Making the Ordinary Extraordinary!

Author: Chee-Hwa Tan Page 1 of 2

A Christmas Reflection

What a year!

For many of us, it is so easy to forget that suffering, injustice, and inconvenience has historically been a way of life, and still is, in many corners of society around the world. Political and social unrest, violence and corruption, rampant injustice without recourse, hunger and strife, lives lived in fear – with little hope or value…  Such were the conditions for the common man under the “civilized” rule of Augustus Caesar, when the one called Jesus Christ was born.

As a person of faith, I am humbled that the God I worship did not come into controlled and orderly circumstances. Instead, He was born into messy, frightening, unjust, and out of control conditions – much like life today. What a revelation to know that “messes” are okay! Unpleasant and painful, yes, but okay. There is peace in letting go of our expectations of what we think “normal” looks like and embracing our “humanness” – just as Christ did. There is freedom in emulating His response to these circumstances and not going with the status quo. Emmanuel, God with us; God with us in the pain of our humanity, as well as in our rejoicing.

These reflections emerged as I processed the challenges in our family’s journey these past couple of years. Even as we grieve the devastation and losses so many of us have faced lately, we are grateful for SO much – life, health, family, relationships – and, with these, the vulnerability that brings ‘forced’ growth.

We hope these words by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, priest, scientist, theologian, teacher, and philosopher, resonate with you as it did with us. They are counterintuitive, but life giving in wisdom:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet, it is the law of progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability – and that it takes a very long time.

And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually – let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you. And accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

My prayer is that your new year may be rich in authentic relationships with God and others. May you and your loved ones be surprised by joy amid the messes of life!

“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you, I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)

What are We Doing?

In March, like many in the teaching profession, I suddenly found myself in the unexpected position of having to move all my college courses online for the rest of the academic year. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I needed to adjust my expectations and my curriculum “checklist” for the year, or risk overwhelming my students. Rather than more knowledge or standard assignments, I sensed that my students needed extra meaningful engagement and encouragement in order to survive, let alone, “learn” while isolated and online. Furthermore, they were close to graduation and I was about to launch them out into the professional world after that term. What truly was my first responsibility as a mentor and teacher?

This paradox hit even closer to home in my personal life. I watched in disbelief as my own high school children were expected to complete all their school assignments online with zero online interaction from teachers, and in isolation from their peers. In “best” case scenarios, they had the option to watch interminable videos of lectures that droned on past endurance point.

As an aside, do you know 10-15 minutes is the biological set point of a student’s attention span? In fact, a 2015 study by Microsoft determined that the average attention span is actually 8 seconds! Basically: No lecturing for more than 10-15 minutes max on Zoom before you switch activities or learning ceases. I say, bring out the exercise stretch bands and yoga mats!

Back to our home scenario… Work piled up, depression and anxiety set in, especially for those non-routine learners. What a mess. Where’s the learning? Why are we doing this?

Now please don’t get me wrong – I am actually a fan of maximizing learning via an online learning platform. The reason for this is that our family had the unusual opportunity to experience this type of learning with my eldest child. She took an online AP English Language course with the indomitable and inspiring Maya Inspektor of Pennsylvania Homeschoolers. This teacher wasn’t even residing in the country and the community of classmates were from all over the U.S. and the world. Having been “traditionally schooled” myself, I carefully watched this different way of learning with curiosity.

I observed in amazement as students were required to read and comment on their classmates’ online assignments (large and small) on a weekly basis; my daughter become a highly skilled writer from constant exposure to other strong writers and input from her peers and teacher. I have witnessed this exercise in peer review derail so often in the traditional classroom, but it can really work in this online format.

I watched this teacher build a strong community of student interactions in her online class throughout the year. This wasn’t just teaching to an exam. Everything had a clear end purpose; no meaningless, busy work. The final research assignment for the course was coordinated with a national writing contest, instead of students having to add one more thing to their list. When I asked my daughter about the suitability of this class for her younger sibling, a different type of learner, she commented that even the least experienced writers in the class became good writers by the end of it. By the way, my second child did thrive and grew exponentially as well.

