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parent tips

The Teacher's Perspective: Practicing, Performing, Perception.

Apathy can only be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: First, an ideal which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.
~ Arnold Toynbee

This weekend my husband Jonathan and I herded our two boys out the door for a trip downtown. Every week I get an update from a local free-activities blog in my Google Reader (, and the Cirque de Soleil festivities at Pioneer Square caught my eye. I saw the show a few years back and was completely smitten. Here was a great way to introduce the kids to these artists.

The trip for us is an event in itself. We live in Beaverton and Toby (age 4) has a serious fascination with trains, so naturally we took the Max. Piling Isaac, age 2, into his somewhat outgrown backpack/stroller and taking Toby by the hand we bravely made our way to the platform. We haven't taken the train as much since Isaac "Mr. Dramatic" Ward came along. Up till now he just has not enjoyed sitting in his stroller for the duration of the trip on the train, so we abstained as an act of mercy to the other passengers. Today he was a stellar patron, chatting with the skateboarding tweens and charming any middle-aged men he could get to look up from their iGear. He always picks the toughest audience, just to keep things fresh. We were pleased and relieved to avoid melt-downs, blow-outs and tears.

Getting off at Pioneer Square, we were met by some funky gypsy-esque music and saw a small crowd beginning to form in the square. The Cirque folks, faces painted and wearing all black, were giving away candy and popcorn, painting faces and generally clowning around. Several young women weaved through the crowd on stilts and unicycles. In the center of the square there was a performer hanging from two ropy strips of fabric, twisting them around her body and her body around them in miraculous ways; a single serving of ballet tangled in red curtains. Toby, clearly enthralled, said, "Can we go to a restaurant and eat some lunch now?" I kept pointing at the ridiculous beauty hidden just above his head, but it took a lot of convincing (and a bucket of free popcorn) before he wanted to sit and watch the show.

Why am I telling you all this?

It got me thinking about young kids and their perception of what exactly makes a "feat". What is a creative accomplishment? What makes trained performers so amazing? Why are we moved by such creativity?

I knew the boys would be captured by the performance if they were given some ways to really understand what was going on. We sat and talked about what the high flying rope artist was doing- specific things like how she pointed her toes, and general things like how graceful she was and how she never stopped moving. We mimicked her a little with our arms out like willow trees. We talked a lot about how strong her muscles must be and how she must know just what the ropes feel like so she doesn't slip or lose her balance. I wondered aloud how many times she practiced just the tiny motion of wrapping the rope around her ankle like a harness so she could stand on air. We clapped with the crowd at each new move (the clapping is always Isaac's favorite part). When she was done, we let the boys walk near the frame she had been swinging on, to see how high it really was.

My point is, I think it takes some understanding of the details of a performance to really appreciate it. This is something we can teach our kids in many everyday ways. It doesn't have to be a musical performance you explore & explain in order to benefit your musical child. Emphasizing and valuing the diligence, details and hard work that go into any performance can give kids more motivation to work. It can get them through months of trying to master "Song of the Wind" or a whole term focusing on how their wrist is moving around the instrument. Or even sustain one through endless lifelong painstaking student-loan acquiring work on the bow hold. Did I say that out loud?

Jonathan and I made a small sacrifice of time & train fare and took a minor risk of exhaustion or meltdowns to get our kids in contact with some neat performances. Parents who choose music lessons for their kids make much larger sacrifices of time, money and energy to put their kids in contact with fantastic opportunities for self-expression and personal success. We all benefit when we make the most of these performances & opportunities by taking every chance to teach our kids about what it takes to create them.

Now for the practical application for music students. If you are at a lull in practice motivation or just want another tool to inspire practice, find a really beautiful video (youtube or Instant Encore are handy websites- googling can also get you some great video gems) of somebody playing the song at hand. Then set about chatting about what made the performance a success.

-Compliment specific things about the musician: Look how relaxed her shoulders are, See how straight her bow is, Listen to how beautifully in tune it is, Marvel at how quickly he plays it, etc. Don't cherry pick things from recent lessons because kids will smell manipulation a mile away. Just be honest about what strikes you.
-Talk about why you like it, musically & emotionally: It sounds like spring to me, It makes me think of dancing frogs, This is nice and relaxing because it sounds like somebody singing, etc. So often we are focusing on fixing techniques and neglecting inspiration. I love this quote from Dr. Suzuki: "Creating desire in your child’s heart is the parent’s duty."
-For older kids, find a less skilled performance to compare, and talk about what was different, what was good and what could improve.
I would note that at any age, once you've gone over a few performances together it's best if you can let your child choose their favorite, then get them to tell you exactly what they like about it. The same can of course be done with sound-only recordings, but video is often more effective.

If you're stuck on a tune and discouragement is creeping in, find a good recording of the next song in the book. Set up a low-key performance (fancy family dinner, etc.) with that specific piece as a goal. Find a video of somebody amazing playing your child's instrument. Many big-name classical musicians have been on Sesame Street, and a ton have great websites with videos on them. Portland and the surrounding cities have libraries packed full of performance DVDs. It takes some research on your part, but once you have a handful of favorites you may find your child deciding to practice simply because there is a more visible, tangible goal.

I'll discuss more about how to encourage your child's performance skills and what kinds of feedback benefit a young musician most in later posts.

Playing music is fun, but practicing music is always going to be a responsibility. It's not always fun. Self-motivated children have learned (and sometimes need to be reminded) that there is a link between the gratification of expression and ability won through stubborn persistence. It's a lesson worth teaching!

~Dr. Miriam English Ward

Further reading & resources:
  • From The Top is an excellent show all about incredibly accomplished young classical musicians. I absolutely love it when the radio show comes on and my kids are around to listen. The host, Christopher O'Reilly, does an incredible job interviewing these musicians. There is a PBS television show and an NPR radio show, and bunches of videos online.
  • Childrens Music Website's Parent Resources Page

Lots of symphonies have excellent web sites- I've listed three below. You might make a virtual tour with your kids (incorporate geography if you are super awesome) and go all over the world looking at these resources.