Music Training Enhances Children’s Verbal Intelligence

October 14, 2011 Comments Off on Music Training Enhances Children’s Verbal Intelligence

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.

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?

Whatever Are Piano Lessons For?

August 23, 2011 § 2 Comments

Piano Lessons

This question was posed to me by a parent many years ago and I have been trying to answer it ever since. Is it just my imagination, or does studying music actually improve your life? Do you get smarter, live longer, will you be better adjusted or happier if you play the piano?

This fall, families everywhere will be wondering whether to stretch the calendar and the budget to include piano lessons. Many parents recognize the need for arts study to counterbalance the academic emphasis in most schools. But when it is time to get in the car and write the checks, it is easy to wonder whether it is worth it all.

Don’t get me wrong, music for me is first, last and always its own reward. But I have noticed that pianists tend to be quite bright. Do they start out that way or does piano study somehow help things along?

Our friends The Scientists have recently set aside their investigations into pathology to study how we learn and how to improve it.  The next time I have to justify piano lessons, I will have some real answers instead of just  opinions.  I will be posting a whole slew of articles on the benefits of music study. Here’s one to start off the fall piano lesson season:

How Music Training Primes Nervous System and Boosts Learning    A review of many research papers on the effects of music study reveals music study improves listening, speech processing, attention, memory, vocabulary, reading. So anecdotal evidence that piano students do better in school is supported by some real data. Children with dyslexia, in particular, benefit from music study because it strengthens brain function in areas that in which they are weak.

Practicing

August 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

Still from the "Piano Lessons" music...

One way to get the kids to practice

Other parents gripe about getting their kids to practice the piano. We have enough problems getting dinner on the table and homework done. Are piano lessons going to add one more struggle to our family life?

Boy, I hope not. I would hate to see music turn into misery. The point of music study is to move beyond all that.

In many families, piano lesson peace is as elusive as peace in the Middle East. Teachers insist on a certain amount of practice and demand  well-prepared lessons each week. When there are syllabus exams looming or recitals scheduled, pressure mounts. Student performance is critical to a teacher’s professional standing and self-respect.  The only way to get kids to do more work at home is to get parents more involved. Kids get harassed  about practicing at home, and again at their lessons. Parents feel caught between the teacher and the kids.

I’m a parent, too.  I never liked being the both the enforcer, cheer leader AND the auxiliary teacher with my kids.  I thought keeping them fed and rested and delivered to lessons on time and the bills paid with a smile was the end of my involvement. Mostly what I did about practicing was say, “Gee, that was great! Do it again!” Or, “WHEN you finish  practicing THEN you can play video games until your eyeballs drop out of your head”.

I wasn’t very good at teaching my own kids.  They needed to learn this stuff from someone else. And I  didn’t want some teacher’s demands adding more conflict to our family. We have had plenty of that, thank you very much. Why pay for it when you can get it for free?

As a teacher, the 3-way antagonism has never worked for me. I take a more moderate position on practicing. Home practice is good. More is better. Conflict around practicing that threatens family peace is not good. More conflict, even if it results in more piano playing, is really not good.  And quitting the piano because of practice conflicts is very bad.

Every family is different. It’s possible for parents to encourage, insist, and help with piano practice. But not all parents want or can do this. Not all children accept parental help gracefully. Parental help is the last thing many children want.

Teachers can also have a helpful, non-adversarial role in piano practice. Learning how to practice is really the whole point of piano lessons: how do you learn with the brain and body and time you have. It won’t happen well if the teacher just requires it. It needs to be carefully taught.

Peace. Music. Learning. Isn’t that enough?

Sustainable Piano Lessons?

July 23, 2011 § 4 Comments

The other day I caught up with a mom I hadn’t seen in years. Last I heard, her oldest daughter was playing the cello in the local youth orchestra, taking part in competitions, having 2-hour lessons each week and practicing 4 hours a day.

Impressive? You bet. Parents and teachers  talk about this kind of kid with awe. Even other kids are impressed. There is magic in hard-working adolescents making music. We all wonder about the future-will she be the new Yo-Yo Ma?

The answer in this case is no. Her mom reports that, 10 years later, she won’t  touch the cello. She doesn’t even keep it with her-it is in a closet at her parents’ house. She and the cello have broken up, a common ending to the high-pressure music program she went through.

But, she does play the piano. Playing the piano was just a handy skill. It could pad her resume, help her learn her cello parts more thoroughly.  No one took it seriously: there were no competitions, no pressure to perform, no high-stakes lessons. She just learned to play some music that interested her, learned some skills she could use forever, learned how she and the piano could get along. Learned how music could belong to her and her alone.

This is what I mean by sustainable piano lessons. Piano study need not distort your life. It can fit into it, enhance it, comment on it, make it endurable, give it weight, give you a home to come back to. It doesn’t have to be all about making teachers look good  and preparing you for a career as a performer. It can be just about you and the piano. That’s enough.

You can sustain the study of the piano  for a lifetime. It can sustain you for a lifetime. I try to make my lessons sustainable for all the people out there who need the piano but don’t need the other stuff.

What sustains you? Leave a comment below.

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