If we have to do school online, are we adapting to do it in the best online learning way? As teachers, can we do less to achieve more? As parents, what if this format is not for your child’s learning temperament? How important is the “deadline” to cram in school when emotional health is at risk? Does it work to put new wine in old wineskins? Can’t we take a break? Don’t you love the questions I ask myself??

Back to the interminable video lecture assignments… Having dabbled as a homeschool parent, I knew that there are other options to engage learning, but I felt powerless to intervene. For crying out loud – this is, after all, the age of YouTube videos on every topic concerning any subject you want to self-teach! Frankly, if you want to learn, you may not even need to go to school –  OK, don’t yell at me about this, after all I am an educator too – but let’s wake up and smell the coffee.

Here’s an example: Do you happen to remember what “Stoichiometry” is in Chemistry? Well, no worries – I didn’t remember either, that is until I found one of my children in despair about their assignment on this topic. Well, of course “mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” but I did finally persuade them to search with me for a YouTube video that brought light to the topic less painfully. In fact, it was interesting enough that I wished for a split second that I was a chemist… 🙂

Ironically, we also came across the YouTube video that was shared in class -the pacing was so lickety-split that you had to be a science genius to understand it. Feeling “not good enough” certainly would not endear me to a subject – would it for you? I can’t even imagine what it must be like for parents of younger children who are being swamped with home assignments regardless of their student’s learning style or home circumstances in this pandemic induced situation. Add to that trying to do your “other” work.

To be fair, at least at the precollege level, faithful and creative teachers had their hands tied in the spring with little access to online teaching support, or disparities in family situations were cited as limitations for schools allowing interactive online learning via Zoom. I have friends who are dedicated teachers who weep tears each week over their powerlessness to do what is best for the student. The burden on teachers is heavy and I question that it is reasonable.

Regardless, the buck stops with me: I have had to ask myself – am I willing to force feed “learning” no matter the needs of the situation? I think that many parents have watched our ideals of curiosity and joy in learning fade away this season.

Unusual times necessitate a commonsense approach. But, as one of my mentors once said to me, “Common sense is NOT common!” Ouch.

Is this what education means? Are we nurturing a generation of thinkers? Seriously??

Viewing my students’ weary faces on the Zoom screen week after week, I was challenged to take a hard look at my priorities as a teacher, as well as a parent of two college students myself.

As we know, FOMO is commonly known as the “fear of missing out.” As teachers, are we also guilty of FOSMO – the “fear of students missing out” on the checklist of knowledge that our society expects?

What do our children and students really need right now? What is most necessary in this unusual season? I certainly do not have all the answers, but I need to ask these questions of myself so that I am not just blindly “checking the boxes” in life. So hear goes…

Can true learning happen without meaningful engagement? I say No.

Can meaningful engagement co-exist along with all the “to-do’s” on our lists? Does one have priority over the other? Well, I believe our to-do’s have to be revised to prioritize meaningful engagement – whatever it takes. My favorite mantra is LESS is MORE. It’s kind of like the movies that need to be edited down by 20 minutes because directors are too in love with their ideas.

Are we in danger of killing all joy of learning by adhering to an unrealistic norm? I say Yes.

If I could wave a wand, I would ask for a break…

A break from society’s regiment of “school” as we currently understand it.

A break to do less, to take the road less traveled

to connect,

to discuss,

to question,

to laugh,

to explore,

to wonder,

to be curious,

to read,

to imagine,

to write,

to paint,

to draw,

to reflect,

to process,

and while doing that,

to truly learn.

It takes courage to pursue wholeness.

Let’s dump that checklist and focus on what is truly in the best interest of our children and students in the present. We have the rest of our lives to learn, but only if we are unafraid to try new things.

