Is Learning Music Really That Academic?

Most people have heard about the numerous studies suggesting that early music education has positive effects on a child’s academic performance, fine motor skills, ability to focus, and overall cognitive abilities, among a long list of other desirable attributes. How does a musical education have that power over a young mind? Can it truly transform, say, an “average” child into a “gifted” student who is now destined for success? Let’s think about this for a bit.

What kind of young, prospective music student would want to take lessons in the first place? It would have to be a child who has: a) a motivated parent or guardian, b) some previous exposure to music, c) some sort of liking or inclination to music because of said exposure, and d) financial and emotional support. With all of these elements in perfect alignment, we’ve got a new music student on board. Yay! But does this really support the argument that any child can become extraordinary at academics because of music lessons? Already, we’ve got an extra boost just from checking off all the boxes. Isn’t that…kind of like…cheating? What about those kids who have never heard of Beethoven and will probably never hear Beethoven?

Perhaps, then, the real problem lies at the source. We need to democratize music education. We need to incorporate music lessons into classrooms from preschool onward. Hypothetically, all children would reap the benefits of learning rhythm and differentiating among pitches. But is mere exposure to music enough? Does it even make a dent?

As a private piano teacher, I can tell you that learning music can be intense, especially if it’s one-on-one and consistent. There are expectations and weekly assignments. There are goals that need to be met in order to move on. Good lessons can make a student feel chipper and on top of the world, and bad lessons can bring out the Kleenex. It’s personal sometimes because the student and teacher demand the best out of each other. And beyond these emotional demands are the academic ones. Yes, you heard that. Music is very, if not mostly, ACADEMIC!

The best teachers are methodical and analytical while allowing breathing room for the student. Each lesson should build on the previous one (which is why practicing at home is essential). There are weekly assignments that consist of music theory (a.k.a. music notation, harmony, rhythm, melody, scales, key signatures, etc.), ear training, sight reading, some music history, sometimes composition, and a rotating array of pieces that are in some state of learning. All of these elements inform one another to allow a greater understanding at each level. There shouldn’t be holes in any person’s education, whether it’s earth science in the 5th grade or world history in the 8th. Music education is no different.

So, with all of that being said, can a one-on-one music education truly steer a student into not only being an informed musician, but also a future Harvard grad? It certainly can, but there are never any guarantees. However, what I can say, through observation and through experience, is that it makes you stronger. It makes you work harder. If you know how to take a new piece from its rough beginnings to a polished performance, then you can apply those same principles to other challenges, like knowing which steps to take to compose a good essay or improving your backstroke technique. If it doesn’t make you “smarter,” it certainly makes you tougher. Maybe this is what can elevate a student from the rest of the pack.

However, not all students have the privilege of taking private lessons. This is why it is essential to bring music classes back into schools, even if it’s music appreciation, tooting a recorder, or rattling rhythms to a beat. This is the required exposure that could inspire a child to ask about lessons or to find a way to get more of this good stuff. But it’s the week-to-week and day-to-day aspect of taking private lessons and practicing diligently that will offer the more character-building aspects of education. And undoubtedly, it has other positive side effects, too.

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Fall Studio Recital, 10/11!

Images by Jordan Mirrer.

The Importance of Listening

children listening to a gramophone, Uzbekistan c. 1920s

children listening to a gramophone, Uzbekistan c. 1920s

As teachers, we are consumed with demonstrating and explaining how to play something. As students, we are consumed with playing things correctly. While it’s important to master fundamentals in learning a piece of music, such as the rhythm, note names, tempo, dynamics, texture, and overall musicality, we often fail to teach and learn by listening. I’m not referring to teaching or playing by rote, or a monkey-see-monkey-do approach to learning. I’m talking about learning by surrounding yourself with music.

Looking back on my days as a serious piano student, there was a lot of direct instruction on interpretation. For example, as a doe-eyed pre-teen attempting Mozart sonatas, my teacher would stop my clumsy playing mid-phrase and say something along the lines of, “More forte on the first beat. The last note of measure nine should be leggiero and release with a gentle lift.” What she was trying to say to my childish, un-elegant self was, “Play that line like a Mozart aria.” I wouldn’t have understood the latter at such a young age, so the specific, micro-managing instructions were necessary for me at the time. However, if it weren’t for the fact that both my teacher and my parents flooded my ears with recordings of Mozart piano sonatas, radio broadcasts of Beethoven symphonies, and live concerts and recitals, I don’t think I would have quite gotten the message even later in life. I learned by listening.

Hearing music allows you to learn sort of by osmosis. I’m not saying that it replaces diligent, careful practice and weekly lessons, but it gives one that boost of understanding as one matures into a finer musician. Young students aren’t expected to be cognizant of style and interpretation, but with steady exposure to music (of all types), one can gain a deeper, more insightful appreciation and awareness of why we play music.

I’m encouraging all parents, students, and teachers alike to go to more concerts and listen to more music. Use the vast numbers of resources online to find music that you aren’t familiar with or to play a piece or song that you enjoy. Kids usually listen to what their parents play around the house and in the car, so spark that fire of loving listening to music from an early age. I feel that teachers should assign listening “homework” for their students to fulfill, especially if it’s in the same vein as the piece they are learning at the moment.

Most of all, savor what you’re listening to. There are so many studies that purport the benefits of learning music (greater academic skills, improved motor abilities, etc.), and while they are all wonderful and true, the significance of learning, playing, and listening to music lies in enrichment. It improves our lives and challenges us. It gives us something to share with each other. You can even say that it gives life some sort of meaning.

I’ll conclude with this quote by Douglas Adams:

“Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven and Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human. Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe.”

Tips on Staying Motivated During the Summer

beachpianogull2

If you’re not planning on spending time away from home (and a piano) during the long summer months, here are some tips on keeping you or your student motivated to keep up their piano chops!

  • Enroll in a music camp or class outside of the normal private lessons. My best memories were at the Aspen Music Festival and School, a summer-long classical music program. I was lucky to earn scholarships to go twice when I was 15 and 20. I loved the nature-y atmosphere, the free concerts performed by both students and the world’s best, the friends I made, and how much I learned by simply being surrounded by music day and night. The practice rooms were right off a bumbling brook, and you could hear the water rushing by as you played.
  • Go to summer concerts! Sometimes you need to see and hear someone inspiring to get inspired. The Hollywood Bowl, The Greek Theatre, and your local community orchestra – even free street music – can offer experiences that stay with you (I remember the awesome time we picnicked to the music of Andrew Bird when we won free tickets). Check out this summer guide for the latest concert highlights in Los Angeles.
  • Enroll in more than one private lesson per week. Summer can be a time of catching up, as the school months are hectic and filled to the brim with after-school activities. When there is the pressure of having two lessons per week, students are more likely to amp up their practicing in order to be ready for the next lesson.
  • Observe or participate in a master class. It’s sometimes a rewarding opportunity to have another musician or pedagogue critique your work in front of a live audience. Masterclasses are held throughout the year and usually are a part of summer music programs.
  • Form a chamber music group. What better way to learn to listen than to play with others? There are so many possibilities: piano duos and duets; multi-instrument trios, quartets, quintets, sextets; and collaborating with another instrumentalist or singer. Grab a few friends and play!
  • Organize a recital. This can be an informal event held at a local school or church, including friends, family, and the local community. You could even share the program with another musician (and your chamber music group!). Sometimes having a deadline is the best motivator.

Happy practicing!