Volume V, Issue 3, Fall 1998

Table of Contents

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Musical Compositions by School Children

The Powers of Music: A Treatment for Epilepsy?

Briefly Noted
Musical Ability as an Independent Intelligence
Adolescent Emotional Response to Music and Risk-Taking

Recent Publications of Special Interest

Matters of Opinion
Underestimating Young Children: Easy for Us, Hard on Them

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Music Research Foundation Established

The International Foundation for Music Research (IFMR) has been established. Supported by the international music products industry, the IFMR is the first foundation of its kind. Its goals are to promote and fund research in the broad field of music and behavior including cognitive science, psychology, education, neuroscience, medicine, health, therapy, child development, adolescence, aging and related disciplines. Starting with its inaugural funding year of 1998-99 the Foundation will support the conduct of research projects. In future years, it will also support graduate fellowships and award prizes for outstanding research. Additional information on the Foundation can be obtained at its Web site, http://www.music-research.org, by e-mail at IFMR @ music-research.org, or by writing to the Foundation at 5790 Armada Drive, Suite 200, Carlsbad, CA 92008.

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Musical Compositions by Schoolchildren
Copyright © 1998 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.

One of the emerging themes in music research is that children's capabilities and knowledge have been vastly underestimated. For example, infants are born with the ability to perceive and process basic musical sounds and patterns ( MRN, " The Musical Infant", Spring 1994). So it is with composing music. Studies have shown not only that children do compose but that by the age of nine they use the same processes as those employed by professional composers.

When we think about child composers Mozart usually springs to mind. While not the only child prodigy in musical composition, he certainly is the best known. But there are many other children who can compose music. Who are they? Probably every child!

The coin of compositional fame has two sides. We all focus on the accomplishments and products of composition; this engenders awe and wonderment. "How" we ask ourselves "... can they do that?!!" Fine -- there is nothing wrong with recognizing and appreciating the extraordinary, the products of true creative mastery and genius. But the flip side of the coin is that we implicitly draw a distinct line, indeed an unbroachable chasm, between composers and the rest of us. They can do it, we can't.

But this deeply held, yet seldom voiced, belief is only true within limits. It focuses on the product of composing, the end result, the "piece" we hear and to which we react. But behind every compositional product, there is the process of composing music. Because we know that each of us can't write great music, we assume that we can't compose music. That's really pretty strange because children routinely and spontaneously compose music.

An account of The Pillsbury Foundation School in Santa Barbara, California yields an instructive and fascinating example. The school was actually established to discover children's " ...natural forms of musical expression and to determine means of developing their musical capacities, particularly in the field of spontaneous creation." Gladys Moorhead and Donald Pond have provided many details of children's explorations in music during the period of approximately 1937 - 1940, in "Music of Young Children".(1) A large variety of musical materials and instruments from various cultures was freely available to the students, 1.5 to 8.5 years of age. Normal toys also were present. Musical exploration and invention was abundantly exhibited even in the absence of formal musical training. The authors provide examples of musical behavior and counted their occurance, including activities such as the composition of chants, the use of different instruments, the types of rhythms employed, the verbal content of songs, the degree of involvement of physical movement and the occasions during which various degrees of composition occurred. Their naturalistic set of observations certainly supports the view that children need little encouragement to create music. But this is not quite composition.

A more systematic series of investigations was carried out in 1941-42 by Dorothea Doig in the Saturday Morning Music Classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art.(2) The goal of these studies was to not to provide technical training in music but rather "... to discover what elements children use before receiving definite training in musical composition". In these studies, the students in a class worked together to compose music at increasing levels of difficulty: (a) composing music for a given text, (b) composing music on a given subject and (c) composing music to illustrate given musical problems, e.g., original compositions that illustrated a certain rhythmic or structural problem. Various classes consisted of children six, eight, nine and twelve - sixteen years of age. The teacher or an aid recorded the score as the composition emerged because the students lacked the necessary skills.

