“The brain grows most by getting questions wrong, not right.” Failiure Part 2

Salman Khan of Khan Academy wrote the above statement, and also, “If society as a whole begins to embrace the struggle of learning, there is no end to what that could mean for global human potential,”

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Picture Courtesy of Knight Foundation, licensed under Creative Commons

EMBRACE STRUGGLE.

In this Huffington Post article, the author cites research on how we praise our children and the effect it has on our children. The researcher Carol Dweck, has been working on this research since the 1960s, and this information probably isn’t new to you, but here is what we know: when you praise children for being smart, they attribute their skills to innate ability, but when you praise them for their hard work, they attribute skills to perseverance and practice. Children who do the latter are more likely to keep trying a task until they get it right and can accomplish more throughout their lives because of their mindset.

Next time you are ready to praise your child or student: stop and think- what are you praising? Instead of saying “you’re so musical,” “I like how you practiced playing some parts softly and some loudly. The dynamics you added made your performance more musical.”

Challenge your music student- let them experience failure- and then praise them for their work and diligence, not their skill or accomplishment. This way you will grow a musician.

How to Guide Children’s Improvisation and Composition

How old do you have to be to compose music? 18? 12? 5? Younger?

Mozart was only five years old when he wrote these first compositions.

My son isn’t yet five and he writes compositions, too… but he’s no musical prodigy. He is not as proficient in music playing or writing as Mozart was. He can’t yet articulate his musical thoughts on paper, but he can improvise musically with words, rhythm, and melody.

Everyone who has been around music and is allowed to experiment with music has the ability to do this. With proper encouragement, every child can improvise. So, how did we get to this point?

  • SING. All the time. Play instruments or just play rhythms by clapping or patting or beat-boxing. What you will find is that your child will start repeating the things you do at different times.
  • Let them experiment, even if it is annoying. Sometimes they will sing loudly or sing the same word over and over. Try to put up with it. You can try to redirect their efforts or ask them to try it more softly, but don’t tell them to stop!
  • Start by giving them ideas to riff on- start a silly song about what you are doing and give them a turn to improvise. They will probably start by changing the words to a tune they already know, which is ok.
  • Provide an accompaniment for them or have them provide an accompaniment for you. Beat-boxing is a fun way to do this. This shows them you can improvise something without words and is an easy way to practice ensemble singing/playing.
  • Make any time a good time to improvise! Do it in the car, in the bathtub, at dinner…
  • Let them play at conductor and tell you what the song or piece should sound like. Have them try to describe it to you as best as they can and try to make their composition come to life.
  • As they get older, start introducing technology to record themselves. They will spend so much time playing back their songs, and with programs like the iOS’s Garageband, they can add drums or other instruments to their recordings and have fun making it sound new and different.
  • As children progress in their musical learning, they can make composition maps- that can be anything from crayon drawings of what it sounds like, to prompts like “high, major, duple, du de du de, soft, fast.”
  • When your children learn music reading and writing, you can have them compose on free printable staff paper, like that found on this webpage: http://www.blanksheetmusic.net/

The most important thing is to find time to make music together and have music-making be fun and feel judgement-free. Perfecting a composition or figuring out how to express verbally or visually what you hear in your head can be frustrating. Make them feel safe and not on-the-spot when composing and improvising. Allow them to see you make mistakes and laugh it off. Music-making at home doesn’t need to be perfect to be enjoyable.

How do you improvise or compose with your family?

The Lessons of Failure: Sometimes you win, Sometimes you lose.

There’s of course truth and a lesson in this song by the Shins from Yo Gabba Gabba.

But it’s okay, you try again… Do your best so you hold your head up high.

Like all worthy pursuits, especially those where the word “practice” comes into play, failure is a part of the journey. Practicing music can be full of small and large failures; the failure to execute a particular phrase in the music, or getting flustered and forgetting your solo in the middle of a recital. Small and large, failure brings with it many lessons, and those lessons benefit us in all facets of life. For those who are amateur musicians, learning those lessons while having fun with music can soften the blow, while for professionals it can come with many more ramifications, like losing a chance for career advancement or the ability to support yourself.

Let us concern ourselves with the amateurs, ourselves and our students or children in this scenario. What are they learning about failure? What should they be learning?

