Forced Family Time

Here in Wilton, CT, it has been a full week of no school and some self-quarantining. People are getting the hang of this. Kids are playing with brothers and sisters in the yard. Families are walking and talking. Home schooling has started. I have been transported back in time a bit – at least before there were organized kids’ sports. There is a lot more free time and forced togetherness.

As with most obstacles, there are also opportunities. In the course of my piano classes, I have inserted occasional “movie days” which means that for that week everyone still plays the piano, but you get a break from theory.  For the kids it is a change of pace, but it gives me a chance to expose my students to songs and music that they might not hear. Musical ideas inspire more musical ideas. Hearing many types of music educates your ears and your mind.

One stumbling block that I have more recently experienced is that many old movies (with great music) contain an idea or subject that is now socially off-limits. Back in 1985, when I wanted to show my general music class E.T. featuring great music by John Williams, I could not because in the very beginning someone says a four-letter-word. Now I have many societal considerations. For instance, in “Oklahoma”… is Will objectifying women when he tells the men about how Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City and “for fifty cents you can see a dandy show?” And how about when Curly bullies Jud and paints the picture of how it will be if “Poor Jud is Dead?” Is he suggesting that Jud should take his own life?  I have therefore resorted to making YouTube playlists that piece together songs from various movies or interviews. It is more like a variety show. It seems that most movies open up a Pandora’s Box of subjects that are not in my job description.

Why am I bringing this up? Parents have a fantastic opportunity to watch these movies with their children during these long weeks of forced togetherness. Many are available online. You can enjoy a movie but not agree with all of the ideas that are presented. Some movies give you a forum to discuss values with your children. Some movies give you a chance to discuss history. Some are cautionary tales. “Yes Tommy, I know you saw Ben Hur with his horse and chariot race, but it would be best NOT to tie Fido up to your skateboard and race.”

While I encourage you to venture outside the world of animation, I am not against those Disney animated movies. They are extremely entertaining. If your child has already watched a movie 20 times and you would like to limit screen time, consider playing the soundtracks. Don’t just play the songs. Play the soundtracks. That is where all the background music lives. In The Lion King, this is the music that makes you feel frightened during the stampede, sad when Mufasa dies, and hopeful when life comes back to the pride lands. And don’t stop with listening. Let your kids act out the scene. Let them sing, dance, and pretend they are the ones in the show.

Movies can be a great way to spend some family time. Start that tradition now. This is an activity that you can enjoy for a very long time. It is just more proof that…

…Music Lasts a Lifetime

In no particular order, here are some movies, and artists to consider:

  • Starring Shirley Temple – too many to list
  • Starring Fred Estaire – too many to list
  • My Fair Lady
  • An American in Paris
  • Singin’ in the Rain
  • The Princess Bride
  • Matilda
  • Meet Me in St. Louis
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Sound of Music
  • James and the Giant Peach
  • E.T.
  • Mary Poppins
  • Princess Diaries
  • Sandlot
  • Star Wars
  • Harry Potter
  • The Parent Trap (the second one)
  • Jungle Book (the original)
  • Willy Wonka & the Chocoate Factory (the original)
  • Newsies
  • Annie
  • Fiddler on the Roof
  • West Side Story
  • The King and I (not animated)
  • Oklahoma
  • South Pacific

An Appreciative Audience With Purpose

The change of seasons brings us a natural change in schedules and routines. We turn back our clocks and the days get shorter. All of these events upset the delicate balance of our everyday lives. Children need some assistance setting a new routine.

Many of our recreational activities are brought inside. Use this to your advantage. This is a great time to get your kids to practice piano a bit more often. As you gear up for holiday gatherings, let your children know that you really enjoy hearing them play. Tell them who will be visiting and ask them if they have some idea of what Grandma or Uncle Jerry might like.

If you want to set up a little concert for family, great – one or two songs – less is more. As a kid, I liked to escape to the other room and enjoyed playing where I did not feel the pressure of performing, but I knew everyone could hear me. It was my little getaway. I was able to escape the chaos and then later receive a compliment or two.

Let your kids know that you are an appreciative audience. Encourage them to practice. Naturally they will improve their skills, but the added upside is that your child may find that quietly playing the piano is a great way to relax during the hectic holiday schedule.  This is a lesson that can potentially stay with them for a very long time: through school exams and bad breakups and other disappointments or moments of stress. They will come to learn that…

Music Lasts a Lifetime

Don’t Panic – It Is Still Summer

When the calendar says August, it is easy to get a sinking feeling. Oh no. Summer is almost over. But actually there is plenty of free time left to enjoy. I can sometimes feel like I did not “do” summer well enough. Each year I look for a new strategy.

