Toot Your Own Horn

I wrote this in Fall ’06 for my magazine article writing class

“Hey, Jack.” The music halted. Jack let out a slow breath while his eyes found Tom’s anxious face. Under the thread of Tom’s skittish chatter about exams, Jack carefully wiped his saxophone and responded. Weighty test scores were due out the following day, but other than a little extra apprehension it still felt like any other day. Jack had no way of knowing that in a few hours Tom would climb to the top of a waterfall with a box of matches and a bottle of kerosene and end his life.

These two great minds were both graced with ample opportunities, supportive families, and comfortable homes. Why did Tom implode while Jack did not?  One major difference between these two was Jack’s beloved saxophone. Tom had no mechanism of release.

The purpose of this story is not to suggest that kids raised without music are suicidal. It illustrates how important it is for kids to have a healthy outlet for stress.

Music is a perfect stress-reliever and an invaluable part of brain development, and any parent can put it to work in the lives of their children. Now before you throw your hands in the air and use your own musical inadequacy as an excuse, let me say, raising children with music doesn’t require musical ability, and it’s worth the effort.

You don’t have to be a musical genius; you don’t even have to be good at it. Children don’t care about musical ability. My grandmother was completely monotone, but my mother has many happy memories of singing together with her family and none of them include her mother’s deficiencies as a singer.  Children who learn to sing or play an instrument have a fantastic tool for stress relief. In the January 1999 issue of New Women, Rebecca Norris says that if music has a tempo of 60 to 70 beats per minute, (as is found in most New-Age music) after concentrating on the music for about ten minutes your heart begins to mimic that rhythm and decrease in beats per minute. This experience also helps to decrease stress and its harmful side-effects. It works by lowering levels of cortisol, a hormone released on the body during stressful situations. Norris further warns that if levels of cortisol stay elevated for a long period of time, it may lead to heart disease and other ailments.

My grandmother says that she could always tell what mood my mother was in by the style of music she played on the piano. When my mother was really upset she began a practice session with a dramatic song and poured all of her frustrations into it. Each successive piece got less and less dramatic until my mother ended with a calm and subtle piece. Her frustrations melted and my mother was renewed and refreshed.

Music also uses and develops all areas of the brain. In the November 1998 issue of Educational Leadership, Norman Weinberger published, “The Music in Our Minds.” Weinberger says that, “Learning and performing music actually exercises the brain, not merely by developing specific music skills, but also by strengthening the synapses between brain cells.”

Weinberger says making music helps to engage and exercise all six of the major functional systems of the brain. This makes sense when you consider what it takes to read sheet music, perform, and evaluate a performance. In ensemble playing, each student must listen to his/her own performance while coordinating with others. Then they must learn and remember what is on the score, or play from memory. Weinberger claims that brain scans taken during musical performances show that virtually all of the cerebral cortex is active. Clearly, music is an effective way to exercise and increase the capabilities of our mind.

Michael Greene, Recording Academy President and CEO, spoke at the Grammy Awards in 2000. “Music is a magical gift we must nourish and cultivate in our children. Scientific evidence proves that an education in the arts makes better students, enhances spatial intelligence in newborns, and let’s not forget that the arts are a compelling solution to teen violence, certainly not the cause of it!”

Your child’s age What to do
Newborn Rock and sing to your babies.
Toddler Dance and sing to action songs such as Head, Shoulders, Knees, & Toes.
Preschool Sing songs that allow them to mimic you.
5-6 years old Begin piano instruction.
10 -12 years old Begin instruction on another instrument or formal voice training.
All ages Sing before bed and in the car.  Let your children teach you songs as well.

NOTE: The above is actually a table, but I don’t know how to display it that way on WordPress yet.

Musical children, how?

Start by rocking and singing to your baby, which develops their ear to understand pitches and rhythm. Because babies listen, their attention spans stretch, and they develop pitch memory and natural rhythm.

Besides, singing is one of the most natural ways a mother can bond with her newborns. Many babies are mesmerized by the sound of their parent’s singing voice. When my son was about 2-months-old, he had trouble with gas. After trying gas drops, massage, vibrations, and a few other treatments with no real results, it seemed I could do nothing to relieve his suffering. My mother reminded me to rock and sing to my baby and soon his screams reduced to a whimper.

Teach your toddler action songs and nursery rhymes, such as “Patty-Cake”; “Ring Around the Rosie”; and “Head, Shoulders, Knees, & Toes.”  Bounce them on your knee, clap hands, and dance with them while you sing. This reinforces pitch and rhythm development.

Action songs also aide in developing the left (creative) and right (scientific) sides of the brain, and teaches coordination between the two.

Your preschooler will enjoy songs that allow them to mimic you. My mother sang  “Little Sir Echo” (by John S. Fearis’ and Laura Roundtree Smith) with my brothers and me. We loved to echo the hellos, and felt like we contributed to the song, even before we were capable of learning all the words.

