Raising musical children

My wife and I are often asked what we have done to raise a musical family. This is always slightly embarrassing because we didn’t really plan on raising a “musical family”, nor are we altogether sure why some children take to music and others don’t. Neither of us are musicians. Although Mrs. C. is fully Asian, she’s definitely not the Tiger Mom when it comes to music lessons and practice. Our children will also attest to the fact that we have (ahem) less-than-perfect parenting skills, and in some respects a non-ideal home life. But it turns out that we did raise what most people would call a “musical family”, and so I thought it might be helpful to share our family’s approach to music. It’s definitely not the only way, and perhaps not even the best way, but it has met with some success.

1. An educational philosophy that “music is curricular, not extra-curricular”. From the beginning, we were convinced that music is an essential component of a liberal education. And so we began with the attitude that music is not primarily something one does with “free time”, or something that (like other hobbies) must always be “fun” and “enjoyable” to be worthwhile. Rather, music is studied because it expresses the good, the true, and the beautiful; and because the knowledge of music enriches the whole man. Furthermore the lives of the great composers, the histories of famous and important works, and the influence of music on society should also be studied. Knowledge and competence comes first; the enjoyment comes later.

2. Respect for parents. This is a huge topic, and I’m not qualified to write the book, but children who don’t respect or obey their parents are not generally very teachable. Just paying for lessons isn’t going to help much. And getting them to practice is going to be a constant battle. So, it’s important that children be raised from the beginning with a healthy respect for their parents.

3. Home education. This not only gives a family lots of flexibility in terms of music lessons and event scheduling, but it can help children avoid unproductive and harmful distractions. Almost 50 percent of our city’s youth orchestra is home schooled.

4. No television. Our decision to live completely TV-free has eliminated one major distraction and a fierce competitor for the children’s free time (although now we have to fight with computers, etc.).

5. Exposure to good music. We’re not convinced of the “Mozart Effect”, but our children’s exposure to the best kinds of music – primarily sacred, classical, and folk music – begins in utero and continues throughout their childhood.

6. Limiting bad music. Certain genres of “music” are actually anti-musical. They erode the patience, calm, and mental discipline that is necessary to learn the art of real music. And so we have always tried to maintain a tight control over the kinds of music we allow in the home. Our children have not become addicted to rock music or any of its derivatives (rap, hip-hop, heavy metal, etc.) – what Professor Alan Bloom called “America’s drug of choice”. There are exceptions, but it’s rare for an electro-music-addicted young person to find anything appealing about classical piano or violin, or even traditional folk music. You might make him study it, but when he wants a musical diversion, he’ll always choose the passive stimulation of rock music before picking up the fiddle or sitting down at the piano.

7. Musical siblings. Having one or more siblings who also study music has a great many benefits, both tangible and intangible. They need each other, they help each other, and they play together.

8. Musical friends. There were, in fact, two families who inspired us when our oldest children were very young. We saw their beautiful enjoyment of music and wanted the same kind of joy for our family. Later on, we were blessed to have the friendship of one family in particular whose children were also musical, and with whom our children enjoyed playing.

9. “Yes” to music. All parents must say “no” to their children often enough. We decided early that we would try to say “yes”, whenever possible, to our children’s musical aspirations. That means sacrificing time and money for concerts, competitions, rehearsals, workshops, master classes, new instruments, and special trips of all kinds that were “above and beyond” what was minimally required for their studies.

10. Love and a happy home. I don’t like the Tiger Mom’s approach. It may result in good musicians sometimes, but I’ve talked to numerous people who resented that kind of upbringing and have dropped the music. There must be love in the home, and a genuine desire for the good of the children as opposed to parental or family prestige. Children can sense when your motives are off. Spend time talking about music and listening together, but don’t make an idol of it. At the same time, the laissez-faire approach is also mistaken. There needs to be firmness and discipline, especially in the beginning, at least for a minimal effort, and without any fear of occasional unpleasantness.

Chico’s Summer Music Academy

Last week our fair city of Chico hosted the annual Summer Music Academy sponsored by the Music Teacher’s Association of California – Butte County Branch. The event was held in the classrooms and sanctuary of Chico’s historic Bidwell Presbyterian Church. Dozens of rising young musicians received specialized instruction from master teachers in violin, viola, cello, piano, and harpsichord. In return, they performed three concerts for the community on Friday and Saturday featuring the works of Bach, Mozart, Hayden, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and other renowned composers.

We had the great pleasure of hosting Dr. Ljubomir Velickovic and his son, along with another music student, which made for some lively musical gatherings in our living room!

I have to tell you, as a non-musician, the joy and enthusiasm that real music brings into the lives of these young people is something to envy. One of my favorite pastimes has become simply watching musicians when they get together. It doesn’t take long before the small talk is out of the way and they start making music somehow. What a gift it must be to have that instant musical bond with strangers!  This is our third year of participation, and it’s been nice turning strangers into friends as we get to know some of the other families.

As for the music itself, we are fortunate in that MTAC-Butte has thus far been committed to the great “canon” of the western tradition. Now and then, sure, the teachers introduce something different just for fun, but there is no egotistical thirst for radical experimentation among the teachers here, no chasing after showtunes and pop culture. The students learn the highest and best music that our civilization has produced, and they learn it well. First things first.

“They gave us heaven”

I think my favorite verse of Ca C’est Bon (“it is good”) – near as I can make out the words – is this:

Our children played in the storm
We gave them life
They gave us heaven
Laughter in the rain.
I gave you my heart
And you gave me yourself
“Ca c’est bon, ca c’est bon” –
Cried the hurricane. 

That about sums it up.

How do our children give us heaven? Three ways: 1. By their joy and innocence, a foretaste of heaven; 2. By the many trials of parenthood, our sanctification; 3. By their prayers for us.

Colloquium XXII finale

The twenty-second annual Sacred Music Colloquium concluded this morning in Salt Lake City.

Fellow Californian (and fellow Culbreth ((without the “a”))) Mr. Charles Culbreth finds actual words for things I could only stammer about. These are a few of his favorite things.

My dear daughter Amy writes on Google+ this evening: “I think all I can say is that I just experienced THE highlight of my 17th year.”  Reading this was definitely the highlight of my day, Amy!

Jonathan remains in a virtual trance and could only muster: “Wow. What a week.”

God is so very, very good.

My wife has just sent me some photos from yesterday: