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18. You are a parent of two children who went on to pursue music as a major in college. What was life in your family like and how did you managed to encourage your children to enjoy and excell in music?
The subject of how and why children have and develop musical talent is a complicated subject and I don't pretend to have all the answers. Some time ago, a member of the trombone-l email discussion group mentioned that there are two important factors involved: first a child must be endowed with talent which is inherited from their parents and given by God. But equally important is that children learn to work hard and DEVELOP their talent because of their parent's example. I agree with this thesis and have put below some of my thoughts on how parenting can impact a child - whether or not they are going to pursue music or some other vocation.
The subject of how children develop a musical talent is an interesting and important one, and one which often gets directed to me as my wife and I have two children who before going to college achieved significant things musically. Both were music majors in college and have made considerable strides musically. I often get asked the question, "How did your kids turn out to be interested in - and good at making - music?" Usually I answer with some lame "proud papa" comment, not wishing to make a fuss about my contribution to the situation and preferring to give credit where credit is due - with my kids who actually are DOING the work.
I'm not going to get into the "nature vs nurture" thing - for every scientist that says one is most important another says the other is most important. There is a critical balance here - kids often (but not always) inherit talent from their parents. There are plenty of exceptions to disprove the rule (child prodigies who have parents who can't carry a tune), but the gene pool and endowment of abilities by God are certainly a big part of any picture.
But having said this, it is also true that kids learn their ability to WORK hard and DEVELOP their talents from their parent's example. That kind of work ethic which is modeled by parents COMBINED with whatever talent a child has can lead to the development of people who will make a positive difference on the planet.
Plenty is said these days about the bad things that kids learn from their parents - statistics bear out that if mom and dad smoke cigarettes, kids in the same family will end up puffing at some time. Same goes for drinking alcohol (to excess). Many a parent has preached to their child, "Do as I say, not as I do!" But such a plea often falls on deaf ears when parents don't model a consistent life. Parents aren't perfect, but they do have an amazing opportunity to model the benefits and value of hard work and discipline. If they don't model a good life ethic, then it's no wonder that their kids don't develop one.
In our case, our kids were exposed to music in our house at an early age. There was never a desire on our part to direct them toward a career in music - I have some serious problems with Suzuki method teaching (the hours of rote work, parents hovering over kids, etc). My wife and I certainly hoped our girls would be INTERESTED in music but the thought really never crossed our minds that they would excel in it.
What did we do when they were growing up? Sorry, but no Mozart played in utero. Of course there is often music playing in our house, but it's not always Mozart and besides, the silliness about the "Mozart effect" has been proven to be just another scam. Sure, playing Mozart can teach you a lot and elicit certain kinds of emotional responses that Black Sabbath probably won't, and it may make for a more peaceful environment at home (it's easier to call everyone for dinner if you only have to yell over the "Jupiter" Symphony than gangsta rap) but the idea that playing Mozart over headphones to the bulging belly of a pregnant woman will make the kid do better on his SATs is one of the more skillful scams to come along (I can envision millions of in utero kids the world over, when the headphones are placed on mama's belly saying, "Yo, I'm trying to get some rest in here, back off, Jack!"). Mozart ain't gonna hurt you, but it's not the brain enhancer some think it is.
Mozart effect aside, we didn't do anything different with music after our girls were born than before. We played music in the house, and my wife and I made music regularly as well (trombone and piano). Our kids had little sets of percussion instruments, kazoos, plastic guitars which were never in tune, and the usual stuff. They enjoyed banging away on the drums when they heard music but it wasn't like they were putting in Steve Gadd type riffs when I put Bruckner 2 on the platter. They just did what kids do when someone puts a stick in their hand - they bang the nearest thing that makes a loud noise. And they laugh.
As soon as they were old enough to pay attention and not wet their pants, we would take our girls to concerts designed for young children. Most of these were a mixed bag; most took place in Baltimore when I was in the Baltimore Symphony - they had a series of concerts called "Tiny Tots" which was different than "Youth Concerts"). They were moderately interesting, and got our kids hearing more live music. That, along with going to church every week, was part of what taught them that they CAN sit still and pay attention for a period of time. We refused to be sucked into the "kids just can't pay attention" attitude that pervaded so much parenting we had seen. Of course kids CAN pay attention - if it is demanded of them. But kids can be manipulative little buggers and when given an inch, they can take a mile (well, in that regard they're not unlike most adults I know!). Teaching at an early age that they can have an attention span longer than a Sesame Street segment was something that has stuck with them throughout their childhood, youth, adolescence and young adulthood.
