The Power of Music
by Laura Elliott, The Washingtonian, December 1995
On weekends, my six-year-old daughter and I play duets on
a Knabe piano that was once my grandmother's. Simple
tunes, mind you--"Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Blow
the Man Down." Neither of us is Mozart, who at my
child's age composed his first publishable work. And yet
I think these 15-minute sessions are some of the
loveliest times of my life.
My little one plays the melody and I the accompaniment,
usually a simple um-pah-pah. We stumble, we start over,
we laugh at ourselves. But after a few tries comes magic--
we are in sync. Suddenly, the 1-2-3 rhythm waltzes out of
our individual fingers atop the keyboard and pushes our
souls into one another's arms. I feel completely connected
to her again, as I did when I was pregnant and believed
that if I sat very, very still, the heartbeat I felt would be
hers and not mine.
"Good job, Mama," she says, enjoying her role as lead
Once a week, she and I take a piano class together with
other children and their parents. During the drive there
we chitchat about little nothings that tell me a great deal
about her day: the snack her deskmate likes best, the
silly-looking bug her science teacher drew. Occasionally,
she asks me about the long-ago days when I studied flute.
Once I told her about my sophomore college recital, which
I began with "Syrinx," a delicate solo Debussy wrote to
represent the Greek myth of how Pan came to play the reed
flute. It was the 1970s, and to be arty, I played the piece
from the back of the hall to make it sound distant and
mysterious. I stood in a practice room with the door
cracked open.
"You mean you were in a closet?" my daughter asked.
"Well, yes," I answered. "That way, if I messed up I could
just pretend I was warming up and start over."
She laughed.
Thirty minutes later, I saw in her the same desire to hide
as she readied herself to perform "The French-Fry Bandit"
for her class. She blushed and her hands trembled when
her teacher called her name, but then my quiet little girl
pounded out the walking bass line of "The Bandit" with
bravura. As she finished, she threw me a dimpled,
look-what-I-can-do smile that absolutely took my breath away.
That's the power of music: Through the instrument, even
the shiest, most reticent person can sing out and be seen
in all her radiance.
Watching my daughter also reminded me of all I had
learned about myself through my own music-making.
That the moments in which I have felt the most capable,
the prettiest have not been at the computer or at any
dress-up event, but the moments I have polished a
difficult passage and made it shine musically.
To this day, I turn to music in times of stress, when I feel
my own self lost in a hurricane of story interviews and
carpool lines, when I need uplifting. Music remains both
my rock and my lark's wings to heaven.
It is said that Albert Einstein was a mediocre student until
he began playing the violin. "Before that, he had a hard
time expressing what he knew," says Hazel Cheilek,
orchestra director at Fairfax County's Thomas Jefferson
High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school
where more than a third of the students also play or sing
in musical ensembles. "Einstein said he got some of his
greatest inspirations while playing violin. It liberated his
brain so that he could imagine."
In the early 1700s, England's King George I also felt he
would make better decisions if he listened to good music.
Reportedly, Handel responded by composing his Water
Music suites to be played while the king floated the
Thames on his royal barge. Even Plato in ancient Greece
believed studying music created a sense of order and
harmony necessary for intelligent thought.
Can music really make us think better? Recent
scientific studies say yes.
In 1993, researchers at the University of California at
Irvine discovered the so-called Mozart Effect--that college
students who listened to ten minutes of Mozart's Sonata
for Two Pianos in D major K448 before taking an IQ test
scored nine points higher than when they had sat in
silence or listened to relaxation tapes. Other studies have
indicated that people retain information better if they
hear classical or baroque music while studying.
The most profound effects take place in young children,
while their brains literally are growing. This year, the
same researchers at Irvine's Center for Neurobiology of
Learning and Memory found that preschoolers who had
received eight months of music lessons scored 80 percent
higher on object-assembly tasks than did other youngsters
who received no musical training. That means the music
students had elevated spatial temporal reasoning--the
ability to think abstractly and to visualize physical forms
and their possible variations, the higher-level cognition
critical to mathematics and engineering.
Also this spring, German scientists discovered that in
musicians who have perfect pitch--the ability to recognize
notes by ear--and who typically began studying music
before the age of seven, the planum temporale--the region
on the brain's left side that processes sound signals,
particularly language--is three times the average size.
