Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Music Recipe

Music has a well known connection to the intellect.  At least one brain part will grow 60% in the first year of music practice.  Music and math go hand-in-hand.  There are numerous soft skills to be gained through daily practice.  Many bright parents who have reached the pinnacle of academic success such as teaching at Harvard require music for their children.  Many of these children will perform at a venue like Carnegie Hall, perhaps play professionally for a while, before they have to give it up to start graduate school in a field like genetic brain manipulation.

Last weekend one or two scenes in our grade school play were accompanied by ragtime on the piano. I'm always impressed when professionals play ragtime because it's hard and exhausts player's hands. My 3rd grader pulled my arm and whispered 'The piano guy is in 4th grade'.  I had to stand up to verify this assertion.  And so he was.

I'm going to guess the ragtime player practices 3 hours a day.  Suzuki recommends 3 hours a day starting at age 3 to master an instrument.  Weekly lessons from the best available teacher are also required.

I recommend 20 minutes a day and no lessons.  Here's why.

I studied decision theory ad nauseum in grad school.  I didn't have a purpose for taking these classes, but there is a lot of cool math involved.  Years later in an MBA program I took a few decision theory classes to see a more practical side of decision theory with no math (and get an easy A) and now I can explain what we're doing with music and how we got here.

The foundation of a good decision is the frame of reference or information set.   It is possible, but highly unlikely, that your frame of reference should be a child who practices 3 hours a day on his way to teaching at Harvard.  This is one hundred millionth of the equation.   The other 99.9999 % of kids learn to hate music, hate lessons, and hate practice and then quit at the first possible opportunity.

The second part of a good decision is alignment with your goals.  My goals are that my children will like music, gain as many cognitive benefits that they can in 20 minutes a day, and maintain music practice as a constant in their daily routine so that the doors of music never close.  If they want to march in a band to get free trips to football games, or form a jazz band, or write an amateur musical, or major in math and music in college, it won't be out of the question  They'll probably have a lot of catching up to do, but it will be possible.  I told my kids that 'not quitting' is the gift I am going to give them.

As soon as they could sit still (somewhere between 4 and 6), I bought an electric piano and Piano Adventure books.  I spent too much money on the electric piano.  It had weighted keys and looked like a piano.   At the time I thought there was a possibility that either of my children could end up playing the piano for a living, but this is like buying a Power Ball ticket because there is the possibility you might win.  I could have saved a lot of money keeping my emotions out of the decision.  Emotions are bad for decisions.  The good news is that a more expensive piano has a better sound, the kids learned to have music ears and sing on key, and this has opened the door to theater.  Piano Adventure is an awesome course.  It's fun, easy, rigorous, yes easy and rigorous at the same time, and fun.

In lieu of a qualified piano teacher, I would spend time on the internet finding out how to play the piano a step ahead of my child's lesson.   For the first year, I was able to keep up with Piano Adventures with a bit of practice on my own.  After lesson 5 in the first book, I would mandate that my child work out each lesson on their own.  On day 1 of each lesson, I got 'I will never be able to play this' which was true, and 14 days later they would just zip along through the lesson with or without the music in front of them.

Working out the music syntax, eventually with 2 hands, plus the timing, and the inflection notation has an extraordinary payoff.  Each lesson is like a mini COGAT.  The first 3 days I just left them alone and they plunked away at one key at a time.  Then the next 3 or 4 days we would take each staff or phrase at a time.  The 2nd week we would work on timing and before I drew a big X through the lesson, the song needed to be perfect. We'd start the whole process all over again with the next lesson.

By the end of third grade, my kids have no interest in the piano.  This is expected.  There are things we could do to just keep plodding along, and one of these would be to find a good piano teacher.  But instead, I announce with aplomb that they have the exciting opportunity to choose their very own instrument of their very own choice and join the band.  My older child chose the trumpet because it's the one instrument I don't have and have never played.  The younger one is going to play the clarinet. This was really hard for me to pull off.  I told him he can play the flute, saxophone, alto saxophone, e flat clarinet, and stink at all of them if he would just please, please, please play the clarinet.  Instead, he found an old wrestling dictionary and our deal is that if he plays the clarinet we practice wrestling together for an hour afterward.  Walking down the street with him has become painful.

My number two goal of music, behind not quitting is that they figure things out for themselves and have a continuous bi-weekly challenge of not being able to do something and now they can do it 2 weeks later through their own hard work.  Goal #2 has been achieved spectacularly, especially when I was banned from practice time because I stink, and I'm tentatively ready to announce that I succeeded on Goal #1.

To make band work, I had to find movie music books.  We practice these in lieu of whatever the band director assigns.  If a child maintains 20 minutes of practice a day, this child will end up way ahead of the rest of the band.  Movie music makes practice much more enjoyable.  Trying to work out the songs from Frozen, for example, even for a boy, is more fun than songs from 1910 in the band book, despite the fact that Frozen is 10 times as hard.

A few weeks ago, the older one competed at competition for the 3rd time.  The judge pointed out that he is actually pretty good, despite the fact that he obviously doesn't know anything about proper trumpet technique, because his teacher (me) doesn't know anything about trumpet technique.  We discussed this at length, and I pointed out that he needs to start taking trumpet lessons and practicing for more than 20 minutes a day now.   Age 12 is one of the most likely ages for quitting music.  I quit playing at age 12 because I hated lessons so much.  But my son agreed to lessons.  Success!

One final note.  It is well known that the easiest way to crush the budding interest a your child is for the parent to get involved.  How many future biologists end up as disgruntled journalists because their parents made them go to biology camp?  Lots.  Music is slightly different because the kids have no choice in the matter.  There's no way a parent is going to forgo lessons for a kid who shows an interest in music in the absence of budget constraints.  Future musicians will just have to suffer from an enthusiastic parent.

If my child showed an interest in biology, I would do my best to discourage it the same way I'm attempting to discourage wrestling.  I discovered that old wrestling dictionary when I was in 4th grade.   Later, I discovered a few more books, including Dan Gable's biography, which will mysteriously show up in our bookshelf at the appropriate time.  I'm like the spider in Coraline.  For mysterious reasons, the ribbon I'm the most proud of was stored in the clarinet case with no explanation from me.  It just sits there.  After I won this ribbon, the wrestling coach from one of the military academies called me to find out why I didn't go farther in the state wrestling tournament (strep throat) and the next day I surprised everyone by winning a ribbon in the regional calculus competition.  I wrestled in college, but I wasn't on scholarship, but I didn't go to that that military academy and didn't major in nuclear physics.

For now, I just complain that I don't want to practice wrestling.  My neck hurts.  I'm too old.  We don't have a mat.  I'm sick of defending against the double leg takedown on the walk back from scouts. But I know where to buy a wrestling mat for the basement and to heck with decision theory.

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