Friday, April 26, 2013

Life with No Regrets

We pause and catch our breath when we hear of a friend's cancer diagnosis, or a child who has died way too young, or a deadly explosion at the finish line of a race. We vow to hold our children tighter, to live with no regrets. And we do slow down for a moment or two, until life starts racing by again and we have to run to catch up with it.

We hear older parents tell us that they wish they had enjoyed life more, that it all went by too fast, and we decide to learn from their experiences and slow down. We ponder the passing of time, perhaps shedding a few tears for all the milestones that have come and gone. And we again vow to live with no regrets, to savor each moment.

That perspective is good to keep in mind, but we do still have to live. Children need to be fed and clothed. Careers need to be managed so they can be productive and fulfilling. Houses need to be cleaned lest we end up on an episode of Hoarders. Life is time-consuming, and much of it is mundane. We can't escape the dailiness of it all. Nor should we--God gave Adam and Eve the garden to tend, good work to fill their days.

The question of what I would do today if this were my last day on earth has to be balanced with the question of how I can prepare for tomorrow in case this isn't my last day. I think it's about grasping and loving the "heaven moments" AND the "have-to-dos." We don't want to miss a moment to slow down and talk with someone we love, but we also mustn't neglect putting dinner on the table.

I think living with no regrets is more about having a contented and grateful outlook than it is about anything else. My problem isn't that I don't realize my children are growing up too fast, my problem is that I spend too much time mourning that fact and feeling guilty if every day I spend with them isn't full of wonderful tea parties or exciting outings to the zoo. I look at the drops that are falling through my hands instead of the living water that remains.

The thing I will most regret is if I wish away all my daily tasks searching for some elusive life-without-regrets. I don't want to be guilted into despising the work I need to do. Living without regret means finding the rainbow in the dish soap, as Ann Voskamp reminds us, or savoring the sweet smile on my toddler's face as I help them get dressed. It's thanking God for hours of editing work, even if it does keep me from playing in the yard with the kids all day--and then really enjoying the 15 minutes I do have to play in the yard. God made us to need daily bread, so the work we have to put in to get that daily bread is every bit as sacred as the celebration of eating it.

Today, I will live without regrets by thanking God for every moment, the highs and the lows. I will rejoice in the simple things. I will enjoy my work. And I will live without the guilty voice inside that tells me to savor the time that slips through  my fingers--living gratefully IS savoring.

Ready for the Weekend

Someone in our house is ready for a weekend of sun and relaxation!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

What about Practicing? part 3

Practicing. The word probably brings you back to your own childhood, to days spent inside chained to your instrument while you listened to the neighborhood kids playing outside. Once you've decided to invest in music lessons for your child, you face the task of getting them to practice so your money isn't wasted.

Any way you look at it, some days your kids just don't want to practice. It is sometimes a chore. It is often difficult. It is occasionally close to torture, and if your kids feel that way then usually you do too. But it has to be done. So, how can we make it more fun? Some of these tips will apply mainly to Suzuki parents, but lots of them can apply to anyone who takes music lessons.

1) Rewards and charts. Some kids are motivated by putting a sticker on a practice chart, keeping track of consecutive days of practice, or adding up practice minutes per week. Put pieces in a Mr. Potato Head for each successful repetition. On a particularly difficult piece, give M&Ms or mini marshmallows for each good repetition. These can help them persevere on boring days. Ask your teacher if they'll set up a reward system or help your child set a goal and provide a reward for reaching that goal.

2) Add in unpredictability. If they're well into a Suzuki book, have your child pull numbers or song titles out of a hat and play them in that order. Or if they're learning a difficult piece, number each line and pull a number out of a hat and play the line that matches that number. Create a game spinner with musical keys and have then play the scale of the number they spin. Roll a die to determine how many times to play a piece. Anything to make it feel like the parent isn't controlling every aspect of practicing helps.

3) Break up the practice session. Sometimes I can only fight the "time to practice" battle once in a day, and in that case I do all the practicing in one shot. But sometimes, especially with younger kids or when we have a lot of activities in one day, it's nice to break it into 10- or 15-minute increments. Long enough to accomplish something, but short enough to keep it interesting.

4) Focus on one thing each day. I'm notorious for disobeying this rule, but it is best to focus on one thing per practice session--hand position, steady beat, dynamics, or whatever. At least try to keep it to one thing to concentrate on for each piece. Perhaps the Debussy needs dynamics and the Chopin needs slow metronome work. Don't try to do everything at once. Manageable, achievable goals help keep kids motivated and make them feel like they are accomplishing something.

