Monday, May 19, 2014

When you hear a parent talking about enrolling their three-year-old in a musical program, what do you think? There is some slight controversy over this issue. Some parents think children five and under can't learn much from music lessons and parents are wasting money by putting them in lessons too young. There is also a belief in some parents that those who register small children for music lessons are stage parents pushing their little ones too fast to become talented, get famous, and earn money at a young age.
Then there are the parents who sign their children up for musical programs because they know all the benefits that music can have on a child even at a very young age. These parents believe in the power of music to teach their children valuable lessons in communication, self-expression, and working with others as a group.
There are some parents who sign their children up for aggressive music and dance lessons for all the wrong reasons. Fortunately, there are many more parents who use musical programs as mental and physical enrichment. They use musical programs designed just for young children that focus more on fun and enrichment then performance. The goal is emotional and mental stimulation rather than developing little stars.
Which side of the argument do you fall on? Is your side a bit different now that you know there are musical programs designed for children which do not focus on competition and performance? This is an eye-opener for many parents who did not realize such musical enrichment programs existed for young children today.
What's Important in a Music Lesson for Babies?
Signing a small child up for music lessons is much different then signing a teenager up for guitar lessons or a ten year old up for piano. Young children don't benefit from learning a single instrument as much as they learn from exposure to a wide variety of musical instruments and sounds. Children are stimulated into deeper thinking and mental development when they are allowed to spend time with different instruments, make different sounds with their own voices, and listen to a wide variety of musical tones.
Exposure to a variety of different instruments along with stories and other entertainment is important to a musical program designed for small children.
A relaxed, easy-going environment where children can play with music and explore it at their own pace and within their personal comfort zones is also important. There should be no pressure to push further, do better, or hit the right notes. It is an environment of exploration and encouragement where children are free to learn and absorb information and musical sounds at their own pace.
Do Babies Need Musical Instruction?
Now where do you stand on the issue of signing small children under the age of 5 up for musical instruction? Most parents come around to seeing the benefits once they realize that there are programs out there designed to encourage and uplift children so they grow with increased self-esteem and a sense of self-awareness. These programs are not designed to make musical stars out of babies. They are designed to enrich the lives of babies. For most parents, that makes all the difference.
There are still others that believe at-home music exposure is all young children need. Others disagree since childhood musical programs have done great things for their own children.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Music theory, many would argue, is an essential part of playing any musical instrument. However, when once looks at many of the various piano tutorials out on the market and even online, they do not find a mere mention of the concept. The theory and study of music is one of the most essential elements to the growth of the art form. This article is in defense of theory lessons, rather than simple monotonous instruction of the piano or keyboard.
If you were to go to your local music instruction store and randomly pick out a set of piano lessons, you'd be shocked to see that music theory is a very little part of the subject. Granted, the lessons are about learning the piano, but there are still fundamental things one needs to learn to help their understanding of how piano (or any) music works.
The idea that one can simply learn how to play the keyboard and pay little attention to concepts of consonance, dissonance, and more advanced topics of harmonization is appalling. There can be no real mastery of any musical instrument if there is not attention paid to it's basic fundamental theory. Learning how music works (in time, space and on our emotions) is essential knowledge if one hopes to provide uniqueness to the art.
What you'll also find are lessons that focus solely on how to play piano by ear through a series of different tricks to skip over studying theory so one can apply principles many take years to learn. This could be considered a cop-out in one way. For instance, they skip over reading sheet music, when that is an essential skill for any musician.
Further, people who refuse to learn music theory will be a slave to their shortcomings as musicians. How can one begin to transpose songs and play in different keys if they do not know how this is done properly? Music theory instruction can do this. It opens up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to playing any instrument.
Another argument for including music theory lessons in any music instructional courses is that it can help with the ability to improvise. Although many modern genres of music do not contain elements of improvisation, there is something to be said about having the ability to do so. It can help in composition, live performance and many other areas of playing.