How does music affect the brain? Music is an ordered and
predictable sequence of sounds. In decoding those symbols
and patterns, the brain sets up neural highways, or
synapses, to receive and analyze data. These electrical
and chemical pathways then can be used for processing
other symbol-oriented information, such as language and
mathematics. Like a muscle, the brain becomes more
nimble the more it is stretched. The mental workouts
required by music seem to make the brain run stronger
and quicker.
The final proof may be in SAT scores. According to the
Music Educators National Conference, students who take
music-appreciation courses score an average of 51 points
higher on the verbal section and 39 points higher on the
math than students who take no such courses. Adds
Abraham Groveman, a 12-year-old-violinist: "Music gives
you a lot of discipline and concentration. You have to
learn how to memorize long pieces. And you know what
the benefits are to hard work, so it helps you try harder in
Even adults feel the intellectual benefit of studying music.
Secretary of the Army Togo West Jr. played clarinet and
saxophone as a teenager. Two years ago, at the prompting
of his daughters, he began studying piano at DC's Levine
School of Music.
"Let's say I am now older than 50, and that's too early in
life to stop growing," he says. "Music is the way by which
I continue learning. It's like what they taught us when
we were young adults: Get your paycheck but put away
a little bit to accumulate for yourself. The time I put away
for myself is my music. It is the one thing that brings
beauty and harmony to my life. Also, I have so far to go
in my technical ability that I feel a real sense of progress,
and that's very gratifying."
Several times a week, different groupings of parents and
children gather at Vienna's Gordon Keller Music store for
a Yamaha keyboard class. Like the famous Suzuki method
designed in the 1940s by a Japanese violinist and educator,
the Yamaha approach largely depends on parental
involvement and teaching music as if it were a language.
"Children listen to adults speak and then imitate them.
They learn even the most difficult languages perfectly
without any accent. If children study music early enough
and in the same fashion, they will absorb it just as easily,"
says Hava Rogot, director of The Music School--Suzuki in
Some music schools offer courses for babies as young as
six months, but studying an instrument generally begins
no earlier than age three, except at Suzuki schools. "Young
children are so spontaneous," says Yamaha teacher Elise
Gabriel. "They don't realize that they're learning during
the fun. At this age, they're willing to try anything
without feeling self-conscious. They leave the class feeling
really good about themselves."
Today, a small group of five-, six- and seven-year-olds
collects in Gabriel's studio with a parent apiece. Together
for two years, they are familiar with and supportive of
one another. Gabriel brings them to order by singing and
playing a waltz, "Class, ta-dum: Class, ta-dum: Are you
here?" One by one each child plays and sings: "Yes, Miss
Elsie, we are here."
Next, they copy chords she strikes, pushing their little
fingers to stretch wider and wider. Then parents
accompany them in duets assigned the previous week.
"Come to my piano," Gabriel sings, and the children
arrange themselves into a semicircle around the back of
the upright so they cannot see her hands. Gabriel hits a
key and asks, "What's this note?"
"Do!" shouts a typically silent girl.
"Sol" is next, as Gabriel moves up a fifth on the keyboard
to G. Up and down the octaves she lands like a pouncing
cat, striking notes for the children to identify by ear. "This
is easy," says one.
"Yeah, easy-peasy," echo a few more with big grins. Most
of the parents look completely lost.
The children correctly pinpoint most notes, but more
important for their self-esteem, they risk mistakes without
a flicker of fear. "No," says Gabriel reassuringly when
they miss. "Try again." As the guesses get wilder, she
makes a funny face, sending the children into a wave of
She urges them to parrot snatches of melodies she sings in
solfeggio--a system dating to the Middle Ages that uses
do-re-mi syllables to represent the tones of a melody.
Among them is "La ci darem la mano," a love song from
Mozart's Don Giovanni, a tune so pretty and familiar to
19th-century audiences that Liszt and Chopin composed
their own variations to it. Gabriel doesn't name the piece,
but one first-grader recognizes it from her parents'
recordings. The class is riddled with such cultural gifts
tucked unobtrusively into the curriculum--Haydn's
Surprise Symphony, part of Saint-Saens Carnival of the
Animals, as well as children's nursery classics such as
"Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," which, by the way, Mozart
Gabriel concludes the class with "The Piglet's Gavotte," a
stately little minuet in spite of its title. She arranges
parents and children in two long lines, facing one another.
