Playing Piano and the Brain

When I taught piano, I noticed something about my students’ learning.  The first two years were easy and a student got satisfaction quickly from playing recognizable melodies.

Year three, however, separated the long-term gain students from the others.Piano and the Brain Pieces are more difficult at this point and practice time is lengthier than 15 or 20 minutes a day. The student begins to learn more serious piano literature.  Practice sessions involve more technique with exercises to improve the fingers and the ear.

Most parents can tell the difference between their child suffering through learning an instrument they dislike, and one going through growing pains. If  you think it’s growing pains, encourage your child and help them to stick with it.  Here’s why.

A child engages both sides of the brain when they study piano. Both hands and all fingers learn to operate independently. They problem solve, they learn creative interpretation, they develop listening skills, and they learn tenacity.  Research reported in National Geographic calls piano study a “cognitive training program” that later on benefits aging brains.

After the year three difficulties, there’s smoother sailing, and your child learns that effort and stick-to-it-tive-ness pays off.



Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

When I teach science, I look for opportunities to integrate the arts because the arts are means of expression for everyone. To me, it doesn’t matter if you know much about classical music. It’s more important to use music and help others to enjoy it by making direct connections with other disciplines.

You can do this, too.

For example, The Planets, composed in 1914-1915 by British composer Gustav Holst, is a suite of pieces inspired by his understanding of astronomy and astrology. My favorite piece is “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” because its musical themes are recognizable to many.

After learning about the solar system, I’ve asked children to listen to “Jupiter,” had them evaluate what they hear in the piece, and then determine if it expands or deepens their understanding of the planet. This is quite sophisticated for children of any age, but I’ve been astonished at the insights of even young students.

You can follow the lead by listening to the great Leonard Bernstein speak about The Planets. “Jupiter” begins at about 24:58.

Haydn for Happiness

Introduce a little classical music that washes your children with happiness. One piece from Franz Joseph Haydn’s  “Surprise Symphony” (No. 94 in G) may sound familiar to you and your children, which makes listening to it even more fun.

Part of the happiness comes from Haydn’s surprise sounds written in this piece. Some of it is that music from the classical era, which includes Haydn, Mozart, and some Beethoven, is easy listening.  Its symmetrical structure feels comfortable, the harmonies agree with the ear, and the rhythm feels as regular as a pulse.

Symmetrical, harmony, rhythmic–all good elements for happy parents and children.



Teacher-Learner Leonard Bernstein

Many educators believe that teaching and learning are the same—two sides of the same coin. It’s because when we teach, we learn and when we learn, we teach.

For example, when you teach a math topic you know well, and then have students pick it up in different ways, we learn more about how we teach and add to our knowledge of how students learn math. It may sound obvious or simple, but it’s not.

To be a teacher-learner or a learner-teacher means to remain open to possibilities, to other ways of thinking, to other kinds of knowledge, even to be ready to grow in a way not yet known. You have to take risks, be creative and embrace problem solving.

Leonard Bernstein draws a good picture of this. While he studied piano as an advanced student, he also gave lessons to students who were beginners. As his career unfolded, his learning and teaching evolved into collaborations with some of the world’s greatest conductors and musicians. He famously mentored many younger musicians, and his close collaborations blurred the lines of teacher-learner even more.

Enjoy the great Bernstein discussing teaching and learning at :50 to 1:30. For a second treat, watch a teacher-learner in action from 41:35 to 43:30.

Democracy and Education, Kazoo-Style

Want a fun idea for teaching about democracy?

Hand out kazoos to your students and celebrate National Kazoo Day on January 28. Democracy—a system of the people, by the people, for the people—prevails because everyone can hum.

You can make kazoos out of recycled materials (toilet paper roll, wax paper, and a rubber band) or buy them at a dollar store. Hum a song into it that everyone knows in unison, harmony—it’s all up to you. Aren’t these kazoo choir students impressive?

Not everyone gets to play in a band. But with kazoos, everyone gets the thrill of being part of a large group. Whatever your contribution sounds like, it adds to the forward movement of music.

