It’s no secret that children who study music can reap great rewards in all areas of life. But what does music education actually look like? Find out on this week’s Home School Heartbeat with your host Mike Smith, as music professor Dr. Kristina Tanner shares a glimpse of her own homeschool program.
Mike Smith: I’m joined today by Dr. Kristina Tanner. She’s a professor of music at Patrick Henry College, and she’s also a homeschooling mother of four. Dr. Tanner, welcome to the program.
Dr. Kristina Tanner: Thank you very much.
Mike: Dr. Tanner, you’ve spent a lot of time studying and teaching music. How do those experiences influence the way you approach homeschooling?
Dr. Tanner: I think there are two big factors. The first one is, as a musician, I have learned a lot about how I learn and how to teach myself, how to practice effectively, how to do things effectively, how to get things done quickly and learn things quickly. And then as a piano teacher, I try to teach my students how to practice, so that eventually they don’t need a teacher anymore. I don’t want 25-year-old students coming back after college saying they need more lessons.
And so, a lot of this relates to how I teach with homeschooling. Can I teach my children to start to understand concepts by myself? How many different ways can I explain the same thing? How can I get them to self-motivate, to do certain things by themselves? You can’t do everything by yourself. But how much can she learn—my oldest child is starting first grade this year—how much can she learn to read by herself or structure her own time a little bit? And that will, I hope, get a little bit better in the future.
The second thing is, my father used to say the reason that I never quit music and kept doing music and doing music was that I had a teacher that was so excited about music that she pulled me along with her, but also that I could never get perfect enough at it to feel like I’d mastered it, so I just kept going and going and going. And I think with homeschooling, I want to get my children to be that excited about loving what they’re learning. And if I never give them a negative response to a subject—if they say, “I don’t like math,” and I say, “Well, math is still fun and here’s something that’s fun about it”—then I can keep them engaged in just being excited about what they’re learning, whatever it might be. And I think that applies across the board, whether it’s music or something else.
Mike: Dr. Tanner, why is it so important for children to study music, in your opinion?
Dr. Tanner: This is one of those things, if you spend a lot of time on social media you’ll end up seeing your musician friends post all these articles about scientific studies that prove that music will make your child smarter, music will improve their brain development, and music will get them more engaged in the rest of their lives, and there was even a study a while back that said that playing Mozart to babies in utero would make them smarter. And just in case you were playing that for your children, unfortunately they’ve proven that study was not really helpful. So actually, nix the Mozart in utero.
But from a musician standpoint, I think music helps children learn discipline; it helps them learn to sit still, it helps them learn that they don’t always learn at the same speed. In music, kids tend to hit plateaus at certain points, where they kind of struggle with a concept and it takes a bit longer. And I think, if they learn that they don’t just get to quit then and they kind of have to keep working past it, then they start to learn that this happens in life—that you get to something where’s it’s going to be more challenging and eventually you’re going to get past it.
I think the other thing that’s really great about music is that it opens up a huge, wide range of experiences—whether it’s listening to music from different cultures or different time periods and getting engaged with different places. And the great thing about modern technology is that you can access some of this stuff through YouTube and not have to pay anything. Or you can access it at a library and get recordings out. But it gives kids a chance to meet other people as well, in an ensemble situation. And so they get to be in contact with people and places that they might not have been familiar with, and a whole wide range of music that they wouldn’t have gotten in contact with any other way. And as a parent, we don’t necessarily have to be an expert in the music we get. We can just pick up a CD, look at the CD case a little bit, play the music, and read off the liner notes. “Hey this is from China! Did you know that Chinese music sounds like this?” So it’s a great opportunity to get our children interested in a huge range of history and culture without necessarily having to know about it at the outset.
Mike: Well, I take it, then, that even though a child can’t play a musical instrument, you think they should still study music. Is that right?
Dr. Tanner: I think they should. I went through with my husband, I have this theory about teaching children music, and I will gladly talk to anybody about this for hours, but I think that it’s great to start a child on an instrument. I think it teaches all kinds of great skills and disciplines.
