Thursday, March 31, 2016

How To Do Music Right

5 years ago, I decided that music will be part of my child's life, whether he likes it or not.  This is a decision that the parent makes on behalf of the child and the child is grateful many years later.  At the time, I was telling all of my friends to do this and how to do this, even though I was making up most of it.   This was at the time I started this blog with the goal of reverse engineering GAT test.  Some of what I said turned out to be off course, but in the end, it paid off.

It paid off way beyond my expectations, especially for music.

My Reasons
First, a child who is involved in music has high math scores the rest of his life.  Einstein attributes his aptitude for math to his love of music, as do lots of child development and cognitive researchers. 

Second, I have older friends who have parties, and a dozen random people show up with instruments and play music all night.   They have a big house and these parties attract hundreds of friends.  Some of these people didn't pick up instruments until they saw these parties and just putter around with instruments until they are good.  This is just really cool. 

Finally, I rediscovered music after a 25 year hiatus and am made with myself that I ever gave it up.

My Goals
First of all, I am not going to spend any money on music lessons.  I had a highly qualified classical music instructor from the 4th grade until the 7th grade, after which time I quit playing the clarinet because I hated music so much.  I'll come back to the topic of music instruction later.

Secondly, if I'm going to tell my child that music is 100% critical, and I'm not playing any instrument myself, he will determine that this is a lie and he will be correct.  Fortunately, I found an old clarinet in my in-laws basement.  A little hunting later, I've picked up an old flute, sax, soprano sax, trombone (kind of broken but it plays), a baby clarinet that turns out to be only for symphony musicians, a guitar, and probably other instruments.   But mainly I play the clarinet.

All of the parents I know who did this have an instrument which they at least pretend to practice once in a while, mostly at the 4th grade level.  You can get a guitar for $40 and learn quickly at

Finally, I want him to like music and not hate it so that in 4th grade, he can choose his own instrument, and choose music on his own.  Finally, in the 7th grade, he has to get all A's and take a bunch of tests to get into high school.  After that, it's college football games and band parties.

My Approach
First, we bought an electric piano, with headphones.  Then we got Piano Adventures beginning level. This is 4 books at about $7 each, and it's totally worth it.   I read a bit on how to play the piano and practiced a little.  Piano Adventures is so popular (you'll see why if you use it) that you can put any page title in youtube and get 500 videos of piano teachers and students playing the piece.

My primary objective for piano is that my child figures out how to read notes on his own.   I think of this as COGAT practice.  There is so much going on between the staff, the hands, the eyes, and the brain that it's good brain practice.

When my child starts a lesson, I give him a few days to figure out where the notes are and where to place his hands.   After a few days of playing the piece note-by-note, forget about rhythm or technique, I take out a note chart and make sure he has the right notes.   He doesn't about 50% of the time.  Then he takes the next two weeks learning how to play the piece and the assignments from the other 3 books. 

Both kids went through this approach.  The 2nd child, in 2nd grade, is currently on his 3rd year of learning how to figure out a piano piece with not help from me, at least for the first 2 or 3 days.   If there was a test given to 7 year olds on figuring stuff out, he would get the high score.

If I catch my child just puttering around on the piano, making up his own song or just playing random notes with his ear on the keys, I tell him to practice his book.  He usually doesn't, and I just fade into the background.  There will be no real practice that day.  Instead, he's going to practice discovering whatever it is he is doing, which is much much more important.  If I push him, I'm teaching him not to like practicing at all.  So I don't yell. 

There are some days and weeks of crying, especially in the first year, as the child learns the discipline of sitting down at the piano each day, so we keep a box of Kleenex at the piano.

The Result
The results are stunning.  My friends who did this and my wife are seriously considering music lessons because they've got a bunch of kids who are really good at the piano.  If they teach themselves and are good, and really like it, shouldn't they get instruction?  Of course, there are benefits to academic work, but all this music playing is getting really interesting.

