Music Training Enhances Children’s Verbal Intelligence

October 14, 2011 Comments Off

An illustrated sutra from the Nara period, 8th...

I don't know what this is all about but it looks like what is going on in our local school.

My local elementary school has music class for 40 minutes every 2 weeks, and for that whole 40 minutes the students get to watch the teacher do something. They don’t have time  for that messy, complicated, glorious stuff like actually learning to play and sing and dance. The Powers running the school feel that there is barely enough time in the school day to work on passing the state tests in reading and writing and arithmetic and so it can’t be frittered away on music.

Here’s yet another piece of research showing why this is a dumb way to try to make kids smart. After only 20 days of exposure to an interactive music training program preschoolers showed improvements in verbal intelligence .”Our findings demonstrate a causal relationship between music training and improvements in language and executive function”.

I’m a practicing musician and I have developed a high level of verbal intelligence, so I’m not fooled by the academic language in this quote. I know it says studying music makes kids smarter. And smart is as smart does, so the bit about  executive function is also important. If you’re not familiar with the term “executive function”,  it has to do with carrying out  your ideas and plans. Executing your intentions. It has nothing to do with the Fortune 500 per se, but I bet those CEO’s have it in spades.

Want to exercise your verbal intelligence? Here’s some nice clichés to use when you are talking about schools eliminating music so they can concentrate on their “core subjects”:

Throw the baby out with the bath water.

Cut off your nose to spite your face.

Rob Peter to pay Paul.

Dig yourself into a hole.

A few sandwiches short of a picnic.

I’m sure you can think of some more. Send ‘em in.

Benjamin Zander: Classical music with shining eyes – YouTube

October 10, 2011 § 1 Comment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Benjamin Zander: Classical music with shining eyes – YouTube.

How does classical music work? And what does it do? And why do we play it, learn it, teach it? Many have asked these questions and many words have been spilled in answer. When I have to wrestle with them I mumble and stutter and look off into the distance and wish I had some prepared remarks and a better way to translate music and feeling into words. But now I have this video.

 

 

“Let living room pianos invite unwashed hands”

September 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

The new poetry post (with extra box for music)

My new poetry post in front of the house has been standing empty for about a month while I considered what would be the right poem to inaugurate the little box with a glass front and a hinged lid. Should it be a poem about poetry? Should it be about music? Should it be something silly or something deep? Should I look to  old favorites like Shelley and Keats or get one of my poet-friends to contribute?

Today I finally took the plunge and printed up the first poem, by Sarah LindsayZucchini Shofar

I wish I could figure out how to make the poem display on this page, but if you click on the link you’ll get it.

I have loved this poem for several years and every time I read it, including just now, during the Days of Awe,  standing in front of my house and reading it through the glass of the poetry box, I am smitten with the feeling that I wrote it myself, or could have, or would have, had I been a poet and been at that wedding and heard the sounding zucchini and all those nieces and nephews playing their instruments or if I had ever  thought of making the plumbing in a half-built house resound with a trumpeting raspberry or ever realized that the ephemeral art I practice has everything in common with butter that melts into homemade cornbread.

L’Shanah Tova!

 

How to play the piano

September 21, 2011 § 3 Comments

Here is a video of  the one, the only, the superlative pianist, Artur Rubenstein,  captured on Soviet TV.

The best thing about Soviet videos of pianists is the Soviets  only had one camera and couldn’t indulge in the nose shots and audience shots that usually wreck piano videos. The one camera just sits there, focused on the real action at the keyboard.

The worst thing about Soviet video is the sound. You can’t hear Rubenstein’s rich, direct tone. You can’t hear the miracle of this etude,  a melody created  by  the right hand’s little finger jabbing at separate notes but borne aloft by an undercurrent in the other 9 fingers, like a long ribbon unspooling on a breeze.

But you can watch this video and see exactly how to play the piano. It is a perfect visual record of how Rubenstein played. I don’t know how I lived so long without seeing this wonderful video. You can see EXACTLY how he did things. Notice the extreme economy of movement. Notice the elegant posture. Notice the restraint, the lack of wiggling, waving, grimacing, jerking, straining and other excesses all too common on today’s stages. Notice, too, that his fingers and hands are only peripherally involved, the real work being done with his arms, shoulders, back and brain.

I’m often told, “You make it look so easy”. The truth is, as you can see by watching this video, it IS easy. The hard part is getting from where you are to where it is this easy. The hard part is unlearning the junk that most of us are taught about trying extra hard, stretching, exercising the hands, keeping our fingers curved, etc., etc., etc.

If you want to know how to play the piano, just watch this video.

How to choose a piano teacher

September 19, 2011 § 2 Comments

Phlobaphene is the red pigment present in the ...

Corn

A couple years ago my friend Cydney called to ask me a difficult question. It was a question about piano teaching and kids, the sort of thing I can talk about until my tongue falls out of my head, but this question stumped me.

You see, Cydney is a scientist. She’s a very logical and rational person who thinks there is straight path from here to anywhere. So, when her kids got to grade school, she figured it would be easy to find them a piano teacher. She’s used to reading resumes of PhD’s and post docs, so many years at this lab, so many publications authored, so many patents received, etc.

But how was she to evaluate a piano teacher? Piano teachers don’t do research, we usually don’t publish, we usually don’t have advanced degrees, we aren’t part of a network  that a scientist can tap into.

When Cydney started looking at  piano teachers, she was overwhelmed. It was all so murky and indirect. There was no agreed-upon criteria for rating piano teachers. Did you rate them highly because their students win contests? Do you rate them on the basis of where their (usually undergraduate) degrees are from? Who they studied with? What grades they got in Counterpoint 310? What kind of piano they had? Where they lived? How old they were? Some used only one method with every student. Some had stringent practice requirements. Some demanded recitals and group lessons. Some struck her as wishy-washy and vague.

