Raising a child sometimes feels like a Mount Everest of responsibility. Not only must your kid grow up to be a reasonably decent person, but he must also be a full-blown Renaissance man, accomplished in academics, sports and the arts — or so it seems. Life can quickly become cluttered with lessons, practices, games and rehearsals. How does one prioritize the countless extracurricular activities competing for our children’s attention?
For our family, music has always been a priority. Growing up, I distinctly remember the thrill of sitting at my parents’ baby grand piano and plunking out simple tunes by ear long before I could read notes. I developed an early appreciation for classical music in particular. During road trips, my dad would pop in a cassette of piano concertos. To this day, hearing Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” or Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto brings back a wave of nostalgia for those blissful childhood memories.
My siblings and I started piano lessons at a young age. Once a week, we would walk up the street to the house of a stern German lady with a thick accent. She had a reputation for being strict and an intimidating demeanor to match. Word had it, if you showed up for your lesson without having practiced, you’d sure get a talking to. Nonetheless, the many hours I spent in her basement studio laid the groundwork of discipline, dedication and passion that would shape my musical journey for a long time to come.
I’m not sure how exactly I ended up playing the viola. I remember being enthralled by seeing the older kids play in the school orchestra. The cello and bass seemed like too much of a hassle to lug around, and the violin was too popular, so I decided to go with the lesser-known alto voice of the orchestra. The first night after coming home with the rental viola from school, we were under strict instructions from the orchestra teacher not to touch anything (or even take the instrument out of its case). That warning had about as much effect as telling a starving child to keep his hands out of the cookie jar.
The first time I played with the middle school orchestra, it was magical. We’d all been practicing our individual parts for months. When it all finally came together for a holiday concert, I was awed. I’m sure we sounded more like a herd of yowling tomcats than an orchestra. Still, there’s nothing quite like contributing your individual voice to create a beautiful tapestry of sound.
Many years later, although I’m on hiatus from orchestra and rarely dust off my instrument, music continues to be a big part of my life. It’s taught me invaluable lessons and shaped who I am today.
My kids are too little to take up the violin or learn to read notes. But I still find ways to make music a valuable part of their lives too.
Because music matters.
Plenty of research shows that music has a profound impact on children’s brains. It boosts attention spans, improves math skills and enhances language development. Learning a complex rhythm or sight reading a difficult passage is a lot like solving a challenging math problem. (Don’t worry, though – you don’t have to be good at math to be good at music.) Put simply, making music forces your brain to work in a different way, forging millions of new neural pathways every second.
One study found that calming background music has a positive effect on kids’ moods and behavior. I can certainly attest to that. Brushing my toddler’s teeth used to be an epic struggle until I started singing “this is the way we brush our teeth,” which consistently elicits a big grin instead of wailing. Ditto for diaper changes. Since having kids, I’ve found myself coming up with songs to accompany the many mundane tasks of life (and absent-mindedly breaking into song in the grocery store aisle, much to my embarrassment).
The benefits of early music exposure will stay with your child long after their last trumpet lesson or jazz band concert. For example:
- Music teaches persistence. It takes years – even decades – of diligent effort to master an instrument. You have to stick with it even when the going gets tough. By the time I hit seventh grade, orchestra no longer seemed cool and I yearned to join the flute section in marching band. My parents wisely advised me to stay the course. Had I given up, I would have missed out on the countless memories and life lessons I picked up along the way. Every musician has to weather these storms – and, in the process, gain skills that apply to overcoming challenges in other areas of life.
- Music helps us pursue excellence. In music, as in life, there’s always room for growth. I was blessed with incredibly gifted orchestra teachers who knew how to push us to the next level without burning us out. They inspired me to continually strive for improvement. At the same time, they acknowledged slip-ups and shortcomings as an integral part of the learning process. Better to play boldly and with confidence than stay silent for fear of making a mistake.
- Music helps us relate to others. Teamwork is an essential part of participating in a choir, orchestra or other ensemble. You have to learn to listen to others around you – not just your section, but the group as a whole. You have to know when to play out and when to blend in. You have to work together to create something bigger than yourself. This shared experience helps build deep connections and lifelong friendships. My husband and I met in orchestra and, for a time, were even stand partners. Our passion for music – and how it brought us together – will forever be a part of our story.
- Music fosters artistic expression. It helps us process emotions in a way that words simply can’t. Music can be life-changing not only for those who make it, but for those who hear it, too. I can’t count the number of times an audience member has told me how touched they were by a performance. I’ve often seen them moved, literally, to tears.
- Music both affirms our humanity and transcends it. For me, certain passages of music — like the heavenly strains of John Tavener’s “Song of the Angel” or the heart-wrenching crescendos of Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” — have spiritual resonance. Whether you’re religious or not, music can lift you from your earthly struggles and transport you to a realm beyond the day-to-day drudgeries of life.
You don’t have to be a musician to instill a love of music in your children. Start them young – from birth, even – by making music a part of your day. Sing to your little ones (even if you don’t think you can carry a tune). Join a family music class. Go to children’s concerts and instrument demos.
Don’t limit yourself to one genre. Expose your kids to a wide range of music – pop, classical, jazz, reggae, rock. Show them there’s more to the musical world than the Moana soundtrack or those obnoxious VTech earworms.
And give them the freedom to follow their own passions. After all, the best footing for success has nothing to do with inborn talent. Rather, it’s the simple joy of sharing music – whether playing an instrument, lifting up your voice or just listening – that makes it all worthwhile.