Thursday, December 1, 2011

Arts Education: A Musician Parent's Perspective

I just realized this was ten years ago.  Wow.
One of the blogs I read regularly got me thinking several weeks ago about music's role in my life and in my parenting, as the writer struggled with what to do about her son's piano lessons as he was losing steam/interest.

I commented over there so feel free to go read, but I wanted to expand my thoughts on music education - actually on arts education as a whole.  I am going to speak specifically about music because that is my major art form, but this is all true (to some extent) about every art form.

There is so much to be learned from music; so much about life, and ourselves.  I'm not talking about the esoteric understanding of what is "good music" or even appreciation of classical music (or even the factual understanding of what classical music is versus Classical music).  I'm talking about real life skills. 

Learning to play an instrument teaches goal-setting and perseverance.  As a teacher, my goal was always to meet a student where they were at and work with them to meet their goals.  Sometimes their goal was to be able to play a book of Disney songs.  Sometimes they just wanted to feel less insecure about their playing in band.  Every now and then, I have had students who wanted to go to school for music.  Regardless, I stressed breaking down big goals into smaller, attainable goals - playing something faster, in one breath, slowly with no mistakes, etc.  And we worked on creative problem-solving when they got stuck.  Sometimes the goals were way too easy, and a student needed a push to grow.  Seeing the confident, proud grin on a students face when they did something they didn't think they could do was one of my favorite parts of teaching.

And then there are the social skills!  Making music requires skills like teamwork and diplomacy.  The more music you make, the more you hone your skills as a collaborator.  You have to learn how and when to respectfully disagree or keep your mouth shut.  Sometimes you lead, and sometimes you follow.  Sometimes you have to put your differences aside and work closely - and for many hours - with someone you can't stand.  (Sometimes you even end up finding common ground.)

Aside from the social skills is the social network.  The arts community is just that - a community.  It is much like a sports team - if you play a sport, you can join a team and a social network simultaneously.  This may seem a small thing, and it may even seem like an undesirable thing (maybe you never wanted to hang out with the band geeks or the dramatic drama crowd anyway?), but this was a very big deal for me personally. 

Which brings me to my own personal story.

Music saved my life.  A lot of things and people came together after my mother's death to keep me from entirely falling apart at the seams, and music was often the common thread.  My flute went literally everywhere with me.  Often I didn't really feel comfortable in the various places I was living/spending time - fitting in to new families/households as a teenager is, as you might expect, difficult and traumatic.  If I needed to retreat, I practiced my flute.  I spent loads of time with music teachers, in rehearsals, and generally making forward progress in this tiny sphere of my life where I felt I had a modicum of power and consistency.  In most of my life I felt out of control, burdensome, misunderstood, even unloved.  Everywhere I went, I plugged into the musical community.  I felt valuable, capable, and was getting positive attention.

Sometimes I am sad that I no longer play much, if at all.  Perhaps it was a waste of money - all those lessons, scholarships, instruments, etc.  Did I waste years of my life becoming a highly-skilled flautist, to now stay home and mostly make music by singing Baby Beluga?

No.  None of it was a waste.  I miss being able to play at a high level.  I sometimes want to cry missing the feeling of playing in an orchestra - attending an orchestra concert does not compare to the feeling of sitting right in the middle of that group of musicians, participating in the creation of those sounds and harmonies...

But, every day, I use skills I learned from my years of musical training.  In music, I would break down difficult pieces into small goals and try various tactics (often making them up as I went along, and always failing several times along the way) to meet those goals.  In parenting I use and teach goal-setting; I look for my small successes and for my kids' small successes; I offer constructive criticism; I encourage my kids to try things and fail, and then to be resilient and try again or try a different approach.

You might wonder whether I will require that my children will play instruments.  Both The Beast and I agree:  no.  I have a feeling A-Train is going to be a musician - since birth, he has calmed down for music and singing; he gravitates toward our musical instrument toys; he can't seem to help himself and dances when there is any sort of music on.  Bean doesn't seem to have a particular affinity for music, but I have no doubt he will excel at whatever he decides he wants to conquer.  If it's music, great.  We will take them to concerts, we will play music around the house.  We will encourage whatever their interests are. 

And we will hope that music and arts education remain an option for all children.
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