Wednesday, March 23, 2011

If not the Wiggles and Mozart, then what?

In my last post, I mused on the fact I was not a fan of kids music and avoid playing it to my baby.  Some people have suggested that my resolve on this may give out eventually when the Wiggles become preferable to whining.  Which brings me to an interesting question, that I throw out there to the readers of this blog: What music or videos do you play to your kids?  Do you find there are any that both you and they can enjoy?

I have heard babies can find simple, repetitive music soothing - although that doesn't mean it has to be nursery rhymes.  Bob Marley, it turns out, has an awesome power to soothe babies:

And here is a three year old who finds Beethoven's Fourth Symphony the best fun ever, and it's not at all simple or repetitive:

If you want your baby to listen to classical music, you can download the great works legally and for free from a site like mfiles (just right-click to download the file if you don't want to stream them).  The movie Fantasia is great - apart from the bit with the dancing cherubs - and if you're not too fussed on perfect resolution you can see most of it on Youtube - eg:

What kid would not love this one, which answers the age-old question: What happens when you give a flamingo a yo-yo?

The opening - Toccata & Fugue in D minor

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (the one about the broomsticks)

Rhapsody in Blue set in depression-era New York

Youtube is just full of great stuff.  It's full of crap too, but if you sift through the crap the great stuff is there.  You just can't go past clips like this one, where a bloke called Jake Shimabukuro does an insane cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps by The Beatles on a Ukelele:

And now because this is my blog and I can, I'm going to ramble on with some personal reflections about learning music as a kid, because it may be useful to anyone who's thinking of getting their kid music lessons.  I think there were some things my parents did which were great and some that were not so helpful.

I grew up in a very middle-class household where my parents were very keen on the benefits of classical music, but neither had really studied music or knew much about it.  I remember we only had a few records, and they were pretty eclectic: Swan Lake, an early Beatles album, a Simon & Garfunkel album, and Hair: The Original Broadway Musical (yes, that's the show where they get their kits off, and there's a very cheerful song entitled 'Sodomy', though I had no idea what it meant until many years later).  I loved to listen to any of them.  

We went to music kinder, and I think the activities we did there were great.  We learned music is something you can make yourself (with simple instruments like clapping sticks, triangles, toy drums etc), and learned to follow the beat or rhythm.  I think I was about 2 or 3.  There were games where you put toys in different positions depending on whether the notes you heard were long or short, or high or low.  It just taught really basic musical concepts in a fun way.  I think this is something I'd like to do with my kids.

When I was almost three my mum started taking me to piano lessons using the Suzuki Method.  Once we started that, I had to listen to those damn Suzuki piano tapes (much of which is Mozart or something equally insipid, but some of which is great) all the time.  I studied piano for almost 10 years and at the end could only play to about a Gr 3 AMEB level, and could barely sight read at all.  And I didn't enjoy it.

The thing with piano was that when I was little I enjoyed playing too much to practice.  I enjoyed feeling the music, and the tactile experience of running my hands over the keys, but I hated just how long and boring it seemed to be to learn each new piece.  The Suzuki Method is great in theory, and it does provide a way to start kids young, but it is so rigid that for me, it sucked out most of what was enjoyable about playing piano.  And because everyone plays the same songs in the same order, the experience is constantly comparing how far you are through the 'curriculum' against the other children.

It didn't help that my best friend from kinder started learning piano at about the same time I did, but unlike me she excelled and at the end of 10 years she was being flown to places to play piano concertos with professional orchestras.  I couldn't help but compare myself.  And my mother, annoyed at my lack of interest in practicing methodically and repetitively as instructed by my teacher, started saying, "Melissa doesn't just play the piece as fast as she can, she practices properly." This then extended to the occasional, "Melissa makes her bed, why can't you?" and "Melissa never fights with her sister."

We used to go to the Suzuki music camp once a year and I remember one teacher giving a performance where she narrated the internal monologue of what 'you shouldn't be thinking' when you're playing music.  It was a comedy piece and the monologue was neurotic, constantly worrying about which note to hit next and how loud it was etc.  But at the time, I thought: "Wow, if that's bad I don't dare tell people what I think when I hear that music, cause I don't even think about the notes at all."  When I played or listened to music, I saw mysterious landscapes, and epic storylines.  And because I was young and everyone had spent so much time saying I had to concentrate on the notes, I actually thought the way I thought about music was a bad thing - that I was stupid and undisciplined.

The sad thing, in hindsight, is that I was good at music.  I just wasn't very good at playing precisely, and the Suzuki method, which focuses on Mozart and Clementini, is really just about playing precisely.  It is not about... say.. playing to express yourself.  Don't get me wrong, in the long run I know good technique is crucial to expressing yourself.  But that would be something I would be interested in when I was older, not at age 7, let alone 5 or 3.