The findings revealed a great interest and enthusiasm for composing as well as excellent group cooperation and interactions at all ages. For example, the children readily accepted the ideas of their peers, e.g., for a different or "more complete" ending to a piece. Some interesting facts emerged. Students felt the need to sing the composition before judging it completed. Compositions by older children and by many younger children exhibited a definite feeling for cadence and for the use of repetition and contrast. They also showed relationships among phrases and thus the music produced had definite form. There was a preference for major keys. Students could write original compositions based on a complicated rhythmic figure, the dotted eighth and sixteenth note combination. They composed marches and waltzes and had an excellent grasp of the defining characteristics, although not the technical vocabulary. Ten year olds even decided to compose a series of pieces to accompany a play. Overall, the children exhibited developed concepts of tonality, melodic contour, rhythmic figure and meter.

After a long period of general neglect, there has been renewed interest in compositional abilities of young children. For example, Rena Upitis of Queen's University in Canada has been a leader in bringing compositional activities into the classroom(3) and other have strongly advocated the importance of actively engaging children in this highly creative activity(4) (see also " Creating Creativity with Music", MRN, Spring 1998).

However, not much has been known about the actual processes used by children in composing. In 1989, John Kratus performed a quantitative study of individual composition in children of seven, nine or eleven years of age.(5) Kratus analyzed more formal aspects of composition, specifically its three stages: exploration, development and repetition. Repetition was taken as an indication that the musical idea was being retained and ultimately repetition of the entire piece signified completion of the composition.

Each student was given 10 minutes to compose an original piece on a keyboard, after having become familiar with the instrument. To simplify matters, all compositions started on middle C and used only white keys. The students in the sample had little or no formal music training but had received general music classes as part of the standard grade school curriculum. Judges rated tape recordings of the compositions at a later date. They tallied the amount of time spent in exploration, development of musical ideas and phrases, and in repetition of material (plus periods of silence).

There were no differences in sex but there were systematic differences in age. Seven year olds spent most of the time in exploration but they also showed some development of the material they produced and by the end of ten minutes several were able to achieve repetition of a completed composition. Nine year olds started out with a high level of exploration also but this quickly dropped as they spent more time in development and in repeating their musical ideas. This trend was even greater for eleven year olds. The students showed great enthusiasm and pleasure in composing.

This study has both practical and theoretical importance. On the practical side, Kratus suggests that seven year olds be encouraged to improvise rather than to write complete compositions. On the theoretical side, the author points out that nine and eleven year olds adequately use the three process of exploration, development and repetition that are known to be characteristic of professional, successful composers. Here then, we have clear evidence of presumably mature compositional processes in children as young as nine years old.

In a follow-up study, Kratus investigated the relationship of audiation to the process and quality of compositions in nine year olds.(6) Audition is hearing and feeling music when no sound is actually present, i.e., "hearing it in one's head". Forty children who were not musically trained were first tested on the Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation test, which measures how well they can mentally hold tonal or rhythmic information. Later, they were given ten minutes to compose an original piece. The ability to audiate was compared to the amount of time spent in exploration, development and repetition. The quality of the compositions was also evaluated by judges.

The relevance of audiation to creativity in musical composition is that if children can mentally rehearse or develop musical ideas, then their period of overt exploration would be shortened and more time could be spent in development and repetition. Indeed, this was the result. Also, importantly, the greater the ability to audiate, the higher was the quality of the composition. Thus, practice in audiation might enhance creative abilities in musical composition. Kratus concludes that "... 9-year-olds can be regarded as genuine composers...".

In summary, studies of musical composition in schoolchildren reveal several things. First, children like to compose and will do so enthusiastically given a bit of guidance and opportunity. Second, by the age of nine, children can produce original compositions, and they use the same processes as do professional composers. Third, development of the ability to retain sound patterns facilitates composition. Fourth, and most importantly, musical composition is a truly creative process that is subject to study and understanding.

