Raising a musical kid
September 30, 2010
Janet Harriman, a local harp teacher, feels passionate about music. She earned her master of music degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music and is currently a harp professor at University of Colorado in Boulder. She has performed with the National Repertory Orchestra, The New World Symphony, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Central City Opera Festival and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. So when her daughter reached a crossroads, needing to choose between music or dance, Harriman hoped she’d choose music. But, she decided to go with dance. It’s a dilemma many parents and kids face, with the abundance of after-school activities.
“I don’t think anyone should be forced (to take music lessons), because that doesn’t foster creativity,” Harriman said, talking about the acceptance of her daughter’s decision.
With Summit County’s emphasis on sports and active lifestyle, music lessons often become a last thought, or something kids give up to pursue other activities.
Meanwhile, Summit County has built a reputation for its outstanding orchestral and chamber music series. Nevertheless, the excitement doesn’t always trickle down to kids and parents.
But as local flute instructor Leslie Borgen points out, “Music is one thing you can invest your money in that will pay off.” She suggests parents put the same time and money into music lessons for their kids as they do sports, because when kids grow into their 50s and 60s, they’re more likely to sit down and play an instrument than jump into a pick-up basketball game, she said.
Summit County has more than 25 music teachers. The majority specialize in piano, but other instructors teach violin, cello, brass, flute, clarinet, oboe, saxophone, string bass, harp and voice. And, of course, they all support the importance of learning an instrument, for a variety of reasons, including discipline, brain development and teamwork.
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“With any instrument, once you get into reading music and playing, it’s one of the few things that will totally engage both (sides) of the brain at once,” Borgen said, adding that it’s a great form of self-expression.
“It just opens your brain up more to possibilities and experiences around you,” Harriman said. “You’re able to relate to more people … who does not get transcended to a higher level than words can elude to? It connects you to different parts of the world and (provides) a common ground.”
Playing music trains the brain to think abstractly and solve problems, said cello instructor Jim Kohn.
“It’s a tremendous activity for developing your mental activity,” Kohn said. ” … Learning an instrument is all about problem solving because (at first) you can’t play five notes at a time, and you have to teach yourself to play five notes.”
Erika Krainz, co-president of the Summit Community Orchestra (along with Harriman), added that when kids reach the point where they can play with an ensemble, “it’s great for working as a team toward a common goal.”
Summit School District offers some music instruction, beginning with basic music classes in elementary school and requiring middle school students to take choir, band or art. Band and choir classes continue in the high school, but according to Harriman, overall, Colorado is not a leader in school music programs.
“Colorado is way behind in music than most of the states,” she said. “Kids play sports, but there’s (almost) nothing with music unless there’s a push from parents. That’s usually why kids get into it. But kids are always interested in music.”
To bridge the gap between school programs and private instruction, Harriman and Krainz formed Scale the Summit summer camp two years ago. Last summer, the program grew by 30 percent, and next year, they plan to offer a two-week, rather than a one-week, program. The camp offers an affordable alternative for kids of all abilities (including complete beginners) to learn more about music and performing as a group.
The Breckenridge Music Festival also enhances music programs in the schools by pairing professional musicians with choral, instrumental, vocal and jazz programs within the school during special workshops.
“We at the BMF feel early exposure to the arts is critical to young people’s development, both because it has been shown to improve critical thinking and creative problem solving skills, and because it introduces the next generation to the pleasure of participating in music, dance, theater – all these things that make such a big difference in quality of life when they become adults,” said Marcia Kaufmann, executive director of the music festival. “With resources for education as tight as they are, the arts are in danger of seeming non-essential.”
When looking for a competent instructor, quality isn’t always linked to a music degree, Krainz said. Rather, it’s important to match a child’s personality to the style of instruction, be it structured or less rigid.
Harriman cites four qualities to review when seeking an effective teacher: skills (they don’t have to be a master at their craft, but they have to be knowledgeable), training (a degree from Juilliard doesn’t make them great teachers, and a lack of music degree doesn’t make them bad; what matters is some kind of education), experience and personality.
The No. 1 frustration Harriman hears from parents is the fact that parents buy an instrument, and then the kids decide they don’t want to play it when they find out what’s involved.
So how do parents know which instrument to start kids out on?
Harriman said kids “can’t go wrong with the piano, because it’s the root of all instruments” and offers experience in both clefs. Plus, it’s “easy to make a good sound” by simply hitting the keyboard.
“The piano is black and white, and it’s right in front of you,” Borgen said. “It’s as easy as it can get.”
Many students who don’t have pianos in their homes use friends’, schools’ or churches’, and some instructors allow kids to begin practicing on a keyboard, which is less expensive than a piano.
In the hierarchy of difficulty, Borgen rates piano easiest, followed by string instruments, because kids can still see their fingers and have an idea of what their hands are doing to create certain sounds. She rates woodwinds as most difficult because fingers are not directly in kids’ line of sight, so they don’t have a visual of higher and lower notes, and the finger patterns aren’t as clear cut as in piano or strings, where, as the fingers move up, the notes become higher.
She suggests kids wait until reaching at least fifth grade before learning a woodwind instrument because before then, fine motor skills aren’t quite developed. In general, Krainz said it’s best to wait until kindergarten or first grade to enroll kids in private lessons, because before then, attention issues can interrupt learning. However, Harriman recommends exposing children to orchestral music – both live and recorded – as soon as possible. She said as soon as children can read – and even before – they can learn to read music.
If summer camp is an option, Scale the Summit’s exploratory camp allows kids to play with all kinds of instruments and learn how to play a song. Don Hilsberg, who helps run the exploratory camp, has been offering the experience to Denver public school students for more than 25 years.
But many times, a certain instrument attracts a kid’s attention.
“The instrument a kid will be interested in has to do with the way it sounds,” Kohn said. “They’ll fall in love with the sound.”
Usually following a child’s prompt is the best way to go:
“Let the child try an instrument they are drawn to because if you try to steer them into something they have no interest in, it’s a no-win situation,” Krainz said. “They must have some reason why they pick an instrument.”
Once kids settle on an instrument, the question becomes when to stop renting and invest in an instrument. Many teachers suggest waiting at least a year before purchasing.
Kohn usually tells parents to wait two to three years before buying a string instrument, to make sure the child is truly interested. And when it comes to choosing a string instrument, he recommends spending money on a more inexpensive one, because it’s “too easy if the instrument is too expensive.” In other words, it’s more difficult to create a beautiful sound on a cheaper instrument, but it’s a good practice, because when students switch to an expensive instrument, the sound becomes even more enticing.
As kids become more involved in music, Harriman points out that it’s important to remain balanced.
“You cannot put 100 percent right into music because you’re going to be burnt out and isolated,” Harriman said. “You (can’t) shut yourself off from the world. But people still need to feed their souls with music. It doesn’t have to be elite. (Musicians) are now trying to reach out and make it fun.”