Saturday, December 6, 2014

Music Lessons - Is My Child Ready?

As a music teacher, that's a question I get a lot from parents of kids of all ages. Since a good chunk of my teaching is in the Early Childhood area, parents of younger and younger kids are asking these kinds of questions, so I thought perhaps since Information Is Power, I'd try to give parents a little more information.

So, some background: I grew up in a home where there was ALWAYS music. My mom is a music teacher: when she found out she was pregnant with me, she was teaching junior high band; she taught lessons one afternoon a week out of a spare room in our house when I was small, and when we moved to a new home when I was in middle school, she eventually expanded to 4 days a week. Over the years she would play in the local high school's pit orchestra when they did their Spring musicals and play the soundtracks for those musicals perpetually during the rehearsal window, so I grew up learning songs from a variety of musical theater classics. (Note to other parents: If you're going to play a soundtrack as background in your house and you have a small child who likes to sing along, find out the lyrics BEFORE your small child asks you about some of them in order to avoid uncomfortable questions you'd rather not answer. LOL) I learned a little piano in Kindergarten and then in first grade I tried a few of the instruments we had around the house, settled on the clarinet, and never looked back. By high school, I had a couple students of my own, and when I went to college, my plan was to become a high school band director. After 6 years in an elementary general music classroom and more time in elementary band, I finally got my chance to do high school band - it only lasted two years, and I learned that politics is definitely not my thing, but at least I can cross it off my Bucket List. :-) The place I always had felt least comfortable was in the elementary general music classroom; the younger the kids were, the more ill-at-ease I felt. Small kids were definitely NOT why I went into Music Education.

After I had kids of my own, though, things changed. Our city's Recreation Department runs a full slate of classes for all ages, so when Bookworm was a year old or so I ventured into a Music Together class for the first time - and I was hooked. One of my first thoughts was, "This is awesome!" followed in rapid succession by "I could totally do this!" The following summer, after a few more sessions with my daughter, I went for the 3-day intensive teacher training so that I could learn more and do this too.

While my college music classes had been mostly about musical learning for kids 5 and older, I was learning about research into music learning in a completely different arena: Early Childhood. Unlike most school music classes, which focused more on discrete skills, this approach was much more holistic and organic. While not all preschool "Mommy and Me"-style music classes are mixed-age, many are (Kindermusik is one example); Music Together classes, however, are for kids from birth-5. This means that siblings can attend together and learn from and model for each other and peers, each child learning what s/he is ready to learn at that time; this isn't unlike the mixed-age classes in Montessori, where a similar dynamic takes place, albeit in a more formal way, or the way different-aged siblings naturally learn together in their own ways. Music Together classes - and I'll be sticking with that as my model since that's the program with which I'm most familiar - are as much about helping parents and caregivers "be musical" beyond the 45 minutes with the teacher as they are about providing a musical experience once a week in class.

One benchmark that I can refer to as a teacher for even small children is the attainment of "Basic Music Competence." In simplest terms, it means that a child has musically matured to the point where they can keep a steady beat independently and sing on pitch independently. Many children develop one of these skills before the other - Bookworm could sing bang-on-pitch at 18 months but took much longer to develop a strong sense of beat, while Monkey picked up the beat first but did eventually become a strong on-pitch singer after a few years of her parents (who are lifelong musicians and met in All-State Band in high school) looking at each other bewilderedly wondering if a sense of pitch would ever develop. LOL These competencies don't generally develop overnight, but gradually, and at a different pace for each child. They also happen to correlate strongly with positive experiences with music from an early age, which is why the component of parent-caregiver making music at home with the child is so valuable.

How might this look in real life? Some examples from my own children and teaching might help illustrate: Babies often babble musically; if you catch them purposely matching the resting tone of a song, or following the contour of your voice when you sing - their voice rises and falls with the music, even if it doesn't quite match the pitch yet - they're on the way; eventually, this progresses to in-tune singing. If you've ever seen a baby wiggle excitedly at the sound of music, you're seeing one of the first natural responses to organized sound (as opposed to random conversation or background noise); if recognized as a musical response and nurtured, this can evolve to a more purposeful movement, imitating adults keeping a beat or dancing, eventually finding the beat (and often losing and re-finding it again as the process becomes more refined), and then finding the beat independently and keeping it without help. The more opportunities there are for this kind of experience to happen in childhood, the more likely that these competencies will emerge naturally, without any formal instruction!

Way back in Music Teacher College, I first learned about Edwin Gordon. His main contribution to the field of music education, especially of younger children, was research into the development of musical ability. I'm distilling pretty strongly here, because the impact of his research goes WAY beyond this point, but one of the main takeaways I got was that a child's musical ability isn't really fixed when they're young, but that there is a window of development where it can be increased to a degree; this window for musical growth begins closing more around 5YO and continues to do so until about 8YO, which curiously enough corresponds roughly to the end of the Early Childhood window. It's not so different from learning a foreign language; research shows that if a child is immersed in a language up to about 6YO (give or take), they have a pretty good chance of learning the language well and doing so with little to no accent; after that, as generations of part-time high school-through-adult language learners can attest, it becomes much harder to learn the language and the corresponding sounds flawlessly. Upshot: if giving a child a statistical shot at musical ability (there's a loaded term if ever there was one! LOL) is important, then providing quality musical experiences in that Early Childhood window is a big key in helping those competencies blossom.

