An open letter to parents on winter break from music lessons…

This week marks the end of violin lessons I’ve been teaching this year in a few private schools in the South L.A. area, where I’ve been giving group lessons in beginning violin to students through a wonderful organization called Arts Alive. Please consider supporting their wonderful work.  I’m including the letter I wrote to parents (removing some specific or personal information) to everyone in hopes you can benefit from reading it.  A lot of us go on break over the winter holidays – going a few weeks without a lesson, but it’s still important to think about how you can keep working on your or your child’s musical development even when they can’t “practice” in a normal way.

Congratulations on making it through half the year of music lessons! From September until now it may feel like you’re just getting started, and you will continue to grow in your technique over the course of many years and grow as confident and creative music makers!   I have no doubt you and your kids are looking forward to a well-deserved break of seeing family, eating yummy treats, and observing favorite traditions.

I’m sure the last thing you want right now is more homework, and so I have a few ideas of how to make music and violin playing a fun part of your holiday festivities. I like to say that “the more I play violin, the better it sounds and the easier it gets.” So simply a few minutes every day engaging with music and practicing our basic routines or playing favorite songs can make a huge difference in making sure you or your child comes back in January at his or her best.

Listening to music is a very important (and fun) part of growing as a musician. First of all,  listening to highly skilled and creative violinists help keep up a sense of motivation and show him or her what’s possible. Also, listening helps develop your ear so you can learn to recognize when a pitch is in tune or a rhythm within the beat, and this is a really important part of making sure you play at your best.  So find ways to bring music into your daily life, making it part of regular activities or chores.  I’ve created a Spotify playlist to help you get started. I curated it to give you just a taste of the various styles of music people have used the violin to perform.  There are also some great albums by violin and cello players putting their own twist of popular holiday songs that allow you to incorporate bowed strings into your festivities including:

  •             Christmas on the Blue Violin by Pavel Šporcl
  •             An Appalachian Christmas by Mark O’Connor
  •             Warmer in the Winter by Lindsey Stirling
  •             Songs of Joy and Peace by Yo-Yo Ma
  •             The Trans-Siberian Orchestra  
  •             Tidings of Groove by Edgar Gabriel

Make listening to music part of your family time. The music we connect with can be a really important part of our personalities and cultural heritage, so sharing songs can an important way to bring family together. Maybe your kids could ask their grandparents or older family members about the songs they liked to sing!

Of course, we are all surrounded by background music all the time, and so it’s easy to start talking or otherwise not giving music full attention. To really get the most out of the music you hear, we need to do nothing but pay attention to what you hear, and so it’s helpful if at least some of the music you listen to be more active and in a context free of distraction.  A music teacher in Indiana has created this great worksheet that I sometimes use in lessons. One page is for the child to use their imagination to draw or write a story that the song makes them think about, and then another page asks four questions to help them analyze what they are hearing:

  1.             Tempo – is the beat fast or slow?
  2.             Dynamics – is the volume loud or soft?
  3.             Timbre – are the instruments making high or low pitches? is the tone gentle or harsh?
  4.             Mood – what emotion does the music make you feel or think about?

Another great thing you can do to help with practice over the holidays is creating opportunities for “performing.”  Ask your child to play a song or demonstrate our exercises for every friend or relative who comes over – or they can also choose to play for a pet or favorite stuffed animal. This can be a fun way to keep practicing going and help them stay motivated.

At this somewhat early stage in their musical development, it’s important for you as a listener to stay positive and encouraging. When your child plays for you, stop everything else you’re doing and give them undivided attention in silence (just as I insist they do when we listen to each other perform in class).  Give applause and enthusiastic praise after they finish, and say encouraging things. If you are concerned about the quality of their playing or have questions about whether or not they are doing something right, please get in touch with me and ask questions or send videos for feedback, and we can discuss things privately. But offering criticism without actionable steps to fix the problem at this stage is mostly unhelpful and could kill their love of playing.

Enjoy your break – and that may mean taking time off from regular “practicing” – but that doesn’t mean you have to take a vacation from music-making as a whole.  At its best, the holiday season can be a time to connect with family, celebrate our most sacred traditions and beliefs, and connecting with the joyful and whimsical side of life. The songs we sing (whether it’s O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, Ma’oz Tzor, Villancico Para Posada, or even Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer) are an important part of celebrating – and so they can in turn help connect you with the reason music means so much to you.

 

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