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Music & Your Homeschooling

By Michael and Mary Leppert

Including music in your life has two purposes: To gain a richer family environment and to gain musical skills. The latter goal is not necessarily to be a virtuoso, but to enjoy music as more than a listener. Anyone who plays an instrument, at any level, realizes the subsequent insight and pleasure to be gained when attending concerts and listening to recordings. There is no parallel for knowing music from the inside. But learning to play is not accidental; it is the result of will and action and is one of the best esteem builders possible.

With our own son, we didn’t allow him to listen to rock ’n’ roll past the age of about 4. Therefore, he developed a love of classical music from the beginning of his musical life.  One day he and I (Mary) were listening to a song in which the female singer said something like “If you leave me, I’ll just die.” Lennon asked me what she meant by that. “Was she really going to die?” In a moment of revelation, I realized the song lyrics had literal meaning to him, and that it was important for me to be much more attentive to what I listened to.

From then on I played only music that I was comfortable having him hear. Most of us Baby Boomer parents come from the “drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll” generation—not that we necessarily promoted that point of view, but those three elements so surrounded us in high school, college, and young adulthood that they were essentially pillars in the development of our modern “culture.” When we become parents, we must willfully draw a distinction between our listening to music for emotional pleasure and choosing music as a cultural element and influence on our children, ourselves, and our families.

Music in the Nineteenth-Century American Home

In America in the 1890s, nearly every home that had a piano also had at least one family member who was adept enough at sight-reading music to entertain and serve as accompanist for family singing. After-dinner entertainment often consisted of family members (and possibly neighbors) gathering in the parlor around the piano to sing and listen to music. If family members were able to play other instruments, such as flute, clarinet, or violin, so much the better; the family then enjoyed an expanded musical environment.

The repertoire of such after-dinner music ran the gamut from the popular tunes of the day to classic selections by great composers. Even when such pieces were executed in scaled-down versions, everyone in the family was exposed to “great” music as a fun activity, rather than as a “subject.” Thus, such families nurtured a cultural awareness and appreciation upon which each individual member developed his or her musical and aesthetic personality.

Besides music at home, there was also music at church. Some of the greatest music written by Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Vivaldi, Beethoven, and other great composers was for use in the church. Regular churchgoers were exposed to much of this great music each Sunday and on important religious holidays.

The Television Age

How did Americans “lose” music in everyday family life? One explanation relates to the advent of television. By the late 1940s, the T.V. set began to push the piano out of family life. Whereas the idea once flourished that learning basic piano was an essential part of a young person’s education, such thinking faded concurrently with the crescendo of television in each home. By the mid-1960s, even if a family possessed one, the piano was frequently a mere piece of furniture, which no one in the house could play.

Television is a powerful medium of passive entertainment, requiring no active involvement from its users. Each of us descends into a sort of sleep-walk stupor in front of the T.V. Radio, on the other hand, requires the listener to at least fill in the missing visual information to participate in the entertainment. Similarly, the family gathering around the piano to sing together, or to play games, read aloud, or perform other active types of entertainment, required participation from each member present.

Even if you were not the one playing music, you still had to pay attention, more or less, over the course of many evenings. You had a place and role—be it as a soprano or tenor, violin or flute player—and a responsibility to fulfill. Each family member was required to lend his or her consciousness to the activity for it to be complete. Once the idea of a family providing its own active entertainment was replaced with the passive, compartmentalized entertainment of watching television or using the computer, the death knell sounded for much of the music-learning value in most families. When shared music stopped being an integral, almost daily part of family life, it was only a matter of time before many public schools considered it non-essential as well.

In addition, many people do not attend church; and even if they do, the advent of more folk-oriented worship music has pushed much of the music by great European composers into the organ bench or music closet, seldom to be heard.

The Case for Including Music in Your Homeschool Life

Recent studies have shown that children who are exposed to music at an early age—by listening or by playing an instrument—tend to perform better in math and reading in later years. They also have an easier time with certain other brain functions. A study was done in 1975 on the connection between music and reading. Hurwitz, et al., gave music training to children, using folk songs and emphasizing melody and rhythm. The instruction was intense, 40 minutes per day, five days per week, for seven months. The students were tested on their reading ability at the beginning and end of the school year. The music group scored significantly higher (in the 88th percentile) than the non-music group (in the 72nd percentile). Incidentally, the training given to the music students was developed by composer Zoltan Kodaly.

By now, the “Mozart effect” has also been well-publicized: Dr. Frances Rauscher and her colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, conducted a study with college students listening to the first ten minutes of a piece by Mozart, the Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K. 448) before taking an exam. Another group took the exam without music. Their results were compared and it was observed that the music-listening group demonstrated an enhanced ability in spatial-temporal reasoning. This enrichment faded soon after taking the test. However, another study done with preschool children produced a similar effect that lasted for days. One of the conclusions that has been drawn from this is that listening to certain types of music, and music instruction in general, aids brain development in younger children and enhances one type of reasoning in adults. For more information, search the Internet for “Mozart Effect.” One conclusion drawn from this study is that certain types of music aid concentration. Increasing scientific evidence shows that learning and using music in various functions in life aids us in other endeavors. Even without such evidence, most of us realize that teaching and exposing our children to good music is beneficial and, in general, “good for them.”