Here’s a group from 2008 trying to break a record for the world’s largest kazoo band. (There’s a long intro, so begin watching at 4:30.) 


Use What Talents You Possess

…The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.”

I love this quote, attributed to Henry van Dyke (1852-1933). It encourages us to grow our talents and share them with the world. It’s also the way we encourage students to aim high, practice, and try even harder. It’s only then that we help them uncover new abilities, whether they are gifted and talented or not.

Think about this when you work with students in school today, and listen to The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi (1723). It’s recognizable to almost all and is full of energy of imagination.

Talking With Kids About Paris

The images, audio, and news about the terrorist attacks in Paris worry all of us.   The war on terror is perhaps one of the most difficult things for us to cope with because of its sinister, cruel, and unexpected aspects.panneau-liberte-egalite-fraternite

How do adults stay informed while keeping children safe from the media onslaught?

These are three ways to handle it.

First, turn off the TV and radio.  TV delivers too much live coverage of violence for children to process. Even hearing gun shots and screams on the radio is frightening for many children.

Second, as a parent you have the power to shape the interpretation of what your children learn.  Monitor what they hear and know, then talk with them about it.

Third, find out what your children have heard, think they know, or what questions they have. Answer them simply and honestly.

-Yes, bad things do happen in the world. The grownups are doing everything they can. You are safe with me.

-Look for the helpers (borrowing from MisterRogers). See how many good  people there are?

If children ask, find a way to help them express their emotions.  Painting, drawing, or sending a card or message to the nearest French embassy work.

Thanks to my eighth grade French teacher, I learned La Marseilles, the French national anthem. In solidarity with the French people, there has never been a better time to sing it.


Music Lovers Are Problem Solvers

Problem solving stretches far beyond a math lesson, into every facet of a child’s education. When you use music as an intentional strategy, you’re building music lovers who will be problem solvers. Active listening (what do you hear?), imagination (what are the possibilities?), and sustained focus (what do you think is the composer’s message?)

You don’t need to be a music educator, nor do you need to know a lot about music to do this. Here’s one way to build music lovers and problem solvers:

  1. Start with an easy-to-listen-to piece like The Moldau, by the Czech composer Smetana. It’s about a journey down the River Moldau and what pictures the composer paints along the way.
  2. Ask children to listen for small streams, a rural wedding, white water rapids, a stately castle.
  3. Discuss what everyone heard. Play the piece again. Have students  draw what they heard.

The results show you what children heard in an unfamiliar piece of music, what they heard their peers say, and how they learned to incorporate it into a larger picture.

It’s not a stretch to see how music lovers become problem solvers. We need more of them in our world, especially ones who listen.

Piano Month and Chopin: Developing the Mind

September is National Piano Month and taking lessons is a great opportunity to help your child to develop her mind—think problem solving, listening, analyzing, focus, grit. I studied the piano for years and tenacity was one of the biggest skills I learned.

The first months, even years, of learning the piano is fun. The pieces are easy to play and the practice demands are few.

Chopin as painted by his once-fiancé, Maria Wodzinska.
Chopin as painted by his once-fiancé, Maria Wodzinska.

However, once a student gets to the third through fifth years, the fun turns to work and discourages many students from continuing. A lot of children take piano lessons (did you?) but lose interest after they reach the intermediate level.

Help your child stick to it when the going gets tough. Listen to piano music together. Play the works of incomparable composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) to wash your home in piano music. Load the dishwasher as you listen to a Chopin piece, or sit with your eyes closed and relax.

You’ll then be ready to enjoy the International Chopin Piano Competition in October!

Summer Night Sounds

Right now, I’m sitting near an open window and listening to a nighttime chorus of katydids and crickets in huge numbers. Want to listen, too?

How many night insect sounds can you identify? Besides being relaxing music from nature, children find it incredibly interesting to learn about insects and how they create their songs.

Make learning about summer night sounds a memorable experience in your family.  Click here for plenty of insect identification info on a great site.