A November Reflection

An unexpected “blessing” of  COVID-19 has been the involuntary time for self reflection. Reading through history, I have come to the inconvenient conclusion that two entities have always been present in our human lives: change and uncertainty. I can’t speak for you, but for myself I struggle fiercely with this…


I struggle because I like my safe routines;

I want control (ironic when I can barely control myself…),

I like predictability;

I prefer things my way;

I think I know what’s best (of course I do – lol);

Change is not comfortable – ouch;

Uncertainty? Are you kidding? That’s just admitting I have no control!

In the past two years, I have had the painful gift of having to say goodbye to FIVE friends – three of them very close to me. Some younger and some older. I use the term “gift” because the reality that loss is a part of life and that I have truly very little control over how much time I have on this earth is important to own. Crazy as it sounds, knowing one’s end IS a gift. Much better than realizing too late that we have run out of time.

So, what DO I have control over? Do I have any choices at all, or am I just a pawn in this game of life? Here’s what I CAN control…

I can choose my attitude,

I can seek help with my response,

I can make a choice to let go – of control, of my right to be right;

It only costs me my pride.

I can refuse to let negativity define my identity,

I can embrace the present,

Commit to thankfulness

For little things.

I can dig down deep

I can reject fear

I can choose seemingly crazy trust

In a God Who is Near.

In John Braille’s A Diary of Private Prayer, the following prayer he wrote resonates with my spirit. I share it with you in the hopes that it may resonate with yours too. May we each have a heart that has “great room” in it.

O Lord, you indwell our shabby human life, lifting it now and then above the dominance of animal passion and greed, allowing it to shine with borrowed lights of love and joy and peace, and making it a mirror of the beauties of the world unseen. Grant that my part in the world’s life today may not be to obscure the splendor of your presence but rather to make it more plainly visible to the eyes of my fellow men and women.

Help me to make a stand today –

for whatever is pure, true, just, and good;

for the advancement of science and education and true learning;

for the redemption of daily business from the blight of self-seeking;

for the rights of the weak and the oppressed;

for cooperation and mutual help in industry, commerce, and government;

for the conservation of the rich traditions of the past;

for the recognition of new movements of your Spirit in the minds and lives of people today;

for the hope of even more glorious days to come.

Today, dear Lord –

Help me put what is right before my own interest;

Help me to put others before myself;

Help me not to forget matters of the spirit, by being too consumed

    with matters of the body;

Help me put the attainment of what is true and just and honorable

    Above the enjoyment of present pleasures;

Help me put principle above reputation;

Help me put you above all else.

O God, the reflection of your transcendent glory once appeared unbroken in the face of Jesus Christ. Give me today a heart like His: a brave heart, a true heart, a heart with great room in it, a heart fixed on you; for His name’s sake. Amen.

The Gift of Stillness…

Have you ever noticed how challenging it is to quiet one’s self to the point of stillness? “Not moving or making a sound” and “deep silence and calm” are some of the definitions of the term “stillness.” When was the last time you were still (but not asleep) – for 30 minutes, or 20, or at least 10 minutes – without any devices, background music, or the TV, or computer?

In teaching, parenting, and life, so much of our ability to respond thoughtfully versus to react thoughtlessly is impacted by our ability to disengage momentarily from busy details to discern the most important needs of that moment. It is easier to do this if we know how to quiet our hearts and minds to listen and evaluate, even for a few seconds. This doesn’t happen naturally – we have to make an intentional effort to practice being still.

If you are a sleep deprived parent of multiple young children (or teenagers!), it seems as if there is often no choice but to be going non-stop, taking care of one need after another. Is it possible to carve out space for some stillness in our daily lives? How necessary is it to intentionally schedule a few minutes of mental and emotional space in your day? How necessary is it for us to have time to breathe?? I would venture to suggest that it is absolutely essential.