But while all this was going on, some things which were far more important were happening at home. Our kids ate food which was given to them. Saying, "I don't like broccoli" has never been an option at our house. Dad worked hard to make money for the family, mom worked hard to cook the food, so there was (and is!) no dissin' mama for the veggies. We made our own baby food, blended up brussel sprouts, cauliflower, spinach, beets, you name it. They got REAL meat, yogurt, quality grains. Not until they were over 1 year old did they learn the joy of chocolate and other sweets - by then their appetite for "real" food was well established.
So, they learned to eat what was put in front of them. They also learned to say, "Thank you" and "No thank you". Respect elders, listen carefully, share your toys, don't hit, don't talk dirty. We set a standard and it was obeyed. Sure, they pushed the envelope sometimes but when they did, they were appropriately warned, scolded or punished. Nobody felt "oppressed" in our house, but rules were set and they were adhered to.
By the same token, praise was given when praise was due. A job well done was always appreciated as well as genuine effort which may not have resulted in what was intended. We are an HONEST "mutual admiration society" where we all value highly what the others in the family are doing. We all share in each others successes and are there to help in each person's failures. I would always take off from work in order to be at my kids school programs, etc. It was a no-brainer. Each of our daughters were there when the other one had something important happening.
TV was another no-brainer - unless there was something worthwhile to watch, we just didn't turn it on. No sit-coms, no talk shows, no weekly series, no shows with gratuitous sex and violence (same for movies with the same). We never missed them. It wasn't a matter of not having our kids watch those kinds of shows - my wife and I never watched them either. We modeled what we wanted our kids to have as their values. Read a book, talk with a live person, write in your journal. Almost anything is better than the TV which is an utterly passive undertaking. We didn't use the TV as a babysitter when the girls were young. I never cease to be amazed when talking to friends who seem to disbelieve that our kids didn't/don't watch 5 hours of TV a day. "How do you do it?" they often ask me. "We just say 'no'" is the obvious but seemingly incomprehensible reply. "You mean, you can DO that?!" Wait a minute, who is the child and who is the parent here!?
Readers should not misunderstand our family life. Having expectations for our kids (and ourselves) did not create a "repressed" or stifling atmosphere in our home. On the contrary, it is a home full of love and laughter. Knowing expectations is something children WANT and respond to beautifully. Our kids have many friends, but they also know, love, respect and care about their parents. Mutually, the four of us are an incredibly close unit who share moment by moment in each other's joy, sadness, success, failure, happiness and despair. We laugh a lot. I'm a bit like a circus ringmaster, usually bouncing off the walls (that's just the way I am). FUN is a frequent thing in our house. We laugh at ourselves, too which helps us keep from taking ourselves too seriously.
Likewise, it should not be assumed that my wife and I always did things the "right" or "best" way. God knows we have tried to do what is best for our family, but I have messed up plenty as a parent, and I've often had to ask my kids to forgive me for a poor decision I've made. You don't get an instruction book when your child is born and there is a lot of trial and error that goes into parenting. But we WORKED at it and when we messed up with a bad decision or a poor choice, we didn't sit around crying in our beer - I mean, Diet Coke - we just tried to do better the next time.
Overarching all of this is a strong Christian faith. We pray together, share our deep thoughts with each other, have regular times when we study the Bible as a family. We hold each other accountable to do what we know God has led us to do. Church is a big part of our life, as is service IN the church. For our children it's meant being leaders in the youth program, for my wife and me, it's serving in the music ministry (singing in choir, playing as soloist, being in larger ensembles) as well as teaching Sunday School and taking on leadership positions.
All of this is the foundation upon which a family life in music was built. Our kids heard music in the home, my wife and I tried to model standards of behavior which became the expected and accepted norm (no matter how "out of touch" they may have been with the current standards of our screwed up society), we had a lot of fun and we enjoyed being with each other.
At about age seven, we required our girls to take piano lessons. This was not something they asked for, but neither did they balk when we told them we wanted them to do so. They WANTED to do it ("Mom does it so it's cool..."). This was not so they would become great pianists, but rather that they would learn the rudiments of music, clefs, key signatures, rhythm, some elementary theory, circle of fifths, etc. The essentials for a person who will do ANYTHING in music, whether it be play in a top flight jazz band or sing in the church choir. Learning those rudiments as a child proves much easier than learning them as an adult - how many people singing in church choirs can't read music? PLENTY!
Two years later, in 5th grade (age 9) my wife and I offered that the girls could choose any band/orchestral instrument. We made it clear - we would purchase a new instrument for them that would be theirs IF they would make a commitment to stick with it for two years, take care of the instrument and practice every day (10 minutes a day in the beginning leading up to 30 minutes a day by the end of middle school). It was a no-brainer for them - what kid doesn't like a shiny new instrument? The deal was sealed and Linda chose trombone and 3 years later Robin chose trumpet. No arm twisting - they just wanted to play brass instruments (and I'm glad they did - playing trumpet or trombone has given them the MOST flexibility of kinds of groups they can play in regularly; no other instruments are at home equally in concert band, orchestra, pep band, marching band, jazz band, pit orchestra, you name it). I taught both of our girls - Linda until she graduated from HS and Robin until she entered HS and I felt she really needed a trumpet teacher who could move her beyond what I could do with her. We always had a great "teacher/student" relationship. No tears, no screaming, no frustration. Just encouragement and challenges. It worked for us.
