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MAKING MUSIC A LIFETIME AFFAIR

How can we prepare our kids to enjoy music for the rest of their lives?

by Jerry Brown

Do you ever wish you played a musical instrument more often these days? Do you ever regret not having learned to play the guitar at an early age, or not keeping up with your skills on the piano or other childhood instrument? I encounter people nearly every day who tell me wistfully that they haven’t touched the flute, violin, or trumpet since they graduated from high school or college, even though they used to play quite well.

Why is this? Is there something wrong with the way we’ve been teaching music? Is there anything we can do as parents and educators to help our kids incorporate music into their lives in a more permanent, long-lasting way?

I believe there are several things we can do. Let’s evaluate some aspects of music education that might be contributing to this problem, along with a few ideas you can use to help your kids carry their musical interests into adulthood. 

First, you’ll notice that the instruments used in school band and orchestra programs are not always suitable for personal enjoyment in the home. Who plays a horn for fun in the evening? That’s not to say that learning the horn is a waste of time. I simply want to suggest that we find ways to help utilize those horn-playing skills on other instruments that are more enjoyable to continue playing as an adult.

I like to expose kids to folk instruments as well as band and orchestra instruments because they’ll be much more likely to keep playing the guitar or banjo as an adult than the trumpet or saxophone. Any child who has the aptitude for playing in a school band can also learn a folk instrument at the same time. Though there is not a matching folk alternative to every band/orchestra instrument, there are a few that are very closely related:

  • Violin – Did you know that the mandolin is, by name, a “manual violin”? It is tuned and fingered the same as a violin but plucked with a pick instead of played with a bow. If you have a child playing violin already, it will be a simple thing for him/her to learn mandolin at the same time. You might also introduce some fiddle music into the mix of lesson materials. Many violinists find great enjoyment in playing less formal music, especially after the school programs and formal lessons have ended.
  • Flute – Anyone who plays flute would find it quite natural to learn the tin whistle or the recorder.  
  • Percussion – There are a number of small percussion instruments that are fun to play with folk music, including bongos, conga drum, bodhran, tambourine, and even bones. Some percussion players will find it especially exciting to explore the hammered dulcimer, a stringed instrument that combines rhythm and melody with a drumming action.
  • Piano – Many people don’t realize that the harp has basically the same layout as the piano, and very similar fingering, so it is surprisingly easy for kids to transfer from piano to harp. Harps come in many different sizes these days, some small enough to hold on your lap. Try Googling “Folk Harp” or “Lever Harp” to get a glimpse of the remarkable renaissance of small harps around the world. Nothing is as soothing as harp music in the home – both for the player as well as for the listener!

As a grandparent, I am making a concerted effort to expose my grandchildren to a variety of folk instruments. I’ve made a few cheap cardboard guitars, banjos, and such for the kids to play with when they visit. I also leave my hammered dulcimer and a small harp in the living room for me to relax with and for the kids to try out. I love to put a 2-year-old on my lap with a small instrument and let them help me play some simple songs. I find that kids are naturally drawn to folk instruments like these.

My second observation is that the selection of music used in school vocal and instrumental programs is not often the type of music people sing or play at home in the evening, or at a church function, or around a campfire. How many families gather around the piano to enjoy band or orchestra music together? Don’t get me wrong. I love going to a good concert, but when I pick up the guitar at home, I choose completely different types of songs that are more accessible to my skill level, and more fun to sing and play for relaxation.

Do you ever dream of including group singing at your family gatherings? Over the years, I’ve compiled a collection of favorite music into three different loose-leaf notebooks that I keep handy for special occasions. One is a collection of folk music sing-alongs such as camp songs, patriotic songs, show tunes, and humorous ditties. This book has a section for jokes and funny stories too. Another book has my favorite hymns and worship music, and the third notebook is just devoted to Christmas carols. 

I use these books for large family gatherings like holiday parties, or for visiting a nursing home, or leading a few songs at a church potluck. But I also find great enjoyment just playing through them at home by myself for relaxation. I love having my musical library at my fingertips this way instead of having piles of sheet music stuffed in a drawer.  

My third observation is that most formal music lessons are set up strictly for teaching note-reading. Of course this is a wonderful skill to learn, but it is not necessary for having fun with music. Did you know that many famous popular musicians never learned to read music? They enjoy very successful careers playing by ear. In fact, if all you ever learn is note-reading, you could be limiting yourself. I know excellent adult musicians who learned only how to play music from printed notation, and they cannot play the simplest song without having the sheet music for it.  

People who seem to have the most fun with music through their adult lives often play by ear rather than by reading notation. This is a gift which I believe should be nourished in the younger ages. In fact, I think if more emphasis were put on playing by ear in school, most elementary music performances would probably sound better! As it is, kids are so focused on reading the notes, they don’t “hear” the music they are playing.

You can tell if a child has a “good ear” for music if he/she is able to sing a melody in tune. Such children will be natural musicians and should be allowed to explore music in more than one rigid and systematic way. When kids catch on to playing by ear, they can pick up new instruments quickly and figure them out.

To help encourage the development of playing by ear, give kids time to “noodle around” a little with their instruments, making up tunes or playing familiar songs for which they have no printed music. Try adding musical “fake books” to their curriculum. These are songbooks that have the words and chord names, and sometimes the melody line, but no detailed score. The musician figures out how to accompany the melody by following the chord names. This is how my three notebooks are printed – just words and chords. In fact, at my age, I forget the words much more frequently than I do the chords!

Finally, I’ve noticed that most school music programs are devoted to large group performances by bands and orchestras. These are certainly good experiences, but if I were a music teacher today, I would also try to help kids form small group ensembles – duets, trios, quartets, etc. Kids learn best when they have to listen to their partners as they sing or play. This helps them to stay in tune and in sync with one another without relying on a conductor.

Try holding informal jam sessions where the kids play and sing impromptu harmonies to songs they know and love. Hold some talent shows through the year to provide a fun venue for a variety of performance skills and talents. This can be more fun than a formal band or choral concert, and it allows more kids to shine as individuals or small ensembles.

When my daughter started playing the harp at around age 12, she and I would play simple duets together. I played melody on the hammered dulcimer, and she played chords on the harp. This was such a sweet combination of sounds that people began to hire us to play at weddings, church services and parties. These musical experiences have become some of our most fond father-daughter memories.

In summary, I recommend adding some folk instruments to your kids’ musical experience, start a collection of fun songs to enjoy as a family, let kids experiment playing by ear, and get them to start a “band” or small group with family and friends. Do these things when your kids are young, and they will catch on quickly and be more likely to have fun with music for the rest of their lives.