I don’t know about you, but it is so much easier for me to “do” than to “be.” Doing something – anything – gives me the false sense of being in control. But, are we really in control when we are in constant “busy” mode without regular opportunity for reflection and adjustment? In truth, we risk losing sight of our compass and what really matters. We lose our perspective.

I confess that I am guilty of that these past few days – and I had thought I was doing so well too. But be encouraged, we can always reset and start again. That’s what I am doing. Do you think I will miss the mark again? But of course… it’s what keeps me humble!  🙂

However, when I make the effort to regularly stop long enough to still my heart and mind, I find that I can begin to…

Think clearly,

Reflect deeply,

See with clarity,

Decide with intentionality;

Listen with my heart,

Choose to face my fears,

Identify and reject lies,

Embrace the truth;

Treasure what is of value,

Remember who I am

And whose I am,

Live fully.

It is no wonder that Psalm 46:10 says: Be still, and know that I am God… wise words from our Creator. How can I truly “know” anything – let alone know God – if I am afraid to be still? Yes, let’s admit it: it can be scary to be still. In the silence, we are in danger of having to listen, to remember, and to think!

I love the original German lyrics to “Silent Night.” The word “stille” speaks to me of something deeper than silence; a rare quiet, rich in potential and hope. Many years ago, as a visitor in a little German church on Christmas Eve, I was first introduced to “Silent Night” in its original language, as penned by Joseph Mohr. There, away from all that was familiar to me, I experienced being alone and the paradox of comfort in stillness.

“Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!”

I remember being filled with wonder. Wonder that in the midst of chaos, there could also be life-giving stillness. Emmanuel. The Almighty God coming to be with us in the form of a helpless baby.

In the hustle and bustle of Christmas, I challenge you to cultivate the gift of stillness.  You might just be surprised with the bonus gift of wonder!


Let Our Lives be Full…

I love this plaque that I put by my front door; it reminds me of what I want my life to look like on the “inside” as well as the “outside.”

Have you noticed how Thanksgiving does not have a place in the retail industry that psychologically scripts our anticipation of each holiday season? Store décor and merchandise has been focused on Christmas since at least September. So, what on earth happened to Thanksgiving?

Think about it – there is little money (really – none!) to be made from being thankful. If we are thankful, then we tend to be content. If we are content, well… we are not going to feel a pressing need for things. The concept of “enough” does not translate into profits, except for our soul and our peace of mind.

A few weeks ago, I turned a wooden container into a “Thanksgiving Box.” The children cut out strips of colored paper and we put them in the lid with some pens. Each day or whenever anyone thought of it, we have written down something for which we are thankful. The goal is to have as many strips as possible to make a “Thankful Chain.” Tonight we started stapling the strips together. Here’s a pix of what we have so far.

Even my eldest daughter in college has contributed via text messaging. It doesn’t take much effort and it has been fun to read some of the offbeat items contributed by various members of the family. Here are some other items that showed up on our thankful chain:



warm sweaters

a dependable car

home (beats dorm life)




freedom of religion

having a house



May each of us, in our own way, discover the precious secret of “less is more” in a culture of over abundance.  Wishing you the gift of simplicity this season.




A Time to Dance…

Autumn is my favorite season, not just for the sheer beauty of the colors, but for how poignantly it depicts transition in our lives. The phrase “…the wind passes over it and it is gone…” often comes to mind as I watch the crazy dance of the falling leaves blow across my path. There’s something about the sheer abandonment of this act that makes me laugh aloud, while simultaneously feeling sadness for the passing of all that beauty. The juxtaposition of joy and sorrow, life and loss…

The crazy dance of falling leaves does not yet hint of the promise of spring and new beginnings. But for those of us who have lived through the constant cycle of the seasons, we know that this hope is a reality.

Not that long ago, I sat by the bedside of a precious friend in hospice. I watched as my daughter performed Bach’s 2nd cello suite; tears trickled down her face for her beloved Latin teacher whose season on this earth was fading.