Creativity is a commodity in short supply. It is and should be valued by all segments of society. The composition of music by schoolchildren has at least two major benefits. It provides a way to understand how children create. At the same time, it enables them to develop their creative potential. So, don't worry about whether or not your children, grandchildren or students can be the next Mozart. They already have the basic ability to compose. Just give them a chance to experience and enjoy creating music.

-- N. M. Weinberger

(1) Moorhead, G.E. & Pond, D. (1941) Music of Young Children I. Chant. Pillsbury Foundation for Advancement of Music Education, Santa Barbara, CA.

(2) Doig, D. (1941). Creative music I: Music composed for a given text. Journal of Educational Research, 33:263-275; Doig, D. (1942). Creative music II: Music composed on a given subject. Journal of Educational Research, 35: 345-355; Doig, D. (1942). Creative music III: Music composed to illustrate given musical problems. Journal of Educational Research, 36: 241-253.

(3) Upitis, R (1992). Can I Play You My Song? The Compositions and Invented Notations of Children. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH; Upitis, R. (1995). Fostering Children’s Compositions: Activities for the Classroom. General Music Today , Spring:16-19.

(4) Burns, M.T. (1988). Music as a tool for enhancing creativity. Journal of Creative Behavior, 22:62-69; Hitz, R. (1987) Creative problem solving through music activities. Young Children, 42:12-17; Wiggins, J.H. (1994). Children’s strategies for solving compositional problems with peers. Journal of Research in Music Education, 42: 232-252.

(5) Kratus, J. (1989). A time analysis of the compositional processes used by children ages 7 to 11. Journal of Research in Music Education, 37: 5-20.

(6) Kratus, J. (1994).Relationships among children’s music audiation and their compositional processes and products. Journal of Research in Music Education, 42:115-130. 1994.


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The Powers of Music: A Treatment for Epilepsy?
Copyright © 1998 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.

Music can induce epileptic seizures in the brain. While rare, this phenomenon indicates both the potential power of music and a little-known negative side. However, and remarkably, recent findings show that music can actually reduce brain seizures in common forms of epilepsy.

We live our daily lives rightly concerned about its situations, problems, opportunities, challenges, loves ... perhaps concerning topics such as the arts, fast food, education, shopping, politics, traffic, health, TV sitcoms, nature, making money, making babies, and so forth. Blissfully unaware are we of the delicate duet ongoing in our brains, of equal partners balanced so exquisitely that a misstep, a neural stumble as it were, can banish awareness of the outside world and distort beyond recognition our inner mental life.

"Dancing the duet" are the two processes that control the level of excitability of each of the countless billions of our brain cells or "neurons". Their continual intercommunication forms the substrate of sensation, cognition, thinking, movement ... of all brain actions, both conscious and unconscious. Neurons send each other messages in the form of electrical impulses. Each cell receives messages of two opposite types: excitatory or inhibitory. The recipient cell "listens" to both messages and more-or-less adds them together. If the net result of this neuronal arithmetic shows that excitation is sufficiently greater than inhibition, then the cell sends electrical pulses to all of the thousands of other cells that are connected to its output paths. If inhibition predominates, the cell may "murmur" to itself, but no messages are sent forth.

The delicate balance of excitation and inhibition keeps our brains functioning correctly. Too much or too little of one or the other, and the duet stops. It is replaced by abnormal brain activity, including electrical "storms", runaway bursts of electrical discharges that may spread from one spot to quickly encompass much of the brain, often producing motor convulsions. Those among us subject to such brain seizures are victims of the much misunderstood, and in earlier eras of superstition and ignorance feared and condemned, disease of epilepsy.

