The Importance of Music Education


A few days ago, I had the pleasure of holding a baby just 10 days old. It was mid afternoon, and I was guessing her poor mama hadn’t really slept since the birth. Elle and I took turns cuddling the baby, while my friend crept upstairs for a much needed nap. After a few minutes, the baby began fussing. I picked her up, walked around the room, sang our version of “Hush Little Baby.” Still gritchy. I switched to “All the Pretty Horsies” and did a gentle canter-y gait. More fussing. Then I started in on Ledbelly’s “Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie.” The baby pulled her head off my shoulder (strong baby!) and stared at me as if in disbelief. She stopped crying and listened as I sang. When her mother came downstairs fifteen minutes later, I told her what had happened.

“No wonder,” said her mother. “We played that song and sang that song many times while she was in the womb, and since birth.”

I’d certainly heard of this happening–baby recognizing pre-womb music post-womb–and in fact, we wrote about this phenomenon in our book <a href=”http://www.amazon.com/All-Together-Singing-Kitchen-Creative/dp/1590308980″>All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family</a>. But I’d never witnessed it so directly. (Well, maybe I did. Maybe it happened with my own kids, but I was so sleep deprived then, I have no recollection.)

Today in Jay’s Suzuki class the teacher had the four-year-old pre-twinklers form a circle. She played “pass the Twinkle,” playing the first line of “Mississippi Stop Stop” to the child on her left, who in turn, wordlessly passed it on to the child on his left, and so on, around the circle. “Isn’t it amazing,” she said. “How you all knew what to do, and could do it without even saying any words. Music is a language we can all understand.”

Plans for SOS-SOA are looking up. Emails are circulating. I am making phone calls, juggling schedules, refining our focus. Meanwhile, doing a lot of thinking about the role of music in our children’s lives. Why fight to keep music in the schools?
-it’s a language we all share.
-it cuts through reason and goes right to the heart.
-when I look back on my own school memories, so many of them have to do with music class, performing, practicing an instrument. Maybe that’s just because I am a musician, but I can’t imagine growing up without all the music I had.
-it unites a group of disperate kids
-it’s the only academic discipline that is equally left-brained and right-brained

What about you? What do you remember about music education growing up?

For more about music education, visit the <a href=”http://nafme.org/”>National Association for Music Education</a>.

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All the Pretty Little Horses

I am teaching this wonderful lullaby to my HooteNanny Parent Guitar class, which meets on Tuesdays in my living room. We are learning first position, mostly 3-chord songs this winter, but everyone loves fingerpicking. This fingerpick is called an arpeggio, and it is similar to “um-chuck” in that the three fingers (I, M and A, or index, middle and ring) each stay true to just one string on the guitar.

I=first string, or E string
M=second string, or B string
A=third string, or G string

The thumb, or “P”, alternates among the bottom three strings (E, A and D) depending on the chord being played.

The song can be chunked down like this:

First phrase=Am Am Dm G7 (play one arpeggio per chord)
Second phrase=C walk down to Am (see video–you “walk down” the A string with your thumb, playing the notes C, B and open A.)

Then there’s a third phrase: C C Am Am  followed by the second phrase C walk down Am.

And that’s it!

Hush a bye, don’t you cry
Go to sleep you little baby
When you wake, you shall have
All the pretty little horses

Dapples and greys, pintos and bays
All the pretty little horses.

The song is in 6/8 time, which gives it a lovely rocking quality–great for lulling a baby or young child. My children loved this one when they were babies.

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The Fox

“The Fox” is one of the first songs Katryna and I ever learned. Our father sang it to us frequently, and there’s a recording of our baby sister Abigail, age 2 or so, singing along on the “town-o’s.” It’s an ancient song, possibly from a poem in Middle English, and our father undoubtedly heard it from Pete Seeger (who came to his school to play in the 50s), or on an Odetta or Burl Ives CD. This song has it all: life, death, survival, robbery–high drama!–and finally a cozy family scene. I have good friends who are vegans who don’t like the message, and I can understand and respect that. But foxes aren’t vegans.

(Here’s a Wendell Berry poem which speaks to this issue–see bottom of the post.)

From a guitar playing point of view, it’s pretty simple, though the pace is fast for beginners. It’s a typical three chord song (here it’s in A, though on our recordings it’s in D). I demonstrate my father’s “Um-chuck” pick which works very well for many children’s songs. It’s also a really easy pick once you get the hang of it.

The Hidden Singer

The gods are less for their love of praise.
Above and below them all is a spirit that needs nothing
but its own wholeness, its health and ours.
It has made all things by dividing itself.
It will be whole again.
To its joy we come together —
the seer and the seen, the eater and the eaten,
the lover and the loved.
In our joining it knows itself. It is with us then,
not as the gods whose names crest in unearthly fire,
but as a little bird hidden in the leaves
who sings quietly and waits, and sings.
Wendell Berry

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Snow Day

As part of February Album Writing Month, Johnny and I wrote this song.

The lyrics are:

The wind blows The snow falls
It piles up on the ground

Big flakes, small flakes
It falls without a sound
And I can be so quiet too
Quiet as a mouse
When snow falls all around my house.

The wind blows, the snow falls
It piles up on the ground
Big flakes, small flakes
It piles up on the ground
But I can make a sound
I can jump around
My brother and I make a fort
And knock the vase with the tulips down
Vase with the tulips down
Vase with the tulips down

Snow day, snow day, snow day!
Snow day, snow day, snow day!
Snow day, snow day, snow day!