I'm holding the line on my no-lesson policy.  If they got that good with no lessons, why have lessons?  They're not going to play professionally, and if they did, they can pay for their own lessons after I pay for college (or some of it).  I have an open offer to any child.  "You can have me as your teacher, like we've been doing, or I'll get you a trained music instructor who will make you play music you hate."

I'm starting to reconsider lessons.   After 3 or 4 days, the younger child can play a lesson 4 times faster than it is supposed to be played and it sounds really good.  So I yell at him to move to the next lesson.  He turns the page to the new lesson, and then plays all of the songs from the old lesson by memory while he stares at me with a grin on his face moving his eyebrows up and down like he's in Vaudeville.

The older one moved on to the trumpet at 4th grade.  He loves band because it involves sitting around with his buddies.  When we practice together, I can start a song on any measure, and he'll jump in play along without looking at the music if he heard the song once before.  If he doesn't know what I'm playing, he'll just improvise an accompaniment.  How does he do this?  I never had this skill.  It doesn't run in our family.  I never got good enough to play at those parties.

Lately, we've moved on to jazz trumpet.  It turns out there are lots of beginning band books that use jazz as the material.  Instead of Merrily We Roll Along, the book is full of riffs from Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis.  It's awesome.  For band, we never practice the material the band instructor passes out.  My son sight reads those songs each Monday at band.  We focus on Arban, popular music and our new jazz books.   I happen to work with an accomplished jazz trumpet player, and ply him for important teaching information regularly, like how to learn Seven Nation Army like college football bands play.  I've been secretly trying to get the band to play the Empire song or 7 Nation Army when their band instructor raises her hands as a joke.

The young one is not going to play a brass instrument.  I have a house full of woodwinds and was really disappointed to have to buy a trumpet.  He wants to play the trombone and our trombone needs some welding.  So our deal is this - you can play all of the woodwinds except for the bass clarinet which mommy refuses to let me buy (at $1,900 to $2,500 for a starter version), but no brass.  On day one of 4th grade band, he'll be prepared to play the first band concert on any woodwind (the concert includes Merrily We Roll Along), and can bring a different instrument each week to the consternation of his band instructor.  He agreed.

I pick up the older one from band each week and have a word with the band instructor and assistants.  I asked if she would play a Brazilian Jazz song at the concert if I composed it.   I'm tracking down each parent to show them what books to buy for summer practice (fun ones with Harry Potter and Star Wars songs).   And I taught most of the kids 7 nation army, except for the little flute player who showed an interest in my son, who I scowl at.

He's probably going to surpass my level next year.  I don't know what I am going to do.  We've spent years practicing together and it's my favorite part of the day.  I think I'll cry.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Mega Project

I live in an odd neighborhood.  It's full of some super rich people, a large group of lawyers, doctors and architects in the middle, and maybe 60% of it is immigrants from all over the world where there are troubles, lately the Middle East and Africa.   I think 25% of the neighborhood is from Mexico and South America, but especially Mexico.  I am about 1 mile from a street called Devon, which is the center of Indian immigration to the Midwest and has great restaurants and Sari shops.  On top of this, actors and musicians live here because there are cheap places to live and the neighborhood is safe.  We used to have lots of carpenters, but most of them moved.

My son's GAT program, which is 4 miles away, looks like my neighborhood.   Everyone is succeeding except for 2 groups:  Mexicans and African Americans that are native to Chicago.  There are plenty of super bright 2nd generation Mexicans in the GAT program, but two of the neighborhood schools are full of children from these 2 groups that don't spend much time reading.

By the time either of my children graduate from college, they will have read 5,840 more hours, watched 23,360 less hours of television (I didn't make that up), and been exposed to about 18,716,800 more big words in conversation (not made up either).   Certain groups, especially political groups representing African Americans, will complain that "the system" is not fair, but they will never be able to compete with 5,840 hours of reading by age 18, not to mention the 2,250 extra hours of really challenging math which I forgot to mention.  And there's more.

