Help Your Child Discover the Joy in Music

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My 3-year-old son inevitably creates his own soundtrack when he plays, singing to himself as he putters with his trains or rides his tricycle. Every night I sing him to sleep, and he’s most expressive when we watch him dance to music.

Exposing young children to music provides some unexpected benefits and, according to at least one study at Northwestern University, childhood music lessons can have a lasting effect, improving the ability to learn and listen. Research also shows that children who take music lessons have improved coordination, higher IQs and better language development. Aside from the many cognitive benefits, banging a drum, strumming a guitar or singing in a choir adds joy and beauty to kids’ lives.

From movement classes to Suzuki violin lessons to rock and roll camps for teenagers, families in the Triangle have a variety of options for children’s music education. Here’s how to get the most out of music programs for children of all ages.

Options for every interest

It may be impossible to get your impulsive 3-year-old to practice the violin, and your teenage son may rebuff your suggestion to join the school chorus. Fortunately, there are many ways to engage young people with music, depending on their interest, level of concentration and personality.

“There’s not a right age for introducing a particular instrument,” says Serena Wiley, who has a master’s degree in jazz studies from NCCU. A saxophonist and radio DJ at WNCU, Wiley was drawn to music as a young child.

“I started taking lessons when I was 8, which is considered early for the saxophone, but it was right for me,” she says. “Not all kids are ready for a full hour lesson that young, but there are lots of different ways to introduce them to rhythm, movement and melody.”

Programs like Kindermusik offer ways to connect very young children with music, while also providing parents with the opportunity to spend uninterrupted time with their child.

“Our program starts children as early as 3 months (old),” says Julia Cobley, owner of Kindermusik Village in Cary. “We play instruments to work on beats, bounce children on our laps, lift them high for high sounds, low for low sounds.”

Perhaps most importantly, the program fosters the joy music can bring. “We encourage the parent to be purely present during the class,” she says. “We dance, we’re joyous and the babies love it.”

Even at a young age, children have an incredible ability to learn how to play an instrument. “Kids are amazing in the possibilities that are lying within them,” says Katie Wyatt, the executive director of KidZNotes in Durham. Based on El Sistema — a free classical music program for young children from highly impoverished backgrounds that started in Venezuela — KidZNotes offers eight to 10 hours of classical music training for kindergarten-aged children in underserved communities in Durham. The program will expand into Raleigh next year.

“The idea is to provide high-level conservatory level instruction for kids who would not otherwise have the opportunity,” she says, and the program has successfully tapped into children’s innate capacity to learn music. “Our kindergartners have already blown through the core standards for third-graders when it comes to music.”

Whether it’s violin, choir or West African drumming, music education isn’t limited to one form of music or one type of instruction. Helping your child connect with a program or experience that appeals to him or her can be transformative.

“When I started playing music, I really came out of my shell,” Wiley says. “It changed me as a person, and that’s what it can do for a lot of kids.”

Benefits extend beyond talent

Don’t worry about whether your child is particularly talented. “Every child is musical in some form or another,” Cobley says. “There’s a music program out there for everyone.”

Kids also can gain a lot from music lessons that isn’t related to rhythm or harmony. “I think about music lessons the same way I think about teaching art,” says Sarah Spencer White, an artist, pottery teacher and mother of three. Her daughters take Suzuki violin lessons at Morehead Montessori in Durham through a program offered for free by the school, and she sees great value in the opportunity.

“They may become musicians, or they may not. But music lessons help them learn concentration, determination and focus,” she says. “Musical education can open kids up to new ways of learning.”

Cobley says music education helps kids with language and to become more sociable.

“There’s even research that shows that exposing children early to music can help them if they want to enter sports,” she says. Music helps them be “a well-timed child. They have that sense of beat in their bodies.”

Some programs explicitly state that the focus is to develop self-expression and esteem. “Music is an incredible vehicle for building self-esteem and collaborative skills in girls,” says Hannah Shaw, director of operations of Girls Rock NC. “At Girls Rock camps, we encourage girls to love themselves and to appreciate and respect their peers as they work together on building an original song. They learn that their ideas and voices are important and beautiful, and that the contributions of their peers are important and beautiful as well. They learn that it’s OK to be loud, to be angry, and to express their feelings and experiences.”

Learning to listen

Listening and appreciating different kinds of music is just as important as participating in formal music programs. Learning how to be a good listener is also a critical aspect of a child’s musical education.

“Listening is a learned skill,” Cobley says. “It’s something we can foster in children.”

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music can stimulate cognitive functioning in children and can even be used to address delayed speech and language skills. Music therapists use listening to music to help young children deal with stressful and painful situations.

Clive Robbins, one of the founders of the field of music therapy, characterized it this way: “Almost all children respond to music. Music is an open-sesame, and if you can use it

carefully and appropriately, you can reach into that child’s potential for development.”

This observation translates to all children, regardless of their developmental stage or ability, says Brooke Kesterson, school and family performances coordinator at the Carborro Arts Center. “As soon as the music starts, something transforms,” she says. “There is something visceral that takes over the space.”

Music is an important addition to children’s education, Kesterson says. “Music opens kids up to other types of learning, and it can take kids to places that they don’t quite expect. It can transform kids in a split second. As soon as they hear music they’re rapt. That speaks a lot to the art form.”

Jill Moffett is a freelance writer and editor, and mother of a 3-year-old son who lives in Durham

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