Music, A Lasting Gift

by Melanie G. Snyder

What gift can you give your children at any age, that won’t ever break or wear out, and that they can enjoy for as long as they live? The gift of a love of music!

"If you want your children to love music, you have to love it yourself and you have to present music in a loving way," advises John D’earth of Charlottesville, an internationally recognized jazz trumpeter, teacher and composer.

So where do you begin to present music to your children?

Start by listening to a wide variety of music together - jazz, blues, classical, folk, music from other countries and cultures. Check out CD’s and tapes from the library. Try out different radio stations. And take your children to hear live musical performances (see sidebar for local family friendly venues).

In our family, this was easier when our kids were young and un-opinionated about what constitutes "cool" music. But we can still get our teenage son (who is into hard rock) and pre-teen daughter (a country fan) to listen to classical, jazz and blues. (never mind that it’s usually when they’re trapped in the car with us on long trips!)

"The role of the parent in taking early steps to expose their children to a wide range of music is crucial," says Wayne Burgess, retired band director, life-long musician and teacher.

D’earth’s father constantly played his favorite records for his young son, starting with Duke Ellington’s Caravan upon John’s arrival home from the hospital as a newborn. "We’d spend hours listening to all the music greats of the era, then we’d walk in the woods, and sing the melodies," D’earth remembers fondly.

Sing and dance with your children. "Many kids haven’t had enough experience with listening to simple melodies and singing - folk songs, patriotic songs, nursery rhymes," says Burgess. And dancing helps a child to tune into the rhythms of the music. ". . . young children should be given the means to create their own music," says D’earth. His own first "instrument" was a brass tray and some drum brushes. Our kids started out with pots and pans with wooden spoon drumsticks. Whatever the means, creating their own sounds and rhythms is a joyful experience for a child.

If your child wants to learn more about different instrument "voices", check out recordings of Carnival of the Animals (Saint-Saens), Peter and The Wolf (Prokofiev), and the Disney Fantasia videos. Books such as Meet the Orchestra by Ann Hayes (Harcourt, 1991) and Music by Neil Ardley (Knopf, 1989) are also good resources. And if your child wants to learn to play a "real" instrument? The possibilities are almost endless!

Piano lessons are widely considered to be an excellent foundation for learning other instruments. "Some of my best band students are kids who have taken piano lessons for several years," says Gary Fagan, composer and 25-year veteran director of the award-winning Henley Middle School bands. Unfortunately, pianos are expensive and require lots of space.

However, for elementary aged children, the recorder is an excellent alternative - inexpensive and portable. "Recorder is the perfect instrument to learn note reading, time signatures, basic melodies," says Burgess. Some schools teach recorder in 4th or 5th grade.

"By 5th or 6th grade, students should have the maturity, self-discipline and physical size required to be successful in playing a band instrument," says Fagan. Playing in a band is a unique experience. The discipline and teamwork students learn from band is different from any other activity, including team sports. Where a sports team might be successful with just a few "stars", a band cannot be successful with only a few good musicians. "Everyone in the band has to improve their own skills as well as focus on the goal of improvement of the whole group," says Fagan.

Selecting a band instrument involves some basic considerations, including the child’s physical size, arm length, finger length and characteristics of their teeth and lips (for wind and brass instruments). A school band director or knowledgeable staff at a music store can advise you on specific considerations for your child. Beyond these considerations, go with whatever interests your child.

You can rent, borrow or buy most instruments. Some school band programs offer instrument rental. Music stores offer inexpensive three-month introductory rentals, which allow enough time to determine whether your child is going to stick with it. (we’ve rented from Music & Arts and Stacy’s). Thank heaven for rentals! If we’d had to purchase all the instruments our kids have tried, we’d own enough to start our own band. If you’re going to rent, pay the extra couple of dollars for insurance too. You’ll be glad you did when your child comes home saying someone on the bus sat on his violin.

When you borrow an instrument, first have it checked thoroughly by a professional to be sure it is in good playing condition.

Buying, whether new or used, is expensive and risky (i.e., if your child decides she doesn’t like tuba after all!) Also, buying a used instrument is like buying a used car - beware of lemons! If your child is going to play an instrument as part of a school band program, they’ll get some amount of instruction at school. However, Wayne Burgess advises that supplemental private lessons can be helpful in two situations: 1. If your child shows exceptional talent, they should have private lessons with an advanced instructor 2. If your child is sincerely motivated but not progressing with the instrument, they may need extra support from a private instructor. See sidebar for tips on finding a private instructor.

Practice can be a challenging part of children’s musical training when there are so many other "pulls" on our children’s time and attention.

"As a parent, you empower your child. Don’t beat them up or tie them down to practicing," suggests D’earth. "They should ‘do music’ because that is what they want to be doing." But he adds that the amount of discipline imposed from outside (i.e., by the parents) in regard to practice is always a matter of judgment.

Some music instructors recommend a minimum amount of daily practice time. Our kids’ instructors recommend a minimum of half an hour per day, five days a week. Even this is sometimes a challenge. But whenever possible, I take time to sit down, audience style, and listen to my children’s practice sessions, offering support and encouragement.

"Children can lose their confidence in the value of what they’re doing so easily," says D’earth. Parents can help children feel that the music they are playing has real value by simply sitting down and listening to them.

I will admit this was hardest when our son started learning the flute and our daughter took up violin, two of the squeakiest instruments on the planet. But when I forget to cheer my kids on with their music, I remember, a little guiltily, something else Wayne Burgess told me:

"What a wonderful thing it would be," he said, "if parents encouraged their children’s musical endeavors the way they do with sports!"

Hopefully, your child will want to continue playing an instrument. But be prepared for the "Q" word. Our kids have uttered it more than once. "Mom, I want to QUIT . . . the flute, cello, violin, trumpet . . ." (our list goes on). We’ve tried various tactics to encourage them to continue, and after a decent "try" at one instrument, we’ve allowed them to try another.

"Ultimately, parents should ask: how can I help my kid find what he loves?" says D’earth. "It may be music, it may not. Exposure to music with a sense of joy is critical. If it is done with a sense of compulsion, it won’t work." If playing an instrument is drudgery, rather than joy, let your child move on to something else.

"They will often come back to it later," says Burgess, who also directs the Second Wind Band at the Charlottesville Senior Center. "About half of the members of The Second Wind band hadn’t played a musical instrument since high school - and now here they are, at age 60 or 70 or beyond, playing for the sheer joy of it!"

Our son is already thinking about shelving his trumpet next year in favor of high school sports. But I’m going to hang onto it, hoping that some fine day in the future, he’ll call home and say, "Mom, do you still have my trumpet? I’d like to start playing again." It will remind me once again that music is truly a lasting gift.

Melanie G. Snyder lives with her husband, two kids, two dogs and assorted musical instruments in a restored log cabin near Crozet. Her writing has been published in Cricket magazine, Guideposts for Kids, Welcome Home and several online educational databases. Her own parents gave her the gift of music at age five, starting with piano lessons.

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