But this can be hard, especially if you’re a parent, and you have multiple children, and one of them is really struggling at an instrument, and you’ve got competition between your children, and what do you do? It’s OK to let a child stop trying to play the instrument. They can still learn to love the music, and in fact in some cases if you force the continuation of the lessons with a student that’s struggling, and you don’t let them take a break, then you may kind of kill the love that they have for music.
But try introducing music that they can listen to that’s not the instrument you were trying to get them to play. You know, let them sing. I love to sing with my kids around the house. Let them listen to songs and just get a sense for, “Hey this stuff is beautiful. This stuff is fun!” And it keeps them engaged with loving music.
Many people aren’t going to end up playing music instrumentally in later life anyway. There aren’t that many opportunities for a grown-up tuba player, unfortunately. But on the bright side, you can get a chance to listen to music you may have played as a tuba player, you can enjoy it, and you can go to concerts of it, and you can listen to recordings of it, and you can convince your children that this is really fun stuff and enjoyable stuff. And incidentally, it relates to what they’re learning in history, and sometimes math and that kind of stuff.
So I think there are a lot of values to both singing music, which helps with pitch and rhythm and melody and has nothing to do with instruments, and with just listening and learning different kinds of music, regardless of whether they can play anything.
Mike: Dr. Tanner, tell us about how you teach music to your own children.
Dr. Tanner: Well, I should admit right now that my oldest child is only 5. I have a 5-year-old, a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old, and a 14-month-old. So a lot of what we do at home is not formal music training yet. We do a lot of singing. We sing a lot of songs that they heard at church, we sing songs that are kids’ nursery songs, we listen to children’s songs.
We also listen to a huge variety of music. My husband really likes Middle-Eastern music, and so we listen to a lot of Arabic music. I like, obviously classical music is my expertise and I love to listen to it, but I also like listening to Irish music and klezmer music. And so we listen to a wide variety of music and they get exposed to a lot of different music.
I teach my 5-year-old piano lessons. I think it’s a really good idea to start a child at piano or violin when they’re between 4 and 7. With boys it can be later, because they tend to not have the patience to sit still as well. They have the motor skills, but they don’t have the sitting-still patience.
And the last thing that we do in homeschool is a little bit unusual. I take my music appreciation lectures from the week and distill them into about a 15-minute lesson, where we might talk about, “What is ballet?” Or we might talk about, “What was Gregorian chant and why did they do it in the middle ages?” (My oldest daughter is just getting into the middle ages in history.) And then we listen to a little of the music and we watch a video on YouTube. We might point out instruments on the video on YouTube, and so we do a little bit of that. That’s probably more specific to myself as a musician. I don’t know that most parents want to do that with a 5-year-old, and a 4-year-old, and a 2-year-old.
Mike: Dr. Tanner, how do you balance your homeschooling and parenting your children with being a college professor?
Dr. Tanner: That is a million-dollar question. I do not sleep a lot in specific times of the year. When I have a lot of grading to do, I tend to lose some sleep. And my husband is, you know, giving me trouble about remembering that I do have to sleep. Most of the time, it works very, very well, as long as things are organized and running pretty clearly. I have a wonderful friend from church who comes two days a week—how often I’m here at Patrick Henry. She comes to watch my children. She has been watching my children since the oldest one was about 1. So she knows my discipline ways, she knows how the children behave, she knows their temperament. When my husband deploys, she actually lives with us some of the time during the week. So she’s really familiar with how my children work. And that gives me the opportunity to know that homeschooling is going to work well, because I write out the plan for the day: “Here’s what each child needs to go over. Here’s what they’re going to do with it, here’s the book to read to them, and that kind of thing.” And that helps with the structure. And I have a very, very strict plan of, “Here’s the day that each piece of housework gets done: this is grocery day, this is vacuuming day.” My children know all those different days if you ask them. And that helps the basic structure of the house to work.
I love to teach. I don’t think I could or would put myself through this much chaos of stress without loving to teach. But I have to love my kids more than that, and I really would not want to not get the chance to be there with them. And the homeschooling gives us a chance to do a lot of that too.