Failure is another stepping stone to greatness- Oprah Winfrey

  • It’s ok to fail. I’m putting this first, because I think it is the most important. Everyone fails at something some time. If you don’t, it’s either because you are one of those one in a billion people who are geniuses who are good at everything, or, more likely, you never try anything you think you may fail. In my students, and even my own children, I see us becoming a culture that is failure-adverse and it is stifling creativity and possibility. No one who has ever created anything good or beautiful got it right the first time. Authors have editors, inventors have multiple iterations of the same device, and computer programmers issue patches for their programs. If your students can sight read everything you put in front of her, you are not challenging her. You are holding her back; holding her back from failure, but also holding her back from success.
  • Failure teaches humility. It’s good to be reminded that we are not perfect and that other people may be better at something than we are. It shows us what we should work on or what we could accomplish with more work. It sometimes shows us that we may have chosen the wrong path. Humility is not shame. Failure that comes despite hard work should make us proud, but ground us in reality. Maybe I choked in my piano recital and played horribly, despite the hours of practice I put in. I should be proud of my practice, but there is a lesson I have to learn- maybe I didn’t practice enough to feel confident in my playing, or maybe I need to practice being confident (the latter is much more difficult!). No matter what, especially if I am comparing my performance with someone else’s, I should come away humbled by their success, but not jealous of it.
  • Practicing failure teaches grace. Just using the word grace seems antiquated, but it is a quality that is rarely focused on, but when you meet someone who has it, it is inspiring. By grace, I mean the ability to act in a controlled, polite, and smooth way, without awkwardness. A good musician never gives away their mistakes; don’t make a wrong note worse by adding a grimace or a shake of the head. THAT takes control. Control of the body and control of the mind. When you don’t pass the audition, you don’t pout, or complain- you learn and move on. Sometimes we have to grieve our failures, but we have to learn to do so in way that is mature and appropriate. Children have trouble with this, and we understand that, and try to comfort and calm them, and teach them skills to control and focus their reactions. When this skill has not been learned in adulthood, we get inappropriate comments on Twitter that shame the author, or millionaire rap moguls embarrassing themselves on national award shows.
  • Failure teaches determination. How many people are admired for their stick-to-it-iveness? You can’t have that trait if you don’t often fail. Failing often is a good teacher. It helps us grow, it helps us get things done. Your child is learning that at the piano right now while she is practicing that same measure over and over and continually missing the last note. Then- ah ha! She gets it! And misses a different note in the process. No matter, she is learning to stick with it until it is right. That’s a good quality to have in an employee, but an even better one in an employer. She is willing to put in the work to make herself better, which is what it takes to be successful. It’s a small lesson now, but it will pay off as the stakes are higher and she is willing to put in the work and try again and again for what she wants.
  • Failure teaches problem-solving. Every time a music student fails to play her piece correctly, she has to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. Music teachers teach many different methods to practice to refine pieces in as little time as possible. Teachers teach and students learn how to prioritize musical goals, and that is a skill that translate into prioritizing other assignments at school or work.
  • Failure teaches what success means. The better we know failure, the more we are able to recognize success in its many forms. That means, small successes, not just ones that are accompanied by awards and people telling us “good job!” There’s a satisfying feeling to perfecting the piece you are working on, even if you never play it for the audience and hear their applause. The perfection is not the gratifying part, it’s the accomplishment of overcoming the struggles that challenged us.

As parents and teachers, it is important for us to put failure into perspective for children. No one likes losing or not being able to do something that they are striving for, but it’s a part of living and learning. Children should be given opportunities to fail and succeed; they should be sheltered from neither. They need developmentally appropriate challenges so that they can grow into adults who are not afraid to reach and fail in order to succeed.

How do you talk about failure with your children?

Why do you keep hearing ‘Shut Up and Dance’ everywhere you go? Here’s the scientific answer. – The Washington Post

Why do you keep hearing ‘Shut Up and Dance’ everywhere you go? Here’s the scientific answer. – The Washington Post.

 

Any music teacher can tell you that children love repetition. It’s how we learn. Who knew that we all liked to be so lazy, though? I guess I better go write my hit song!

Boating Songs

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In the summer my family loves kayaking. We started taking my son when he was only about six months old, so he is very comfortable on the water, and so is our daughter. Like all children, however, sometimes they struggle with the b-word- boredom! When they were each very little and got uncomfortable in their vests or too cranky to enjoy being out on the water, I would sing to them while we paddled. It helped calm them down, gave me something to listen to besides their wailing, and often with the combination of the gentle rocking of the boat, put them to sleep.

