is to have your child play at Carnegie Hall one day, your definition of a great teacher could be very different from somebody who wants their child to be able to play an instrument merely for personal enjoyment.

2) Look for a teacher who works well with children. This may seem counterintuitive to most people. Isn't it more important to find someone who is highly skilled on their instrument or have several music degrees? It is not that skill and pedigree are not important. Of course they are. It's just that a child's first music teacher sets the tone for music-making and can help develop your child's passion for music. Having a teacher who understands children and inspires your child to play their instrument can set a strong foundation for your child's music-making. In Dr. Benjamin Bloom's book "Developing Talent in Young People," he surveyed concert pianists and asked them about their childhood experiences with music. Most of them were not prodigies and did not showed any particular special talent on the piano. Rather, the thing they all had in common was that their first piano teacher really understood children and made playing the piano a positive experience. 

3) Search for teachers. Gather up a list of names from friends, community listings, and online resources like the Suzuki Association or Music Teacher Association of California (if you're in California). Ask around at your child's school or call a local music school or college. Before you contact that teacher, figure out what you will ask them, which is the next step.

4) Interview the teacher. Because you know what you want out of music lessons (see #1), you can ask the teacher appropriate questions to begin to determine whether you all will be a good fit. Here are some questions to ask:

- What are the musical goals for your students? 

- What do you cover during lessons? Some teachers focus mainly on the repertoire (the songs). Others also teach music theory, composition, improvisation, ear training, and ensemble-playing. It is a complicated issue as to which aspects a music teacher should be covering in lessons, so I will cover this in another post.

- Do you teach by ear or with reading music or both?

- Do you teach using a particular method? (If they reply "yes," then ask for details about that method.)

- Do you have recitals? If so, how often?

- Do you teach private or group lessons?

- Do you want a parent to sit in on the lesson?

- How much do you expect the child to practice at home?

- Do you enter your students in competitions, festivals, or evaluations? 

- What do you see as the parent's responsibility during lessons and at home?

- What do you see as the child's responsibility during lessons and at home?

- How do you communicate with parents? Email? Text? During the lesson?

- How much do you charge? 

- Do you offer scholarships? (for those who need financial assistance)

5) See it for yourself. Ask to observe a lesson (or 2 or 4!). Bring your child to the teacher's space so that you and your child can see what lessons entail. Watching a someone teach a lesson can reveal so much more than a conversation you have with that teacher. You will get to see how the teacher corrects the student, what the teacher focuses on, how practicing is established, the pace of the lesson, facial expressions, body language, and much more. If you can sit in on a recital or talk to parents in the teacher's studio, that can be helpful as well. Use your intuition to figure out which teacher will work well with your child and your family. Remember, just because a friend raves about a particular teacher does not mean that teacher will necessarily be a good fit for your child and your family. 

6) Choose a teacher. You've done the work, put in the time, and figured out the best fit for your child. Now is the time to choose a teacher and commit. 

Five years after my daughter began and quit those piano lessons, she wanted to play the cello so I searched for a teacher. This time, I knew what to look for and how to proceed. I interviewed several teachers and I brought my daughter to watch 3 recitals and observe 4 lessons. In the end, I chose the teacher with a kind, gentle demeanor who is warm and caring to her students. This teacher was also able to correct her students in a positive way and effectively engage her students to play with beautiful tone and technique. Now, seeing the smiles on my daughter's and her teacher's faces during their weekly lesson I am reminded of a quote by Shinichi Suzuki: "Children learn to smile from their parents." In this case, however, I believe that children also learn to smile from their teachers.

Here we all are at my daughter's October cello recital.
Happy teacher + happy parent = happy child.
Music lessons are a wonderful investment for your child. Finding a great teacher will ensure a journey that is filled with delight, creativity, and lifelong joy.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

I Don't Believe in Prodigies

I recently hosted a house concert where 17-year-old Anthony Pfluke dazzled us with his musical virtuosity. His luscious Hawaiian vocals blended beautifully with his 'ukulele and slack-key guitar playing. Every person who attended told me how impressed they were by his skills and how much they enjoyed the concert.

