February 11, 2007

Sunday Accompaniment



Although Maggie and I encourage (and sometimes cajole) our daughters in their musical practice, we can’t take any credit for their efforts or the fruits of their labor.

In literature and in movies set in earlier times, people are singing and playing instruments for entertainment. Children perform for guests. I think they include such scenes in modern treatments of these old stories because it is less usual today and so it sets the scene.

Why are children encouraged to play musical instruments? In our modern time we have many forms of entertainment and diversion competing for our attention. But children are still set to practice these things. Our daughters each have a string instrument and the piano. And though they are still learning, they already are trying to teach me piano.

I have only ever met one person who didn’t have strong feelings about music (that’s a not-very-interesting anecdote for another place and time). I think it’s partly because music can be a direct form of emotional communication; it’s like an idea or feeling that’s made into something tangible but still unseen and fleeting. It’s one of the forms of real magic.1

Some of the best times I have had involve music, or singing with friends informally. And it’s funny that more people don’t do it more often. Sure, many people sing at church on Sunday, but I mean feeling comfortable to belt out a tune while they’re just hanging out. I guess it’s seen as silly or frivolous. When we are old and our time is short, will we look back and wonder why we didn’t do more silly, frivolous and magical things?

Today, I’m sitting at the door of my daughter’s room as she practices cello; she likes company while she practices. As she stumbles among some of the beautiful sounds, I hear both confidence and hesitation alternately, I find it’s tough to describe the feelings.

There are many reasons children are encouraged to play instruments. Many are very practical reasons. But some of those reasons are just magical.

1 I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I do believe that some natural things are so incredible that they remain amazing, never grow old or mundane even after scrutiny, and I imagine will always amaze me until the day I die. The long list of things that make like worth living. Music, yeast-raised bread, kindness from strangers, seeds…

Posted by James at February 11, 2007 11:25 AM
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Posted by: James at February 11, 2007 8:43 PM

There have been at least two studies that show that children who take private music lessons score better on intelligence tests. That is, of course, controlling for other factors such as income.

That is not why I wanted our daughters to learn an instrument and not why I push them to practice -- my own bogeyman as a child.

I wanted them to learn that you can persist at something and gain ability over time and with practice. (A lesson it took me a long time to learn, since most academics came to me quickly, and I ignored anything that didn't, to my detriment.) It's a lesson you can learn with many pursuits, but the results of learning it with music are so satisfying!

I also wanted them to be able to come home from a bad day and bang their frustrations out on the piano, as I often did.

They're very different musicians. M is like me -- when she gets a piece she likes, she plays it constantly. K sees the theory very clearly, which is not at all like me! Her piano teacher constantly remarks to me on it. Remarkably, her cello playing is smoother than her piano.

Oh, and I just love hearing music!

Posted by: Maggie at February 12, 2007 6:09 AM

Our daughter started violin at age 7, and piano at age 9. Besides the great reasons Maggie describes, we stumbled on a secondary good reason.

My kid has gotten the notion in her head that the only reason people must learn anything is to make money. I think she's noted various lectures from her teachers, and the fact that I've gone back to school, and now she's trying that cynical conclusion on for size.

Music lessons give us the opp to reinforce to her that it's permissible - and wonderful - to learn for learning's sake.

Posted by: pam at February 12, 2007 11:12 AM

I didn't learn any theory in my piano lessons. If I had, I think I would have enjoyed it more. I didn't learn any theory until I learned guitar, and theory made it a lot more interesting.

But ultimately, I was very bad, physically, with both instruments, despite a lot of practice, and in that sense it was never satisfying. Still, it was really cool to know how to do it. The mental part of it was fun, anyway, even if the result was rough on the ears.

Posted by: Julie at February 12, 2007 12:05 PM

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