Now that they are old enough to really enjoy being on water, observing nature, and learning about boating, they spend less time asleep and less time crying, but we still sing! Can you guess what their favorite boating song is?

“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” lends itself to repetition, and also apparently, shouting at the top of your lungs to scare away all of the fish that Dad is trying to catch. We also enjoy “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” and “My Paddle’s Keen and Bright,” as well as non-boating-related songs.

The great part about “My Paddle’s Keen and Bright” is that while my children (2 and 4 years old) are still to young to sing in canon, they can sing the ostinato of “dip, dip, and swing” while I sing the melody:

My paddle’s keen and bright
Flashing with silver
Follow the wild goose flight
Dip, dip, and swing

You can hear the round and the rest of the lyrics here.

Try this one at home. It is a lot of fun to sing while pretending to row. In class, I use a big rubber band to have the children feel the beat with their torsos. You can use scarves to make rowing motions by rocking back and forth with a partner.

Let me know which songs accompany your favorite summer activities! Do you have beach songs? Pool songs? Car-ride songs?

We had a breakthrough today!

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As I journey along the path of motherhood (and “teacherhood”), I learn many new strategies for having pupils make musical progress. Sometimes the biggest hurdle is attitude, and this is often the case with my youngest students (5 years old and under).

Case in point: my son. He’s stubborn, willful, active, adventurous, and in many ways precocious, while also being self-conscious and failure adverse. I’ve mentioned how this self-consciousness often ends up with him refusing to sing. This is especially true in my music class or if I ask him to sing something in particular. In general, though, it is not true. He sings SO MUCH throughout the day, mostly because he never seems to stop making noise of some sort. I’ve been mulling over why he could possibly be self-conscious about singing, because I always applaud and encourage his singing and he is very outgoing otherwise. (My conclusion (although not scientific)- I think he inherited his failure aversion from me and I remember being very self-conscious about my singing as well, despite the fact that I was always doing it and turned it into my career!

Onto the breakthrough! My son has expressed interest in instruments (especially percussion) off and on throughout his four-and-a-half-year life. While he has friends who take Suzuki violin lessons, I could never persuade him to sit and even attempt to learn piano or recorder… until today. What changed everything? PEER PRESSURE. My son’s friend from school, who is the same age, started taking lessons with me recently. In order to get my pupil to get interested in going to the music room for his lesson, I said he could have his turn at the piano first, and my son could go second. It worked, and when my pupil was finished, my son rushed into the music room for his turn! There were still some power struggles, which define our mother-son relationship and of course bleed over into the teacher-student relationship, but he listened, tried playing, accepted corrections, and eventually practiced and performed his first piece for his father.

WOAH. That was a proud moment. I was proud of him, and I was proud of myself. Peer pressure works- in a good way. This wasn’t goading him into doing something because all the cool kids do it, this was getting him enough courage to do something he has wanted to do anyway, something that I knew he would be good at, but he was lacking the confidence to believe that he could be good at it. It makes sense, now. He sees me play music, but the music I play is necessarily out of the reach of his aptitude at this point. My telling him that he can play music never sunk in, because the skills seemed so out of reach, but when he hears his friend, who is just beginning, play… now, that is obtainable.

Lesson: If you want your child to start lessons, but they’re balking, don’t think it’s that they are not interested. Seeing a symphony or an opera can get them interested in music. Seeing someone of their own age and level play, that gets them to identify with making music. They could be that person! Getting them to that first step and committing to practicing and instrument, that is what finally gets them invested.

Now I can go to bed one happy, proud mama (and teacher!).

Musical Dialogue

Girls Hand Clapping. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Girls Hand Clapping. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Yesterday I posted about how making music together was great for social learning. Music is inherently social, but there are ways to make the music itself social! So, here’s the challenge: have an exclusively musical dialogue with your little music-makers!

Just a warning: some children will rebel against this idea, so it may take many attempts to get them used to the idea of conversing with you musically. Find the way they are most comfortable expressing themselves musically. For one child that may be through movement and dance, another with instruments, another with chanting, and yet another with singing. Keep at it until you find what works. This is a great exercise in working around individual differences, a skill that is useful for all those early childhood battles, like potty training.

