Why You Should Listen to Music #24

I had the good fortune to attend a Suzuki parent talk by my old friend fellow guitar teacher Dave Madsen. Dave and I knew each other 20 years ago when we were both working at the Loomis Chaffee school in Windsor CT, where our band The Nields got its start. Dave is a father of two, and though he was a professional guitar player and “regular” teacher, it was through his exposure to his daughter’s Suzuki violin lessons that he got interested in the method, and eventually trained. He is now the foremost local Suzuki Guitar trainer and teacher; he teaches at the University Of Hartford.

There is much to recommend the Suzuki method, but what I want to write about today is its foremost innovation, which is to understand music as a language and to therefore teach it to children in the same way we “teach” them how to speak and later to read.

1. Listening is key. We would never say to a parent, “I think your child shows some good aptitude in the English language. I definitely think you should encourage her to pursue her studies.” Or “maybe you’d better try Chinese with this one. She’s not that talented in English.” Instead, we just assume that if we infuse the child’s listening experience with people speaking the language semi-correctly that the child will learn, and will indeed become fluent.

2. To that end, it really is vital to play the recordings of the pieces every single day, even (Dave said) multiple times a day. There is a famous shot in the Suzuki video “Nurtured by Love” in which a small child, maybe just barely three, is seen pedaling around on his trike with an old fashioned cassette recorder strapped to his little back, playing Twinkle variations of course.

I had a complex reaction to this shot, by the way. On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense to me. In HooteNanny we ask parents to play the CD of the class curriculum (22 or so songs sung by Katryna and me) every day, even if it’s just background music. In my own experience, nothing has been as helpful as relying on my own ear-memory of how a song goes in order to play it back. And the metaphor extends: when I want to compose a song, I usually prepare my mind by exposing it to a variety of music, stimulating my muse in this way.

But on other hand, I thought, give the kid a break! He’s trying to ride his bike! Does he really need that gigantic machine strapped to his back? This might make sense if my goal is to make my child a virtuoso. But I don’t want her to be a virtuoso! I know the life of professional musician, and no matter how successful one is, it’s a hard one. Would I wish that on my child? Maybe. That’s for another post. But gaining musical fluency is a totally different goal from becoming the toppermost of the poppermost, to steal a Beatlism. Watching that three-year-old pedal around with the tape recorder strapped to his back, it was hard for me to see that in any other light than that his parents wanted to make him a star. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they just wanted to make him fluent.

In any case, I raised my hand at this point in the lecture and said, “Can I mix up my Suzuki Book One CD with some Beatles? Because my kids really love the Beatles and sometimes complain when I put on Suzuki. Will that corrupt the process?” And to my relief, Dave laughed and said, “No way! Bring on the Beatles!”

I should say that though we have not strapped an iPod to our children, we have been extremely diligent about playing the Suzuki CDs (Book 1 and Book 2) on a daily basis. Both my 5 year old (the violinist) and the 3 year old (the air guitarist and self proclaimed Suzuki drummer) hum, la la and whistle the tunes of all the melodies all the day long. My son, in addition, runs into the music room when the CD is playing to drum the rhythms of the tunes. But we also listen to a lot of Beatles. These days, it’s late era Beatles: Let It Be, Abbey Road, The White Album, with some psychedelic Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour thrown in. (“Day Tripper” is also a huge hit, as is “Baby You Can Drive My Car” though Johnny likes to caution the listener, “A baby should NOT dwive the car!”) Lila has been learning the riff to “Hey Bulldog” on her violin (loving that low 1 on the E string) and whistles the solo to “Day Tripper.”

I look at my sister’s kids who are 10 and 7. They are not Suzuki kids, but they certainly are musically fluent. Amelia currently plays piano, guitar, bass guitar, violin and clarinet. She can pick up pretty much any instrument and play a scale. She writes her own songs, composes and sings. William can play leads on his electric guitar. They have a second language, and they learned it through good early music education (Music Together and HooteNanny), private lessons (with various area teachers including Maggie, and their parents) and what I have observed to be a constant stream of music playing in their home. They pull notes out of the air just as my kids do.

Is it useful to have a second language? Maybe. It depends what that second language is. Is it fun? Definitely. Does it expand one’s world view, one’s capacity to understand? Undoubtedly. I tend to have a take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to…really anything in life, so I err on the side of playing the darn CD too much, though I balk at harnessing the kid with an iPod with earbuds. But chances are at any given time if you come near my house, you will hear strands of late Baroque violin music mixed in with classical guitar versions of “Lightly Row,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Stay to listen.

About nields

musician, writer, mom
This entry was posted in Beatles, Nerissa, Suzuki. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why You Should Listen to Music #24

  1. Katryna Nields says:

    If I am completely honest, I have to admit that rarely is music playing on our stereo. In fact, right now, our CD player is completely broken and won’t even open. And it has been so long that I do not remember which CDs are stuck inside.
    I have stolen my daughter’s boom box and brought it to the kitchen to play music on, but that happens only about once a week.
    Sometimes, the kids play music on their Dad’s computer. About half the time that we are in the car, the radio is on and playing music. But mostly, mostly the music in our house comes from someone actually having to pick up one of the various instruments to play it. This happens a fair amount. The piano is played a bazillion times a day. Pianos are just sitting there and we have two- though one is very out of tune and has many broken keys. She cannot really pass one without playing it, unless dessert or television or a phone call from a friend is on the other side. The main problem these days is that her brother would rather she play legos with him rather than practice the piano. His technique for achieving this goal is to close the piano on her fingers. As you can imagine, that does not go well. Maybe if I played classical music or the Beatles or Adele (whom they both love), peace would return to our home.
    This inspires me. Thank you for the post. It’s not an either/or situation. I need to take a both/and attitude and get our CD player fixed. After all, it is the music they hear that inspires them to play.

    At the end of their piano lessons, the teacher always has them improvise on a blues scale with her. Yesterday, William ended his blues with a little “Smoke on the Water.” I kind of wish I could say that he’s listened to the original. But I think he got it from hearing his Dad play the riff on the guitar. I should break out the Deep Purple CD and let him hear the whole thing. Maybe he’ll even play along.
    Thanks, Nerissa!

  2. pokey mama says:

    My daughter started with Suzuki violin at 5, and is now playing piano and reading music. We’ve been told she has a good ear–but more important, for me, is that it started her on a path of listening and playing that I’m not sure she would have stuck with if she had to learn to read music right away. And my son, who’s younger, didn’t take Suzuki or learn an instrument until he was older, but he heard a lot of practicing in our house, and i think that made making his own music seem reachable to him. Of course, we also play recorded music, but it seems like the music we make ourselves is what has had the most impact, at least initially.

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