"We must move very elegantly in this one," she says,
demonstrating a poised and slow turn. "Do you know
Rapt, even after a day of school and now piano instruction,
the children shake their heads. "In those days, during
Mozart's and George Washington's time, the ladies wore
very wide, stiff skirts and the men big, funny wigs, so they
couldn't move quickly or get too close to one another."
"See the piglets pirouette, how they love to dance the
minuet," Gabriel sings and plays. Despite the silly lyrics,
the children grasp the sophistication of the classical tune
and hold themselves as royally as Marie Antoinette might
have to the same melody. At the concluding bow, one
little girl hugs her mother and says, "Let's show Daddy
after dinner. OK?"
"That'll be fun," replies the mom.
The most important task of middle childhood, wrote
development expert Erik Erikson, is to find a skill in which
a child can excel, thereby establishing healthy self-esteem.
For many, music is that gift, an especially important one
as they move into turbulent adolescence. It provides them
a way to express themselves and a ready-made social group.
"In normal life you can't let is all hang out, but in music,
being emotive is considered a good thing," says Jennifer
Montone of Burke, a competition-winning French hornist
studying at Juilliard who will perform this month in one
of the National Symphony Orchestra's concerts for young
people. "When I play something beautiful, I absorb the
character of that piece. It helps me forget whatever might
be bothering me."
Music also assured that Montone had friends as soon as
she entered Robinson Secondary School. "It's huge, with
5,000 students. It would have been very overwhelming
had I not immediately joined the marching band and met
people there.
"There's a lot to be said for being focused and busy as a
teenager," Montone adds. "I had an emotional outlet and
goals involving good music. I just didn't have time or the
desire to get into any kind of trouble."
At five o'clock Thursday evenings, the halls of the Levine
School of Music echo with the sounds of flutes, violins,
voices, and pianos. The school teaches 3,500 students of
all ages, and the quality of the botched scales to gorgeous
Brahms sonatas. Outside the first-floor performance hall,
two dozen children, ranging in age from ten to fourteen
and in size from four to six feet, are awaiting casting
The production? Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Ten-year-
olds learning opera? "Kids will surprise you," says dean
Jean Kellogg; "they can learn anything," including the
pyrotechnical Queen of the Night solo, which requires
the singer to hit high F repeatedly. "The best part, though,
is their support and mentoring of one another. Kids this
age can be terrible to each other, very competitive. Here
they must collaborate. The better singers take a lot of pride
in the progress of the less gifted."
During this first rehearsal, the children will sing through
the score for the first time. Most have already listened to
a recording and know the story line well, but the group's
director, Candace Reeder, goes over the plot, the characters,
the historical context of the opera--the American and
French revolutions both occurred during Mozart's
lifetime--and the personality of the composer. She reads
part of a letter Mozart sent his wife: "Hold your hands up
in the air--2,999 1/2 little kisses are flying from me to you."
"Does this sound romantic?" she asks, fanning herself
and sighing. The children titter and roll their eyes. She
silences them by singing a high C.
Her control of the children waffles from just barely to
not at all until they themselves sing. As soon as Kellogg
plays the introduction on the piano, they are serious and
attentive, their posture long and correct. Even in the
mishmash of mistakes and overshot high notes that comes
with sightreading such complex melodies, the promise of
glory can be heard. "The Magic Flute" was Mozart's final
opera, premiered as he lay dying at the age of 35. The
passages are riddled with whirlwind 32nd-note flourishes,
overlapping entrances of different voices, and canyon-wide
interval jumps during exposed melody lines.
As the children wade further into the score, many become
lost. Yet, they do not give up. Those still on track lean
over and point out the place to others. Little jaws set in
determined persistence. They cock their heads toward the
better among them, following their voices, and even hold
up their thumbs in admiring high signs.
Then, miraculously, as they read "O Hear the Lark's Sweet
Voice," the benediction of making music arrives.
Together, these children capture the timing, the notes, the
phrasing, the beauty of it all. Together, their confidence
grows and urges their voices louder and fuller.
They sing about the opera's lovers: "So wondrously, so
perfectly, their voices blend in harmony . . . upward, too,
their spirits fly." And so it is with them. All the tumult
of the age--hair that won't behave, figures in the process
of trying to find a shape, braces--is forgotten. For a few
moments, they are transformed, singing with the voices
of angels, enraptured with what they themselves are
When the music stops, they disintegrate again into a
wise-cracking, gawky rabble. But for a moment, they were
grand, even the smallest and most timid among them.
