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- The Power of
- 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
- 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
- to her again, as I did when I was pregnant and believed
- that if I sat very, very still, the heartbeat I felt would
- 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
- 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
- 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
- just pretend I was warming up and start over."
- She laughed.
- Thirty minutes later, I saw in her the same desire to
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- MUSIC ON THE MIND
- It is said that Albert Einstein was a mediocre student
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Even adults feel the intellectual benefit of studying
- 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
- life to stop growing," he says. "Music is the way by
- 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
- 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
- and that's very gratifying."
- CHILD'S PLAY
- 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
- designed in the 1940s by a Japanese
violinist and educator,
- the Yamaha approach largely depends on
- 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
- 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
- Some music schools offer courses for
babies as young as
- six months, but studying an instrument
- 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
- without feeling self-conscious. They
leave the class feeling
- really good about
- Today, a small group of five-, six- and
- 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
- accompany them in duets assigned the
- "Come to my piano," Gabriel sings, and
- 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
- "Do!" shouts a typically silent
- "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
- The children correctly pinpoint most
notes, but more
- important for their self-esteem, they
risk mistakes without
- a flicker of fear. "No," says Gabriel
- 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
- their own variations to it. Gabriel
doesn't name the piece,
- but one first-grader recognizes it from
- recordings. The class is riddled with
such cultural gifts
- tucked unobtrusively into the
- 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
- 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
- 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
- SOOTHING THE SAVAGE
- The most important task of middle childhood, wrote
- development expert Erik Erikson, is to find a skill in
- a child can excel, thereby establishing healthy
- 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
- "In normal life you can't let is all hang out, but in
- 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
- 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
- desire to get into any kind of trouble."
- At five o'clock Thursday evenings, the halls of the
- 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
- 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,
- 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
- in the progress of the less gifted."
- During this first rehearsal, the children will sing
- the score for the first time. Most have already listened
- a recording and know the story line well, but the group's
- director, Candace Reeder, goes over the plot, the
- 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
- in the air--2,999 1/2 little kisses are flying from me to
- "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
- 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
- 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,
- phrasing, the beauty of it all. Together, their
- 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,
- their spirits fly." And so it is with them. All the
- of the age--hair that won't behave, figures in the
- of trying to find a shape, braces--is forgotten. For a
- 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
- A POWER TO HEAL
- 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
- of music therapy for the emotionally ill, no one
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- and a toddler drawn to the room by the sound of laughter
- a pair of maracas. "All right, get fired up," Little says
- 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
- don't have to feel bad about being a different color, a
- different age or size, or hearing differently."
- TIME TO REFLECT
- 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,
- 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
- asks the pianist of the violinist's stack of music,
- sounding a bit like one small boy sizing up another on
- "Let's try this Beethoven sonata," suggests the
- They have never met before this evening, and it is clear
- from their earlier conversation that both are quite used
- 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
- They begin with a wild scherzo, a rather daunting first
- reading, but if they can get through that, they can
- 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
- It would be easy to stomp all over each other's
- 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
- 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
- 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
- me to explore and develop another part of me that I hope
- I carry to other endeavors."
- SHARED EXPERIENCE
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- parents hooked back into good music," says Bonnie Ward
- Simon, executive director and author of the program
- "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,
- 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
- 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
- neighborhood, and this past summer almost 100 children,
- from five-year-olds to young teens, congregated to
- 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,
- 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,"
- 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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