I watched as the other visitors in the room spontaneously began to join in song – lifting their voices in impromptu concert – as my daughter transitioned into singing and playing some simple worship songs. My friend moved her hands weakly to the music; her beautiful voice now impeded, her vision dimmed, her hearing limited, but her joyous spirit still free to soar with the simple music that filled her little hospice room.

Through my own tears and aching heart, I thought of this gift we have in jars of clay: the privilege of being able to encourage the heart and spirit through music. It was actually the day of my daughter’s 17th birthday. We were about to head out of town, but she did not want to miss seeing her former teacher, also a musician, one more time. So we brought her cello with us, not knowing what to expect.

What we did not expect was to be surprised by the joy in the midst of the pain. My friend knew where she was going, just as surely as we know that spring will come. The pain was in the fact that she was leaving many loved ones behind and that it seemed too early for her season on earth to end. How clearly we are made for eternity. The passing of a season – be it a childhood, a job, a relationship, or, in this case, a life, is never easy or painless.

My friend once bemoaned the fact that no one likes to talk about death although it is such an integral part of life. I guess that is why autumn is so special to me.  It reminds me that life is fleeting – we should seize the opportunity to dance with abandon…

Like those twirling leaves.


Lessons from a Fall Mystery Guest…

A little over a week ago, we had a top secret “mystery guest” at the Lamont Music School’s opening Convocation. Who, I thought, would have something so special to say to music students and faculty; who needed total secrecy before the event; who could not have photography or recording; who required several guards at the entrances to our concert hall; and who had a schedule that caused us to move our convocation from Friday to Thursday? Which famous musician would care if the general public flocked to a music convocation?

Obviously a political figure, most of us thought. But really… President Trump or Hillary at a music convocation?? The powers-that-be dispelled rumors of Beyoncé, so a friend and I thought – Condoleeza Rice – DU alum, former Secretary of State and classical pianist, who recently collaborated with YoYo Ma? Now that might make sense.

Now I have to confess that when they started announcing the stats for our mystery guest, I could tell right away they were not female. When they got to the middle part of the introduction and mentioned the NFL and two Super Bowls under two different franchises, it finally dawned on me (pathetic sports fan that I am) – Peyton Manning, former QB of the Denver Broncos himself??!

So what instrument does Peyton Manning play to qualify him to speak at this event? His depreciating answer: air guitar and the right hand melody for his Insurance commercial!

But wait – what do athletes and musicians have in common? Much more than one thinks: a passion for what they do, the ability to perform under pressure, and, many say, lots of natural talent. Obviously, what Peyton has played, while not music, he has played superbly well. Well enough to be invited to speak at our DU music convocation. Actually, just the fact that he agreed to do this speaks volumes about him.

I thought that it might interest you to hear what Manning had to say about issues shared by both musicians and athletes:

On hard work vs. talent – wisdom from a former coach: “Every day you either get better or worse.”

Peyton’s advice to the student musicians: “Do not be afraid to work on your weaknesses, even when it’s embarrassing.”

On performing under pressure and how he deals with a disappointing performance, a quote from Chuck Nolan: “Pressure is something you feel only when you don’t know what you are doing.”

Hmm…. I love that. Think about that one a little more. When things don’t go the way we expect, is there a tendency to blame pressure, circumstances, or the people involved, instead of the quality of preparation?

“When you have had a tough patch, that’s when you find out about your character. If it were easy, anyone could do it.”

Peyton stressed the importance of staying “even keeled and humble,” not basing your actions on the responses or opinions of others. He used the example of his brother, Eli Manning, and how he does not read any news reports – regardless of whether the game goes well or not.

Great advice for musicians, parents, and everyone from all walks of life. Thank you, Peyton Manning!

Tales from the Front: Finding the right fit of instrument (Part 2)

In my last blog, we discussed first introducing our children to the different timbres of instruments and observing their responses to the sounds. I shared the challenges Elise and I had traveling with her cello. I also posed the following questions that I have asked myself as a parent:

Was cello the best choice of instrument for Elise? Does it matter what instrument you study? Are there physical characteristics that make one instrument a better fit than others? Are you drawn to certain instruments more than others? Should everyone study piano? What if your child ended up being assigned their second choice of instrument in band? Have they missed their calling in life?

I think the answer is somewhere in between… Other than piano, I played flute through graduate school. I really wanted to play a string instrument, but growing up in Malaysia, that was not even an option. When I finally did learn violin as a Suzuki mom, I found that I could not stand the scratching noise of the strings so close to my ears.

While all four of my children love playing the piano, my eldest is also a violinist, my second a cellist; my son asked for trumpet, but eventually chose choir over band; my youngest is a violinist and chose to add clarinet in junior high band. To be honest, some of the instrumental decisions were by parental preference, some by necessity, others for practical reasons, and some “just because it’s something you need for life.” Regardless of how initially enamored with the instrument your child may seem, the fact remains that it is not “normal” for them to love the discipline of practice. There is still some parental “muscle” involved at some point.

Some things to consider when choosing an instrument are your own capacities as a music parent. Are you able to drive for weekly private lessons for each child? Do you have a good school band or orchestra program and would it be easier to plug in to that? Are you going to be willing to provide the home support needed for a successful music experience? Music study is not a hit and miss activity. Regardless of instrument, children need their parents to be their greatest cheerleaders and also the ones that provide consistent home structure for success. Consistency enables success, and success releases motivation.

Instrument fit can come from two different perspectives: Does my child have a natural bent in a certain area? Or, does my child need to reinforce and strengthen areas of weakness. Either reason can be totally valid as grounds for instrument selection. I have done both.

Does it look like your child is going to be petite or tall? My cellist daughter has long arms, larger hands and is 5 ft 9 inches tall. She loves the lower and richer timbres. Cello would not be as natural a fit for my 5 ft 2 inch violinist daughter.

Do they have a lot of natural “air”? Do they need to strengthen their breathing and speaking coordination? From two opposite “need” perspectives, a wind or brass instrument might be a terrific fit. Is it important for them to be with their peers? Do you want them to have a portable instrument? Then, choose a band or orchestral instrument. But realize that you may have to do the extra drive for Youth Symphony if school does not provide an orchestra. And if you get a harp or double bass, you will be committing to always having a larger vehicle. The same goes for cello (plus extra airfare for a seat if you fly United!).

Is your child very kinetic and naturally coordinated? Or, does your child need reinforcement with coordination and brain processing activities? If so, piano would be a great choice. The piano tends to be a good fit for all – the “ultimate” instrument for everyman/woman. The very fact that the piano’s sound is orchestral and “complete” in itself, not needing another instrument to complete it, makes it very satisfying for anyone to play. It does not screech, it does not squeak, it does not rattle (unless you drop a toy bear in to the strings), and the sound is deceptively easy to produce.

All my children enjoy playing the piano, even with three of them having another instrument as their primary choice. Learning to play the piano is therapeutic for the left and right brain circuitry. Since it requires reading the treble and bass clefs and equal hand coordination (not to mention use of the feet for the pedals), it also makes it easier for someone who plays the piano to learn other instruments later. For example, piano study is necessary in order to play percussion. One of my former piano students is now a successful professional drummer. Therefore, the piano is the perfect starting point for instrument study.  If you are going to “mandate” an instrument, make it the piano.  It is great for your strengths and your weaknesses. If your kid is begging to play trombone, start them on piano for a couple of years, then head off to trombone study.

Parents will tend to first gravitate toward instruments and sounds for personal reasons. I tried string instruments for my children because as a pianist, I was always envious of the portability of most of the string instruments. I rented the instrument for the first 6 months to be sure that they were not adverse to the peculiarities of the instrument. After that, we were on board for the ride. However, I made sure all of them knew the piano.