Epilepsy's causes are several, including head trauma, lack of oxygen, infection, tumors and toxic agents, but specific causes may be absent in as many as half the cases. It is more prevalent than might be expected; as many as one in a hundred may suffer some form of epilepsy.(1) Attacks can be relatively mild and remain localized in the brain, with perhaps only momentary loss of sensory awareness. But large scale seizures that include both hemispheres often render an individual unconscious. Treatments are generally by antiepileptic drugs, which dampen excitability, or by surgical removal of damaged brain tissue which is the site of the initiating seizure. However, drugs are not invariably effective or may not be tolerated and surgery is impractical when it would remove cortical regions or too much of the brain. Thus, for a considerable number of patients there is no satisfactory treatment.

Where does music come into this situation? Oddly enough, it now seems that music can have two opposite effects: it can induce seizures but also reduce seizures. We begin with the first of these.

"[S]ince my remote boyhood I have always been absent minded while hearing the sound of a street vendor's flute. I fall sick when I hear the sound of the flute in the evening sun, although I do not know the reason."(2)

This quotation of the Chinese poet Kung Tsu Chen actually describes a rare but real disorder of the brain, "musicogenic epilepsy". Kung Tsu Chen undoubtedly suffered from brain seizures that were caused by music, indeed highly specific music.

While this phenomenon is probably under-reported, it is still rare with less than one hundred published case reports.(3) An estimate of one out of 10,000,000 in the general world population has been given.(4) Musically-induced seizures can occur in epileptic patients for whom there are other triggers for seizures, e.g., blinking lights. In some cases, music is the only trigger. There are no specific epileptogenic features of music; seizures can be induced by type of music, type of instrument (e.g., Kung Tsu Chen), type of emotional content and even by a certain composer. But actual music need not be present; seizures can occur while thinking or even dreaming of music.(5) The seizures are not immediately "reflexive" but many take tens of seconds to several minutes to develop. They appear to be most common in the right temporal lobe,(6) which houses the right auditory cortex, an area implicated in the processing of melody.(7)

Exactly how music induces epileptic episodes is unknown. There is substantial evidence for the existence of several neural systems that seem to be specialized for processing basic constituents of music, such as melody and timbre (see "Musical Building Blocks in the Brain", MRN, Fall, 1994). Some scientists have suggested that the aspect of music which triggers a seizure for an individual engages one of these specialized "brain modules".(8) But as no more is known about this possibility, we now shift focus to the other side of the music-epilepsy coin, music as a potential treatment.

In what could be a landmark study, music has been reported to reduce brain seizures. John Hughes, Yaman Daaboul, John Fino and Gordon Shaw studied 29 epileptic patients (3-47 years of age), all of whom had frequent seizures either in waking or in coma.(9) They tallied the occurrence and duration of abnormal brain wave episodes during five conditions: (a) baseline silence, (b) Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos (K.448), (c) a following period of silence, (d) Old Time Pop Tunes, and (e) a final period of silence.

The investigators found a statistically significant reduction in discharges in 23/29 cases. Moreover, the effect was confined to Mozart's music. Old Time Pop Tunes had no effect. And the degree of effect was not small. The average amount of time these patients had seizures was reduced from 62% to 21%. One might think that somehow the Mozart was more relaxing or enjoyable, but these reactions themselves do not prevent seizures. Moreover, the music was effective in patients who were in a comatose state, so they presumably were not consciously aware of the music. A next step might be to find out exactly which features of the Mozart sonata are effective. Moreover, as the investigators seem to have some control over the seizures, it should be possible to perform various additional types of brain scans during reduction of seizures, to begun the arduous process of identifying the mechanism of action. It is far too early to consider music as a treatment for epilepsy. But the current findings do lay the groundwork for the detailed and comprehensive studies that could culminate in such treatment.

