How music lessons can help your child

Wondering about the Mozart Effect? How music lessons encourage and teach more than just musical ability in children

We’ve heard about the Mozart Effect: the theory that listening to classical music can make our kids smarter. Well, move over, Mozart. Learning to play an instrument, even if it’s to jam with Justin Bieber’s CD, has broader benefits. A University of Toronto study found that six- to 11-year-olds who took music lessons had higher IQs and better grades.

And while educators say everyone has it in them to learn an instrument, it isn’t easy — which, it turns out, is another benefit. “You break apart a problem (for example, a difficult passage in a new piece of music), then you isolate it and figure it out,” says University of Western Ontario associate music professor Kari Veblen. That persistence and discipline spill into other aspects of the child’s life, Veblen adds, and stick with her into adulthood.

Making it fun

Veblen shares these tips for helping your kid stick with an instrument:

• Seek out resources in your community. Does someone teach piano in the neighbourhood? Is the local kids’ choir accepting new members? Make sure it’s easy to get to lessons, or have the teacher come to you.
• Focus on making music; go easy on the tough theory.
• Don’t make her practise alone. Sit with her while she plays and offer feedback. Or arrange musical playdates with another child who’s learning at the same level.

Getting the right fit
• Let your child have a say in which instrument she’ll play. If she’s dead set against the violin, she won’t want to practise.
• Don’t feel you have to commit. Many music stores offer inexpensive short-term rentals, allowing your child to try an instrument for, say, a month, then decide if she wants to keep going.
• Make sure there’s a rapport between the teacher and your child. “Not everyone can work with kids,” Veblen cautions.

Percussion perks
“A little kid is thrilled with almost any percussive, rhythmic thing,” says Veblen. That makes the piano a natural choice for a first instrument. But if one isn’t available to you, or you’re not ready to start lessons for your child, look into easygoing parent-and-tot classes, such as Kindermusik (kindermusik.com), that offer hands-on experience with drums, shakers and other small percussion instruments. Or check out classes incorporating Orff instruments, which are designed especially for children (orffmuscalgary.com).
The power of song
“Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O!” Our kids’ favourite nursery rhymes, lullabies and songs carry a host of health benefits for little ones:

• Singing is a workout that deepens breath, increases heart rate and even strengthens the immune system.
• Belting out tunes builds the brain by alternating brain wave patterns. It also prompts the release of endorphins, which are our natural mood lifters.
• Crooning involves a swallowing action that opens up and drains the ear tubes, which may help prevent middle ear infections by releasing fluid build-up.

Harmonizing at home
Mom’s or dad’s involvement in lessons will depend on how much time they can put in, as well as their own musical interest and aptitude. Even if you’re not so musically inclined, there are lots of ways to play a part in your child’s learning. Angela Elster, vice-president, academics at The Royal Conservatory in Toronto, likes to see parents ask questions: “What’s the right way to hold your bow?” “What does a D sound like?” That’ll help you keep up with what your child is doing, and reinforce her learning as well, Elster says.

Is she ready for lessons?
Wondering what’s the best age for your child to start music lessons? The timing depends largely on your family resources, says music prof Kari Veblen. The Suzuki Method is used to teach kids as young as three, with parental involvement. One-on-one piano lessons can start as soon as she’s big enough to sit at the bench. “But if the child isn’t so interested until eight or nine, that’s OK,” Veblen says, adding that a school or church band is a fun, social, low-pressure place to learn an instrument when kids hit early adolescence.

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