5) Building off of #4, Focus on something for each piece. Don't just treat a practice session as a list of boxes to check off or you will both be bored. Unless a piece is merely for review, there is always something to have the child concentrate on: hand position, dynamics, steady beat, expression... Find clever adjectives to help it be more interesting: "pretend like your fingers are fairies dancing across the keys on this one"; "pretend like I'm trying to dance to this one--slow down so I can keep up"; "make this one sound like a stream flowing down the mountain."

6) Let (or make) them perform often. Maybe the child should play for the non-practicing parent each week. If grandma comes to visit, that's a great time for a recital. Performing reminds kids of why they are practicing (to perfect the piece) and helps them become more comfortable with the idea of performing.

7) Let them choose some of their music. Kids need to play standard repertoire, but as they get a little further with their instrument it's great to let them choose songs they want to play and even try their hand at improvising. Playing "fun" stuff reminds them of why they are working so hard--so they can get to the point where everything they play is something they've chosen to play.

8) Praise, praise, praise. Here's another one I'm not good at. Kids will love playing and tolerate practicing if at the end of their time they feel good about what they've done. Find something positive to say at the end of each piece.

9) Build community. Some instruments are mainly ensemble instruments, and in that case there is built-in community. But some instruments, like piano, can be isolating. Find places and opportunities for your child to play with other people. Send them to music camp. Play sibling or parent/child duets. Let them improvise with other kids or try their hand at accompanying a soloist or their school orchestra.

10) Provide many opportunities to hear beautiful music. Go to concerts, listen to a variety of types of music in the car, and let them hear older children play.

Your turn: What are your best practicing tips? How do you help your child stay motivated?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Which Music Lessons? part 2

I hope you read yesterday's post about why we spend our money on music lessons rather than on something else. Today we're talking about the different kinds of lessons you can choose. For Suzuki case studies, see the videos at the end!

Once we had made the decision--or perhaps I should say fallen into the decision, because somehow it felt more like a compulsion and less like a choice--to put our then-three-year-old daughter into music lessons, the question was what kind. In music instruction, you kind of get what you pay for and you definitely get what you put in as far as practicing. You can luck out with a very talented high schooler who only charges you $10/lesson and has a knack for teaching and a child who loves to practice an hour a day, but for most of us that doesn't fall into our laps. The basic types of music instruction are:

1) Traditional lessons. You start these around age 6 or above, when the child has a grasp of reading and can therefore learn to "read" the notes right off the bat. This is how I learned, and I progressed at probably an average rate and after 7 years could pluck out a hymn with lots of practice and work really hard at the simplest Chopin pieces for a recital. I was okay, but I certainly didn't have the knowledge or confidence to accompany our high school choir or anything like that.

2) Suzuki lessons. These lessons start at age 4 or 5 (I recommend age 5 for boys). This type of music instruction is based on the idea that young children can learn music the same way they learn language--by hearing it and imitating it. Each day they listen to a CD of the pieces they are learning, so when they come to learn the next piece in the book they already know how it should sound and can learn by ear. The student has a private lesson and a group lesson each week, and there is a huge emphasis on regular performance. The Suzuki student can play impressive pieces at a young age and always has two or three memorized pieces they can play at a moment's notice.

One of the complaints about Suzuki instruction is that kids don't learn to read music. This has not been true in our experience. For the first year (age 4 to age 5) they are learning their first 18 or so pieces, the music in book one. Then they have a recital in which they play all of those pieces in order. Learning book one well enough to have your recital takes one or two years, usually. When that is completed, students begin to learn to read music from a typical note-reading curriculum while also moving on to Suzuki book two, which is much harder than book one but miraculously (it seems miraculous to the parent, anyway), they can do it. It takes a few years for their sight reading to catch up with the Suzuki pieces they learn mainly by ear, but around book three or four it does catch up. I'm not saying they can sit down and play any piece perfectly the first time, but then I couldn't do that with my traditional lessons either!

The other important piece of Suzuki instruction is that the parent practices with the child each day and attends each lesson. If you are a really good Suzuki parent you sit with your child and practice each piece with them, reminding them of what the teacher said and making sure the student plays it correctly. I am not a really good Suzuki parent. When my first child started taking lessons the week she turned four, I had a four-month-old baby to attend to during practice sessions. Now I have four kids in Suzuki lessons, and I am often making dinner while a child is practicing. On a given day I am 80 or 90 percent attentive to the youngest child, 60 percent attentive to two of the others, and not even present for the last child. That's life. But we muddle along and they are doing well in spite of that.

