|Tuning into the Musical Brain||Creating Music in the Classroom||Taming the Practice Monster||Living with Music||A Different Kind of Wealth|
A Different Kind of Wealth
When I embarked on a career in music many years ago, the field was considered a trivial pastime for an elite few. In an era that was having a love affair with MBA’s, music was looked on as a frivolity, and not a very lucrative one at that. Even my own exuberance was soon tempered after an arm injury and a year abroad living with a home economics major. I began to feel that my art had no practical application in the real world. Far better to know how to prepare nutritious meals or alter a suit. Two decades later, it remains a struggle to make ends meet as a musician or music instructor. But after years of teaching and parenting, I have learned that music bestows a different kind of wealth on those it touches.
Each time I enter a classroom, I marvel at the mysterious attraction tone and rhythm hold for children. My youngest pupils—babies in particular—become wide-eyed with attention when music surrounds them, like little tourists who suddenly recognize their own language in the ambient babble. Students who have trouble focusing listen spellbound to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Kids usually impressed by things—skateboards, Playstations—can hardly contain their excitement about a melody they’ve just composed: “Mine’s next! Here it comes. Now listen to this one!” What is it about this art form that strikes so deep a chord in children? Perhaps the repeated patterns of sound satisfy an instinctive need for order and consistency. Or maybe nine months of hearing the “music” of the womb—that pleasant cacophony playing to a steady heartbeat—conditions the brain to be keenly receptive to a language of tone and rhythm.
During the intense first years of motherhood, music’s special rapport with children served me well. Dreaded tasks such as hair shampooing and nail clipping became a piece of cake once I started doing them to song. (“One little, two little, three little fingernails...”) A simple goodbye tune worked wonders for getting little ones past difficult transitions without tantrums. Music also helped motivate tired four-year-olds to pick up toys at the end of the day. And when it came to scheduling kindergarteners, music was nothing short of miraculous: A favorite cassette tape in the machine and a request to be ready in “5 songs” meant that we would be out the door on time and in high spirits.
When adolescence arrived at our house, music became the Great Communicator, frequently connecting with out-of-sort teens more effectively than words. It didn’t take long to realize that a humorous recording such as Raffi’s “Bananaphone” dispelled the moody blues far better than my forced cheeriness. Familiar tunes with personalized lyrics could be relied on to get through to a long-faced 13-year-old: “There was a young woman who lived in a shoe/She had so many... (math tests, lost socks) she didn’t know what to do.” I discovered that Mozart’s genius was somehow both calming and stimulating—perfect for long car rides between activities as well as mental preparation before a big test. Occasionally, I would even hear my own children use music's magic to turn bickering into an impromptu song: “You ‘splat’ me, I ‘drip’ you!...”
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Now that my daughters are playing instruments, I see music as a fine teacher under whose tutelage they are learning much more than just notes. When our budding flutist comments that the woodwind section has to “count like crazy” to come in at the right spot, when our young violinist realizes she must look for patterns to help master a frightening flurry of notes, I know they are discovering the rich order and logic in this medium and being trained in a new set of thinking skills. In the evening when they play through their lessons, I don’t just hear practice; I hear a rehearsal for life: learning to stick with the hard parts; paying attention to detail as well as the big picture; creating something wonderful one small piece at a time.
A friend once remarked that I seem to be prepping my girls to follow in my footsteps. True, I vigorously support instrumental lessons and orchestra and utter the word “practice” daily. I tell others that the piano is the most important piece of furniture in our house. I try to fill my daughters’ ears with the classics as much possible and shuffle us all off to symphony concerts on a regular basis. But, still, I don't want my girls to become performing artists or music majors. What I want is for them to become fluent in a language of exquisite order. I want to pass on a marvelous tool for reaching the whole child, so that when they have their own families, they, too, can experience the special bond that music weaves between parent and child. In a world where “face to face” is often with a computer screen, I want my children to know true community, that extraordinary feeling of being at one with others that touches audience and performer alike. Most of all, though, I want my daughters to be able to close their eyes any time and hear a symphony of splendor in their heads—splendor that is an inseparable a part of their thoughts, feelings and spirit. I want them to own beauty.
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