Music is a kind of thinking: a response to vibrations, a memory of them, sometimes a recombining of them. Outside the mind, music is silent; it is a combination of rapid fluctuations in the pressure of the air. When an organist plays the very lowest notes of the instrument, for example, you can feel these fluctuations. Inside the mind, however, music becomes an Expressive language of uncanny power, attaching itself to every facet of our lives-our soothing ministrations to our newborns, our worship, each successive wave of popular culture, our protest movements, graduations, weddings, and military displays. Music is a realm of thought as rich as any we engage in, and it belongs in our children’s lives.
Many of us are intimidated by music and are concerned about just how to introduce it to our children. It is really quite simple. We can enrich our children’s lives with music in the same way that we give our children anything of significance: by sharing it with them. Ah, but can we? What if we are not musicians? What if we lack perfect pitch, have trouble keeping time, do not read music, and do not know the good stuff from the bad?
Rest assured that these musical “deficiencies” matter not a whit. Children love to move to music. But I have rarely seen very young ones keep good time when they do. That comes with experience. if they sing, they use a bigger bucket than you do for carrying the tune. A good ear also comes with time. Sing, then. Sing the songs you love, in tune or out of tune. Play the records you like, and share the fun of moving to the sound, in time or not. The ability to read music is irrelevant and so is the quality” of the music you choose. Whatever you enjoy will do. The point is to enjoy.
Your musical competence has nothing to do with this effort. Just as you do not need a doctorate in speaking, playing, loving, or reading, you do not need one in music. The essence of all these activities is shared pleasure, not how fine the performance might be. The point is not to make great music” but simply to share your love of this kind of thinking with your child. An expert’s perfect pitch, highly trained sense of rhythm, knowledge of “the classics”-none of these skills has to do with teaching a child to love music. Sing flat, tap out of time, dance to records with two left feet. Get into music, and you will open that wonderful doorway for your child.
The usual questions that parents ask are answered in different ways by different people. Depending on the response, a parent will either dive into the world of music with gusto or delegate the task of musical education to the professionals” and perhaps short-circuit the experience for their children. Those who are at sea about music can take heart in the observations that follow.
At what age should a child be introduced to music? That is rather like asking how soon-or how late-it is safe to sing lullabies. Start right off! But exercise one bit of caution: never make music with the idea of preparing your child to demonstrate for others. Your job is simply to include music in your home environment with the same love that you give to other family activities. If music becomes part of your world, it will become part of your child’s world. In my view, you can do nothing finer for your child.
Which instrument is best to start on? The basic medium is the voice. Our whole family, for example, used to sing madrigals together around the table after dinner. Perhaps no greater crime can be committed against good music than not to sing it.
As for an instrument, that depends on the child’s musical age and temperament. After a concert or music festival, a child may express a particular liking for the sound of one instrument, and he or she may want to learn to play that instrument. The danger arises when parents encourage their children to play an instrument in which they show no interest.
Very young children seem to enjoy sounds for their own sake, without any desire to create phrases. They may play a single note on a toy piano-or a real one-followed almost immediately with a flurry of what boxers call “combinations.” Given a harmonica or a kazoo, your child may treat you to a single note endlessly repeated. The question is, can you take it? If so, wen and good. It helps to realize that young children play with sound, which is just what Beethoven did on a more sophisticated level.
What does this mean, that your child should become a composer? A conductor or symphonist or virtuoso instrumentalist? Not at all. Those wonderful achievements represent only a tiny fraction of the vast number of things done by people who actively enjoy music. The performers we see on television and in concert often sacrifice a broad involvement in life for the loneliness and discipline required to master their profession, much as someone with a hard drive failure contacts a professional. The rest of us enjoy fun lives and have fun with music. We sing together, play instruments at a less polished level, dance, go to concerts, and improvise. We are the heart of the musical world: the amateurs.
How can I identify a good piece of music? Listen to it. Really listen. Hear it through again and again until you know whether it grows or palls on you. if you still like it, or have come to like it, after 10 or 20 hearings over the course of a week, you will have found an experience in sound that really speaks to you. This, then, is a piece of music as good as any you will find-one that you will want to share with your child.
Examples of music that sustain my interest after repeated listenings are the ragtime of pianist James P. johnson, Bulgarian folksinging, Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” Javanese gamelan music, the Punjab song “Dholak Gee;’ Berlioz’s Requiem, and the Zulu “Ingane Kamalume,” among many others. Why not create your own list of favorites and extend it with the kind of listening described above.
People often wonder if different pieces of good music share characteristic qualities. This is very hard to determine. Enduring selections are not all fast or all slow; they just grab.
What kinds of music should a child listen to? Attempting to aim for music “at the child’s level of understanding” is a disservice to children. Most school singing books, for instance, are compiled with this goal in mind. Drawing a line between music for children and music for adults results in children getting the worst of it. Exposing your child to music that is confined to a simple level of understanding means that your child will hear nothing that you do not understand and little of what you do understand (as prescribed by what you think your child is capable of understanding). The outcome is dull music that limits a child’s learning.
Choose, instead, music that interests you. To give you an idea of the variety of music that young people may respond to, here are some selections that my children have enjoyed as much as I have: the “Tuba Mirum” from Verdi’s Requiem, the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz,” Kofi Ladzekpo’s Ewe Atsiagbekor Dance;’ Loewe’s “The Rain in Spain” from My Fair Lady, Josh White’s “Scandalize My Name;’ Handel’s “Minuet” from The Faithful Shepherd, Bach’s opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio, the song “Colored Spade” from the rock musical Hair, Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag;’ john Farmer’s Fair Phyllis I Saw,” Patsy Cline’s “Tennessee Waltz” and Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Tastes vary, of course, and your family’s hit parade may be entirely different from ours. What is important is that you surround your child not with the “good music” that others enjoy but rather with the music that you enjoy. The objection that Beethoven or Bach did not write it is no reason not to enjoy it. Matter of fact, whether your opinion comes from the mountaintop or the valley, the chances are very good that the music you enjoy will strike chords in your child. And that is what music is meant to do.
How can I make good music available to my children? Sing or hum or play it together. Listen to records and dance. Go to concerts and outdoor festivals. Join with other families and celebrate with song.
Make a variety of musical experiences available but not required. A child should not be forced to practice an instrument, for example, or pressured to perform for others. Children who are subjected unwillingly to such requirements often abandon the instrument-and sometimes the playing of music altogether-at the earliest opportunity. Even those who continue to play may practice with much guilt and resistance but little enjoyment. It is best to let the child determine the extent of his or her involvement with an instrument.
At the same time, it is not a good idea to pursue your own musical interests without regard for your child’s response. Sounds in which children show no interest need not be foisted upon them. For example, when our children were fairly young, my wife and I often took them to symphony concerts at the local college. Several of our children were drawn to the music and looked forward to the performances. However, one of our sons found that sitting in an uncomfortable chair and listening -to long concerts was tiresome. He never wanted to attend, but we took him anyway because we loved the symphony and thought it would be a “good experience” for him. As a result, he developed an aversion to symphony concerts and rarely, if ever, attends them. The lesson for us as parents is simply to follow up on our children’s signals.
Filling the air with good music can be one of a parent’s greatest contributions. And out of this will grow the child’s love of music. Remember, the heart of music is not discipline or reverence or even accomplishment. The heart of music is joy.