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.