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Saturday, April 23, 2016

How to Add More Music to Your Day

Suzuki Method Listening Requirement
Student Listens to Personal Playlist
(And Why I Think You Should)

Oh no! She is writing another article about listening!

Yes, I am.

A good listening program is not enough by itself if we do not use it or if we get “bored” with it. In fact, I am never much of a fan about the word “boredom,” because the word implies to me that we are not in control of or have a choice about our activities. But that is another post for another day. For now, how do we avoid “boredom” with our listening program? Boredom I think is the the main reason that many parents and students slack on the listening assignments. So what can we do that will address this issue?

How about changing the way that we focus on our listening assignments? We can focus on our listening in one of five ways.

What Does the Music Look Like?

We can sit and look at our music with full concentration on what we are hearing as it relates to how the music looks. This is a very useful way to begin the child for reading activities, or if the child is already reading, this method helps the child to notice and focus on the other written elements of the music, such as dynamics, instructions, tempo indications, articulations, and form and structure. I have often handed a student a copy of the piece they are learning and asked the student to listen daily and highlight any notes where the student hears vibrato for example. Sometimes the student returns to the next lesson with the entire copy of the piece marked with highlighter!

Do You Hear That?

We can listen to our music as a background atmosphere while we do other activities. In this case the music serves as a background to whatever other activity we have chosen to do at that same moment. This is sometimes the best way that we have for getting our listening done, because once the music is turned on and set to a “background level” (loud enough to be heard but not loud enough to cause us to raise our voices to talk over it), then we will within minutes forget that the music is even playing. And yet, our ears and brain register this listening in a very powerful, unconscious way. When I start new parents to the studio and set the parents on their first listening assignment to listen to book 1 as background, within 2 weeks I can begin humming the first measures of the last song in book 1, and the parent is able to complete the rest of the phrase. The look on the parent's face when she finds that she has unconsciously learned a song and can completely sing it is priceless! And yet, it happens every time.

My own personal family memories include a lot of this type of listening. When we went to bed at night, my sister and I usually provided a suggested playlist to my father, the jazz pianist, of some songs that we wanted to hear. For example, at Christmas time, we would provide him with a list that might include Rudolph the Reindeer or the Charlie Brown song. I recall falling asleep to my father’s music as a child, and I also recall falling asleep as an adult with a sleep timer set to my favorite classical music station. There was also a time during my young teen years when I slept with my transistor radio set to a low volume and our local pop music station.

I also recall that the supper mealtimes were prime opportunities for background listening. My sister and I would take turns being in charge of the Hi-Fi player, and we would serve as the “DJ” for the meal, while a parent or sibling would suggest the type of music to include for the mealtime listening pleasure. I grew up listening to many different types of music too – classical, jazz, and popular. And sometimes we would listen to the local classical music station. I recall my parents asking us to identify the instruments of the orchestra as we heard them throughout a symphony performance on the radio.

What Do You Hear?

We can listen to our music without music but with our full attention and powers of observation. I think this is a very powerful tool to combat boredom, and it is a great way to involve all members of the family. Here are some of my suggestions for how to do this type of listening.
  • Draw attention to the music in some way. Ask questions about what sort of moods the music conveys. Does the listener feel sad or happy, sleepy or energetic, quiet or boisterous? Can the child imagine the type of person that fits the music?
  • Draw attention to the types of articulation in the performance. Are the notes short, long, or a mixture? Are there slurs?
  • What kind of tempo does the song have? Is it a fast song, a slow one, or a mixture? Can the child march to the song? Can the child dance to the music?
  • Does the music suggest some kind of story? Is the story about a person, an animal, or a fairy tale? Does the music suggest a picture? What would the picture look like?
  • What story or picture does the music suggest to the child?
  • Are there any special elements, such as noticeable dynamics (loud and soft places or accents) or ritards (places that slow down in the music)? How would these elements affect the child’s story?
  • Does the music suggest any words? Sometimes a parent may be able to invent words that fit the music and that represent one of the child’s interests in a particular toy, movie, or book.

Can You Take in a Live Concert or Performance?

Parents could look for opportunities to take their children to musical performances or recitals in the community. Local universities have programs of all types, and there is sure to be something interesting for everyone. Perhaps there is a local community symphony orchestra or chorus.

