Thursday, September 3, 2009

Creating a musical home environment

One of the most common questions parents ask me, especially at the start of the school year, is "what should I be doing to help out my child's musical development?" The good news is that there is a lot you can do, without a big investment or any previous musical experience. Here are some ideas, followed by a list of musical resources.

  • Listen to lots of music of different genres. Music created specifically for kids is great for the younger set--my daughter and I have lots of favorite children's musicians and their music is wonderful for singing along, playing along, dancing, etc. However, don't limit yourself to children's music, even for the youngest kids. Kids and teens should hear lots of their parents' favorite music, too. Don't worry that it's over their heads or boring, as long as you're not exposing them to lyrics you don't want them to hear or turning it up too loud for sensitive young ears. Also, whether or not you are into classical music or jazz, these genres are fantastic for imaginative play, learning about the sounds of different instruments, and just enjoyment. It is especially important to expose your child to these styles if you plan for him or her to take music lessons at some point. No need to make a big investment--our area has great radio stations dedicated to these styles. Also check out the listening page at Classics for Kids to listen to free orchestral music picked especially for children.
  • Don't just listen to music. Pull out a tambourine or make drums out of pots and pans and play along! Dance to the music--combine it with dress-up play or dance with scarves and streamers. The more parts of their body and brain they engage, the more children learn--and they have more fun! And most importantly, sing, sing along. Children need to understand that music is a participatory experience, not just something other people do for us to hear.
  • Burst into song at any time. Sure to embarrass your teenager, younger kids will love it when you burst into song in the car, at the grocery store, while cooking dinner... So many adults think they can't sing. Sure, not everyone is ready to audition for the Met--or even American Idol--but humans were born to sing. Some researchers even believe the ability to sing and make music is a product of natural selection (more on that in a future post)! When I have a student who claims they can't sing, I ask if their parents can sing. Almost always, the answer is something like, "no, Mom says she's tone deaf." If you truly think you are tone deaf, try this test. Can you sing the universal kids' taunt, "nanny-nanny-boo-boo?" Now can you add words to it? Try, "I feel really silly," if you like. That was easy, right? Now change the words to "I can really sing..." and you're ready to go! Ask your child to teach you a song for inspiration.
  • Play with music technology. If you have a Mac, GarageBand is an easy to use, but powerful music creation tool included with your computer. GarageBand comes with thousands of loops, or little bits of music, that you can drag and drop along a timeline to create original songs. You can also add your own music or even record audio directly into the program. Similar programs exist for PCs. There are also lots of great websites out there to help you learn about and create music, aimed at different age groups. Here are a few:
  • Music lessons. I put this last on purpose, and will cover it in more detail in a future post. Too often, parents jump immediately to private lessons to add more music to their child's life. Don't get me wrong--private lessons are a great thing, nearly essential if your child would like to excel on a musical instrument. Teaching private lessons has been a major part of my career. However, children are rarely successful in private lessons if they do not have a musical environment at home. Younger children (under age 7 or 8) usually benefit more from general music activities than instrument-specific lessons which require a much longer attention span and commitment. If your lower school aged child will be taking music lessons, be prepared to practice with your child much of the time, and preferably, attend his or her lessons. Be sure to interview a prospective teacher before committing to lessons to see if he or she is a good match for your family--if a teacher or music school wants to sign your child up for lessons without meeting him or her first (or at least having a trial lesson or set of lessons), that's a red flag for someone just looking to fill a studio! 
Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments! I look forward to creating a positive musical environment with your children this Fall.