So it is clear that any musical instruction that does not strictly and thoroughly encourage the study of theory in music, is not complete. It's an essential part of being able to play music. Even on my piano blog, which does not really have any section for music theory, per say, I point people in the direction of websites that do. I truly think it's an essential part of playing the piano. And I hope that in the future, all piano tutorials will include sections on this important area.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Folk music is the music of a nation, culture or ethnic group. Each such group has its own characteristics, which includes such things as behavior, food, language, history, traditions, etc. The music and dance reflect these aspects and, as aesthetics, are communicated with soul. Folk music is almost like a language that tells of the various victories, hardships, sorrows and other survival factors that have transpired, usually over centuries. This gets passed down from generation to generation, without the formalities of academics and, most often, not in written form. But it is ingrained in the hearts of its people. It tends to apply to all of its people, regardless of social statuses or classes, and is therefore embracive but unique to its group.
The melodies are usually simple and could be no more than four notes. They are often repetitive with very simple harmonies and little to no modulation to other keys. However, some can have complicated rhythmic patterns, such as West African and Indian folk music. The instruments are unique, but quite often very similar or even the same in neighboring regions, such as the Chinese sanxian and the Japanese shamisen. However, the essence of each culture's music has its own characteristic, just like language. While there are nuances of each micro-region of a nation or area, just like a language and its dialects, they each possess the unique essence of their nation or area.
Listen to a traditional Persian folk tune and then an Irish one, or a Mongolian song and then a Balinese one. You will instantly note the flavor of each one.
Being simplistic does not mean that the artistic value of folk music is lost. It has its own intrinsic aesthetic value as it comes from the soul of the people and is performed with emotion, spirit and meaning. It tells a story.
Many classical composers have incorporated the folk melodies from their own cultures to their masterpiece compositions, such as Alexander Borodin (Russian) or Aram Khatchaturian (Armenian). In such a case, one cannot look at that piece as being folk music anymore, but instead, it becomes a more refined creation. It sophisticates into something finer and more worldly as opposed to something just localized. Its aesthetic quality is of a different nature.
However, certain world-class classical composers have incorporated folk elements from other cultures outside their own to their own compositions. We hear Russian, Chinese and Spanish elements by composers who are not of those ethnicities. Inspired by various melodies, masterpieces have been created. Again, one has to look at this from another perspective.
A great analogy would be Da Vinci's The Last Supper. This is strictly a work of fine art but it is obviously inspired by ancient cultural phenomena. Though, it does not reflect the exact customs and aspects of that culture in the way folk art would. The figures of that work all possess Western European features. The bread on the table is shown as leavened. These are peculiarities, perhaps even anachronisms, included by the creative license of the artist, which immediately show this work to be one of a fine art composition and not just a cultural artifact. The same principle may happen in music too, as in any other form of art.
Folk music is one of the key essences of a people, and is the aesthetic beauty that binds a culture. And this has expanded into being a major influence on music of an international level, which makes it even more special.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

I am a trained Waldorf early childhood teacher and have also completed training as a "Music Together" teacher (a music and movement program for preschoolers and their parents) through the Center for Music and Young Children in Princeton, NJ. In addition, I am a Suzuki parent and a strong supporter of Suzuki music education. I have been interested in comparing the similarities and differences between Suzuki and Waldorf pedagogy ever since discovering how much they share in common.
In spite of the number of similarities in approach, one fundamental difference between the two approaches is regarding the age at which a child should begin formal music instruction. Suzuki students are encouraged to begin instrumental lessons as early as age two or three. On the other hand, students in a Waldorf school do not begin lessons with string instruments until third or fourth grade. My personal opinion is that Suzuki, for many children, starts too early, and that Waldorf schools may start too late. Based on my research and observation, I believe that age seven is a more appropriate age for most children to begin private music lessons -- for many of the same reasons that make seven the ideal age for a child to begin formal, academic learning at school, according to Waldorf philosophy.
