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Art to Heart

Music Education

Keith Cook, who is featured in Program 3 of Art to Heart, is a professional violinist with the Louisville Orchestra who also teaches violin to students ranging in age from 3 to 18 at the West Louisville Talent and Education Center. His goal is to bring the benefits of music into the lives of youngsters who might not otherwise have the opportunity to study music.

A performance major who went back to school to get his master’s degree in elementary education, Cook became more aware of how music positively impacts learning. “I noticed how music was being used a lot in the teaching of other academic subjects, so I decided I would like to have a way of using the two together—academics and music—to make life better for kids and to make academics easier in an area where students don’t normally have an opportunity to do music.”

Although his youngest violin students are 3, Cook does an introductory program for the 2-year-olds at area day care centers. “I play for them and show them the instrument. Sometimes we bring the students that are 4 or 5 years old to perform to them so they can see kids closer to their own age performing. And it arouses their curiosity.”

The Suzuki Method

Cook uses the Suzuki method to teach violin. It was developed by a Japanese violinist and educator named Shinichi Suzuki who believed that musical ability is not an inborn talent but an ability that can be developed in any child. He proposed using the way children learn to speak their native language as a model. Beginning at a very young age is part of the Suzuki approach. Parents take an active role by attending lessons with the child, and children become comfortable with the instrument before learning to read music. Listening to music, repetition, and an encouraging environment are all important components of the approach.

Suzuki originally developed his method for his own instrument, the violin. Materials are now available for viola, cello, bass, piano, flute, harp, guitar, and recorder. To find out more, visit the Suzuki Association web site.

Nurturing Musical Ability

Should your child take music lessons? And what else can parents do to nurture musical interest and ability?

The National Endowment for the Arts guide imagine! Introducing Your Child to the Arts recommends taking a cue from your child rather than your own desires or agenda. Your child may not become the next prodigy or American Idol winner, but there are many scientifically proven social, emotional, and academic benefits to making music, says Laura Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit American Music Conference. “Parents need to think about their child’s development needs and look at their musical desire in terms of their social and emotional growth and identity development,” Johnson says. “As a parent of a young singer or musician, there are many important steps you can take to help support your child’s aspirations while allowing him or her to do what they do best—be a kid.”

Focus on Enjoyment

The joy of making music should always be at the heart of music experience in the early years. According to the National Association for Music Education’s position statement on early childhood education, “Music is a natural and important part of young children’s growth and development. Early interaction with music positively affects the quality of all children’s lives.” The association recommends that early musical experiences be “integrated within the daily routine and play of children. In this way, enduring attitudes regarding the joy of music making and sharing are developed.”

Other recommendations from MENC:

  • Music education for young children should involve a developmentally appropriate program of singing, moving, listening, creating, playing instruments, and responding to visual and verbal representations of sound.
  • The content of such a program should represent music of various cultures in time and place.
  • Time should be made available during the day for activities in which music is the primary focus of attention for its own value. It may also serve as a means for teachers to facilitate the accomplishment of nonmusical goals.
  • Musical experiences in early childhood should be play-based and planned for various types of learning opportunities such as one-on-one, choice time, integration with other areas of the curriculum, and large-group music focus.

Questions To Ask

As a parent, ask your child care provider or teacher:

  • What types of musical opportunities are offered? Experts recommend that young children have a variety of opportunities to sing and play simple instruments, to respond to music through movement, and to create music.
  • Do teachers at the school have special training in early childhood music? Does the school bring in outside specialists or visiting artists?
  • Is space devoted to music activities? Does the school have instruments and equipment for recording and playing music?
  • Do students get to experience music representing a variety of styles and from a variety of cultures?
  • Do all students have an opportunity to sing and play instruments?

Lessons—and Life

It’s often in the primary grade years that children express an interest in learning more about playing musical instruments. The decision of when to start lessons—and on what instrument—should reflect the interest, skill, and maturity of the individual child.

Teachers from your child’s school may be able to help you make decisions about the timing of lessons and choice of instrument. According to the NEA, to be ready for piano lessons, children should be able to sit on a piano bench and concentrate for a long time. Lessons on violins and other stringed instruments often begin very early using scaled-down instruments; in a school setting, string instruction typically begins at 3rd or 4th grade. Band/orchestral wind instrument lessons typically begin around 5th grade, but younger children might enjoy the experience of learning to play an instrument such as the recorder.

In setting a lesson schedule and expectations, “It’s important to realize that your child has other aspects of his life to develop and mature. You want to prepare them for a life rich with music, but you also want them to find other ways to achieve happiness and success. Make sure the music teacher you choose is on course with you,” says Amy Nathan, author of The Young Musician’s Survival Guide.

Every family will want to base its selection of a music teacher on compatibility in terms of both personality and teaching style, plus professional and educational qualifications, Nathan recommends. “You want to choose a teacher who makes an effort to understand his or her students’ musical tastes, ambitions, and goals. What’s more, make sure your child has a good rapport with his or her teacher. It’s important that the relationship always stays fresh and positive.”

Once you have decided to begin formal instruction, create a schedule for your child to commit to music each day without taking away from other interests.

“Encouragement and follow-through are the two most important things I can say to a parent who has a musical child,” says Aaron Dworkin, founder of Sphinx, a national nonprofit organization that encourages African-American and Hispanic students to get involved with classical music. “Parents need to create opportunities for their child to express and be involved in his or her art form. Also, parents want to create excitement around the instrument that is ongoing.”

Contrary to popular belief, parents do not have to support the “star-making myth” to encourage a child’s musical ability or dreams. “As a parent, you would be wise to help your child avoid locking oneself into a narrow concept of musical success. Keeping your child constructively engaged and growing in the direction of his or her dreams are appropriate goals,” says Jessica Baron Turner, author of Your Musical Child: Inspiring Kids To Play and Sing for Keeps.


  • The National Association for Music Education web site has information on the benefits of music education and other resources for parents.
  • The American Music Conference web site includes extensive information about brain research relating to the benefits of music. It also offers advice to parents, information specific to music and early childhood, a list of the top 100 communities in the United States for music education, and toolkits for advocacy.
  • The Sphinx kids’ pages offer information about composers (including minority composers) and instruments as well as hands-on activities.

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