Music to Their Minds
Elementary strings program gives students an educational edge and a lifetime skill.
Many a parent whose fourth grader is practicing the violin for the first or seventh, or fifteenth time has wondered if the gut the strings are made of is still attached to the cat. Where is the music that soothes?
It's coming, it's coming, there's beauty there, assures Patricia Potter, elementary strings specialist. She travels from school to school to teach Ashland's elementary strings program, which this year has eighteen fourth- and fifth-grade students enthusiastically sawing away on violins, violas, and cellos.
And it's true: attendance at the end-of-season concert rewards you with actual music created by young hands and young minds.
But, in these times of shrinking budgets, how high on the priority list should elementary-school music be? Oh, art and music are all fine things, but we have to draw the line somewhere. What are the educational benefits?
How about math and history, for starters? Math skills are practiced and sharpened when students study rhythm, and when they must use math to understand and apply the relationships between quarter notes, eighth notes, and whole notes. As for history, the students work with music from the 1500s to today, and they study the composer and his times along with the music.
Even geography figures into Ms. Potter's music: the theme this year is Music Around the World. The songs include a ditty from Africa, Boga Watta Fero Saro Day, which means "Everybody Loves Saturday Night."
Another educational grace note: research reveals that SAT scores are higher for students who study music at an early age.
There's more: students learn and practice working in a group without competition, to do their best without worrying about beating another human being. Finally, Potter sees a need in her students for art and beauty, for a personal way to express feelings.
Why just strings at the elementary level and not keyboards, wind instruments, and percussion as well?
Because string instruments are two years more difficult to learn than the others. Instruction for the full range of instruments is offered in Middle School, but, because of the difficulty factor, students who take up strings for the first time need two years of work to achieve the same level their peers have on other instruments virtually as soon as they pick them up.
The problem is that there are no marks or buttons anywhere on a stringed instrument that tell you which note will sound, unlike the frets on a guitar or the keys on a piano. That takes time-consuming training of the ear and the body. Ability to accomplish this tough task is keener the younger the student, akin to learning a foreign language.
Potter starts with fundamentals of posture and reading music, often not playing a piece until students have worked for several sessions on understanding it on their own. Her approach is in sharp contrast with the Suzuki method, in which children listen and imitate music with a great deal of success at very early ages. Patricia has taught the Suzuki method and once took a workshop with Suzuki himself, but changed her approach when she discovered that, while it creates early success in making music, it also builds a barrier to learning to read music. Many Suzuki students become so adept at imitation that they ask to hear a new piece for playback rather than do the considerable work it takes to learn to read music.
Time to teach is the most troublesome limitation for elementary strings students. They have two thirty-minute sessions per week. If there are, let's say, nineteen children in class and it takes a minute for Potter to tune each instrument, a daily necessity, only eleven minutes are left for instruction and putting instruments away. In contrast, she requires a minimum of forty minutes for private, one-on-one lessons.
Practice, or "musical homework," is the most powerful potion for strengthening this new and difficult skill. For beginners, Potter doesn't require practice at home because of concern that, lacking sufficient instruction in fundamentals, they'll groove in incorrect technique.
But fifteen to twenty minutes a day is the recommended dosage for more advanced students. Experience shows that, unless they practice an average of four times a week, students fall behind, become frustrated, then discouraged, and then abandon strings. Parents can help by playing classical music at home, and taking their children to concerts. The Youth Symphony makes truly beautiful music and generates interest and encouragement.
Children who stay with it may never become professional musicians, but they will enrich the rest of their lives with a skill that exercises their talent and forever connects them to the joy of music.