Summertime Blues: What Leisure Time Can Teach Your Kids

Music-making engages so many of us in a positive way in part because it requires us to be present and concentrated in each moment. To really listen and respond, our minds must be free of distraction, immersed in the act of playing our instruments. Summer leisure time–those restless non-school hours that usually elicit whines of “I’m bored!” from elementary-aged children–is actually the best opportunity for learning how to cultivate this kind of complete engagement. Here’s why, according to a recent article on Parenting Today by Nancy Darling.

Over-structured settings such as school, daycare, and extra-curricular activities can deprive kids of the chance to find out what they really like to do. A little bit of “leisure education” can teach kids how to rescue themselves from summertime boredom on their own by finding and engaging in activities they know they like. When kids learn to rescue themselves from boredom, they simultaneously learn how to engage with activities moment-to-moment. (Being distracted is boring, is it not?)

Kids today have fewer opportunities for this kind of exploration, Darling writes. “When I was a kid, we were bored all the time. There were no extracurricular activities for kids until junior high except for Scouts once a week or maybe 4H and Sunday School. We…learned to figure something out.” Summertime learning relies less on pressure and direction from adults, and more on individual problem-solving and enjoyment. Darling links this kind of engagement to her concept of “flow”:

Flow is that wonderful psychological state where you are completely engaged in what you’re doing, not self-conscious, and positive. You are in the moment. Flow usually occurs when you are doing something that is challenging (and therefore not bored), but that is not so hard that you’re stressed or scared.

For most, the experience of “flow” is a crucial component of learning and making music. When we listen to fellow ensemble musicians, perform and respond to an audience, or concentrate deeply on learning a passage of music or a technique, we learn better if we are able to engage moment-to-moment, and solve problems in real time.

This summer, whether you’re a music student yourself or a parent of one, try slowing down. You’ll be surprised at how un-boring leisure can be!

Do you have a question or comment about this post? Leave a comment below and tell us about it.

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Music Education Improves Reading Skills, Too

In the last decade, as budget cuts have increasingly stifled arts education, arts advocates have inundated the public with research touting the benefits of music education for other subjects, especially math. Newly published research from the journal Psychology of Music shows music education also may also drastically improve language and literacy learning in elementary students.

Joseph Piro and Camila Ortiz, in a quest to clarify music education’s effect on language and literacy learning, studied students in two US elementary schools. One of these schools offered keyboard instruction, which increased in difficulty over successive years. The other school did not have a music education program. After two years of keyboard instruction, the keyboard-trained students performed dramatically better on tests of vocabulary and verbal sequencing than did the non-keyboard-trained group.

Piro and Ortiz stress that focused studies like this one will “help education practitioners go beyond the sometimes hazy and ill-defined ‘music makes you smarter’ claims and provide careful and credible instructional approaches.” Because the neural response to music is one of the most widely distributed systems in the human brain, the study of music can affect many other areas of learning in a positive way, including literacy and spatial perception. The goal, Piro and Ortiz tell us, is to understand how and when to teach music in order to maximize its potential benefits on the brain.

You can read a more detailed description of the study here.

What do you think? Should schools teach music only to boost skills in subjects like math and reading, or should music education be supported for its own sake? Leave a comment below and tell us about it.

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Ways to Stretch Your Improvisation Skills

Improvising musicians of all levels face a particular challenge in their music practice: improvisers have to keep their material and ideas fresh, and guard against falling into mental or physical patterns. Patterns and habits, while useful in many respects, can limit an improviser’s ability to express his or her ideas if those patterns become too rigid. Here are 5 exercises to help you see and play beyond the same old scales and structures, for a fuller range of expression. (These are great for non-improvisers, too!)

Explore your instrument with a fresh mind.

How can you make sound on your instrument? A violinist typically draws a bow across strings–but the violin will resonate in many other ways. The violin’s wooden body can be struck with the hand, the strings can be plucked, the bow can be placed at a different proximity from the bridge, or a bow can be made out of different materials all together. Explore your instrument like a beginner. How can you make sound with the instrument in front of you?

Listen to other instruments.