I hope this conversation gives you confidence in the decisions you make with your own children. Or, if you have always wanted to study an instrument yourself, I hope it helps you make a decision for yourself.

So, back to my first question: was cello the best instrument for my daughter? Well, two airports, two states, and 7 hours later, we ended up boarding a different flight after purchasing an extra seat for the cello.  Elise was in 7th heaven to finally have “Sebastian” safely next to her.  So I guess while the cello is not the best fit for traveling light, it was a great choice for Elise.  It brings everyone joy (except when traveling).  We have put in the hard work and now she reaps the benefits.

In the final tally, whichever instrument you or your child chooses, the most important factor is creating a consistent home learning environment and cheering them through the times of “resistance.” That’s what my friend, Leila Viss, terms as having “grit.”


Tales from the Front: Finding the right fit of instrument (Part 1)

August flew by and with it my best intentions to get my thoughts down for this blog; lost in the flurry of getting my oldest child off to college. A few days after dropping off Anna in Chicago, my second child, a high school senior, and I flew out for a music school visit with her cello in tow. While many cellists buy a seat for their instrument, we have been gate checking Elise’s instrument as the next best option cost-wise.

Flying on United, we had no trouble gate checking the cello on the way to Baltimore. However, it was a totally different story on our return. We were refused gate check for her instrument for the 4PM flight to Denver. The flight was full and it was either risk having the instrument splinter in baggage transfer, or, change airports to purchase a seat for the cello on a different flight back. At the height of my frustration with the gate agents, Elise exclaimed: “Now I know why you wanted me to take up clarinet…!”

So was cello the best choice of instrument for Elise? Does it matter what instrument you study? Are there physical characteristics that make one instrument a better fit than others? Are you drawn to certain instruments more than others? Should everyone study piano? What if your child ended up being assigned their second choice of instrument in band? Have they missed their calling in life?

Before embarking on music study, introduce your children’s ears to the sounds of various acoustic instruments – the same way that you would introduce their taste buds to different foods — and I can’t over emphasize the importance that the sounds be “beautiful.” Why? Because listening to beautifully played instruments is more likely to inspire the imagination, while stoking the desire for continued music study. Actually, it helps when our food tastes good too!

Some practical ideas: play Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals (who can resist the lyrical imagery of “The Swan” cello solo?) and Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Car rides are great for this – try this instead of movies or devices! It’s also great for developing healthy brain pathways. Then be sure to read aloud the picture books with them and make it fun. Finally, once they are familiar with the music, find a live performance to attend. Don’t just depend on elementary school music classes for this – do it with them and make it a treat!

One of my favorite tools to use when my children were little were master puppeteer Jim Gamble’s wonderful 30-minute marionette productions of the musical classics, Peer Gynt, The Nutcracker, Carnival of the Animals, Hansel and Gretel, and, of course Peter and the Wolf. They are quite enthralling. I know – I sat through them many times! They make great gifts from grandparents, and they are handy “break times” for moms.

Before starting my first child on violin, I took her to as many of the children’s programs by the Cleveland Orchestra as I could. We made sure that there was an affinity to the timbre of the instrument. “Timbre” is the tone or unique quality of an instrument’s sound. It is timbre that makes the same note on a violin sound different from the same note on a flute. Some of us gravitate to certain timbres. Be observant of your child’s response to the different timbres.

Incidentally, my husband Chris is not a musician and he likes to joke that he “plays the radio.” However, he has been instrumental (forgive the pun) in persisting with the vision of music study for the children – even when I have been ready to call it quits. We have made an intentional point to expose them to beautiful music from the time they were little until now – the classical station in the car, recordings and live concerts. And we observed their responses to the sounds of the different instruments.

Yes, I will confess that we were guilty of unashamedly “stoking the flames” for certain instruments. I admired the violin, so my eldest ended up loving violin. We wanted the two sisters so close in age to have different instruments to avoid any comparison. I loved the sound of the cello and I could tell that she was likely to be taller, so the cello seemed like a logical fit for my second daughter. However, when she was asked: “Why do you want to play the cello?” Her immediate response was: “Because the sound makes me happy.”