3) Yamaha lessons. I don't know much of anything about these, but my limited research indicates that for the first two years kids are only given group instruction, and then they move into private lessons after that. There is combined emphasis on ear training and note reading, I think. If I'm right in saying that they start out with only group lessons then I'd guess kids move more slowly than they would in Suzuki, but have a better ear than kids with only traditional lessons.

4) Early childhood music. There are kindermusik and similar programs for younger kids, from baby up to about six, and I love these classes. They are fun parent-child bonding, and they teach kids the basics of music (fast/slow, loud/soft, matching pitches, rhythm patterns, and the like). It's organized musical playtime you do with your child. All my kids took various early childhood music classes, and I think it set them up to do better in formal music instruction. But even if the child never takes formal music lessons, early childhood music classes are a great thing to do. I thought they were more fun and interesting than the mom-and-me tumbling classes we took.

Since you're probably familiar with how kids sound who take traditional lessons, I'll give you a few cases studies of how Suzuki kids play and let you draw your own conclusions. This first one is Bethany at 7 1/2 years, which means she had been taking lessons for 3.5 years. I love the glare she throws over her shoulder when the audience applauds between movements.

This one is Alison at the same recital, so she was 4 (almost 5) and had been taking for less than a year. I don't know why we let her play a piece that she didn't yet know the left hand of. But she's got poise and great accents where they belong!

And these are from a year ago. Alison at age 9, after 5 years of instruction.

Bethany at 12, having taken for 8 years.

Meredith's performance at last year's recital wasn't great, so somehow the only video we have of her playing is this one, from when she was 6. It's not a Suzuki piece, so this shows her sight reading level after 1 year of music reading (2.5 years of total instruction).

Up tomorrow: practicing tips. If you have any questions related to music and kids, send them my way and I'll try to answer them!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Why Music Lessons? Part 1

Hey, what do you know, I can still access this blog after so many months off! Today's post is inspired by a conversation I've had many times with many different people about music lessons. Tune in the rest of this week for more on the topic! These are my impressions and experiences, and will probably not match everyone's experiences.

We spend an awful lot of money on piano lessons for our oldest four children. As in, way more than we spend on anything else except the mortgage. It's rather alarming, really, in a one-and-a-quarter income family. So the question comes up, why? Here's our answer:

1) Music is a whole-life skill. I think music is one of the only things that kids need to start early to be good at and will pursue for their whole lives. Sports are great, and if a kid is going to be a professional athlete I'm sure it's important to start on the early side. But at some point your body starts to wear out and you lose some of your ability, and many sports you can pick up for recreation at any point in your life and improve. Music, while you can start later, you will make much slower progress because your brain isn't as agile as a child's.

2) Music makes you smart. Music is good for kids' brains, so you're helping them with things like discipline and perseverance AND you're making them smarter. For proof, read articles here and here. Music lessons are sort a one-stop shop for lots of great things--character development, brain boosting, and self-confidence, to name a few.

3) Music gives you self-esteem. It's really nice for kids to have something they feel good about. Recitals may not be my favorite way to spend my Sunday, but what a great thing for my kids to regularly perform by themselves, conquer their fears, and succeed at. And on the rare occasions when they don't succeed, they learn that the world doesn't end just because they didn't do as well as they wanted to, and they usually practice more before the next recital.

4) Music makes you more sensitive. It teaches kids to pay attention to sound, to play soft and loud, to express their feelings in a different way. One of my kids I thought at 5 needed a little softening, and I think music has done that.

5) Music teaches discipline. I'm putting this one toward the end because I think there are a lot of kids' activities that do this. Anything they have to work at and struggle through is good for them in the long run. Music is the arena I've chosen for my kids to learn these life lessons in.

6) Music trains them for worship. When our oldest child showed unusual music perception, it felt like it would be poor stewardship of the gifts God has given us to not start her in music lessons. And part of that is because I want the next generation of believers to have educated musicians to lead them in worship. And people sitting in the pews who can read a line of music. And people who appreciate classical music as well as the latest praise song. Even if you're not a Christian, music has the ability to touch us and move us as nothing else can, so it's important for a culture and a society to have skilled musicians and educated music-appreciators.

Come back tomorrow for part 2 of this series, what the Suzuki method is like.