Once a child gets to a "place" where they're musically comfortable with the beat and tonality (singing in key), they're much more likely to be able to benefit from more formal music instruction. Can children who don't sing in tune or who have a hard time finding and keeping a musical beat benefit from lessons? Absolutely! But my experience suggests that these children may find it less natural (and often more frustrating) than those for whom these skills are more solidly internalized, so progress might be slower, and this can sometimes frustrate children who want to progress more quickly. There is also a maturity factor here; formal sit-down-with-a-teacher weekly music lessons require the ability to attend for at least a nominal amount of time, and it's also necessary for the child to be practicing at home between lessons for real learning to occur; a child who's not yet ready for this will find what most adults think of as "music lessons" boring, reducing the odds of a positive musical outcome.

Occasionally, I have parents ask me about Suzuki instruction for young children. I'm not remotely Suzuki-trained, but I did a fair amount of research as I was trying to find a Suzuki teacher for my kids at one point, and I did learn a lot that I didn't know before, even as a double-degreed music teacher. The Wikipedia page about the Suzuki Method actually gives a pretty good overview of the background and philosophy; the basic premise is that children can learn music from a young age the same way they learn to speak their native languages: through exposure and by breaking down the process into small steps and not rushing. In Suzuki, Basic Music Competence is gradually acquired and developed through the study of the instrument itself, along with LOTS of music immersion beyond lessons - not unlike Music Together's emphasis on lots of music outside class time. Just as children begin to "speak" by babbling and imitating the sounds of the adults around them, they can learn to play an instrument by imitating their primary caregivers, who also attend lessons with them and learn alongside them in order to assist them at home between lessons; in the same way that parents/caregivers will interact verbally with children to help them learn spoken language, they are involved in a similar process learning the violin. (Violin was the first instrument used by Suzuki in his classes, although I have also seen piano, flute, and other strings taught this way.) One caution about signing up a child for Suzuki classes is that the name "Suzuki" (much like the name "Montessori") is NOT trademarked, so any instructor or school can legally use the term without truly being teachers in that method; if you're looking into Suzuki for your child, the Suzuki Association of the Americas is a great place to start.

So, to sum up, how DO you know if your child is ready for music lessons? There is no single hard and fast Big Answer, but some guidelines to look for are:
  1. Does your child enjoy music in the first place? (This one is crucial!)
  2. Can your child sing in tune, or at least follow the musical contour of a melody? (Not a prerequisite - just increases the odds of success.)
  3. Can your child keep a steady beat independently? (Also not a prerequisite - but also increases odds of success.)
  4. Is your child mature enough to be able to handle a structured lesson? (Lessons come in all styles, from rigid structure to loose group lessons, but a child whose attention span isn't ready for too much structure would do better either waiting a while or from lessons that are less formal, so choose wisely.)
  5. On a related note, will your child be open to working on an assignment at home between lessons? This is the time when muscle memory is built and skills taught at lessons are reinforced; without this "checking in" with the assignment regularly between lessons, progress will be slow and frustrating.
In the case of the last point, if your child is still preschool-age, I'd definitely recommend something more holistic and less-structured like Music Together, or something that's tailored especially for early learners and will go gradually and involve the parent like Suzuki; children, especially young children, are wired to learn through LOTS of repetition and through less-formal learning, which is why I also support play-based learning in Early Childhood (which, to many people's surprise, goes from Birth to 8YO!). Many of my parent friends also speak in glowing terms about Music for Young Children; it's not a program I know a lot about, and their website isn't cooperating with me this morning, but here's the link so you can hopefully check it out for yourself.

Whenever possible, I recommend contacting teachers and asking about trial lessons; as a private music teacher I'm happy to do a single lesson, with parents in attendance or not, to see whether it looks like a good personality mix and to see if the desired instrument is a good fit for the student, figuratively AND literally (like a child who desperately wants to learn the flute but is unable to reach the keys due to too-short arms who'll need to see if a curved head joint flute is available or not, or whose fingers are still too small to cover the tone holes of a clarinet); I've even been known to agree to do a month (not for free, sorry!) to see if the child is ready not only for lessons but to put in perhaps 20 minutes 5 times a week, depending on their age and ability, or whether it's better to adjust expectations and/or wait a while before starting formal lessons; many kids thrive on experimenting on their own instead of formal teaching until they come to a place where they want instruction and seek it out (I taught myself piano in middle school, and my younger child is almost teaching herself cello; most of her "practice" consists of her experimenting with the cello, and she's learning far more than she is in her in-school cello class.). Many music stores have their own studios they rent out to music teachers, while others (like me) teach independently (I teach at home). For Early Childhood programs like Music Together and similar, free trial classes can usually be arranged as well, so you can see if a less-formal approach would be a better fit for your child.

Have I answered *your* questions? If not, let me know what else I can help with!

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Please keep it clean. Differences of opinion aren't a problem for me. Rudeness is. Thankyouverymuch. :-)