You can use this rhyme from the James T. Callow Folklore Archive, which has been modified for this purpose.

My mother, your mother
Lives across the way
Every night they have a chat
And this is what they say*

After the introduction rhythm, you can make up a chant, a rhyme, or melody and then the child can respond. Often, children will mimic exactly what you do, which is ok. Encourage them to make up something different. You’ll find as they grow older they have more musical ideas to choose from.

In my experience, sometimes children will refuse to respond “musically” -probably out of discomfort or embarrassment- but I have yet to see a child (or adult!) give a musical response that was inappropriate. For instance, in the audio examples above, I’ll chant the rhyme in its original duple (think “in two,” like a march) meter, then in triple (think “in three,” like a waltz). Once the meter is established, a child with enough musical experience in duple or triple will tend to stick with the meter provided. Their response may be longer or shorter than yours, and that’s ok, too.

You can be creative and change the words to suit musical movement instead of dialogue, with “every night they hang their clothes and this is what they do.” Instrumental improvisation, with “have a jam,” or even silly improvisation with “my doggy, your doggy…” You could go so far as to try to sing it in different tonalities, also. The possibilities are endless.

Let me know how your musical dialogue goes and how you found how your little ones were most comfortable improvising!

*I first came across this rhyme used to start improvisation at a workshop given by Wendy Valerio, so credit goes to her for the original idea! It’s just too good not to share!

Music Making as Social Learning

Kids playing guitar. Licensed through creative commons.

Kids playing guitar. Licensed through creative commons.

Music is not an individual endeavor. As parents, so much of what we teach is didactic; “no, don’t do that,” “let me show you how to tie your shoe.” However, most musical learning, especially at an early age is informal and interactive. Even babies less than one year old can start to participate, meaning that you’re not making music to them, bur with them. Their clapping off the beat and making gurgling sounds is their attempt to make music with you. Humans are social creatures, and by our nature we want to socialize and feel included in a group. Making music is one way that we do that.

When you make music at home, try to make it as social as possible. That means letting everyone be able to give their input, as though you were having a conversation. Get down on the floor with your children, and let them pick an instrument for you, or pick the song that you are going to sing. Maybe they’ll make up new words to the song, or sing it the “wrong way.” Follow their lead, and give suggestions, too, but make it “our music.” Just like in social situations, you might need to mediate “musical fights,” which could be agreeing on a tempo, a volume, the songs, or instrument choice.

Make sure that your children get a chance to see how musicians play in groups. Informal concerts, like those at coffee shops or bandstands are a good chance for them to see musicians interacting with the audience. You may be able to take them to an open rehearsal, which will let them see how much work goes into playing, how the musicians have to get along, and you don’t have to worry about your child’s behavior as much as at a concert, or your ability to stay through the who show.

Music classes are a great way, even for the youngest children, to experience group music making. Making music in group is beneficial for musical learning, but also social learning. All students, even students with learning disabilities or autism, benefit from the social interaction in a musical environment. Music brings people together and gives us a way to navigate and come to accept individual differences, making us better classmates, siblings, or friends. As a teacher, I’ve seen shy children come out of their shells through music, I’ve seen children who struggled in every other subject find the joy of excelling in music. You can do this for your family, too.

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Families are made up of people with a wide variety of ages and abilities, but who can come together in music. Everyone in the family can do something musical. Maybe the infants only listen and smile while the toddlers dance and the preschoolers sing, while mom or dad plays an instrument and sings. Try to carve out a time where you can make music together as a family. If big sister is practicing a well-known piano piece, let her little brother sing along and make an impromptu duet.

Don’t let me delude you into thinking that all music-making will be happy and conflict free. There will be times when it will be difficult to get everyone together or for everyone to find their role. Working through these issues and focusing on the bigger picture of coming together to make music is what makes the experience so useful. Those problem-solving skills in a social environment help children become better friends and helpers.

So, find time to make music together and have a musical conversation. The next post will focus on how to dialog through music in a kid (and parent!) friendly way!

If you’re teaching my kid piano (drums, violin, etc), why are you singing so much?

I often get asked about all the singing that my students do in their piano lessons, so I thought I’d write a quick response so that while your child might be learning an instrument, you know why they spend so much time singing. This will also help you guide them in their lessons.