In past years I have filled my summer to-do list with lots of projects. I like projects, so that has been fine, but this summer I decided I needed to give myself permission to have a little more “fun”.  I gave myself stickers. No joke – stickers – like the kind your teacher puts on your paper when you do a good job. I put up my paper calendar and any day I did ONLY fun stuff, I gave myself a sticker. All this so that at the end of the summer I can look at the calendar and say, “See, I did have a fun Summer!!”

What is fun stuff for you? There is still time. Here are a couple of ideas related to music:

  • Outdoor concerts – there are plenty of family friendly ones. Pack a picnic and some bug spray and make the most of it.
  • Rainy day movies – in the theatre or in your house – how about a musical you have been meaning to share with your kids.
  • Encourage your kids to give you a concert on the piano with some of their favorite songs.
  • Sing a lot – do you remember any old camp songs? Maybe look up something on youtube and let everyone join in. Singing a “round” (like row, row, row your boat) is a great way to pass some time on a car ride or even an actual boat.

Make music a part of your “fun-days”, because …

Music Lasts a Lifetime

Background Music

For Music History this year we are discussing the genre of “Background Music”. This is exactly what it says it is – music that is played in the background of a movie or TV show. It is used in various ways. Sometimes it accentuates the action – makes the scary parts seem scarier, fast chases seem faster, and sunrises seem sunnier….  There are other times when the music represents a character as in Darth Vader’s March in Star Wars.

Most times the viewer isn’t even aware that there is music playing. This is where I come in. I am trying to help my students focus on the music. It is a little tricky. I feel like I have to keep saying, “Do you hear that?”, and they almost always say yes, but of course I have no idea if they actually did.

The most effective background music is that which influences you without you realizing your emotions are being manipulated. It is very sneaky. In an effort to expose its existence, I have been trying to isolate the music from the action.

In the Fall I played some Silent Movie excerpts: Music, Action, but No Spoken Words. You can pull up many of these on YouTube. Check out the Charlie Chaplin movies. We watched The Lion’s Cage.

This week I am playing, again from YouTube, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe – Suite 2. That is the orchestral piece which inspired me to write the previous post about “Live Music”.  While these two selections are the same piece, the orchestras play them with a slightly different personality. The second selection uses a Choral Component, which is quite haunting.  Many selections of background music today have a choral component. It sounds otherworldly, supernatural.

I have two reasons for showing these pieces to my students. The first is that this is a piece of Program Music. Program Music tells a story – think Nutcracker Suite, Peter and the Wolf. So this is a way to present the music without the movie. You have to imagine the action and words. I hope this will force them to focus on what they hear. My second reason is this presentation gives the students exposure to the actual instruments and helps the students see which instrument is playing: harp, flute, strings, clarinet. There are a lot of instruments in these performances. The arrangement includes the Piccolo (the highest instrument of the orchestra) and Contrabassoon (one of the lowest instrument of the orchestra). I am hoping that when they hear an instrument, they will begin to associate the sound with the actual instrument. A teacher can dream…

It would be great if 100% of my students continued to play the piano forever, but we all know that is highly unlikely. A more realistic goal is that I will have helped each of them to attain a better understanding and appreciation for what they hear. It would be great if when they are 80-something years old, they watched a movie and thought, “that music sure makes that sunrise seem sunnier”. That is when they would certainly know

… Music Lasts a Lifetime


The Value of the Live Performance

Yesterday I went to Lincoln Center to hear the NY Philharmonic. I love this activity. I’m hooked. My formula is usually:

  • Cheaper Seats x More Concerts  = JOY

(Although, yesterday’s seats were a little too crummy, even for me. It is good to discover your limits.)

In a time when any piece of music can be heard by commanding Siri, people underestimate the value of the live performance. And, by the way, although I love to hear that my students have been to a classical performance, I am referring to any type of live performance.

So here are some reasons to jump in with both feet and experience live music.

