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.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Practice Tip #1: Slow It Down

The best way to play fast is to practice slowly.

One of the biggest mistake students make during practice is playing their music too fast.  Slowing down the music allows our brain to process the information so that we can play the notes accurately, thus ensuring we play the correct notes.  I know how tempting it is to play fast or to play the music as fast as we have heard on a recording.  However, if you want to truly learn the notes to a song, you must practice it slowly.  Once you are able to practice that specific part of the song (or the entire song depending on how far along you are), then you can gradually speed up the tempo.

It takes focus and persistence to slow the music down enough so that all the notes that are played are accurate in pitch and rhythm.  Remember, learning to play an instrument develops many parts of your brain.  Not only will you be making music, you will be developing and strengthening skills such as focus, memory, and persistence.

So keep your practicing slow and you will be on your way to musical proficiency in no time.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Watch Out, France! Asian Woman Driving

Do any of these signs indicate the actual street name? Nope.  Welcome to French driving.

Sierra and I slept in until 11:30am the next day.  This was mainly due to the powerful blinds that kept our bedroom a dark cocoon.  Jeff and Tenzin were already awake, which was a role reversal.  They tend to be the night owls, whereas Sierra and I tend to bound out of bed every morning.

Using his limited French, Jeff managed to purchase a baguette and a croissant at the local bakery.  It was delicious to bite into freshly baked bread first thing in the morning.  I didn't even miss my morning smoothie.

Since Jeff had been awake since 4am, he needed to nap.  Thus, I marched out of the house with the girls on a mission.  Since I had been hesitant to drive in France, we walked down to the bus stop a block away.  As we waited at the bus stop, I noticed that no buses were going to our destination.  One of the hardest things about traveling is making decisions on the spot.  It is even harder with children in tow.  Thankfully, neither of them were squirmy.  They just waited patiently and I told them that we would have to go back to get the car so that I could drive to our destination.

"What?" asked Sierra. "Will you be okay?"  She already knew about my reluctance to drive.
"Of course, we'll be okay," I reassured Sierra.  I was also trying to reassure myself.

Even though I read French, the street signs here elude me.  There are about 5 signs at each intersection indicating all sorts of useful information.  Unfortunately, I usually cannot spot the actual street name.

When we got to the car, I instructed both girls to look out for the big street I needed to turn onto, Rue Jean Moulin.  When we got to the street I believed was the one to turn onto, there were no indications I could decipher.  My instincts told me to turn, so I did.  "I think this is the wrong street," I told the girls.  A few seconds later, I spotted it: Monoprix, our first destination.  "Yay!  We did it!" I shouted.  A miracle.

Can you guess where the street sign is located? It's not the green or white signs. If you count from the top, 1-Green, 2-Green, 3-White, 4-White, and then finally right under that last white sign is a tiny dark sign that says "Rue Jean Moulin."  It's not even visible from the street!  I took this picture on a walk later with my friend Ritu so that I could actually see if the street sign existed.

My girls and I went to Monoprix to take photos for our monthly metro passes.  Since the girls and I are staying in France for an entire month, it was more economical to purchase a Navigo card.  The actual physical card costs 5 Euros.  Then, it is 70 Euros for a monthly pass.  There was no discount for the girls, unfortunately.

Have you ever taken an official photo in France?  Here are the instructions:
1) Don't smile
2) Keep a neutral expression
3) Keep your lips closed
4) Don't wear a hat
5) Show your ears
6) Don't tilt your head
7) Make sure your hair is not messy (well, this last one is my guess as to what the instructions were saying)

This is how our photos turned out:

Scary or what? All I could think about was "don't blink, don't smile, keep your lips closed."  We're not winning any beauty pageants with those photos.  I think Tenzin looks the toughest.

This is the cute little Renault we are driving.  We swapped cars as well as houses with the French family, so we can go anywhere we want.  Of course, gas prices are more expensive.  Don't worry, France, I'm not driving into Paris.  We are in a cute little suburb called Antony where cars are just a bit slower, and that is just my pace.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Day 1: Journey to France & House Swapping

I woke up this morning with unusual anxiety and excitement.  "We are going to France!" I thought.  But first, I needed to clean.  Not only were we going to France for the month of October; we were also swapping houses with a French family.  This was our first time swapping houses, so the task turned out to be bigger than I had anticipated.

We had some last-minute mishaps.  My computer completely crashed as I was printing out the 6 pages of instructions that detailed information such as WIFI passwords, how to use the television, and when to take out the trash. Then, the garage door stopped working properly.  All was solved as I thumb-typed on my iPhone on the way to the airport.

Two weeks.  It took two weeks to sort, clean, discard, organize, and wipe every surface imaginable in our house.  By the time we left for the airport, I secretly wished we could spend a day at home just to experience our house in this never-before pristine condition.

Tenzin at SFO

Plane travel with my girls has gotten easier throughout the years.  When we took our first overseas plane ride to Taiwan five years ago. Tenzin was 4 and Sierra was 2. Thirteen hours on the plane could easily make someone go mad. Luckily, that never happened to us during our four trips to Taiwan.  Our 10-hour plane ride to Paris was quite fun, especially now that everyone has a screen.  I am so thankful we restrict screen time so that these plane rides are easy.

The exchange rate at the airport ATM was not too good, but we used it to get us going with cash.  Plus, it was much better than changing actual dollars to Euros.  Our taxi ride to the house in Antony cost 86 Euros. Sierra kept looking for the Eiffel Tower, occasionally shouting out, "I think I see it!"

Jeff found rocking chair in the living room and immediately relaxed into it.

Our house in Antony is quaint, clean, and cozy.  The girls went to each room excitedly to explore.  We were shown around by Nadine, the mother of Sandrine (the house owner).  Nadine spoke English because she lived in America for 20 years.  My French is still incredibly rusty, so it was nice she spoke English.  Jeff and I were getting more and more tired but managed to stay awake as she explained how to work the alarm, the door (the lock seemed impossible!) and the car.

The girls sunbathe in the backyard.

After Jeff and I napped, we walked down to Franprix, the local grocery store.  We found a rotisserie chicken and basics for our food supply.  Thanks to my sister Kelly, we now have the Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card.  That means no transaction fees when we use it overseas.  We used it at Franprix and it worked!

We also found a BNP Paribas ATM, which is the sister bank to bank. That means we don't have to pay the $5 withdrawal fee.  That ATM had a much better exchange rate than the one at the airport.

Sierra and I are so excited to be here!

We came back to the house with all the provisions, made some rice and veggies, and ate a hearty meal.  After dinner clean-up, we explored the path to the RER, the metro line that serves the suburbs.  It was only a 5-minute walk, and we also found dessert. 

It was definitely a fun-filled day.  I can't wait for more.