©2013 Nerissa Nields
Peter Quince Publishing ASCAP

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“Mary Wore a Red Dress”

 

Hoot of the Week is “Mary Wore a Red Dress.” Wonderfully simple (another 2 chord song!) and infinitely adaptable. The lyric is:

Mary wore a red dress, red dress, red dress

Mary wore a red dress all day long.

Substitute names, colors, clothes to recognize everyone present. Or talk about what everyone had for breakfast:

Johnny ate some French toast, French toast, French toast

Johnny ate some French toast for breakfast.

We often use this as a greeting song, going around the room and noting everyone’s name and something (s)he is wearing:

Casey wore a striped shirt striped shirt striped shirt

Casey wore a striped shirt all day long.

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The North Wind Doth Blow

Our first Hoot of the Week post! I just taught this song to my guitar group, and it’s really the perfect song for beginning guitarists. It has only two chords, D and A, and they are both among the easiest chords to play. Also, as you can see in the video, the right hand just strums the chord and waits around for quite awhile between changes. A perfect song for a January day!

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End of the Year with Suzuki

It’s almost December, and I am looking back on the year and thinking about it from the musical family point of view. Last Christmas, we gave Johnny a hand-me-down classical guitar and started him on lessons. He lasted maybe three months, or more precisely I lasted for that amount of time. I couldn’t get past the day he spent the full half-hour lesson lying on the floor refusing to do anything his teacher asked of him.

Today, late in the year,  I know this is par for the course in the musical education of young players (and don’t we grown ups also loll about in our own way when we’re supposed to be doing something enriching?) In retrospect, I am just as happy we gave up the guitar for the violin. The violin is a more suitable instrument for a child because of its size and its similarity to the voice. Guitar is a complex animal, hard to navigate, unsatisfying as a solo instrument and difficult for a 4-year-old to comprehend as an instrument of accompaniment (not that Suzuki has a method for that, anyway.) Moreover, for little boys who have some issues with their pincer grips and with holding a pencil, the work to create the bow-hold is like multitasking physical therapy.

We’re going on three months now with our violin lessons, and NCMC brilliantly has their “Pre-Twinklers” take a group class once a week in addition to their weekly lesson. Johnny is a very different student from Lila, and we also have a different teacher (Lila’s is on maternity leave at the moment). Johnny lacks Lila’s focus and dexterity, though his ear is remarkable. So after three months, he has yet to (legally) play his violin, though he has graduated from a magic marker to a real bow. I am getting impatient. Lila was already playing “Mississippi Hot Dog” by this point. But I keep trying to remember that it’s all about the creation of that daily practice. Every day, Johnny gets a sticker (and sometimes a health-food store M&M) for taking a bow with his little box violin and intoning, “Good evening.” He does his “Up Like a Rocket” and plays “Teeny Tiny Alligator” on his shoulder. He has named his violin Pluto and his bow Delicate, and every day he practices taking them carefully out of their case and putting them back. Last week, he tenderly kissed his violin as he was removing it from its case. Today, he begged me to let him “play” for the boys with whom we carpool.

Meanwhile, Lila has graduated to a 1/8 size which makes a huge sonorous difference. She is almost finished polishing “Gavotte from Mignon,” and we’re diligently listening to Book 3 every day to prepare for what’s looming on the horizon. When she got her new violin, I picked it up and gingerly played a few notes. I still couldn’t really make the A string sound independently, but with the bigger size, my fingers could actually find the pitches. Tom’s uncle Vinnie, an estate lawyer, gave us a broken old fiddle a few months ago, and I just brought it to Stamell to have it fixed. Today I picked it up to see if I can, as Bruce Springsteen says, “learn how to make it talk.” Probably not talk, but maybe squeak. Johnny came with me, and as soon as we entered the sweet violin shop down a little side street in Amherst, he bounded in like a kid in a candy shop, pointing out the violins, the many sized cellos, the huge double bass, the rows of rosin. Matt Stamell, formerly a guitar maker, has nurtured this little gem of a store, making it the local hub for all stringed instrument players (save, oddly, guitarists). He told me he started playing the violin at age 37. “This instrument teaches you patience,” he explained, stroking my refurbished violin. Indeed. In more ways than one.

Practicing daily with my kids has changed me, the way any kind of daily practice is guaranteed to inspire change, no matter what the circumstances. I see what is possible when one devotes a period of time to a subject. Johnny still falls on the floor sometimes (truthfully, so does Lila) but we don’t give up. The longer we stick with it, the quieter the voices in my head that drum the doubts: this is crazy! Why are we doing this? The kid’s going to hate music now! Maybe s/he isn’t meant to study this instrument. Maybe piano/flute/trumpet/kazoo would have been better! S/he’s too young/too old, etc. Today we just show up and practice. Emily has us giving the kids one M&M per review piece for the month of November. Amazing how well that works. Don’t know if I’ll continue for December; I am inclined to.

All this practice with the kids, all this focus on the daily has inspired me to attempt feebly to continue with my own lessons. In the best of all worlds, I would make it to weekly voice lessons and warm up daily, and I’d study guitar and possibly piano and bass, and as I mentioned, become at least proficient at the violin. But this is the reality of a mom with a full time job: I took a few voice lessons over the summer, and three guitar lessons this fall. This week, I took home a bass guitar, plugged it in in front of my children, played a G scale, then the bass part to “Help!” That’s my total repertoire at present. I hope to learn “This Boy” and eventually “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The amazing thing about using the Beatles as one’s curriculum, especially using McCartney’s bass playing is that if one goes chronologically, one naturally moves from simple 4 chord patterns to the most advanced melodies. As I think I’ve said before, I’d love to create a Suzuki-esque curriculum based on the Beatles for young guitar players. Maybe someone will read this and do exactly that, and then I can be their student. Stay tuned.

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