Mike: Dr. Tanner, I’m sure our listeners want to give their kids a good musical education. But some of them may not feel musically gifted or proficient enough to do it on their own. What would you say to them?
Dr. Tanner: I think the first thing to remember is that there are plenty of times when it’s OK to find someone else that can teach your child on an instrument, or in a situation where you don’t feel proficient. It is often something that I have found to be something that you can barter for. I know a lot of people worry about money. I barter, sometimes, piano lessons with other homeschooling moms. I say, “I will teach your child piano for an hour if you will sit down and do reading and math with my child.” If it’s a musician, you can barter straight across: “I’ll teach your child violin and you teach mine piano,” or something like that. I don’t teach violin; I’d be the piano one. And that, I find, really works when you’re talking about individual one-on-one.
But I will strongly tell parents, if you’re not talking about one-on-one instrument instruction—you’re talking about, “I want to teach my child music history, I want to teach my child about music, I want to teach my child rhythm, I want to teach my child basic songs”—almost anyone can do that. Because really what’s important is loving music, and the ability to read a basic book so that you understand the music history: you’ve heard of the composer you’re talking about, that kind of thing.
But if you can get your child engaged, it works very much like any other subject. Most of us are not nuclear physicists. And so when we get to teaching science, I can teach my child how many planets there are, but I may not know the exact velocity of Mars going around the sun. That doesn’t keep me from wanting to teach it. And it doesn’t mean that I can’t look it up if she asks. And so I think that really makes a huge difference when you’re teaching music—just knowing that the biggest thing is instilling the love and excitement about music in your children.
I would also point out that most of us, when we first start homeschooling, think it’s terrifying, and anything that’s less familiar is going to automatically be more frightening. But it is very hard to convince a child not to like any music. You have to really work to get a child to dislike all kinds of music across the board. And so bear that in mind with confidence: there will be something that your child will come out loving about music.
Mike: A great thing about music is that you can enjoy it with other people. What kinds of social opportunities, Dr. Tanner, are available to homeschooling musicians?
Dr. Tanner: Some of that depends on your area. And that’s true for anybody across the board, any kind of school. There are more, different opportunities for musicians available in bigger areas with more students in them. But as a general rule, if your child is going to violin lessons, look for a teacher that does group lessons. Most violin teachers offer that as part of what’s called “the Suzuki method.” As a general rule, any child anywhere can join a choir. There’s always a children’s choir at a church, at a local events center, at a recreation center, some auditionable choirs—Washington Children’s Chorus if you’re in Washington, D.C.—it’s a big, big thing. But no matter what, there are choirs to enter. And most of those, especially with younger children, you don’t have to audition for. You just show up; it’s like taking soccer lessons.
Another thing with older children is, instrumental ensembles are wonderful and a lot of times as homeschoolers we think, “My child might miss out on band.” That’s not actually true. A lot of co—ops have instrumental offerings; they have different ensembles that they offer. Every state has a music educators association. So if you can get on the website for the music educators association in your state, you can look up band offerings—they’re usually district bands and honor bands that children can enter later.
The last thing I would recommend is, some states will actually let you join a band or an orchestra program through their school so that you can be in a group ensemble setting. And a lot of organizations will let you know which states will do that. I think HSLDA may even be able to tell you that. So something that would be worth looking into.
Mike: Now you’ve given us a lot to think about. But if there’s one thing our listeners should remember about music education, what would it be?
Dr. Tanner: For me, I think it’s the reminder that, as Christian, music is about worship. So everything, whether it’s performing or enjoying it—even just listening to it—is like looking at the beauty of nature and saying, “Oh my goodness, God inspired the creation of this. God inspired this composer to write this.” So just reminding myself that all of this glorifies God.
As a parent, it’s the reminder that music is this amazing thing. I think all of us love some kind of music and we get to instill this in our children, and maybe even teach them about things we didn’t already know. I think it’s a great privilege to get to share something that beautiful with our children.
Mike: Well Dr. Tanner, thank you for being with us. I know our listeners will be able to think a lot about this, and perhaps we’ll have more musicians out there as a result. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.