"The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should
be taught to love it instead."
- Igor Stravinsky, composer
Musical sounds permeate our environment, shaping the way we experience different aspects of life. We wake up to music on the radio, identify our cell phones by personalized musical tones, wait patiently in offices surrounded by soothing melodies, and select favorite CDs for pleasure and inspiration. A child’s world is equally inundated with musical moments. From the sounds of a parent’s lullaby before bedtime to the colorful tunes accompanying favorite television shows such as Sesame Street, children experience and respond to music with joy.
Beyond the simple pleasures associated with music, it is important to think about the other benefits music provides. Research tells us that music plays a vital role in the learning process and strengthens skills in other areas. Educators believe that engagement in music supports academic achievement. As early as preschool, playing music helps children acquire knowledge, skills, and attitudes that influence them throughout their lives. All those involved in watching a child develop
musical skills and knowledge have long known that, in the midst of learning music for its own sake, children also learn coordination, goalsetting, concentration, and cooperation. In addition, a growing body of research shows that music study can lead to real and measurable benefits in mathematics and reading. Most of all, children who make music gain the self-esteem that comes with personal achievement.
Outside of the academic reasons, however, there is the simple fact that making music is fun. Children intuitively start making musical sounds from an early age, banging on the table rhythmically or attempting to coo or call out in a sustained musical way. They listen to favorite songs on CDs and tapes and begin to sing independently as they mimic familiar tunes. As they grow older, children enjoy the act of sharing and playing music with others.
Engaging Young Children in the World of Music
There are many ways to nurture your child’s love of music and encourage his or her musical talents. Listen to musical programs and recordings together. Attend musical events and make music as a family. Acknowledge your child’s efforts and achievements in musical activities. It is as a result of these active listening and music-making experiences that children develop musically, advance in other skills areas, and acquire a sense of accomplishment as musicians.
Listening to music, moving to rhythms, singing, and playing musical games are best for small children and good for elementary students as well. Have your child participate in musical activities by:
- Listening. Sing to your child, even when the child is an infant. Let your child listen to short, recorded selections that offer diverse styles. Whenever possible, give your child a wide variety of listening experiences by including music of all genres—and be certain to encourage him or her to talk about the music. Young children show preferences for specific types of music through their responses. Acknowledge your child’s musical interests, but continue to expand his or her repertoire of listening as well.
- Singing. Invite your child to sing along with you. Sing favorite songs with your child while you’re getting ready for school, cleaning up toys, or riding in the car. From about three years of age, singing with children builds on their natural ability for spontaneous, free-rhythm singing, encouraging them to sing more structured songs. Additionally, you can turn reading with your child into a musical game. Many books are written to be read with a hint of rhythm and rhyme, and some are meant to be sung. Sing them!
- Moving. Notice the way your child responds physically to music. Even young toddlers can be caught swaying to the music from a CD or moving rhythmically to the background music of advertisements and television programs. It is often the musical melody or rhythm that is most appealing to a young child. Encourage your child to develop his or her spontaneous desire to move to music by being a model. Move your body, clap to the rhythm, or create a dance that reflects the feeling of the musical selection. Your child will soon join in the fun.
- Reading. Young children love to listen to stories. There are many appealing stories that relate to music that might spark a child’s interest in music making,musical instruments, or song and dance. Some of the most popular children’s books are those that use the lyrics of a favorite children’s song and add illustrations.
- Expanding storytelling through music. Introducing music in storytelling can be a powerful experience for a young child. Read a story like Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema or The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry. Talk about and then plan music and sounds with your child to accompany the story you select. Shaking rice in a plastic container could make the sound of rain. Tapping two wooden spoons together could represent a woodpecker’s pecking. Let your child use his or her imagination with simple objects that are commonly found at home or in the classroom. Children love the challenge of making music in this way.
- Exploring the musical sounds of instruments. Start by getting a few good quality instruments. Together explore the sounds the instruments can make. Percussion instruments such as drums and xylophones, blowing instruments such as slide whistles and recorders, and stringed instruments such as guitars and ukuleles all offer fertile ground for musical experimentation. Regardless of your level of aptitude with an instrument, just playing along with your child spurs interest and offers encouragement.
- Making musical instruments. Everyone can’t afford to buy musical instruments for exploration. But everyone can make simple instruments at home. Something as simple as a rubber band can be turned into a musical instrument by stretching and plucking it. A pan can become a drum by turning it over and slapping the bottom. Rice or beans in a plastic container with a lid can become a maraca. You don’t necessarily need an expensive instrument to have fun musically with your child––use the resources around you.
- Attending live performances. Share music that you love with your child and expand your own range of musical experiences by attending programs at local festivals, art centers, museums, community centers, and parks. Remember to choose performances that are more informal for preschoolers. Music at outdoor festivals, parks, and family days offered by museums provide the flexibility needed with small children. Older children are apt to handle longer productions and can even enjoy a Broadway-style musical if the subject matter is appealing and appropriate.
