Friday, November 1, 2013

Music and some Nannys

(This is a long post in answer to a few people who have asked me how we do music in our family. At the very end of this post are a few new great books we've found. Feel free to skip ahead if music doesn't interest you!)


I believe that music, like reading, has something for everybody, and if we fail to give our children the gift of music, in whatever form that might take, we are missing out on a great opportunity.

But, like reading, this takes special care in the case of some kids.

My oldest wanted to start violin at age seven. She began taking from a cute high schooler from our church, and she did love it. She didn't love practicing, however, and I forced her to practice and spent most of her practice time helping her until she was about eleven. Whew, those were not always easy practice sessions, and once we switched teachers because her first teacher went off to college, Mary did not love her Suzuki lessons. But Suzuki seemed to be the right way to do things, so we kept plugging along. Her interest began to wane. She still played with energy, but practice sessions became more stressful and much less enjoyable for both of us. I think she was practicing about an hour and a half a day at this  point.

I had been at a concert the summer before and seen a man play the viola with so much passion and love, it took my breath away. I never forgot him, and when I asked our cello teacher for recommendations for a new viola teacher, he named this man. He didn't teach Suzuki, but I was beginning to be suspicious of this one-size-fits-all program of teaching music.

We switched teachers (always, always a horrible experience), and right away, Mary changed. I think she saw in this teacher something she didn't see in the one we had before—a fire, an energy about music and a love of teaching. That fire helped Mary start her own to the point where she now practices one hundred percent on her own, three hours a day on viola and two on violin (she has a fantastic violin teacher as well). She wants to be a professional musician and has extremely high ambitious.

But that was Mary.

Fast-forward to Lucy. Lucy, my perfectionist stress-case. Oh, helping her practice was hard. Her tolerance for mistakes hovers around zero, and she spent a great deal of time shouting at me, at herself, at her cello and at the world in general.

I stopped practicing with her at a much younger age than I did with Mary. I just couldn't take it anymore, and I knew she would still practice, she would just yell at herself in the privacy of her room. Music is an intense thing for Lucy. She wants to play every note just right the first time, and the pressure of auditions or competitions is overwhelming for her (unlike Mary).

Yet right now, she wants to be a professional musician as well, only she says she wants to teach rather than be a performer. Mary's passion drives her to practice five hours a day, and we have just decided to homeschool her through high school so she has that time to practice.

Lucy is different. She will go to high school, I think. She will practice as much as she can squeeze in (she practices about three hours a day right now). She will probably major in music but with different goals. Where music is an almost spiritual experience for Mary, music is a personal struggle for Lucy, one that she does love but one that brings her as much heartache as joy.

That is Lucy.

And then there is Calvin. Calvin, Calvin. That boy loves to get out his cello, take it downstairs and jam to the classical music on our computer. He loves turning the classical music on more than anyone, and he loves to dance to it. But I have to make him practice, and the only time his practicing sounds good is of he's giving someone a show. Otherwise his practicing sounds very much like a nine-year-old playing the cello, which is exactly what he is, only he can sound much older and better when he tries.

I've despaired of Calvin. My experience with the girls has been so different, I haven't known what to do. Lessons are so expensive, and what is the point if he isn't going to take it seriously, right? Calvin has one lesson a week, a community orchestra rehearsal once a week, and a chamber music group he participates in. Why am I investing all this time and energy for him to mess around most of the time?

But when asked if he wants to quit, he says no. When asks if he'd rather play the saxophone (an instrument that seems perfect for him) he's not so sure. Yesterday, I got to spy on part of his orchestra rehearsal. While the other cellos were looking very stiff and nervous (a bit like Lucy in her orchestras), Calvin was rocking out. His head was moving and he was rocking back and forth and he looked like he was having FUN.

