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Music Lessons: Body & Soul

By Sally Bagg

If your child comes home from school wanting to learn to play an instrument, or sees friends having a good time making music together and would like to be able to take part, what do you say? How do you know whether he or she is ready, or what instrument to suggest? How can you reinforce the school's program, if there is one, or help continue the private teacher's instruction in between lessons? How do you keep your child's interest and motivation strong through the years it will take to become a good player?

The first thing to realize is that it doesn't matter a bit if your child sings like a croaking frog. No one can tell from a child's singing whether he or she has musical ability or not. Besides, any child can do something with a musical instrument. Those with talent will go faster, and those without the facility in their fingers will have to spend a little longer on each step of learning, but everyone can develop musical skills to an intermediate point and enjoy the learning experience all the way there.

trumpetIf your child has some trouble at the age of eight or nine forming letters when writing at school, you might consider a brass instrument - which has valves, such as a trumpet, or a slide, such as a trombone - rather than an instrument with many keys and holes like a flute, or the need to place fingers accurately on a string, like a violin.

It is a good idea to start those children who are dexterous on a string instrument as soon as possible. Three, four, or five-year-olds can begin on small-sized violins and cellos, if a trained teacher is available. The technique is more complicated and takes longer to master than the kinds of learning required for wind instruments.

The trick is to keep the learning enjoyable. This is where parents play the crucial part. At school the music teacher may be inspiring or a drudge, but the chances are the teacher will meet with students only once a week. Children will be expected to do some practicing at home in between meetings, and they need parental support and guidance.

The are a few basic rules you can follow to make the work at home successful:

1. Pick a Practice Time
Pick a time - either with your child or from your own knowledge of her or his daily schedule and the time when he is most alert - when practicing will be done. This time should be built into the child's day as a matter of course, like brushing his teeth or washing the dishes.

The length of time spent practicing is necessarily short at the beginning. Your child will run out of breath puffing into her flute, or get tired holding up the violin, or his lips will ache from making motor noises into the trumpet mouthpiece. The important thing is the regularity of practice, not so much the amount of time the child spends. Remind him that in sports the coaches call practice every day after school. Muscles need to be developed and concentration expanded.

Even if the music teacher tells you it isn't necessary to practice each day, don't miss this opportunity to instill a bit of regularity into your child's life. Children love routine. It makes them feel safe.

2. Help Your Children to Practice Each Day
You may have to help by getting the instrument out of its case and helping to tune it, or setting up the chair, music, stand, mirror and whatever else he is supposed to use while practicing. You will be doing the remembering most of the time, but as your child gets used to the routine he will more and more often go right to work.

3. Make Learning Fun
Use the opportunity to teach your child how to identify and work on a problem. Here is where you can be inventive. Make games out of the exercises he is trying to do: "Blow a bubble out of the end of your clarinet. Careful not to pop it - get it bigger and bigger, there!"

There are endless opportunities for this kind of invention, but before you can invent, you have to know what your child is trying to do. This means she has to tell you what the teacher did this week. This is your chance to share a learning experience in which your child is the teacher and you are the student. He develops verbal facility and takes pride in telling you something you are interested in and don't know, and in the process you and your child meet on a level in which there is not the usual parent-child dynamic.

4. Know When to Take Yourself Out of the Picture
At a certain point children want to do work by themselves. Usually this occurs in eight or nine-year-olds after the routine of practicing has been established and the child has developed a certain level of skill. Younger children seem to need the attention of a parent all through their practicing, but around fourth grade the very healthy impulse to direct one's own work begins to appear. A sensitive and tactful parent will pick up his child's signals and retire, perhaps to be called back as an audience for an on-the-spot performance at the end of the practice period. A parent's role is always an encouraging one - never compare a child's performance to any but his own past performance. Be balanced in your judgments but always end on the positive side: "It really sounded much better that time. I could begin to tell it was Yankee Doodle. Good for you!"

There is a real relationship which develops between a person and the instrument he is learning to play. The sound is his sound and therefore an extension of his own personality. This is why a parent's role is a delicate one from the very beginning of instrument study. If you can support your child's efforts by making the more mechanical tasks into games and by appreciating the sounds that begin to shape themselves into music, and if you can withdraw your vocal presence when you observe the relationship between him and his instrument begin to grow, you will have provided the structure within which he is free to learn.

The point at which the student must feel some competence in order to want to continue is the junior high school age. From twelve years on adolescents must rely on themselves. They must begin to answer from their own experience and observation questions about who they are, what they are interested in, and what they would like to be. Feelings of competence and achievement give an inner steadiness to children facing large questions and emotionally difficult situations. Skill on a musical instrument offers another means of communication with people. The adolescent who can make music can express himself in ways which are important and worthy of a place in the adult world he is trying to grow into.

Sally Bagg is the Coordinator of Instrumental Music at Smith College Campus School and coaches chamber music at the Northampton Community Music Center. In addition to teaching cello in her private studio, she is the Director of Junior Greenwood Music Camp and serves on the board of the Amateur Chamber Music Players Foundation.

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