She called me from Washington, D.C. in a panic: How ever could  she pick a piano teacher for her kids?

Unfortunately Washington is several time-zones and a few thousand miles away from here, or we could have cut the conversation short and put her terribly cute kids on my schedule every Tuesday afternoon. End of problem. I know I could teach her kids, even though one of them is a little autistic and the other has a big problem sitting still for more than a nano-second.

I know how to teach kids like that and I know what Cydney is after: a good musical experience,  basic skills, a sound foundation that won’t hold them back, someone who can take them as far and as fast as they want to go, lots of success, happy kids going into the lesson and happy kids coming out.

But how could she find someone like me in Washington D.C.?

I really didn’t have a decent answer for her at first. How do you pick a piano teacher? How do you tell your friend how to pick a piano teacher?  I know how I picked a drum teacher for my kids, but I have lots of experience with music teachers.  I knew my kids, I knew lots of teachers, I picked the one that I figured had the best shot at getting them playing and keeping them playing. But how did I make that choice?

In biology there is a phrase: a feeling for the organism. Barbara McClintock, whose work on corn genetics and gene regulation brought her a Nobel prize, used it as the title for her autobiography. It was her feeling for corn in its wonderful variety and her deep study of its genetic behavior that convinced her  that genes were being turned off and on and modified even though  such ideas were against current genetic dogma. She was reviled  and ignored for 30 years but persevered anyway.

A person who has a feeling for the organism has an intuitive grasp of how that organism behaves, what makes it tick, how it will respond. If you are looking for someone to work  on root rot fungi or orangutans or corn, you look for the person who has a feeling for that particular organism and a fascination with all its mysteries.

If you want to hire someone to work on corn genetics, you look for a person who eats, breathes, sleeps, dreams and talks corn genetics. You don’t hire the lima bean guy with the 3-mile long resume and impeccable credentials,  unless he admits to a life-long yearning to get out of beans and into corn.

But you also don’t hire the corn lady with the long resume if she thinks she already understands everything about corn and genetics. If Barbara McClintock had thought that way, she would have ignored her data that showed corn  was violating the genetic rules. She would have ignored what seemed to be  wrong results rather than being intrigued by wonderful, unexplained behavior.  Instead of making profound discoveries about genetics she would have been a hack scientist with a nice CV and a retirement fund.

Cydney knows about these people. She knows the difference between the bean guy whose eyes light up when you mention corn to him and the corn lady who can’t wait to get out of the office and get on with her real life. And, like me, she is a life-long fan of Barbara McClintock.

So she got it when I called back a few days later and said, “You need someone who has a feeling for the organism. Look for someone who is just nuts about teaching music to kids. Not someone who is looking for contest winners or perfect behavior or moms with 20 hours a week to spend supervising practice, although those people can be just fine. What you need first of all is someone with a feeling for those organisms which are your kids. Go for the person who looks even more interested when you tell them about the autism and ADHD. Pick the person who is curious and loves a challenge. And pick the one who thinks teaching music to your kids sounds like a blast”.

I was pretty proud of myself for making the connection between corn genetics and Barbara McClintock and piano teachers. It was a great moment when I taught a biologist how to navigate the murky world of humans and education. After all, we are the most interesting and complex organism on the planet.

Cydney picked  a dynamite teacher for her kids. It took some work to find the right person. But the kids  are playing up a storm and everyone is pleased. Only trouble is, I’m not real sure how to answer this question if someone who isn’t a biologist asks it. Any ideas out there?

Tighten Up!

September 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

Hanon example of studies

Image via Wikipedia

One of my students was asking about an exercise written by a certain French pedagogue, Charles-Louis Hanon. Pianists have played Hanon exercises for 150 years. Teachers assign them automatically, without much soul-searching. They have passed into the realm of unexamined truths: everyone else plays them, they must be good.

Problem is, piano exercises are like penicillin. They can be wonder drugs or useless wastes of time or downright harmful. You only want to prescribe them as needed and only after careful diagnosis.

Watch out! Piano exercises can be hazardous to your health. Use only under supervision and only as directed. Do not attempt to operate machinery like a piano while under the influence of this stuff.

My student asked about one of these gems in her lesson book and I said, “For you, for now, no. It will just make you tighten up”.

To my surprise she started singing, “We’re gonna tighten up. Let’s do the tighten up. Everyone can do it now so get to it”.

I think Archie Bell and the Drells had a different idea about “tight” than I do.  What do you think?  Here they are with the Hanon theme song.

The Truth About Piano Lessons

August 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Wide angle photo of the action of a Kawai UST-...

Learning the piano involves learning to control 88 complicated little levers with 10 little fingers. And 2 feet.

Here is an excellent article by a piano teacher in Massachusetts, Karen Berger, from  her blog Musical Resources. It has been reprinted and circulated all around the world. Anyone thinking about piano lessons for themselves or a child will profit from reading this. She is aiming mostly at parents and describes the many benefits of learning the piano. But she also tells the truth about how hard it can be to practice, how hard it is to get a child to practice, how frustrating the whole process can be and how long it can reasonably take.

I’m not sure I would have the nerve to lay out the truth in quite this fashion. I’m more a  gradually-turn-down-the-thumbscrews kind of person. But otherwise we are entirely together on the costs and benefits of piano study. We even read the same scientific journals.

It is a long, hard road, mastering the piano, but worthy of every effort.

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You are currently browsing the kids’ piano lessons category at Piano Connections: The Studio of Megan Hughes.

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