I first met Anthony last year at an 'ukulele jam session in Maui. Led by Jared Santos, this weekly 2-hour event called 808 Uke Jams took place in a cozy one-room church with a green roof. During the break, Santos invited several people to perform, so it was then that I first heard Anthony play and sing. He had been attending this jam session for several years with his parents, and it was there under the loving support of Santos and the 'ukulele community that Anthony's love of Hawaiian music caught fire. I happened to sit next to Anthony's parents and found out that Anthony (at that time 16 years old) had a weekly gig at a restaurant in Kihei. I took my family there a couple of days later and we all enjoyed his singing and playing while savoring fresh malasadas (delicious Portuguese donuts that are a staple in Hawai'i).

During the concert at my house, several people asked me if Anthony was a prodigy. I replied, "I actually don't believe in prodigies. At least not in the way most people think of them." What I mean is that I believe that Anthony got to his skill level from hours upon hours of practicing. Why did he practice so much? Because he is so passionate about music. How did his passion develop? Going to that jam session week after week and being encouraged to explore the 'ukulele had a huge impact on him. Seeing others make music so happily, including his parents who encouraged his playing. He eventually hooked up with legendary George Kahumoku Jr. (4-time Grammy winner) and now spends one day a week at George's farm pulling weeds and hanging out. So Anthony continues to have a outpouring of support from people around him and that keeps fueling his passion. 

Input = output

If a child is immersed in music, if they see their parents and others around them play and enjoy music, they will also develop that enjoyment. The more input, the more output. 

I have seen this time and again with other "musical geniuses" where their environment is so rich even if their own parents are not musicians. The hit musical "Hamilton" whose composer/writer is Lin-Manuel Miranda is a case in point. Lin-Manuel grew up with parents who were not musicians. However, his parents loved music, especially musicals. His parents played recordings of musicals all the time--at home, in the car. His parents owned over 100 records and Lin-Manuel recalls being immersed in music. He also had an older sister that loved rap, which he also loved. Just like Anthony, Lin-Manuel was bathed in music for most of his life and he got to see others around him enjoy music. It is not surprising that musicians of such caliber come from such musically rich environments.

And that is precisely what Shinichi Suzuki talked about with the mother tongue approach. Just like every child learns his/her mother tongue by being immersed in it, every child can also learn an instrument if he or she is immersed in it. That means the child needs to hear music a lot, see others playing music a lot, and see others enjoy making music. It is also incredibly powerful for parents to see how they do not need to be experts in music or even musicians themselves in order to raise a child to be a musician. Just like language, the younger you begin to play an instrument, the more easily you become "fluent" in playing that instrument. However, for those of us who are adults, it is never too late. I have an adult piano student who is approaching 60 and he has surrounded himself with a musical community that supports and encourages his music-making. Even though he began lessons about 5 years ago, he is able to play an astonishing amount of music.

I recently read a book by Dr. Benjamin Bloom called "Developing Talent in Young People" where it detailed a study of 120 people who are at the top of their professions like Olympic swimmers, tennis players and concert pianists. They probed into these people's childhoods and even asked their parents to give information about all sorts of things including the type of coaches or teachers they had growing up. What was noticeable about the concert pianists is that most of them were not seen as particularly gifted in music. What they all had in common was that their first piano teachers were all warm and caring. Thus, their first experiences with piano lessons were positive and fun. These first teachers were not concert pianists, but they knew how to teach children and they knew how to support and inspire these future concert pianists to love playing the piano. The parents also played a large role by being present for lessons and helping with consistent practicing at home. Thus, in a supportive and encouraging environment like these, the concert pianists were able to develop a passion for music while also learning that practicing can be fun but also a lot of hard work. Similarly, the coaches the top tennis players and swimmers first had tended not to be professionals but definitely kid-friendly, making lessons fun and positive and instilling in them a love of their sport. 

I think we should stop focusing so much on prodigies or thinking about them as spontaneously skilled people. Yes, everyone is born with different attributes that predispose us to becoming better at certain activities. What most people usually don't notice is how much time these "prodigies" spend practicing their instruments. It is the long hours spent on their instruments that makes the biggest difference. So instead, let's focus on creating a musically rich environment where music-making can flourish. Let's surround ourselves with music by attending live concerts, making music with others, and also buckling down to practice. Then we will have the inspiration to fuel the passion that drives our daily practice. And if we share our music with others, we can then inspire others to make music, too.