Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tips for Creating a Musical Environment

One of the key factors in the Suzuki method is environment. Suzuki observed that children learn to speak by being immersed in their mother tongue—their parents speak to them, sing to them, respond to their babbles and facial expressions, and make a HUGE deal out of the first time baby says “Dada” or “Mama”. Even when they are not being spoken to directly, they are surrounded by language: parents, siblings, friends, neighbors, are all constantly carrying on conversations in the baby’s presence. The child may or may not be paying close attention to these conversations, but s/he is steadily hearing and absorbing all of it. Likewise, a rich musical environment should be part of a child’s musical development—how else are they going to really internalize the language.

This idea seems a little daunting to parents who are new to music lessons. What do you do if classical music is a foreign language at your house? Here are some suggestions—most of them are easy and inexpensive:

1) Listen daily. If you are taking Suzuki lessons, there is a CD recording for each volume of pieces your child is learning. Play it every day, as much as you can get away with. Even though your child may not seem to be paying attention, s/he is internalizing the music, and developing a model for how each piece should sound. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is in learning and remembering a piece, and for the amount of effort it takes, the payback is simply amazing.

2) Turn on the radio. Our local public radio station plays classical music from 9-noon every weekday, and broadcasts live concerts from all over the world several evenings a week.

3) Visit your library. Even if your library’s selection of classical CDs is small, it’s still a place to start. If you hear something you like on the radio, make note of the composer and look for other pieces by the same person. The same goes for performers. Classical music is a collaborative art: one person writes the music, somebody else (usually) interprets it. Make note of the individual or group performing something you liked, and look for other recordings by the same people.

4) Go to concerts. I wouldn’t recommend taking young children to a long, formal performance if they aren’t used to concert etiquette. But many symphonies offer family concerts with kid-friendly programming (read: short pieces) and a relaxed atmosphere. Keep your eye out for outdoor concerts, too. Again, the atmosphere is more relaxed, and it is easier to make a quick exit with a restless child. Check, too, with your local colleges, universities, and youth orchestra programs. Student ensembles often give free or inexpensive concerts, and there is much to be said for children getting to see other young people perform.

5) Read. I’m a real fan of traveling across disciplines and art forms. Knowing about Mozart’s childhood, or Beethoven’s struggle with deafness, or Milhaud’s experience in a concentration camp helps me appreciate and understand their music all the more. If you haven’t spent much time on this blog, check here for a continually-evolving list of music books for children.

6) Branch out. Does your child know what can be done with his or her instrument? The Suzuki books are a wonderful start, but there is so much cool stuff out there! In the violin world, there are the classical star composers and performers (and please do check out works by Paganini, Sarasate, and Wieniawski, the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas, and concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Sibelius, and others) but there are also amazing things being done in jazz, rock, and fiddling, not to mention crossover work being done all over the place.


  1. Excellent post! Overwhelming, yes, but very helpful to have concrete, practical suggestions! Thanks! :)

  2. Glad to hear it Shonya (the helpful part, not the overwhelming part.) I'm curious, what else would it be helpful to find here?

  3. Oh wow, I don't know! I could be really lazy and say you could do a post a week on a composer or performer including a bio and links to the music. Then we could have a weekly music appreciation class taught by you and I could just gather my kiddos around the computer. . .Giggle I know, I know, I could do that myself, but I only know the "big names"--you know, Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Handel. . . :)

    I really don't know. I love the bibliography. Are you still playing in the Quincy Orchestra? Maybe sharing a schedule of those performances would be nice and we could try to attend.

    You have better ideas than I have--so share what you think of, it's always good!


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