I desperately wanted to give up piano, but my mother insisted on me continuing.  I don't know whether she felt it would build character, or that she 'ought to' teach me persistence, but I have to say that it didn't teach me much except that I hated practice, I resented her forcing me, and I felt like a failure.  In hindsight, while I agree that persistence is an admirable quality, I don't think you can teach it by forcing someone to do something they don't want to do.  The essence of persistence is self-motivation, which you are hardly learning by having someone else coddle or threaten you every step of the way.

Anyway, I hated practice more and more.  I would still jump on the piano for fun and try to make pieces up, or figure out how to play a tune I had heard somewhere, but I didn't have the skills to do this very well.  We did change teachers, and while the new teacher was a jazz pianist (which was probably a better fit for me), he immediately focused on my technical deficiencies and prescribed me endless scales to do.  I think I was probably over piano by that stage, anyway, so I was still pretty half-hearted about the whole thing.

Then, at the end of primary school, an opportunity came up.  The school needed more cellists for the orchestra so it was offering free cello lessons.

What was initially just a novelty turned into a hobby that I became very dedicated to.  Perhaps because I was older and had some idea of what learning an instrument was about.  Perhaps because we were taught sight-reading from the start and I am a very visual learner.  Perhaps because cello is a social instrument where you get to play in orchestras and be part of something bigger than yourself, not sit alone in a room alone.  Perhaps because no one had forced me to do it, and I didn't feel as though I was a failure.  Within one year I was further along with cello than I had come in ten years of piano.  I started to think, "Hey, perhaps I am good at music after all."

This was when my parents were fantastic.  They were keen and financially able to support this new interest, which did not continue to be free.  Cellos are not cheap, and neither are cello lessons, or station wagons so the boot is big enough to transport them.  They drove me to orchestra practice and listened to endless concerts, and when I advanced past what the available teachers in Geelong could teach me, drove me the three hour return journey to cello lessons in Melbourne so I could keep progressing.

Gradually I realised that feeling the music rather than worrying about every note was not a guilty vice, but the very quality you need to enjoy performing and perform passionately.  It was the quality that eventually led me to actually enjoy practising scales and studies on the cello for hours, just because I got lost in them and wanted to hear and appreciate every sound.

The great thing about learning cello was that I discovered so many great classical masterpieces for the first time while playing them.  I had never heard Dvorak's New World Symphony when we started learning it for a music camp, and so heard it first in bits and pieces, as the various instruments stumbled through their parts, and didn't hear it complete until we performed it at the end of music camp.  That was an amazing experience - hearing the music gradually come together from the inside out.

This is the beautiful 2nd movement (as played by the Dublin Philharmonic):

I was lucky also to get a cello teacher whose starting point was not to lament my technique, but to give me a documentary on the life of Jacqueline Du Pre and tell me to watch it.  (Jacqueline Du Pre was one of the great cellists of the 20th century, performing with the London Symphony Orchestra by aged 20, but she contracted multiple sclerosis and died aged 42.  That documentary omitted some of the weirder aspects of her life, such as the affair with her sister's husband, as recorded by her sister and documented in the movie Hilary and Jackie).  At the end of the documentary, she plays the Elgar Cello Concerto, which seemed to embody all the triumph, tragedy, and passion of her life.  My teacher said: "One day, we will be able to play the Elgar Cello Concerto," as though there was no doubt in her mind, and there was nothing that could have inspired me more.  And like that, I was interested in doing all the scales and repetitive boring practice, because I could see the point, and because I was old enough to hear something interesting in something as simple as a scale.

It is one of my regrets that I never got to play it before I gave up cello in order to focus on my uni studies.  However, before that point I had years of playing wonderful pieces, and the opportunity to play in orchestras and at concerts.  I took music until the end of Year 12, and at that stage was far enough along I could have pursued it professionally - not as a soloist, probably, but in a professional ensemble.

I am glad I had the chance to experience and appreciate classical music, but I don't know I'd necessarily direct my kids that way unless they were keen.  The way classical music is taught, it is about performing not creating, and that ultimately is quite limiting.  The best thing I ultimately found about playing cello was that it could be meditative.  But it's not very versatile.  I think it's a shame that I studied music for so many years but can't bang out a tune anyone could sing along to.

Anyway, all this to say if you want your kid to get into music, the best thing you can do is encourage them to enjoy it (whatever they're into, be it classical music or death metal), show them role models who excel to inspire them, and give them opportunities to learn.  Don't worry about how good they are - and don't make it about how good they are with praise or comparisons.  If you really love music, that's not what it's about.

1 comment:

  1. I love that last paragraph - sage advice! Thank you for sharing your experience. So far, our daughter finds some rather unconventional tunes relaxing. My attempts to interest her in folk and indie pop have failed, but she loves top 40 hip hop songs. I'll be interested to see how her tastes develop.