The voice is our first instrument. We use it to express ideas, but first we used it to express feelings, and then music. Our voice is something that we internalize and becomes part of our thinking process. You read things in your own voice in your head most of the time. Young children often read aloud and some whisper to themselves or mouth the words for a long time before they learn to read silently. This silent reading is called audiating, and we do it when we read music, too.

Audiating is important to word reading and music reading, but it is very difficult to measure. So, how do I know that my students are internalizing the music on the page? I have them sing. If they can sing it, they can play it. However, with any new skill, especially one as complex as music-making, they may not be able to physically do it at first. If they can sing it perfectly, but not play it perfectly, I’ve narrowed down where they problem may lie. More than that, though, it is turning them into better musicians. They need to develop rhythm, melody, and tonal fluency and literacy in order to translate those skills into competent and expressive piano playing.

So, take your child’s singing homework (which all of my students have, as well as piano homework) seriously. Sing with them, listen to them, give them feedback. Help them check on the piano that they started and ended on the same pitch. Sing in the car, while you do chores, or walk around the neighborhood and sing those songs and patterns they are learning in their lessons. Sing their piano piece when they can’t practice at the piano. Your child will be a better student and a better musician for it!

Chime in- how do you help your child with their lesson assignments?20150327_150912

Is there such a thing as too early for music lessons?

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The short answer is no. The long answer is maybe, and I’ll explain why.

There is no age too early for musical learning (our brains are equipped to start learning music from birth), but that learning should be developmentally appropriate. Because children develop at different rates, there is no magic age to start music lessons. There are three- to four-year-olds that begin violin lessons and do extremely well. That doesn’t make it necessarily a good idea for your three- or four-year-old.

If you have dreams of your child becoming a piano prodigy, you’re going to have to put that on the backburner, because the chances of that are pretty small. However, if you envision your child taking piano lessons and coming to love music because of it, that is a much more manageable goal. That is also a goal that you can reasonably start on from birth. There are some practical ways that you can make that happen.

First of all, you are your child’s primary music teacher. If you want them to begin learning an instrument early, you have to be able to teach them. That may mean that you get lessons in whatever instrument you want your child to learn, perhaps years before they start. When they begin lessons, you will have to go with them. You will need to practice with them.

When you decide that they will start lessons, be careful about the teacher that you choose. You may think that the concertmaster of the so-and-so philharmonic that also teaches lessons is the way to go, but if that musician isn’t equipped to deal with younger students, it may not be your best choice. Find a teacher who specializes in teaching young students and your little one will be more successful.

Choose a beginning instrument. For many that is piano or violin because they are accessible to even the smallest students. Let the child get used to the instrument before beginning lessons. You want them to be excited about it before they start the hard work of actually learning the instrument. Also, be aware that the instrument that they start with may not be the instrument that they will want to play for the rest of their lives. Your child may begin violin lesson at 4, but when she gets to fourth grade, want to play trumpet in the band. You’ll have to be ok with this. After all, she’s still playing music, right?

Accept that it may be slow-going at first. Your child may just hold the instrument while you play and sing the song you are learning. They may only play a few strings or a few notes. You are going to have to find a balance between being a strict motivator and a gentle encourager. While part of this balance is to find your style of parenting/teaching, you also need to find which balance works for your children.

Each of your children may have different needs. One child may be self-motivated and find her own time to practice regularly without being told, another may need a more regimented practice schedule in order to stay on top of her assigned lessons. If you are too strict with the very self-motivated student, you may stifle her natural urge to practice and take the fun out of noodling on her instrument in peace. If you are too hands-off with your other (and I won’t say lazy, but maybe less diligent) child, they won’t get the push they need to discover how much they love playing. If you discover the best motivation style for your child, be sure to share that with your teacher, she can use that knowledge to help your child progress.

No matter the age, make music fun! Music is supposed to be a joyous, social experience; explore group classes, go to concerts, let your children try different instruments! Sometimes finding balance with different activities is difficult, so if they need to give music a break for a while, don’t be discouraged. Many children who start lessons early, find that maybe the first instrument that they tried wasn’t for them, or perhaps they weren’t ready to commit to practicing, or even that their first teacher wasn’t a good match. While I don’t advocate quitting, I think it is important for children to explore all of their interests without having to make life-long commitments. Just like with practice- try, try again!

Do you have any insights on how to begin early music lessons? Any other questions about beginning your child on an instrument? Please chime in with a comment!