I'm convinced that any child can be and should be in a GAT program, but the parent has to want this, be highly motivated to do the work, and know how to do it.  It starts at about age 3, which is about 3 years too late, but highly doable in a Catch Up mode.

I'm trying to think about an unlikely series of events that would put me into a little shop with my name on it where charge $100 an hour for academic coaching half the time, and the other half of the time work on the Mega Project.   I can't see this happening, since college is too expensive and this endeavor would be too risky.   So I'm just going to forge ahead with the Mega Project anyway.

The first step is to find those people who are in the high risk groups mentioned above.  Maybe single mothers who didn't finish high school or immigrants that barely speak English and don't value or know anything about education.  The primary challenge is to figure out how to reach the parents, work through their gaps and issues.  The child part is much easier.  I don't know any of these people, but I know a school that is full of these people, and I think I'm going to approach the principal for help in identifying and signing up parents.

It will probably take me about 3 years of pilots to determine what works, what doesn't, and why.  Then I can apply for a grant from the Melinda and William Gates foundation.  Books are going to be expensive outside of reading curriculum, which is free at the library.

My primary motivation for all of this is the letters I receive each week from parents telling me your stories and asking questions.   When I put out Test Prep Math Level 3, I decided that most parents would think the material is nuts, and offered to help any parents with their questions.  Many have taken me up on this offer.  You people can thank yourselves when this endeavor succeeds, or blame yourselves if it fails.  Of course, if I do manage to track down that little girl and help her parents steer her academic career in the right direction, I won't fail. 

I did exactly this about 20 years ago when I was first married and waiting for children (which took 9 unexpectedly long years).   This grandmother stopped by my apartment and asked for money so she could buy dinner for her granddaughter.   I was baffled, so I followed her back to her apartment to assessed her and the situation for two hours.  It was a pretty bad situation, but common in Chicago. I don't know what became of the little girl after she moved away, but she moved away with the computer and a stack of books I gave her, and a really good idea of what college is and why it's so important.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Problem Daughter

I've always assumed that little girls should be perfect in their behavior and their grades, and that little boys should be rotten little rebels like I was and like at least one kid I know who shall not be named.

I am approached by many people asking "what do I do about this problem?"  I also keep tabs on my longitudinal study that began with my Kindergarten summer math camp.   "How's it going with your child?" I ask, and the parent correctly assumes I mean grades.

To make things more interesting, the kids with problems are always girls with immigrant parents or grandparents, and almost always from Asia.  The only underperforming boys I deal with are either doing sports 15 hours a week or we've already fixed the problem.

The gender gap has finally been completely closed with the next generation.  Girls are hitting the 4th grade train wreck, and it's continuing into later grades.

The solution is of course to stop subjecting girls to simple, routine math problems that are boring.  "Simple, routine math problems" describes school curriculum until about 6th or 7th grade.  In the later grades, math becomes much more challenging and requires a set of skills that are not developed by the earlier curriculum.

The best curriculum for grades 1 -4 is called CMP math and comes from Michigan State (go Spartans, at least math wise).  It still falls pretty short and will not prevent the 4th grade train wreck.

The solution I propose is three fold.  First, the parent has to adopt the right skill set when approach homework, especially math.   Secondly, the kids have to approach math in the same way.   Finally, the child should be focused on a curriculum that requires exercising these skills, and this curriculum is not a math facts worksheet or the routine application of formulas.

Jo Boaler's Mathematical Mindsets book sets the right foundation for this approach in the classroom and at home.   I've produced a slightly different approach for one-on-one parent supervision of homework and math studies that you should be able to read online in a week or so on Amazon  here without having to buy my book.  (So much for marketing).  Level 3 also describes these skills.

The coaching guide in these books is fairly long and detailed and takes up too much space to copy here.  The short version is to stop worrying about their homework and grades from day-to-day and starting working problems that require about 30 minutes each and are really hard.  The grades take care of themselves.