Music is gaining the reputation of having more power than is generally appreciated. Its ability to induce epileptic seizures is one testament to this power. Music's emerging use as a potential treatment to reduce such seizures, an ability hitherto apparently unknown, adds considerably to this reputation. The strange duality of music as contributory both to brain illness and potentially to brain wellness defies current understanding. But such apparent inconsistencies generally yield to systematic scientific inquiry. After all, not too long ago, epilepsy was completely mysterious, being attributable to demons lodged in the soul. And coming full circle to the delicate balance between excitation and inhibition in the brain, understanding dawned fairly recently about the time that Rock and Roll was becoming established. Given a bit of historical perspective, who would bet that we now know all of the powers of music? Not me ... I thought that Rock and Roll wouldn't outlast the hula hoop!

-- N. M. Weinberger

(1) Kandel, E.R., Schwartz, J.H. & Jessell, T.M. (1991). Principles of Neural Science, (3rd edition) (pp. 785-790) Appleton & Lang, Norwalk:CT.

(2) Quotation of Kung Tzu Chen, Chinese poet writing in 1847. In: Wieser, H.G., Hungerbuhler, H., Siegel, A.M., & Buck, A. (1997). Musicogenic Epilepsy: Review of the literature and case report with ictal single photon emission computed tomography. Epilepsia, 38:200-207.

(3) Op cit., pg. 201.

(4) Zifkin, B.G. & Zatorre, R.J. (1998). Musicogenic epilepsy. In: Reflex Epilepsies and Reflex Seizures: Advances in Neurology, V.75, (pp. 273-281).G. Z Zifkin, F, Andermann, A. Beaumanoir, & A.J. Rowan (Eds.) Lippincott-Raven Publishers: Philadelphia. PA.

(5) Crichtley, M.(1977). Musicogenic epilepsy, I. The beginnings. In: Critchley, M. Henson, R.A. (Eds.) Music and the Brain.(pp. 344-353). Heinemann Medical1:London:

(6) Wieser et al, op. cit.

(7) Zifkin and Zatorre, op. cit.

(8) Ibid., pp. 279-280.

(9) Hughes, J.R., Daaboul, Y., Fino, J.J. & Shaw, G.L. (1998). The "Mozart effect" on epileptiform activity. Clinical Electroencephalography, 29: 109-119.


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Briefly Noted
Copyright © 1998 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.

Musical Ability as an Independent Intelligence It has been argued that there exist multiple intelligences, one of which is for music (Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Basic Books, 1983). While this is a controversial and yet unresolved issue, an unusual opportunity to shed light on the debate has been seized by Daniel Levitin and Ursula Bellugi who have investigated individuals with Williams syndrome. This is a genetically-based condition characterized by mental retardation (average I.Q. about 60) but with certain relatively preserved abilities, among which may be music. Reporting in Music Perception (1998, 15, 359-389), the authors tested eight Williams individuals and eight normal control subject for their ability to reproduce rhythms in an echo clapping task. The Williams syndrome individuals performed as well as the controls, including meter change and beat maintenance. Moreover, their production errors were more likely to make rhythmic sense than the errors of the controls. The findings are taken as evidence that at least one aspect of musical intelligence is normal in otherwise retarded individuals, supporting Gardner’s view of multiple intelligences, one of which is specific to music.

Adolescent Emotional Response to Music and Risk-Taking Behavior The potential influences of music on behavior are many and varied. One area of current interest concerns adolescents, specifically the relationship between music and risk-taking behaviors, such as cheating in school, theft, smoking, etc. Some studies have investigated the relationship between type of music preference and behavior (e.g., see "Heavy Metal, Rap and Adolescent Behavior" in Briefly Noted, MRN, Spring 1995). Recently, scientists investigated how the intensity of emotional response is related to risky behaviors (Roberts et al, Journal of Adolescent Health, 1998, 23, 49-54). Written surveys were conducted for 127 individuals (mean age = 15.7 years, range 11-21 years) who visited an adolescent medical clinic in San Diego, California. Intensity of both positive and negative emotional response to favorite music was evaluated separately from determination of risk-taking behaviors. Health-risk behavior was greater the more intense the response to music, for both negative and positive emotions. Some cautionary notes are in order. First, the findings do not show that music causes risk-taking behavior because cause-effect relationships cannot be deduced from mere correlations, and the authors make no such claims. Second, the sample may not be representative of the general adolescent population as many subjects had medical problems sufficient to bring them to a clinic, as the authors acknowledge. It may be that music provides a trigger for the release of emotions already present. Also, various behaviors present different health and societal risks and need to be studied individually.