In my next blog mid-month, I will share specific considerations when choosing instruments. But first remember, we have to give them a bigger vision of the sound. Without that vision, they will have trouble with the discipline of practice. Without the discipline of practice they will not achieve the vision. See you in two weeks – and this time, I’ll make it happen!  🙂













Being a Music Parent: Tales from the Front (Part 1)

The opportunity for music study is one of the most valuable gifts we can give our child. In our world of fast food, instant gratification and almost constant connectivity to technology, the focus and discipline developed by study of a musical instrument creates valuable emotional and cognitive pathways in the brain. Research continually supports this fact and many parents desire music study for their children for this very reason.

So, we procure a teacher, purchase or rent an instrument, schedule the lesson into the jigsaw puzzle of our week, then the real adventure begins. Did I also mention scheduling and facilitating the necessary daily practice sessions for your child? What if you have more than one child? Do you draw lots to see who should forego music study? Believe it or not, I actually considered doing that…

It takes tenacity and vision to successfully see your children through their music study. Everything in our lives and culture seems to push back against the ability to gain this lifetime skill. In the thirty-nine years I have taught piano, it is only in the past eighteen years, when I became a music parent, that I have truly understood and appreciated the herculean effort that goes behind a child learning to play an instrument successfully. To all my fellow music parents out there – you deserve a lifetime award for one of the most challenging feats ever!

So, what are the essential ingredients in a successful recipe for music parenting? Here are the ingredients that my husband and I have used with our children:

Expose them to live concerts of beautiful music.

Find them the right fit of instrument.

Find them the right fit of teacher or program of instruction.

Facilitate successful home learning.

Delight in their music making – always.

Encourage every opportunity to share their music.

Tune in with what goes on in the lesson and their progress.

Stay in touch with the teacher and your child’s needs.

Do not fear a teacher transition if needed.

The ingredients above are listed in the order of what I consider to be of the greatest priority. Why did I not list finding a teacher first? In my own experience, long before my children started any formal instruction, we made an intentional commitment to utilize every possible opportunity for exposure to live music, in a child friendly setting. I feel that this strategy really impacted the mindset with which my children viewed music study. Listening and watching music being performed was a fun activity and part of the tapestry of our lives. Music study was the natural next step.

So, what does this look like if you have a baby, or, a one to three year old child? We were fortunate enough to be living in Cleveland, Ohio, when Anna and Elise, my first two children were born. Chris and I packed up our little Mazda 323 hatchback with six month Anna, a picnic basket, blanket, a stroller and other (silent!) toys to drive the 45 minutes to the Blossom Music Festival concerts in Cuyahoga Falls, summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra. The secret was getting the “lawn tickets” – the least expensive tickets of all. We strategically chose the far edges of the picnic area in case of an emergency exit. We sprawled out on our blanket without the pressure of decorum, had fun rolling the inflatable ball back and forth and eventually put the baby in the stroller with her blanket and toys. Our goal was for live performances to be as second nature for our children as listening to recorded music at home. Our only mistake was not realizing the impact of fireworks on a sleeping baby at the end of the concert … that emergency exit plan was put to use as we hurried out with a screaming baby in the midst of glorious fireworks!

Circumstances do not have to be perfect to have fun at a concert. One summer, we attended a free Philharmonic concert on the lawn. Unfortunately, we had forgotten to check the weather report. Six of us huddled under two broken umbrellas and an old picnic blanket, laughing and shivering, as we listened to the music of Broadway and John Williams at dusk. An elderly couple got up and started waltzing in the drizzle. Sheer magic – a family memory made together.

In my next blog, I will explore the topic of ensuring the right fit of instrument and teacher for your child. Until then, I am going to make the most of each remaining day of summer – wishing the same for you too!

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