Because my wife played the baritone horn in HS, she agreed to pick up the baritone again after 15 years off of it when our girls began playing instruments so we could have a family brass quartet. This has turned out to be one of the joys of our life - making music together. Linda and Robin saw me practice each day, go off to work. They would come to my concerts (we have a subscription for our girls and my wife to BSO concerts), together we would all go hear visiting groups, etc. They played solos in church, entered concerto competitions at school, auditioned for (and got into) district, state and all-eastern groups. They learned the truth of the axiom:
Parents setting an example is truly the key. As I said earlier, "Do as I say, AND as I do" is a motto that many parents can't say to their kids. They can't say, "Don't do dope" when they smoke pot themselves. They can't say, "Don't sleep around" when they're out cheating on their spouse. They can't say, "Do your homework" when the house is a mess and the lawn is unkempt. Kids SEE what is going on around them - they intuitively KNOW when a person is inconsistent. They know when a person is telling them jive or being on the level.
Our daughters now have both graduated from college. Our oldest daughter is now a music teacher who gives private lessons to young players; in addition she is an active freelancer. Our youngest daughter is pursuing a career in arts administration. My wife and I will be supportive of them in WHATEVER they do. We will encourage them, praise them and are honest with them. Our girls know that no matter what they end up doing in their life, whether or not it involves a "career" in music, that their hard work, determination, discipline, self-denial, sacrifice, and FUN will pay off. It is the KIND of people they are which will cause them to succeed, not WHAT they do.
I'm sure many parents can relate to what I've written here. And perhaps some students can as well. Being a parent isn't easy - it's hard work, the hours are long and the pay isn't that great (alright, we do it for the kisses). Many kids take for granted the fact that their parents work long hours to try to provide a decent opportunity for them to experience life.
I'm reminded of a story told to me in 1965 around a Boy Scout campfire:
A boy's mother, a widow, found a note signed by her twelve-year-old son under her plate one morning. It read something like this, "Dear mother - for carrying in six buckets of coal, twenty-five cents; making the fire four times, fifteen cents; going on two errands, ten cents. Total amount owed, fifty cents."Kids do themselves a disservice when they take their parents for granted.
The mother rose from her chair, went to the dresser drawer, got her purse and took from it a half dollar which she put on the table near her boy's plate. The boy seemed highly pleased.
The next day, however, he discovered a note addressed to him under his plate at dinner time. It read, "Dear Willie - For providing food and clothing and a bed for twelve years, nothing. For dressing a baby boy for three years, nothing. For taking care of a boy with typhoid fever for eight weeks, nothing. For nursing an eight-year-old boy with scarlet fever for twelve weeks, nothing. total, nothing."
Willie didn't look up for a long time. He was too busy thinking.
But whether as parents or teachers, or workers in whatever job you have, adults have a heavy responsibility to model for children. The saying is a truism:
Your kids may not have the talent to become a great musician. But with dedicated modeling from parents and other adults in whom the child comes in contact, much can be done to help each person achieve the possibilities they have within which will allow them to positively impact our world in WHATEVER they do in life.
UPDATE 1: My daughters continued in college as music majors, graduating in 2001 and 2004. Linda is a successful music teacher in the Chicago area with a large studio of low brass students who take lessons in-school and after-school. She also freelances as a bass trombonist and is a member of the Northbrook Symphony. You can find her resources for young players of musical instruments and there parents by clicking HERE. In her senior year at Wheaton College (IL), Robin began to turn to arts administration and after three years working at Carnegie Hall in Artistic Programming and a year with the Charleston (SC) Symphony as Director of Marketing and Public Relations, she is now Communications Manager with San Francisco Opera.
UPDATE 2: In March 2013, the axiom I wrote above about practicing was picked up by John Bogenschutz, creator of Tone Deaf Comics. He thought the axiom would be a great motivating tool for students and teachers and he asked my permission to turn it into a poster for sale on his website. I was happy to agree (disclaimer: I told John that I did not want any payment for use of my words) and after he made the poster, he decided to turn the axiom into a cartoon that puts a finer point on some of what parents and teachers face when talking about music - or anything - today. The cartoon and poster are below and if this resonates with you, please visit the Tone Deaf Comics website to purchase a poster and help the next generation learn to love playing a musical instrument.
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