In no particular order:

  • No “devices” allowed.
  • Dress up clothes are encouraged.
  • The event feels special.
  • Musicians have skills worth seeing. They act as a team. There is a quarterback, special teams, kickers. They must play with precision, moving and breathing together.
  • Watching an instrument being played is amazing.
  • Hearing music you never heard before is educational.
  • Live music sounds and “feels” different than a recording.
  • Depending on the venue, certain behavior and ritual is expected. This is all part of the discipline of music.

Here are a few suggestions.

  • Before you go, listen to the pieces you will hear. You don’t have to study them, just play them in the background so they are familiar.
  • Bring a little pair of binoculars. Even from the cheap seats you can see the instruments close up.
  • When you sit in the theatre, check out the program.  There are often notes that guide you to listen for certain elements. That makes it more fun. Some of the pieces tell a story.

I highly encourage you to give your family the gift of this experience. It does not have to cost a lot. For a little more than the price of a movie ticket, you can share this experience. You will be making a life-long memory.

Because, you know,

… Music Lasts a Lifetime


Movie Day Musicals

Every 6-8 weeks I declare “Movie Day”. This means each student plays the piano, but we substitute a movie instead of theory. It is usually a surprise. The only qualities it must possess is that it has to be a Musical and I try to pick one that I think the students have never seen. This means that many are old, in black and white, and a little slow paced off the start. Sounds dull when I put it that way; I know. This activity is really all about exposure. Many times when the movie starts, the kids look at me cockeyed with an expression that says, “Really? Well I guess it is better than theory.” But then later I glance into the movie room and see them trying to tap dance like Fred Astaire or laughing at slapstick humor or just snuggled up listening to a sweet song.

If you grow up in a family that has regularly experienced the non-animated Musical genre, it is not shocking to see an actual person break out into song about… I don’t know… the price of lettuce, let’s say. But if this is not your go-to activity for family fun night, it seems a little weird. Just this week a student said, “Why is there so much singing?” and another replied, “It’s a Musical.”

So this week we watched the Rodgers and Hammerstein rendition of “Cinderella”. Produced in 1965, this is one of those movies that was broadcast on TV once a year, and I will never forget it. This Musical is really lovely. I searched for it for literally years and then there it was on Amazon. At first glance you will think it is a Mr. Rodgers episode as the staging, etc. is surprisingly simple, but then all of a sudden everyone is entranced.

Another reason I picked this movie is that this weekend the Wilton High School is performing a similar version on stage. High School performances are crazy good these days. They are very reasonably priced and a great way for your kids to get exposure without breaking the bank. I am hoping that some of my students will now be a little more familiar with the music and their families may go see this show May 18th, 19thor 20th.  You can purchase tickets online:

If you cannot fit this activity into this weekend, keep your eyes open for shows in other towns. This is a wonderful experience and if you follow it up with ice cream, you are creating a full-fledged memory! Come young, come old. When it comes to the Musical,

… Music Lasts a Lifetime

Was Piano Lessons a Waste of Time?

Fitting music lessons into your child’s schedule can be a challenge. It takes a long time to make noticeable progress, but the experience can be very worthwhile. There are many scientific studies that measure brain activity while listening to music etc., but that is not what I am talking about. Learning how to play an instrument or participating in a vocal group requires many other skills. Here are some examples.

Concentration. Did you ever have the experience where you read a page and realize that the entire time you were thinking about what you were going to have for dinner that night? Well that happens when you are playing an instrument. Your mind can wander and you have to keep your head in the game the entire time – active concentration. This is a great skill to have.

Emotional Control. Playing an instrument can be extremely frustrating. Sometimes your ears and eyes know what to play, but your fingers keep making the mistake. You have to take a breath and keep practicing. There are times when singing with a chorus can be very emotional. It would be easy to break out sobbing which would ruin the moment for the audience. You have to keep your emotions intact. The singer has to feel that surge of emotion but maintain control. This is a pretty good skill to develop.

Of course there is the chance that you might actually develop the life skill of playing or singing which you will be able to do for a very long time. You create connections with “music friends” and become part of a community. I belong to Wilton Singers, a local community choral group. These people have become some of my very best friends. Age, marital status, political stance, and religious views are inconsequential. Our bond is first about the music. That is how we connect.

Even if your piano lessons didn’t put you on the stage at Carnegie hall, your efforts were not in vain. You can still make music a part of your life. The skills that you learned are both directly and indirectly transferrable… and lots of fun.

Check out the articles below when you have a chance. And in the meantime remember…

Music Lasts a Lifetime