Open your mind to new timbres by listening to great instrumentalists who play a different instrument than your own. Are you saxophonist? See if you can mimic your favorite cellist. Are you a drummer? See if you can make your drums sing like your favorite singer. Listen closely, and be creative.

Generate some new patterns.

If your hands tend to get stuck in the same old scales and arpeggios, try generating some entirely new patterns with musician’s dice. If you don’t have musician’s dice, you can assign each pitch of the scale to a number (1 is A, 2 is A#, and so on) and generate a series of random numbers using a computer. Experiment with the resulting random pattern. Construct an improvisation from that pattern and see where it takes you. (This exercise also works for generating new rhythms!)

Tune your instrument differently.

If you play an instrument that can be retuned, such as a guitar, try a new tuning. This allows you to explore different resonance capabilities of your instrument, and it forces your hands to find new patterns.

Improvise with someone new–and let them direct you.

No one’s improvisational mind functions in exactly the same way. Find a fellow musician who also wants to push his or her improvisational practice, and take turns directing each other. Have your buddy ask you to construct improvisations based around certain (new) patterns, or disallow you from using certain techniques so that you’ll find new modes of expression instead. You will both have to listen to one other closely and be creative. Keep it relaxed and fun, and explore together.

How do you get “unstuck” as an improviser? Leave a comment below and tell us about it.

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Join us this Wednesday, 6/30 at 8pm EST for’s new Twitter chat, #musicpractice!

This is your forum to connect with other music students, ask questions, and share your thoughts about your musical practice, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro. Think of this as a public practice journal: what have you been working on in practice time lately? Workshop your process, share tips and suggestions, and hear from your fellow musicians.

See you there!

(Stay tuned to the blog for a recap of the chat later this week.)

Do you have a question or comment about this post? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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Teaching Folk, Roots, and Blues Music – Programs and Opportunities in the US

Yesterday on the blog I quoted Dr. Larry Livingston, conductor and educator, when he urged music educators to remember that all music is teachable music: “It’s just music,” Livingston said. Today on the blog I’d like to share with you one of my own professional passions: teaching and playing American folk, roots, and blues music.

Why teach roots music? It’s just like the name suggests: “roots” music, which typically comprises folk, blues, gospel, and storytelling idioms, is the grandparent of many more recent musical forms, such as rock, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and musical theater. Roots music is the culmination of the many musical voices that landed on North American soil. It is also a vehicle for teaching United States history in a hands-on way to young students.

Though in the last 50 years music education has opened up its doors to a wide variety of popular forms, from jazz to rock to hip-hop, when it comes to blues and folk music curricula in public schools, only a handful of organizations and resources exist, and these are often underutilized due to a lack of funding or organization on a local level.

The good news is that if you are a blues or folk musician and want to bring your talents to schools as an educator, now is a great time to get involved with a small organization and make a difference–but you may have to be a self-starter. Here is a list of current resources and ideas for including American roots music in your school’s music program, or for learning more about becoming a roots music educator.

One shining star organization, now in its third decade, is the Blues in the Schools program. It is represented by local branches, such as the Pacific Northwest Blues in the Schools Program. Blues in the Schools focuses on bringing real blues musicians to elementary classrooms to teach guitar, drumming, storytelling, singing, and the history of the blues and the people who played it. The greater Blues in the Schools organization is highly decentralized, and local chapters each have their own angle and curricula. Most Blues in the Schools programs are independently funded through city or state arts grants or private donors, which allows the program to bring quality music education to schools that lack arts funding. Look for a Blues in the Schools program in your area, or contact your local blues society to find out how you can start your own.

If you are an educator looking to integrate roots music into your school’s curriculum, check out these resources at the American Folklife Center. The Folklife Center is the go-to resource in the United States for folk culture information, and is run by the Smithsonian Institution. This organization publishes several volumes of well-researched resources for educators.

also offers blues music resources for the classroom, including recordings and lesson plans.

If you are a teacher interested in short-term professional development or training in folk and oral history, check out C.A.R.T.S. This site offers a list of training and workshops for teachers in a variety of topics related to folk culture and oral history. The courses are not music-specific, but the training is especially relevant for any educator looking to integrate blues and folk histories into their curriculum.

Do you know of an innovative music program in your town? We want to hear about it. Leave a comment here on the blog and let us know.

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Why Music Education Is Not Just for the “Talented”

What is the goal of public music education? Is it to encourage the talented few who may turn out to be Juilliard material? Or is it to create a broad base of educated musicians and critical thinkers, tomorrow’s passionate amateur musicians and smart audience members? Here in the United States, where facing across-the-board budget cuts in the arts is a real challenge in almost every school, the former framework is gaining ground. But a few great thinkers and educators are speaking up for the importance of universal music education, and they have ideas for how to create it.

Dr. Larry Livingston, in a recent symposium lecture on music education, suggests new frameworks for music educators. Firstly, he says, music education programs must strive to include as many students as possible, and make inclusion a central goal. In order to include more students, programs must “broaden the base” of the music curriculum. Teach songwriting. Teach blues. Teach mariachi. Teach hip-hop and computer music editing. By fostering kids’ existing musical interests, educators build the foundation for lifelong involvement in the arts, because critical thinking skills learned in one idiom are transferable to any other.

A great part of this goal, Livingston says, we must “demythologize” the idea that classical music is better than all other music. As Livingston repeated throughout his lecture, “It’s just music.” The goal is to connect young people with music-making in a way that interests them, no matter the genre.

Livingston emphasized conceptual teaching methods as a way to introduce students to broader critical thinking and listening skills. When a student, or group of students, makes a mistake, Livingston says, we must teach them to ask their own critical questions about what’s going on. Livingston offers a common example: band students rushing in the seventh measure. Instead of simply instructing the students not to rush, Livingston urges educators to ask, “Why are you rushing in measure seven? What are the conceptual issues at play here? Do you have the fastest note values? Are you louder than everybody else?” By empowering students to work through problems themselves, music educators train students to become lifelong independent learners, of music, or of any subject.

Livingston’s goal is to promote music education for everyone–not just for Juilliard hopefuls. Music education, he says, is about allowing all students to create individual relationships with music, whether or not they choose it as a vocation. Our future musical culture, he says, is in the hands of today’s innovative music educators.

What do you think? Leave a comment here on the blog and let us know.

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Learning from Practice Plateaus

We all experience them: those dry spells in music practice when we cannot seem to see ourselves progressing. But these practice “plateaus” are actually very productive. The trick is to be patient with the process, and, as always, to stay awake, aware, and inspired, in order to learn something from even the the most stuck-seeming phases of our musical development.

Years ago, a flautist friend who habitually practiced eight hours a day confided in me that she felt she was actually getting worse at the flute. “I haven’t made any progress in weeks,” she told me. “I practice well. I learn from my mistakes. I can’t tell what I’m doing wrong.” A month later, she came to me with a different story. She had thought she was getting worse, she said, because she was actually getting better–at listening, and at evaluating her own playing. During what seemed like her most unproductive moment, she was actually growing by leaps and bounds as a listener. What sounded great to her, months before, no longer satisfied her keen ears.

My flautist friend practiced patiently through her plateau, and when she overcame it, she realized what a productive time it had been. She played better: she had listened more closely and corrected subtle things about her playing that she hadn’t even known were there to correct before. And she was more inspired: because inspiration hadn’t come easily to her during this time, she sought new music, recordings, and concerts to inspire her. She had discovered several great flautists she hadn’t known about before, and even learned some music theory from other genres of music.

It is absolutely natural to reach a point with music practice when one simply cannot seem to make headway with a particular technique or piece. Stay with it, and remember that these phases are all part of the learning process. A plateau is not a stagnant time; your mind and body are accumulating new knowledge, even if you cannot see the results just yet. Stay calm, stay positive, and stay curious about yourself and the music you play. You may find that your most stagnant weeks of practice helped you grow the most as a player!

Have you ever had a practice “plateau”? How did you overcome it? What did you learn? Leave a comment here on the blog and let us know.

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