Getting kids to tune in early to musical instruments

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The toddlers shake, rattle, and roll. They sing "Ring around the Rosy" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Most of all, they're just having fun.

"Kids are inherently very musical," says their teacher Ruth Schecter, who runs a Boston-area program called Start with Music. "They love to move to music, to sing."

Because of that, many music teachers and educators advocate taking up a musical instrument at a young age. Playing instruments often helps increase self-esteem and gives children poise, says Charles Olton, president and chief executive officer of the New York City-based American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL).

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Young people who play some kind of instrument often participate in more activities in school, play sports, and get more involved in community service.

One study at the University of California at Irvine showed that preschoolers who took several months of daily group singing lessons as well as private keyboard lessons scored much higher on spatial-reasoning tests - critical in the development of math and engineering ability.

"We know that the same skills it takes to learn an instrument are used for other things," says Heather Watts, director of education advocacy for ASOL. "They learn about communication. It gives them a unique way to express themselves."

But fewer young children are learning to play musical instruments, Mr. Olton says.

"In some cases, families have stopped caring about it. In others, both parents are working and there doesn't seem to be time for it. Single parents are overwhelmed, and school budgets have been cut," Olton says.

The League, in conjunction with ABC Volunteers Initiatives Program Arts Committee, has produced a public-service announcement called "Come Play with Us," which tries to tune youths in to the idea that music is more than something to listen to; that it can be played.

"My personal experience is that youths are a bit more passive about instruments. They want to get a lot of input without having to expend a lot of effort," says LeAnn Binford, director of education for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in Texas. "The most important thing you can do is to introduce the children to an instrument. A lot of children become captivated by the sounds they hear and want to play."

Ms. Binford directs "Forecast Music," which integrates studies of weather and climate with musical scores. When elementary school students study storms and winter, for example, they might listen to "Dance of the Snowflakes" from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite."

Music teachers agree it's important to find the right instrument at the right age to lessen frustration small people might have with some instruments. Most young kids will enjoy learning the violin, which comes in smaller sizes, or the piano.

Lisha Papert Lercari is project manager for Music in the Brain, a nonprofit program that introduces public school children to piano. There are now 20 such programs in New York City, two in New Orleans, and one in Tulsa, Okla. She wishes more could be done in the schools.

"It's crucial to have music in the schools," says Ms. Papert Lercari. "One thing we found is that kids are automatically attracted to music. Our five-year-olds read music. They like to play the piano. The younger you start them, the better."

But keeping children interested in music through their early teens and beyond can be difficult. Opportunities to learn in groups can help young adults stay motivated about playing, says Binford. When young people play in groups they have a sense of belonging to a team, and that camaraderie can keep them interested. In addition, Binford says it's important that children in this age group have outlets aside from music so they aren't overwhelmed.

The practicing that comes along with music teaches creativity, teamwork, discipline, and independent study. Regular performing can also take the fear out of standing before a group of people. Above all, says Papert Lercari, it can endow future adults with an appreciation of music.

"Kids get interested in music because they're able to achieve some degree of talent, and that keeps them going," says Papert Lercari. "They feel their progress happening every single time. Not once a month, or once a year, but every single time."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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