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Recent Publications of Special Interest *

Children

Infants have adult-like brain specializations for processing music.

Balaban M.T., Anderson, L.M., & Wisniewski, A.B. (1998). Lateral asymmetries in infant melody perception. Developmental Psychology, 34:39-48.

           Summary: Adults show cerebral lateralization for processing contour, the pattern of rising and falling pitches in a melody; the right hemisphere detects changes in contour while the left hemisphere notices the preservation of contour when the same pattern is repeated in another key. To determine the developmental stage at which contour processing is lateralized, 8-9 month old infants learned to respond to melody changes by turning their heads to see an animated toy. Their pattern of responses was the same as adults, indicating that brain specializations for the processing of musical contour are present at a very early age.

Music Perception, Cognition and Behavior

Background music enhances cognitive processes.

Cockerton, T., Moore, S., & Norman, D. (1997). Cognitive test performance and background music. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 85:1435-1438.

           Summary: Many students have background music present while they study and many believe that this is beneficial. This idea was examined in a study of 30 undergraduate students who performed two cognitive tests, one in silence, the other with background music. Music was found to enhance performance, as indexed by more questions answered and more correct answers given. There were no differences in heart rate, so the effects were probably not due to different levels of arousal. The authors suggest that the type of music used by an individual may determine its effectiveness.

Neuroscience

Music training increases the amount of brain that responds to musical sounds.

Pantev, C., Oostenveld, R., Engelien, A., Ross, B., Roberts, L.E., & Hoke, M. (1998). Increased auditory cortical representation in musicians. Nature, 392:811-814.

           Summary: Animal studies have shown that learning can increase the amount of the auditory cortex that responds to behaviorally important sounds. To extend this line of inquiry to humans, the authors used magnetic source imaging, a brain scanning technique that can pinpoint responsive areas of the brain, in highly skilled musicians. They found a 25% enlargement in area of response to piano tones compared to non-instrumental pure tones of similar frequency and loudness in musicians compared to subjects without instrumental experience. Enlargement was greater for musicians who had begun studies at earlier ages. Therefore, it seems that music making in humans increases the amount of the brain that is allocated to processing musical sounds.

Health

Music during exercise produces physiological benefits.

Szmedra, L., & Bacharach, D.W. (1998) Effect of music on perceived exertion, plasma lactate, norepinephrine and cardiovascular hemodynamics during treadmill running. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 19:32-37.

           Summary: Many people exercise to music but the potential benefits have not been well studied. In this investigation, the authors determined the effects of music during treadmill running in ten well-trained adult males averaging 25 years old. Extensive physiological measurements were obtained repeatedly, including blood samples, before an after running either with or without music. The music condition showed significant decreases in heart rate, blood pressure and the amount of lactate secreted. The latter indicates the state of the muscles as lactate builds up during muscle use. As the performance on the treadmill was the same in the two conditions, the reduced lactate suggests that music may reduce muscle tension, increasing its effectiveness. Overall, the results indicate that music can facilitate exercise and perhaps reduce stress even in well-conditioned individuals.

Music interventions may reduce maternal depression and its effects on infants.

Field, T. (1998). Maternal depression effects on infants and early interventions. Preventive Medicine, 27:200-203.