My parents bought tickets to our local community arts series, and there were four main events throughout the year. These performances are a big deal in my memory. We had the tickets stuck to our refrigerator with a magnet, so we were reminded about the upcoming events every time we opened the fridge door. One concert would be a symphony or other large ensemble. There might be a dance production or some other type of Folklorico exhibition. There was usually an opera and perhaps even a musical. Yes, even operas are fair game for the listening program, and yes, young children can attend and enjoy these events. Operas are fascinating things. I still recall seeing Don Giovanni as a child, and that opera is a four hour event! I think we left before it ended though, because I recall looking back through the doors as we left and seeing the blue ghost of the Commendatore zombie-walking across the stage.

Nowadays most opera companies provide English translations in supertitles above the stage, and the audience enjoyment factor has increased as a result about a hundredfold. Yes, young children may fall asleep during these events – they are usually held at night and sometimes intrude into the usual childhood times suggested for sleep – but how does that hurt? A child will still absorb the music while sleeping. The child will also learn how to behave during a concert. Think of all those audience members there who are role modeling the perfect behavior for attending concerts! (Except for that guy in the second row who cannot seem to unwrap a cough drop). I also recall being fascinated with the program booklet.

I remember seeing the Minneapolis Symphony as it was called back then when I was 10 years old. I do not think I was an unusual child. My parents were very interested in exposing us to all forms of music and arts. In a way, I think my parents incorporated the Suzuki way long before there was a Suzuki Method expounded in America. We bought a new “World’s Greatest  Classical Music” recording at the grocery store each week as part of our shopping list. I remember listening to those records frequently. Each record came with a few pages of written material that we would put in a special notebook to complete the record album.

Nowadays recordings are even more accessible for everyone. Records have been mostly replaced by CD recordings, and these have even fallen by the wayside with the advance of small portable players that digitally stream music from the Internet. Many of my young students have personal iPods or MP3 players or smartphones that have this technology built in. All I ask is that parents maintain the responsibility for making sure that the child actually follows through with the listening program and assignments.

What Soundtrack Does Your Life Have?

Here are a few ideas to use music as a backdrop for our lives, as the listening canvas for activities or events that occur in our daily lives.

I recall as a child how music inspired me to move. I would dance to the music of Tchaikovsky’s "Nutcracker" in our living room, filled with excitement about the upcoming Christmas holiday and the twinkling lights of our Christmas tree all lit up and teasing me with its promise of presents soon to be found there. Later in middle school, my friends and I created tumbling routines to fit some of our favorite popular songs. We used music as a way to explore physical movement: dancing, exercise, atmosphere. Music motivated us to move. Does music affect you or your children in this way?

Our home was filled with holiday music during those special times. We had a great aunt who would gift us yearly with a new album of holiday music that was recorded with the current major singing stars of the time. I looked forward to each new album and was inspired to research any unfamiliar Christmas Carol. I still maintain this collection of holiday songs, and many of my students have carried forward this tradition. We have quite a collection of holiday music at my studio!

I like a quieter atmosphere when I am journaling or reading. I have also learned over the years that a background of some music is more helpful for creative juices or focused concentration. I invested in a set of noise-cancelling bluetooth earbuds, and I am so glad that I did. I subscribe to Apple Music, and every day is a new surprise when I check to see what new playlist the folks at Apple Music have put together for me to enjoy while I write.

Our social activities include music at all points, from school dances to weddings, from dinners out to sad funerals shared with our loved ones. Music is the backdrop to our lives. Just about everywhere we go has a musical atmosphere, from the light jazzy style of Pink Martini heard at Starbucks to the more traditional sound of Chinese instruments at the local Chinese restaurant. Why not take more control and be in charge of the music we immerse ourselves into in our homes? Now we can create our own playlists that reflect our personal tastes more easily than ever before. Let us begin constructing our family home playlists.

So there you have it – quite a few ways to incorporate listening into the family routine. Let me know if you have other ways to include in our list. Leave me a comment below about your ideas, or you may leave me a voicemail at (512) 537-6356 or send me an email at

Until next time,

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2016 by Paula E. Bird