Monday, February 28, 2011


The bus just stopped at Lake Street. Today, aren't all the streets Lake Street?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Music makes kids smarter!

So says this study from 2008.

The article mentions that children who study an instrument score higher in verbal ability and pattern recognition, as well as finger dexterity and auditory discrimination. The authors of the article suggest that the former two are not related to music.

I think it's fairly obvious that pattern recognition is intrinsic to musical study. I insist upon my students' learning scales and arpeggios because they show up time and time again in their pieces, and if the student already understands the pattern of the major or minor scale, he or she does not have to relearn the finger pattern every single time it appears.

As for verbal ability, I suspect that might have something to do with the one-on-one instruction; I try to minimize talking in my teaching (and don't usually succeed), but my earliest lessons often involve learning the names of the parts of the violin and the bow, so the kids are getting new words that they would not otherwise need to know. Or old words in new ways; many small children find it extremely funny that part of the bow is called the "frog", even though it looks nothing like a green amphibian.

(Many small children then think the pegs are the pigs and the scroll is the squirrel, but that's a different lesson.)

Or maybe children whose parents enroll them in music lessons also have parents who place an emphasis on verbal ability in general. Correlation does not equal causation; all of these skill areas may be enhanced by the values of parents who also value music.

I do know that all three National Merit Scholars from my high school class were musicians. Two were string players, and one played trombone. And I'm quite sure that learning an instrument or proper use of the voice makes the brain and body work more efficiently together.

In short, enroll the whole family in music lessons!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The value of play

from NPR: Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills

I don't know if any of my families read this blog, but if they do, please do not take offense at the following. I may or may not mean you personally.

So the article talks about how, as children's play has changed, so has children's cognitive development. The seven-year-olds of today barely have the executive functioning of the five-year-olds of forty years ago. I teach a small group ranging in age from 5 to 8, and it's just about impossible to get them to stand still. Of course, they do feed off each other, and they seem to be having a good time, but I'm trying to work on stage presence as well.

(In an aside, I observed something similar when watching the Up Series. The seven-year-olds in the first documentary, from 1964, are far more articulate than most of the seven-year-olds of my acquaintance. How much of that is from the decade, how much from the children's being British and how much from the filmmaker's choice of subject is, of course, up for debate.)

I see this happening with a number of my students. I teach in a fairly well-off community, and so many of these kids are already overscheduled, overworked and overwhelmed by the age of six, seven, eight. Some of them end up with a couple hours of homework each night in fourth grade. Some of their parents still do absolutely everything for them. (Here I will not give specific examples, because that would be crossing a line.)

So it ends up that I have students who've been with me for three or four years who still need me to remind them what happens next in the lesson, because their executive functioning hasn't kicked in yet. They truly cannot remember the order in which the parts of the lesson happen. And I almost always do the same things in the same order, largely because if I don't, I'll forget. (Hey, I never said my executive functioning was ideal.)

And I do know how much these children are loved by their parents. The Suzuki method has the parent stay in the lesson with the child, so I see the interactions, and I see how much love is there. And I know the parents understand how difficult and painful this world can be and that they're trying to shield their children from suffering; who wouldn't?

And I also know that, even in a semi-suburban area, letting kids roam free in packs just isn't done. It's all play dates and scheduled activities, and maybe that's the only safe way anymore.

But I worry sometimes that these kids are going to be completely unprepared to look out for themselves when it's time. When I was a freshman in college, one of my fellow freshman violists absolutely could not handle being out on his own and had to drop out of school to move back home. I don't know all the circumstances, of course, but the impression the rest of us had was that he'd never had to do any chores or have a job or be responsible for himself before; his folks had always taken care of everything. Really nice guy , talented musician, never disrespectfully irresponsible; just very easily overwhelmed.

I don't have any answers. I just hope that, when the time comes that there are piccolo Fiddlers toddling about, we'll be able to find a balance between letting them be kids and teaching them responsibility.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Makeup lessons, as seen by an economist

This article was written by a Suzuki parent who is also an economist. Her take is that makeup lessons make no economic sense; if ya miss, ya miss, and the teacher is under no obligation to provide makeups.

At the school where I do most of my teaching, the policy states that students get one makeup per semester for any lessons they miss. Teachers have to make up anything we miss, of course.

For my private students, I figure missed is missed...sometimes I have a contract with a similar policy, but more often, I don't get around to making it. I think the times I cancel and the times they cancel tend to even out, and I don't make up the ones I cancel. I have a good rapport with all my private families at the moment.

I should still probably have a contract though.

Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see...

So I was passing by Brigham Circle today, where a bunch of people were standing outside the building that houses Stop & Shop, J.P. Licks and T.G.I Friday's, among other businesses. One fire truck was already there and another was pulling up. Apparently, nothing was actually on fire, but the alarm was going off for quite some time.

As I watched, three people who were not with each other tried to get in to the Bank of America ATM vestibule. Two stopped when they noticed the flashing lights and BEHHHP BEHHHP BEHHHP of the fire alarm. The third used her card to get the door open and had to be gently dissuaded from entering by a man standing near the door.

All three of them walked past the plaza, and apparently not one of them thought it odd that there were about a hundred people standing in small clusters all over the place in considerably chilly weather or noticed two fire trucks, an alarm sounding and that all the lights in the building were off.

Maybe they should have been allowed to withdraw their money and give it to me.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Algorithm fail

From the preface to the sixth edition of A History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca:

"To be sure, the scope of what we teach and study under the heading of music history has broadened since Professor Grout wrote the first version of this book. The limits of Western music were generally agreed upon then, and hardly anyone doubted the value of studying its history. As populations everywhere become more diverse, the relevance of the Western art tradition to the music that is practiced and heard daily has understandably been questioned. Western Music in our title, which motivated an Internet retailer to award it the distinction of "best seller" in the category Country and Western Music, really acknowledges that the musical culture of Europe and the Americas is but one of several cultures whose distinguished histories deserve study."

Not quite the same definition of Western music there.

Of course, let's not forget the experience of Jake and Elwood.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Sounds like a personal problem to me...

5th grade student: Is it just me, or does my hand always sweat while I'm playing?
Me: Well, it would be just you either way...
Student: Oh. Right.