           Summary: Maternal depression may have negative effects on infants in the neonatal period or even prenatally. At birth, infants can exhibit abnormalities in behavior, physiology and biochemistry which may be caused by prenatal exposure to a biochemical imbalance in their mothers. This article emphasizes the importance of early intervention and discusses the use of music to alter the mothers’ moods and reduce abnormally high arousal in infants, while rendering them both more responsive to techniques that improve their interactions.

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* To improve readability, each selection includes a brief statement of the findings. Also, instead of including published abstracts verbatim , summaries have been written in less technical terms. Occasional editorial notes are provided to help readers evaluate the reported findings.

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Matters of Opinion
Copyright © 1998 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.

Underestimating Young Children: Easy for Us, Hard on Them

The following opinions about music are intended to provoke thought and sometimes perhaps even argument, but ultimately to energize and enlarge conceptions and inquiry about music.

As the father of seven children, I was an expert at underestimating them when they were young, particularly at the age for preschool or early grades. As they have passed well beyond that stage to adulthood, my expertise has had little if any use. However apparently it has not atrophied because I am now an expert at underestimating my grandchildren. You might think that I would have learned by now. Well maybe a little bit, because I am now pretty good at noticing when other people underestimate their children and grandchildren.

Young children are smarter than we think they are. They also know more about what is important to them then we do. What we do know without doubt is what is good for them! So their knowledge and desires don't go unchecked. But sometimes we don't realize that they have pretty definite ideas and even plans which are thought out or at least as rational as many of our ideas and plans.

Part of the problem is that they don't have our huge vocabularies, so can't always tell us exactly what's on their mind. (Come to think of it, a huge vocabulary doesn't guarantee this either.) Part of the problem is that we are not their age, so empathy and sensitivity are difficult to come by. Part of the problem is that most of us haven't been sufficiently educated in child development and developmental psychology. Fortunately, those who are and who pay close attention to young children, are there for our kids and grandkids, in preschools and grade schools. That there are not enough early childhood specialists and teachers and that they are underpaid and under appreciated is not, however, the topic of this column.

I am one of twelve cousins, most of whom keep in touch with each other despite being spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts. Recently my cousin Della, a long-time violin player and educator, visited my sister Lolly's house, bringing her fiddle transcontinentally. My grandnephew Ben, Lolly's grandson, was also visiting. He is five years old. As Lolly's house has a piano, Della asked Ben if he would like to play the piano. "No!" was his emphatic response. [Actual dialogue is reconstructed from hearsay, as I wasn't there.] I suppose that Della and Lolly's first reaction was that Ben didn't want to take up music-making. But he continued, unbidden, unprompted. "I want to play the violin. I like the way it sounds!"

Well that was all that Della needed. "I've got a violin here, Ben." He was flabbergasted, if this term can apply to a five year old, and I don't see why not. "Really? Can I play it". So of course Della brought out her violin and bow and started Ben's fiddle lessons. I'm told he got some good sounds out of what might almost have been a cello to him. After some time, the lesson came to a reasonable end. Lolly and Della began to play a piano-violin duet.

All of a sudden Ben burst into tears and started sobbing mightily. "What's the matter Ben?", they asked. Still sobbing, Ben choked out the words ... "I don't have an instrument to play!"

Had I been there, would I have given the least bit of thought to how Ben might react when others started to play? Certainly not. From an adult point of view, he couldn't play an instrument. From Ben's point of view, he had just played the violin and was now relegated to the sidelines, for apparently no reason. His conception and the adult conception of what constitutes musical performance were and are quite different.

Anyway, the story has a happy ending. (It would have to or I couldn't write this column without drummed out of the family). Lolly and her husband, Ben's grandfather, Ken are making it possible for Ben to have violin lessons. The lesson? Listen to the children. They may be small in stature and relatively short on experience but often they are just waiting for the opportunity to tell us what they want and just how serious they are, at the moment. Will Ben become a virtuoso? Who knows? Who cares? Is he likely to benefit from learning to play the fiddle? I would bet on it.

-- N. M. Weinberger

 

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