As they disappear into the night, shades of heroes,
princesses, and Mozart cling to them still like a magical
In "Henry VIII," Shakespeare wrote: "In sweet music is
such art/Killing care and grief of heart." Although some
medical professionals still question the long-term potency
of music therapy for the emotionally ill, no one questions
its power to uplift and rejuvenate.
In his 1990 memoir, "Darkness Visible," William Styron
writes that he was planning his suicide for the following
day until he heard a recording of the Brahms "Alto
Rhapsody." The music "pierced my heart like a dagger,"
he writes, "and in a flood of swift recollection I thought of
all the joys the house had known: the children who had
rushed through its rooms . . . ." The next morning Styron
admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital.
Music can be particularly helpful for the elderly in nursing
homes, autistic children, and people fighting life-
threatening diseases. It breaks a hospital's monotony by
providing an enjoyable activity. Nowhere is this more
evident than at Children's National Medical Center, where
each Tuesday and Thursday musician-in-residence Pat
Little pushes a 500-pound cabinet stuffed with instruments
and tape recordings from ward to ward.
On a typical afternoon, Little brings together several
grade-school children with a Mickey Mouse rap tape and
songs from the movie "Aladdin." As she opens the cabinet,
a small boy who had been lying listlessly in bed sits up and
peers with interest. His mother's eyes well up, and she
murmurs: "He's happier already."
Little gives the boy a set of bongos, a hallmate a ukulele,
and a toddler drawn to the room by the sound of laughter
a pair of maracas. "All right, get fired up," Little says as
Michael Jackson's voice jumps out of her boom box. She
dances from child to child, shaking her tambourine, and
they laugh and laugh. After she leaves, the children can
be heard chattering to parents in what before had been
eerily quiet rooms.
When Little finds a teenager who's too cool to jam, she
teaches him or her sign language. The combination of
signing and singing is not as much of a contradiction as
one might think. At Lucy Barnsley Elementary in
Rockville, music teacher Teri Burdette directs 115 fifth-
graders in a group called The Fabulous Flying Fingers.
They sign in balletic accompaniment to songs such as
Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone." The ensemble
includes the school's hearing-impaired, who add their
own special harmonies with a wonderful confidence.
The children's comments show an instinctive feel for
the power of music: "You can express your feelings and
no opinion is wrong," says one small boy. An Asian-
American girl adds: "Music makes everybody feel good
about themselves and that they're not different, that they
don't have to feel bad about being a different color, a
different age or size, or hearing differently."
Each morning, former senator Charles Percy plays piano
out in his garden house. He began studying a year ago,
just after his mother died at the age of 102.
"She was a professional violinist," says the 76-year-old
Percy. "My father fell in love with her when he saw one
of her concerts. During the Depression we could no longer
afford my piano lessons. When she died, I asked myself
what would Mother want me to do now. She had always
regretted my giving up music. So now I play each morning
to Mother, really, up in heaven."
During a "Mix and Match" session at the Levine School of
Music, a few dozen adults gather to find chamber-music
partners. These are quintessential Washington workers:
doctors, consultants, CPAs, and lawyers, lawyers, lawyers.
Like Percy, they play at home to relax, to reflect, to
remember, to touch the aesthetic. But today, they want
partners and the marvelous give-and-take that ensemble
playing provides.
A lawyer/pianist and a radiologist/violinist decide to
sight-read a few things together. "So, what have you got?"
asks the pianist of the violinist's stack of music,
sounding a bit like one small boy sizing up another on the
"Let's try this Beethoven sonata," suggests the violinist.
They have never met before this evening, and it is clear
from their earlier conversation that both are quite used to
running things. Such tendencies will not wash here. An
instinctive cooperation settles on the lawyer/doctor duo
as soon as the pianist strikes the A by which the violinist
They begin with a wild scherzo, a rather daunting first
reading, but if they can get through that, they can probably
play just about anything. They talk in musician's
shorthand, "See those triplets there?"
"Yeah, yeah," interrupts the other, and without further
ado, they begin at the agreed-upon measure. As with any
scherzo there are ripping runs and intricate counterpoint.