I praised him for this afterwards, and he beamed and confessed that he did have fun. A light shone down on me in that moment and many of my worries and confusions about him (not just musically related) disappeared. Calvin may or may not suddenly become a serious musician, but he loves music. He will always have to practice for an hour a day, that's our requirement around here, and I will probably always have to beg him to try to sound good, but he will love music in a full-body, complete experience sort of way, and really, what more could I ask for? (Besides that he one day learns how to clean his room).

Shaemus is a quantitative kind of man. Playing the double bass for him is all about intervals and positions and math. He plays the bass with an academic intensity that allows him to pick things up very quickly, but so far, he is the least musical of all the kids. Sort of the opposite of Calvin, so while Calvin wants to move and feel, Shaemus wants to analyze and think. When he was five, I received what I felt was literally inspiration from God that the double bass would be his instrument. We went to incredibly difficult lengths to find a bass his size, and I still drive way too far and pay way too much money for his lessons, but it is the right instrument for him. I don't know what he'll do with it as an adult if he does anything with it at all, but every day he plays blesses his life. He gets to play a musical number at his best friend's baptism on Saturday. What could be better than that?

Flannery may end up being the easiest musician of them all. She loves to play, loves to laugh while she plays, loves the music, loves to sing while she plays, and is also able to focus. She wants to do things on her own, so I don't foresee having to help her for very long (she's really the only one I help now on a daily basis). I think music will be a joy to her in whatever form it takes.

This long, long, long explanation is just to say that I have five very different kids, and they all, every one of them, approach music very differently. It will impact their lives in very different ways. I think many parents give up on music or don't even attempt it in the first place, because there seems to be so few routes on the musical journey. For string players, there is Suzuki. For piano players, there's plugging away day after day from method books and maybe entering some Federation competitions. But there are other ways and there are other instruments. The key is to seek inspiration and go with your feelings—You know your child better than anyone!

If you are interested in getting your kids involved in music, my first advice is—

1) Never, never, never say, "I know my kid won't be a professional musician one day." You don't know that. You can't know that, and why write that off before they've been given a chance to explore? There are many different ways to be a musician both professionally and not-professionally. Give them the freedom to make those decisions themselves.

2) Get the best teacher you can find. It is worth it and it will make ALL the difference in the world. One teacher could be great for one child and terrible for another. Use the instincts and inspiration you are entitled to as a parent and find that teacher. Even if they don't teach Suzuki.

3) Play music around your house, not just Taylor Swift. Play classical music. Play fiddling music. Play jazz. Take them to concerts (not just Taylor Swift). Take them to the symphony. We got some free tickets to the symphony last weekend and all seven of us went. Flannery fell asleep after about ten minutes. Calvin read a book for the first half. Shaemus told me how boring it was for nearly the entire thing. Mary and Lucy were enthralled.

But every single one of them claimed they loved it when it was over. We talked about what songs we loved. We discussed the guest conductor. All the boringness seemed to be forgotten. They think they are good at going to the symphony (they're really not...) and they are comfortable with classical music. Classical music is not the only way to go, but there is every reason to expose them to it as often as possible until they can at least appreciate it.

Kids see very few connections between the songs they are learning in their method books and real life. We have to help them see those connections and see music as a valuable thing to know—even if you don't make money at it! MOTIVATE THEM!!!

4) Help them only when they truly need your help. Don't let this experience be about you. Use learning a musical instrument as a chance for them to become more confident and more self-sufficient.

5) Give them opportunities to play. Have them play in church. Have them play in retirement homes or assisted-living facilities, no matter their level. There is never a better audience than the elderly. They love children and they are completely non-critical, and your kids will LOVE it.

Now for some books that all of us have been delving into lately.

Nanny Books (Our favorites)—good for all ages read aloud, and great for kids seven and up to read:

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Mrs. Noodlekugel by Daniel Pinkwater

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Nanny Piggins by R.A. Spratt (HYSTERICAL!)

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Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers (in case you didn't know this was a book! And a good one!)

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Mrs. Piggle Wiggle  by Betty MacDonald (these really are delicious books!)

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Nurse Matilda by Christiana Brand (Nanny McPhee is based on this wonderful series of nanny tales)

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