In Waldorf pedagogy, formal academic learning does not begin until, ideally the age of seven. This comes after a period of intense growth during the first seven years of life, after which, according to Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, the child's "etheric" or life forces are freed up for more cognitive pursuits. As a child of seven is better able to sit and focus on formal "lessons" than a younger child, so a child of this age would be better able to focus on formal music instruction, and to be capable of practicing. I have questioned many different music teachers - Suzuki teachers, traditional music teachers and Waldorf music teachers -- on whether there is a great advantage to starting children on an instrument as early as three- to five-years old and, by and large, most teachers I've talked to seem to agree that children who start when they are older (say, seven or eight) are not at a disadvantage; they are usually able to catch up quickly with the children who have been taking lessons since they were much younger.
Within a few months of starting cello, I observed that my seven-year-old caught up to the same place as another seven-year-old boy in his class who'd been playing for a full two years. My child, I would say, has fairly average musical ability. He is musical, but not precocious.
I think it is unnatural for a child under seven to be asked to sit down and practice an instrument daily, no matter how short or playful the practice session. I feel strongly that children under seven should be moving, playing and engaged in their imagination without the pressure or stress of practicing, or worse, performing. They are learning an enormous amount -- taking in the world through their senses, developing their imaginations through play and the experience of life. This short and precious period of childhood should be free from the pressures of performing and feeling the need to please others.
On the other hand, most Waldorf schools don't start teaching strings until third or fourth grade. I worry that this is too late. Recent brain research indicates that there is a musical learning "window" of opportunity that closes around the age of nine (similar to the "window" for language acquisition). Based upon my research and observation, I believe that it is more difficult, though certainly not impossible, for children to become proficient at an instrument if they start after the age of nine. Waldorf students are, of course, learning to play the pentatonic flute, and often the soprano recorder, before the age of nine, which is absolutely beneficial and helps to develop the student's musical ear. There are many Waldorf teachers who would argue that learning to play a stringed instrument or the piano would be inappropriate for a child under nine. I do not agree with them. My own experience with my children has been entirely rewarding and positive, having started them with music lessons at ages seven and eight.
I also recommend waiting until a child begins to show an interest in learning to play an instrument before offering private music instruction. Children are much more likely to be self-motivated when there is a genuine and personal interest in learning to play an instrument. I have observed very few children who have expressed an interest in learning to play an instrument before the age of 5-7. Of course, there are some children who really are musically precocious and may, in fact, prove to be prodigious musical students. If your child is relentless in demanding to learn a particular instrument, I would advise listening to them and taking advantage of his interest.
If you decide to pursue music education for your child under seven I would highly recommend - no, I would BEG you - to find a Suzuki teacher. A good Suzuki teacher, like a good Waldorf, teacher, teaches out of imitation and in a playful, imaginative way. The emphasis should be on the process, not on the product.
Another similarity between Suzuki method and Waldorf education is that children are taught to play beautiful music by memory and ear before they are able to read music -- just the way Waldorf students are able to recite beautiful poetry by heart before they are able to read or write. Learning to play music precedes learning to read music, just as in human development learning to speak always precedes learning to read and write. Learning to read music should not be attempted before the child is able to read language.
Readers of Dr. Suzuki's book Nurtured by Love, will come across much philosophy that is similar to Rudolf Steiner's. (It is interesting to note that both lived in Germany during the same period of time.) Dr. Suzuki emphasizes that it is far more important for a child to strive to become a beautiful person on the inside, than the most technically proficient musician. By nurturing beautiful feelings in the child, beautiful music will be produced.