It would be easy to stomp all over each other's entrances,
but they listen to one another's timing and phrasing and
heed the other's moments of melody dominance. The
two even manage to plunge through the frenzied cascade
of runs in the movement's finale and finish together,
sort of. "I gotcha at the end there," says the violinist with
a laugh.
They actually are rather good and move on to Beethoven's
"Spring Sonata," capturing both the work's shimmering
flurry and soaring lyricism. "That wasn't so bad," says the
pianist when they finish, and the violinist agrees. In
those few moments, the men probably learned more about
one another than either might usually reveal.
Does that allow them to open up more in other aspects of
their lives? Dick Barnet, co-founder of the Institute for
Policy Studies and a violinist, once said about ensemble
playing: "You learn a sensitivity and an immediate
response and the ability to moderate what you're doing to
conform to someone else. At the same time, you
encourage the other person to move with you. It's not
cerebral as are political and economic discussions. It allows
me to explore and develop another part of me that I hope
I carry to other endeavors."
Last year, during a Washington Chamber Symphony
family concert, conductor Stephen Simon turned to the
audience of parents and children and asked, "Did you
know that you can listen to a symphony the same way you
read a story? Let's take this plot line: Once upon a time,
a boy lost his shoe and a dog found it. The end."
Everyone laughed.
"Now let's expand it. Here's the theme for the boy"--the
orchestra played the first theme of the symphonic
movement next on the program. "Here's a theme for the
dog. And another for the shoe." The orchestra
demonstrated both. "Now let's have the boy and the dog
play together"--the development part of the symphonic
movement--"and then the shoe lies here. Now, what
can we do to end it?"
A little girl shouted out, "You can repeat the end, the end,
the end."
"Which is exactly what every composer does," says Simon
with a laugh, "especially Beethoven, who always ends
Ta da, Ta da, Taaaaa Daaaaah. Really, children plug right
into this stuff."
The family concerts are designed for children; programs are
limited to 20-minute halves, and the program notes
include puzzles and stories about the featured composers.
But adults can learn from them.
"I really view these family concerts as a chance to get the
parents hooked back into good music," says Bonnie Ward
Simon, executive director and author of the program notes.
"Learning about music was missing in most of our
generation's education. Like learning about Africa or the
Mideast, which now our children study. The booklets tell
the basics about any composer we perform so you can hold
your own in cocktail conversation. And Stephen will teach
you how to listen so you can follow and really enjoy the
No child is allowed into these concerts without a parent.
"If you don't attend as well," continues Simon, "you are
saying, 'I don't really like this, but it's good for you, dear.'
Of the 100 dolls and stuffed animals given to me during
my childhood, I remember only a handful. What I
remember are the times my parents and I went out
together. Children will hear some of the music we play
later on in their lives, and they will be transported back to
that original concert with their parents."
Music can bond communities, too. In the pretty Silver
Spring neighborhood of Woodside Park, children break
into songs from "Oh, Jonah!" as they ride the school bus
home. Ten-year-olds make their superhero figures sing
snatches of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Joseph and the
Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
They learned the songs from their neighbor, Joan Phalen,
a professionally trained singer who decided a few summers
ago to start an informal singing group for her daughters
and their friends. "Just as a confidence-building thing,"
she says. "But music really became a different system for
them to use to cope with things--feelings, fears, having
had a bad day."
The news of the group's success quickly spread through the
neighborhood, and this past summer almost 100 children,
from five-year-olds to young teens, congregated to Phalen's
house two evenings a week. At summer's end, they
performed a 30-minute musical for their family, friends,
and neighbors. While the children practiced inside, parents
gathered on the front lawn, exchanged news, and embraced
newcomers. A deep bond of community grew.
Phalen hadn't intended for the Woodside Kids Chorale to
become the focal point of the neighborhood. But she's not
surprised by it either. "Music is the great connector," she
says. "Like so many Washington neighborhoods, ours is
splintered by children going to many different schools:
public, magnets, private, and parochial. It's been a
wonderful way for children to get back in touch with kids
down their street.
"Last year we knocked on the door of an Orthodox family,
and the grandmother opened the door. The children sang
in Hebrew to her. Tears streamed down the face of this
beautiful 70-year-old woman. It was wonderful for the
children to realize they could give such a gift to someone
through their singing."
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