As the calendar turns to August, we begin to hear the words “back to school,” much to the chagrin of many students. This is a chance, however, for students to explore participation in their schools’ music programs, be it by playing an instrument in the band or orchestra, or by singing in the choir.
MakingMusicMag.com recently spoke with a pair of music educators on the benefits that learning music can bring to students, not only when they are in school, but for the whole of their lifetimes.
Cedric Elmer is a retired music educator who taught music – piano, theory, composition and instrumental music in the Reading, Pa. public schools for 26 years. He continues to serve as a certified piano adjudicator for the American College of Musicians in California.
He notes that when working with younger students you are literally “starting from square one,” and that the kids looking to get into music may have different interests than those who follow the sports-centered culture that often dominates the school atmosphere.
“Music is a subject that interests students who are not sports-minded,” Cedric told MakingMusicMag.com. He offered himself as an example: “I could not participate in sports due to an osteo condroma of my left shoulder. This led me to swimming and music because these skills or talents did not require physical contact.”
Getting into music, of course, led him to an accomplished teaching career in music, as well listings in both ASCAP’s Biographical Dictionary and in Contemporary American Composers, and a Pagoda Award from the Berks Arts Council for Community Leadership and Commitment to the Arts. He currently sells his compositions and arrangements through music publisher Sheet Music Plus.
Cedric observed that music is an activity that can be enjoyed individually or as part of a “team,” offering both experiences to the younger students.
Kids can “practice alone and still have group contacts in bands, orchestras, small ensembles, accompanying [other performers] and even as soloists,” he said. “Kids search for recognition, and these activities provide positive goals and results.
Mark Hover is a middle school band director in North Syracuse, N.Y., where he has also directs the district’s brass ensemble, and has taught orchestra to grades 3-7 and classroom music to grades K-7. He has also worked with his school district’s marching band.
He says the benefits that kids can gain in studying and playing music are “countless.”
“Students who participate in music work on life skills of collaboration/teamwork, dedication, perseverance, and more,” Mark told MakingMusicMag.com. “Learning to play an instrument and sing can assist in helping one to develop their reading and comprehension skills that can be applied to other subject areas beyond the music ensemble or classroom.”
“Music performance and appreciation can give an outlet to those that struggle find a way to share their thoughts and feelings as they go about their lives,” Mark added.
Finding Your Instrument
Because the elementary students are entering music from scratch, they generally start out by playing simpler or reduced-size instruments, Cedric said.
“Bells and recorders are easier for young children to hold and play,” he said. “Recorders don’t use reeds, so they are easier to play. These instruments are pitched in the tonal range of a child’s unchanged voice – soprano/contralto,” thus making them an appropriate choice for beginners.
Cedric noted that the violin family of string instruments may be an option.
“String instruments can be made in different sizes to match a child’s physical development,” he said. “In the school district where I taught, the district provided half-size, three-quarter and full-size violins and cellos. Sometimes, a full-size violin was restrung using viola strings if a student wanted to learn viola.” [Note: A viola is slightly larger than a violin; thus a full-size violin would be roughly equivalent to three-quarter size viola.]
When a student is old enough to pick an instrument, Cedric insists that “the choice of the instrument should be the student’s.” He offered the following example of a parent dictating that choice, likely to the detriment of the student.
“A parent may tell their child, ‘You will play your Uncle Joe’s violin that has been in the attic for 30 years!’” Cedric said, adding that this insistence might come despite the fact the violin in question may need considerable repair – a new bridge, strings, a re-haired bow, or whatever.
“All of this is much more costly than a new, correctly sized instrument and bow,” he said. “Will this child really want to practice on an instrument that is not his or her own?”
Mark agreed, saying: “Trust your child’s ear. They can tell you whether they like a particular sound. They don’t even need to know the instrument for that. If a child is often spending some time at a keyboard playing some notes, it might be beneficial to try lessons.”
While Mark doesn’t see much advantage in starting with a specific instrument or singing, he encourages parents to, if they can, expose their children to as much music as possible and go from there. He further noted that some schools use an “instrument petting zoo” that offers the students the opportunity to rotate through different stations to try a variety of instruments.
“This gives them a chance to get a micro lesson on a variety of instruments and experiment with making sounds and can lead students to finding an instrument they are interested in,” he said.
[Note: Please see the companion piece on the instruments generally available in school bands & orchestras, as well as the vocal parts that comprise a choir: https://makingmusicmag.com/back-to-school-choose-your-instrument-and-find-your-voice/]
Practice, Practice, Practice!
As to practicing, Cedric says that parents should be encouraging rather than “insisting that practicing the trumpet be done in the dirty and cold garage,” so the parent won’t have to listen.
“When the inevitable practice question comes up, the parent has an arm to twist if the child picked the instrument to play,” Cedric said. “Parents need to provide incentives, a quiet environment with no TV or radio playing, and simple awards for good schoolwork, good private lessons, and good recitals.”
Mark notes that what works for elementary kids may not work for high school students. He said some teachers use a practice chart to track the number of minutes or days per week that the student practices. Another method he called the “karate system” in which students will win a “color” after demonstrating proficiency at assigned skills or tasks. But the most important key to a student’s success, he said, again agreeing with Cedric, is parental support.
“If a student feels that their parents/guardians are interested and supportive, they will tend to have a better experience and will want to participate more,” Mark said. “This doesn’t mean that the parents/guardians need to be experts in music. It just means taking an active role in their students’ endeavors and being a positive guiding force.”
Music education not only can help students while they are in school but can also lead to a lifetime of rewarding activity and friendships, as Cedric and Mark will both attest. Mark loves the fact that music is inclusive – everyone can participate and enjoy it.
“I firmly believe that there is always a place for anyone in music – it’s where I found my calling and [where I] felt the most comfortable in school,” he said, noting that he still plays his trumpet with a group called Central Winds: A Music Educators’ Wind Ensemble. “There have been students in my past who have said that being in band, orchestra or chorus was their only reason for coming to school. Regardless of the reasons one has for participating in music, it’s something that everyone can connect with and relate to.”
[Photo credits: Top – Marching band photo by Александр (Alexander). Middle – String players photo by Roxanne Minnish; Bottom: Boys Choir photo by Patrick Case. All courtesy Pexels.com]