Music Fosters Self-Discipline

When our son was 6, we enrolled him in the Yamaha Music School classes. In these one-hour classes, held each week for six to ten children, an instructor used the keyboard to teach very basic musical theory (such as pitch comprehension and note time value).

Early on we witnessed one of the greatest benefits of these classes: Self-discipline. Because our son wanted to do well, he had to practice what he had learned in the class throughout the week. He didn’t want to practice every day, but we required that he practice if he wanted to continue the class, plus he realized practice was essential for him to do well. He experienced progressing from being completely inept to developing mastery of each component skill and also learned that daily practice of little bits and consistently building upon those bits resulted in development of his skill.

Today he is skilled at playing piano, trumpet, drums, percussion and cello, as well as composition, arranging and conducting. He is a very well-rounded general musician who knows that no matter how difficult a piece is, by applying the same persistent technique he learned at age 6 in the Yamaha program, he will achieve mastery of the piece. Of course, he applies this knowledge to other fields of endeavor as well. This ability to master small bits of musical information and build upon them has also helped him develop a healthy sense of confidence and self-esteem.

Critical Thinking Relative to the Musical Art Around Us

The study of aesthetics is a form of critical thinking. Once a child has become aware of the concepts of “beauty” and “goodness” in one art form, the same conceptual awareness can be transferred to the other arts. “Goodness” or “beauty” have nothing to do with commercial success or “popularity.” People who think about aesthetics draw the distinction very clearly that what panders to popular taste might be tawdry and shallow, and that it is possible to create some “good” work of art that appeals to something higher within the person partaking of it. (Obviously, the underlying assumption is that people do have “something higher” to which to appeal!) Today, more than ever, that which is “good” in art is often confused with what is merely popular.

One guaranteed way to ensure that your 10, 11, or 12-year-old is discerning enough to choose not to listen to “hate” music is to surround your child with beautiful and “good” music when he or she is 3, 4, and 5 years old.

In today’s funds-exhausted school system, music is no longer available at many schools. The fact that most children experience music only in the “Pop” sense (unless they go to church) is a sad statement of the quality of life in modern times.

What Is Available Today?

Today’s homeschooling family has a vast environment of materials—great products and programs (you name it!)—from which to choose to learn about music in all its forms and to gain the multiple benefits that music study offers. Whether you wish that your child (and maybe you, too) simply appreciate music, learn music theory or history, play an instrument, participate in a band, or join or form a family band or choir, your choices are nearly endless. Below, we will discuss some ideas we have for enhancing your family’s learning experience with music. You will be able to find the descriptive entries of some of the products we mention in the Music section of Part 2.

• For learning church/religious music on piano or other keyboard, Davidson’s Music (www.davidsonsmusic.com) is one of the top programs available. This is also an excellent product for family singing of religious hymns and other simple tunes.

• Attend live musical performances. Become aware of the many musical organizations in your area that perform concerts and special programs of live music. Every junior college, university, and medium-sized community has some sort of chamber group or orchestra that provides excellent listening at a fair price. Seeing the instruments as they are played can be an awesome experience and helps make music more meaningful, plus these musicians love to have an interested audience to play to!

•  Make beautiful music a daily part of your life. Play it, listen to it, attend concerts, read about it, discuss it, and love it. Music has tremendous power to soothe, refresh, and restore—effects that apply to children as well as adults.

• Recognize your own set of aesthetics—that which you find pleasing and beautiful—and discuss them with your children. Inspire them to think about this, too. As you listen more analytically, and develop the ability to discern what is actually good, allow yourself to avoid that which you find not beautiful, not pleasing, or just downright offensive. Provide the model for your children to do the same. You may find, as we did, that the music of your youth (or today’s youth) is not appropriate for your children. Don’t hesitate to remove this music from your life. If you really like it, after a few short years (honest!) you can comfortably listen to it again.

If you want to make your homeschooling experience all it can be, we urge you to take some time to investigate the musical opportunities around you and then take advantage of the freedom you have to fill your family’s lives with beautiful music in all of its forms—recorded and live, music lessons, singing lessons, participation in a choir or barbershop quartet, as well as casual get-togethers with other families to make music at home as a means of socializing and just having fun without T.V. or the computer!      Remember, this homeschooling experience is yours to create. If some musical outlet that you are interested in doesn’t exist—start it! Homeschooling is at its most pleasurable when it is invented by you and it fulfills a need you and your family have. The values of music are vast and once you add it to your life, your family will never be the same! ¨ ML2

Copyright 2010 by Michael and Mary Leppert. All rights reserved.

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