- Exploring music from around the world. Music is a universal language, evident in the wide array of musical expressions created by nearly every culture around the world. Experience the music of other cultures available on labels such as Smithsonian Folkways and Putumayo World Music. Many artists offer cultural selections specifically for children. Listening to a variety of different genres enriches your child’s understanding and enjoyment.
Education and Special Programs in Music
For preschoolers, there are programs offered by local educational organizations,music schools, and community centers that encourage musical experience. Many of these programs are planned for parents and children, and are structured around a shared experience of music making—singing or playing simple musical instruments. For this age group, the joy of making music and the shared experience count the most.
If your child is in preschool, that school should offer opportunities to sing and play simple classroom instruments, to respond to music through movement, to create music, and to grow in understanding music. Many preschools provide special training for teachers in early childhood music, but may also hire an outside specialist with particular expertise in exploring elements of music with young children. Preschools should devote space to music activities, instruments, and appropriate equipment for recording and playing music.
By the time your child reaches first grade, there are increased opportunities for a more formal approach to music. In elementary school, every student should sing; play instruments; create music; begin to read and write music; listen to, analyze, and evaluate music; and understand how music is a part of culture. It is at this time that children express an interest in learning more about playing musical instruments and at the same time demonstrate skills that indicate readiness for this new endeavor. Take a cue from your child rather than setting your own desires as a basis for starting music lessons.
Teachers from your child’s school can be useful guides in making decisions about timing for lessons, type of instrument, and other teachers who offer instruction for the younger musician. Another excellent source of information is faculty members from the music department at your local college or university. In selecting a teacher, you should find someone with an established track record with students of your child’s age group. Ask to interview the teacher to make certain that his or her educational philosophy matches your goals for your child. It may prove fruitful to observe a lesson. You may decide to attend a recital or get a list of references from families of current students to learn more about the teacher and his or her style of instruction.
Parents should be supportive and encouraging as children choose to learn to play an instrument. This is not an easy task, but one that many children approach with enthusiasm in the right environment. It is important to remember that the joy of making music should always be at the heart of music experience in the early years.
Interviewing Prospective Music Teachers
Interview a new private teacher to establish that he or she is the right teacher for your child. By asking a few relevant questions, you can be well on your way to making a good selection.
- How much teaching experience have you had?
- What is the age range of your students?
- What performance levels do you teach?
- What is your professional experience as a musician?
- What is your educational background?
- What styles of music do you prefer?
- How much practice time do you expect from students, and how do you help students develop good practice habits?
Beginning Music Lessons
While interaction with music begins at birth, the decision to start lessons needs to reflect the attitude, interest, skill, and maturity of each child. In any case, early lessons should be tailored to the ways that young children learn—that is, they should be full of play rather than focused on polished performance. The decision about when to start instrumental music lessons depends on both the child and the instrument. Professionals in the field offer a few guidelines for parents that can aid in the decision-making process.
- Piano. Children can begin piano lessons whenever they can sit on a piano bench and concentrate for a period of time.
- Stringed instruments. Lessons on the violin or other stringed instruments can begin very early if scaled-down instruments are used. Most schools introduce stringed instruments at third or fourth grade.
- Wind instruments. The selection of band/orchestral wind instruments can begin in fifth grade. Younger children can gain valuable experience on the baroque recorder beginning in second grade.
Local stores carry—or specialorder—many instruments appropriate for young children. Remember that high-quality instruments are important for children who are learning to distinguish, produce, and manipulate musical sounds. Some reputable manufacturers of instruments for children that go beyond the toy stage are Malmark, Peripole-Bergerault, Remo, Rhythm Band, Sabian, Schulmerich, and Suzuki.
Beginning string and wind instruments are available from retail outlets across the nation. Ask about rental/purchase plans that allow time (typically one school year) to see if the instrument is right for your child before committing to purchase.
Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin by Lloyd Moss
Duke Ellington by Andrea David Pinkney
The Bremen Town Musicians by the Brothers Grimm
Resources Books and Pamphlets
Many books define what’s possible in music education, contain songs and pieces specifically chosen for young children, and present activities and strategies useful in helping children grow with music. Among them are:
Music for Young Children by Barbara Andress
Music in Childhood: From Preschool through the Elementary Grades by Patricia Shehan Campbell and Carol Scott-Kassner.
MENC: The National Association for Music Education
MENC’s Web site has information on the benefits of music education, resources for helping your child (including activity guides), and links to manufacturers, publishers, and distributors.
Sesame Street Music Works
This site has online activities and ideas for children, as well as resource kits.
Bash the Trash
Bash the Trash is an organization that provides information on building musical instruments from unusual materials. This could include just about anything, ranging from recycled junk to discarded stereo components to old children’s toys.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Endowment for the Arts.