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Education Matters

Without Missing A Beat: Music Helps Kids Keep Learning All Summer

July 13th, 2010

Over summer break, kids often complain they are bored. Without the daily structure of school, it’s a challenge for parents to keep kids occupied, let alone stimulated and learning.

While it is good for students to have a break every so often, two months is a long time to go without the discipline they have in the school year. Watching TV or sitting in front of other screens all day is not good for their development and can contribute to weight gain and other problems. Kids who aren’t engaged using their brains can end up feeling tired, listless and lazy.

Fortunately, parents can help their kids stay mentally stimulated and ready to learn over the summer. Playing a musical instrument is a great way to keep kids in learning mode.

When a young person plays a musical instrument over summer break, they are doing more than polishing their skills on their particular instrument. They are using their brains in ways that will boost their ability to learn when they return to school for the fall.

One of the biggest benefits of music lessons and practice is requiring kids to use their problem-solving skills. Learning to play a piece of music requires them to break down complex passages into smaller parts, identify the core problem and come up with a solution. These are the same skills students use to solve problems in math and other academic subjects.

Music lessons in violin, piano and other instruments offer a great structure to keep kids learning over the summer. But not all families are able to invest the time and money required. For these families, the ocarina is a great first instrument.

A little pocket-sized wind instrument with a pleasing sound that dates from ancient times, the ocarina is easy to play and inexpensive. Kids and adults who have not played a musical instrument before can pick up simple melodies quickly with the aid of books and recordings.

The ocarina can also be a springboard to other instruments that require a higher level of commitment. Kids can ease into learning some of the basic aspects of pitch and rhythm and develop confidence to inspire them to keep learning. If they show real promise and enthusiasm they can always go on to a more difficult, expensive and time-consuming instrument later.

The ability to learn on your own really sets the ocarina apart from many instruments. This is not something you would want to try with violin for instance, as it can be really painful for both the person trying to learn and those listening. Even with instruments considered easier to learn, like guitar, beginners should seek out a teacher. If you are going to do something, aim to do it well because you won’t get the same benefits if you do it badly.

Whatever instrument you and your child choose, get your child in the habit of practicing on a daily basis. For the more challenging instruments, I encourage students to continue their lessons with their teacher over the summer. Those who skip summer lessons end up having to go back and re-learn things in the fall.

Here are some tips for parents who want to introduce their child to a musical instrument:

See which instrument excites your child. 

It’s never a good idea to just pick an instrument and tell the child they are going to learn it. Taking your child to a concert is a great way to introduce a number of instruments at once. If they like a particular one, take them to a music store or someplace they can touch and try it. If they are not enthralled with a particular instrument, show them others until you find one that sparks their interest. They should like the sound of the instrument and want to play it.

Find your child’s favorite style.

 Don’t be disappointed if classical violin or piano is not your child’s favorite. They can get the same benefits from learning various different styles of music. The idea is not to be too narrow or limiting but to let your child explore.

Make music part of your home life.

 Kids that have come to me from homes where families don’t sing or listen to music regularly often learn a lot slower than those who enjoy music on a daily basis. If a mom has been singing to her child since infancy, the child will have a more developed sense of pitch and timing. Music is like a language. If you are really immersed in it, constantly listening to it, you are going to pick up the language much more quickly than by studying it as a separate part of your life.

Make the timing right.

 When a child can begin learning an instrument depends on the instrument and the child. For violin I recommend most students start between 3 and 5 before they have school and other activities vying for their attention. Depending on methodology, 4 or 5 is a good time to start learning piano or guitar. Guitar, violin and cello come in fractional small sizes suitable for little ones. Students need to be a bit older for most wind instruments — about 7 for flute, about 9 for clarinet. The exception is the ocarina, which can be started as young as 3. Of course children can start singing as babies.

Be involved with your child.

 It’s important for parents to be involved with their child’s music practice. Younger children especially won’t know how to practice without some parental guidance. Kids often want to play through a song – if they get stuck at a certain spot, their inclination is to go back to the beginning. Parents can help by encouraging them to work on the difficult parts separately, and then put them back into the song.

With music, parents have the wonderful opportunity to share with their children an activity that is creative, stimulating, inspiring and fun. Music is also the perfect avenue for children to learn the discipline, skills and confidence that can help them in academics and all areas of life.

Laura Yeh is a performer and music educator trained in the Suzuki method of instruction who teaches violin and ocarina at the St. Louis School of Music to children as young as 3 and adults. Laura and her husband Dennis have collaborated with ocarina makers around the world to produce new models of the ocarina. They have designed and produced many unique and innovative ocarinas sold by STL Ocarina (http://www.stlocarina.com).

Tags: Books, Toys

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