The most important thing one can do musically for a child under seven is to expose them to lots and lots music, especially the human voice. Sing to them and with them all the time! Sing even if you think you can't -- your child will not be critical, and will appreciate your effort more than you can imagine. I think it's also of great benefit to let children hear live music being played so that they learn that music is something that human beings make, and are not just mechanical sounds that come out of an electronic box. Research indicates that that listening to music (and lots of different kinds and tonalities) early in life is what develops a child's musical ear. So that even if a child doesn't begin formal music instruction until age nine or later, by having been exposed to many types of music and different qualities of tone, that child will still have developed musically during her early childhood.
Sera Jane Smolen, Ph.D., a cellist who has also taught music in a Waldorf school and wrote her thesis on a comparison of Waldorf and Suzuki methods, once told me that no world-class musician (that is to say, the Yo Yo Ma's and the Emanuel Ax's of the world) ever started music instruction later than the age of five. This statement is likely to give many parents pause. But then she asked me, "Is our goal to raise world-class musicians, or Martin Luther Kings?" Do we offer our children music lessons because we want to produce a prodigy, or do we do it to nurture a love of music in child who may fulfill Dr. Suzuki's vision of bringing about world peace through music?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Before you can answer this question let's address a number of other issues first.
All of us are drawn to the guitar for many reasons and objectives. For most, it's safe to say, the desire to play for our own benefit is the primary reason for investing the many hours it takes to become proficient. It is an avocation; a fun way to challenge yourself. We have no intentions of playing the instrument in front of a group or in a group. If we do, it is invariably around the fireplace, campsite or at the church social. Others truly do wish to become good enough to participate in a group and look to incremental income as a gage of how well they are doing. Finally, some are determined to play the best music halls in the country or rock stadiums throughout the world. Which is it for you?
The learning process itself can dictate the approach you take regarding training. I venture to say that most who are intrigued by the guitar start by learning a few chords to determine if this is something they want to continue. Today, those chords and how to form them, more often than not, come from the internet in the form of tabs or videos. You should determine if self training is for you. Look into your past. Do you tend to go it alone when learning new skills or procedures? Do you have the self discipline to push yourself past plateaus?
There certainly is not a lack of self proclaimed guitar teachers/instructors on the internet these days. Don't get me wrong. Many of these guitarists are quite accomplished and capable. In fact, some have created very ingenious methods of using video techniques to assist the viewer while trying to replicate the chord or riff being demonstrated. That said this approach requires the student to apply themselves. Remember, there is no instructor feedback only a one way communication. Do you find that you need feedback while learning something new?
For most guitarists, having the ability to successfully play enough chords to entertain themselves and a few others is sufficient. We all know that with 4-5 chords under your belt, you have access to thousands of songs many of which are very recognizable to the listener. But for some, that is just not enough. They want to understand the theory involved. Understanding the underpinnings music is important to them. How to read music, recognize keys, etc. is part of becoming a well rounded guitarist and musician, in their mind. If you are this type of person, are you able to drill down into the "technicalities" of music theory? Do you have the motivation and resources to do this on your own? Is it wise to consider doing so? Is music instruction part of your future interests?
A wonderful aspect of playing guitar today is the availability of fine instruments at very reasonable prices. That means that for very little cash outlay, a student can begin the learning process without significant financial hardship. Talk to an aspiring piano player for the opposite view of this issue. In addition, an incredible amount of virtually free training information, written and in video format is available via the internet, especially vehicles such as YouTube, etc. Do you have the resources to pursue music training beyond these sources and for a fee? It is important to answer this question honestly since so many students find that shortly after choosing a music teacher, the expense becomes an issue. Remember, music instructors not only have a right to expect proper payment for their knowledge but truly deserve the fees that they require.
So, is a music teacher the best way for you to learn guitar?
Well, if you are determined to become the best player possible, in the shortest time; may not have the needed self discipline necessary or inclination to self train; music theory is considered essential and you have the resources to pay for your needs, then, yes, you should seek a music teacher/instructor. That is not to say to you should abandon the wealth of knowledge and tools available elsewhere to compliment this process.
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