Pay attention to the different kinds of music that you play in your children’s presence. Your children’s mental and physical health is affected by the music they are surrounded with. In The Effects of Rock Music on the Personality, Shirley Porter-Murdock claims that, “studies have shown that a child who has been exposed to [nothing but] rock music since birth looses the capacity to relax totally but rather has a tautness or tension about him/her which is often displayed in irritability and anxiety.”

Children do really well when they start the piano about age 5 or 6. They have learned alphabetic and numeric symbols and are primed to learn other symbols, so learning to read music is natural at this time. Also, children are learning how to focus on a task and half-hour practice sessions encourage that.

Acquiring musical skills requires short-term and long-term goal setting. Children work to master a line of music or a piece. They work to learn a whole book of music and move up a grade. As children reach goals, music builds in them a sense of accomplishment and teaches invaluable study habits.

Piano provides a great foundation for any musical aspiration. It requires knowledge of the treble clef and bass clef, while most other instruments only use one clef. Piano also teaches how to use both hands independently. Suggest the piano to your child and watch for interest.

Regular recitals and other performances will help your child become comfortable displaying themselves to an audience. I’ve been told that I was a painfully shy little girl, but my mother encouraged me to sing and play for people often. I remember stage-fright, but I can honestly say that now I have no fear when performing in front of hundreds of people.

Parental support is crucial during this time. Practicing is often monotonous. It’s important to remind your child of how far they have come, and future goals. Pull out old pieces and let them see how easy they are compared to when they first started playing them. Play a recording of a song your child loves and let them imagine themselves playing at a professional level.

Beware of negative criticism. A new musician’s practice-sessions are hard to listen to, but your perceived support or annoyance affects your child. I knew a girl whose parents actually asked her to wait and practice her instrument when they were gone so that they didn’t have to listen. Not surprising, she had no confidence and gave the instrument up after a few short years. Well-meaning parents of another girl with a beautiful, natural, operatic voice were intimidated by her big sound and often asked her to soften her voice. But the girl translated the understandable concern into a negative statement about her voice and even as a grown woman she is an insecure singer.

Age 10-12 is a great time to start another instrument or formal voice training if your child is interested. Most middle schools and junior high schools have music classes available. They prove a great support to private instruction. Your child has studied music and will then have the opportunity to enjoy it and share it with others outside your family.

If you don’t opt for private instruction on the second instrument, that’s okay. My experience has been that not many people stick with instruments they only study at school, but your child will still benefit from sharing music with others.

The payoff

You don’t need to be told one more time to keep your kids away from constant TV watching. But remember, if your children have a better way to pass the time, they will be less likely to turn to television for entertainment.

Also, exposing your children to different types of music gives them appreciation for many genres, including the genre that you favor. Even though most people my age don’t, I have developed a great love for John Denver, Johnny Cash, Ella Fitzgerald, Irving Berlin, Mendelssohn, Bach and others.

Music has the power to unify a family as they create music together. It builds fantastic memories, and it’s a great way to express emotion to each other. We always hear stories about the family gathered around the piano, the guitar or even the radio sharing a song.

A long-standing tradition in my child-hood was centered around the song, “Oh Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam.”  We paused in between singing each line and my father yelled out a ridiculous comment about the song. After the line, “Where the deer and the antelope play,”  my father would say, “The antelope’s on the 40th and comin’ in for a touchdown!”  my brothers and I collapsed into a fit of giggles. We used this routine at talent shows and fireside gatherings, and we always felt like the best act of the night.

Music is a great way to serve the community. Just last weekend I sang at a funeral for a good friend’s father. It was amazing to look into the eyes of those that were grieving and offer them the comfort of a beautiful song. As a child, the more I performed in retirement centers and hospitals, the more respect I had for our older generations. I remember when my friends at elementary school talked about how freaky old, sickly people were, but I didn’t see what the big deal was. I had an appreciation for those people.

Remember, “Nothing touches the soul, but it leaves an impression; then we are fashioned into all we have seen and heard, known and meditated. If we learn to live with all that is purest and fairest and best; the love of it all will become our lives.”    -unknown

The most important thing is to sing. Forget about your own ability; it doesn’t matter. Sing before bed, sing in the car; go caroling to your neighbors.

Let your kids teach you songs they learn at school or church.

Help your children learn to use this perfect stress-reliever and invaluable tool for brain development. However you choose to implement it, music will benefit your family and reward your efforts.


As they exited the band room Tom turned his troubled eyes to Jack and said, “ I don’t know how you can spare the time to learn that thing on top of everything else.”  Jack smiled and placed a light hand on his treasured saxophone, “I can’t afford not to.”

BTW: I hate the title of this article. Any better ideas?


4 responses to this post.

  1. I was listening to a song in the car and my son started to bawl uncontrollably. Come to find out, the song I was listening to had made him sad. The song had a very depressing feeling tone to it. It had affected him so great that he was truly saddened by the music. That experience set me straight and I now pay a ton more attention to how the music I listen to affects me and those around me. Music can make a huge difference in our lives.


  2. Posted by Ben on October 4, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    By the way – my son was only three at the time.


  3. My suggestion is in the paragraph “Music has the power…. ” In the third sentence, instead of saying “we always hear stories” I would say, “We often hear stories”


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