Friday, January 1, 2021

Give your kids the gift of music

Both of my parents were amateur musicians and I grew up surrounded by music. My mom had played piano all of her life, but when she met my dad she learned the cello so that they could play together. They were members of the International Chamber Music Society, so visiting musicians from all over the world would connect and play together when they were in town. At the time, I completely took it for granted. String quartets in my living room were routine. The first time my poor husband Sandy crossed the threshold of my childhood home at the age of 18, my father placed a violin in his hands to see if he knew how to hold one properly. My mom promptly rescued him, “Robert, leave him alone!” It was expected that my sisters and I would learn to read music at the same time that we learned to read letters. I have such powerful and positive memories of playing violin and piano duets with my dad. Those are the ones closest to my heart. I of course also have memories of grumbling about being nagged to practice and being less than polite when dad would appear the moment I sat at the piano to turn on the metronome. It seems to me that most adults who took music lessons as a kid, even if they were in the group that complained about them, are grateful for that opportunity when they look back. At the same time, most adults who did not have music as part of their childhood, wish that they had. It is not hard to find the takeaway here. Give your kids the opportunity to learn an instrument. When they are all grown up, they won't regret it. I didn’t even consider that there were any other options. In my opinion, music should be a basic part of everyday life! My kids started piano lessons at an early age. I played piano duets with both of the girls, as I did with my mom, and she did with hers. Part of their nightly bedtime routine was daddy on the guitar making sure that both of his girls were well versed in all things Beatles and rock 'n roll. My mom always encouraged the family to learn to play an instrument that could be part of an ensemble. She thought that being part of the collective sound was the stuff that magic was made of. We were therefore delighted when our daughters' school started a music program. In 5th grade, each child was given a choice between several instruments. The choices varied a bit from year to year. When it was Lauren’s turn, she chose the flute. When Alana was in 5th grade, she was excited that one of the choices was the saxophone. This was Lisa Simpson's instrument and therefor Alana's first choice. At some point during the year there was a performance where they could show off what they had been learning. Although there would be many future opportunities to watch Lauren up on a stage, I don’t actually remember her 5th grade concert. Alana’s, however, lives on in my memory banks; indeed, in the memory banks of all who attended! First came the flutes...toot toot toot. We all politely applauded. Next came the guitars, strum strum strum...more applause. Now it was time for the group who had chosen the saxophone. To be fair, Alana had come a long way and to my ear, had a fairly nice tone. It was no longer torture listening to her practice, but adding in 10 extra novice players who all were playing in their own distinct key is something that is hard to quite capture. That first blast of sound that came charging out into the audience is something I will never forget. It was a palpable energy. If you were watching an animated cartoon, you would have been able to see it leave the stage. Words can’t really capture it. No two saxophones had the same sound coming from them. The audience took a collective deep breath and I believe we all had just one goal. Don’t laugh! These were our earnest children up there doing their best, but oh heavens, the shoulders were shaking. Most of us were managing to hold ourselves together, until one of the players made that feat even more difficult; a young boy named Max, with a round expressive face and a loud, infectious laugh. After that first blast, Max, who clearly had heard what the rest of had, simply put his instrument down and started to laugh. The laugh very quickly turned into a full howl. While the others kept playing, Max just sat there on stage and guffawed for the rest of the performance! How the other students managed to keep playing at this point was somewhat astonishing. We were all near tears of repressed laughter until that last cacophonous note was finally silent. More than 20 years later, all who were there still have vivid memories of that evening! So, yes, you might have to endure some recitals, but the benefits of having music in your life are enormous. I am not going to dive deeply into the studies, but they are bountiful. Music instruction appears to accelerate brain development in young children, particularly in the areas of the brain that are responsible for processing sound, language development, speech perception and reading skills. It isn’t just for kids. Older folks, including people with dementia are able to recall tunes long after they have forgotten so much else. (There is an amazing documentary about this, called Alive Inside.) Singing to your kids can instantly ‘change the climate’. You don’t need to be able to carry a tune. I have seen many a temper tantrum thwarted with a song. Break out of your comfort zone and expose yourself and the kids to as many genres of music as you can. When Alana was in high school, one of her Lowell teachers had the routine of playing a random piece of music as the students entered the classroom. These ranged from classical, classic rock, big band... Whoever could ‘name that tune’ would get a point. He was never able to stump Alana and as the semester went on, it became more and more of a personal challenge. He finally gave up when she was even able to identify a song from one of the more obscure Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. When she told me this story I felt absolutely victorious! Of course I recommend that you try to go a step beyond singing and listening to music. Give your kids some hands on experience actually playing an instrument. It doesn’t need to break the bank. There are now inexpensive keyboard options as well as many apps for learning some basics. Making sure that music is part of your life is an excellent New Years resolution.

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