Making our own kind of music

Every so often I hear people ask the question, how do you unschool music? How do you learn music without lessons or instruction?

First off, unschooling doesn’t mean you can’t have a teacher, use instructional materials, or undertake any other kind of traditional study. By the same token, those methods aren’t necessarily required to learn music. The trick is to foster appreciation for music, support whatever involvement in music your kids choose, and keep the joy and creativity in music making alive.

All four of my kids are musical in different ways. Kid one leaned toward the singer-songwriter world, number two embraces traditional folk, number three is a devoted jazz fan and vocalist, and number four likes classical best, although she also enjoys playing klezmer with her dad.

Below are some ideas for how to nurture musical intelligence in your kids.

Exposure First and foremost, expose your kids to many different kinds of music. There are plenty of excellent recordings made expressly for kids. By all means, enjoy them, but play other music, too. As young children my kids loved Bob Dylan, Beethoven, The Beatles, Queen, other more obscure bands, and many kinds of ethnic music. Don’t just listen to music around the house, go hear live music, too. I really can’t overestimate the importance of exposure to music. My daughter is a perfect example. Our kids regularly attended classical, folk, and world music concerts, but we didn’t go hear jazz very often, or listen to it much at home. That all changed when somehow, Ella Fitzgerald found her way onto the family mp3 player when my daughter was 11. She fell in immediate, absolute, obsessive love. Within months she had listened to and learned Ella’s entire canon, mostly by taking her CDs out of the library, and today is an accomplished, primarily self-taught jazz vocalist.

Modeling If you want your kids to learn about and love music, do it yourself. My husband is a musician, so our kids witnessed the joys of making music on a regular basis, as well as the necessity of practice. I’m an amateur singer and the kids listened to me practice choral music they later heard in performance. Even if you don’t want to pick up an instrument or sing, you can still model music appreciation through listening and enjoying music yourself.

Make music together Since learning to listen is one of the most important aspects of making music, this is pretty important. One of the things our family did when the kids were little was sing in an inter-generational chorus. We also performed in inter-generational theatrical productions. If those kinds of commitments are more than you can handle, try seeking out (or organizing) low-key events like sing-a-longs, or folk, blues, or jazz jams. If classical music appeals, there’s plenty of simple chamber music your kids can try with you or some friends. Ditto for rock and roll.

Find mentors No matter the undertaking, whenever my kids felt passionate about something, they found a mentor. With music, there’s no reason that person can’t be a teacher, especially if your child asks for lessons. All our kids took lessons on various instruments at one point or another, and were free to quit if their interest waned. Sometimes mentors are more like idols–masters your kids might never meet but nevertheless become huge influences, much like Ella Fitzgerald was for my daughter. My son found some of his musical heroes on YouTube, mandolin players like Chris Thiele and singers like Tony Cuffe.

A word about practice This is a controversial subject, especially for unschoolers who might feel that “making” their kids practice is anathema. Because our family takes financial commitments like music lessons seriously, and because my husband, as a musician and music teacher himself, understands the vital role of practice in playing music, we did require our kids to practice as long as we were paying for music lessons they wanted. This doesn’t have to be a rigid endeavor. Since the lessons were chosen by the kids, practicing mostly happened naturally, but if it didn’t, we discussed the issue and negotiated agreements that worked for all. How practice works is going to look different in every family, but the key thing is to not squash a love of music by forcing the issue.

Resources Make instruments readily accessible to the extent it’s possible. If you can get your hands on a piano, guitar, or any other instrument, have them in your home. Inexpensive wind instruments like recorders or penny whistles are great to have around, and easy to play. Don’t discount percussion–rhythm is a huge part of music, and real or makeshift drums can be loads of fun. Whatever instruments you collect, let your kids experiment with them freely. Make CDs, records, downloaded music, or whatever technology you use to listen to music accessible, and offer a wide variety of music. When you go to the library, check out music in addition to books. Be musically curious, open-minded, and experimental, and most likely, your kids will be, too.

Have ideas or stories about unschooling music? Please share them in the comments section!

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