All those lessons

I did everything I could to foster my kids' interest in music

Ruth-Ann MacKinnon

National Post

The National Post asked eight "seasoned" parents to write about an aspect of parenthood they'd wrestled with or felt strongly about, or something that just seemed to work for them. This is the fifth in our series, which will run weekdays in this section until May 14.

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Passing Grade 8 piano was the high point. The relief, not just from the pressure of the exam itself but from the years of practices and recitals, was thrilling. Of course, it was even better for my daughter, who actually played the piano.

In fact, music education in our family was one long, triumphant crescendo. The question is, who got more out of it -- the kids or me? I'm not just talking about the vicarious pleasure I swelled up with at my children's recitals. My son can make a tune on the flute, my daughter sings and plays piano and guitar. Me? I learned about self-discipline, self-confidence, teamwork, leadership and child psychology. I met people who are tireless, talented, dedicated and fun. I travelled across Canada with choir children and hosted visiting musicians from England and the United States at my home in Toronto. If you believe some people, music made my kids, and by association me, smarter (Web search "the Mozart effect"). All this without hanging out in a cold arena!

Truth be told, I dropped out of piano lessons as a child. And at my school, music was considered a "bird" course, so I took physics instead. I managed to make it into adulthood without ever having consciously heard Handel's Messiah or Fauré's Requiem. For his part, my husband was directed to mouth the words when his school choir sang so his atonal stylings wouldn't throw everybody off key. In other words, our family is by no means zealous about the arts.

But my son and daughter, over the years, were exposed to private music lessons, school band, school choir, church choir, community choir and Sue Hammond's fabulous Classical Kids series of recordings. I learned to understand the fuss about the Kiwanis Music Festival -- a logistical marvel of symphonic proportions. My daughter's name appears on the credits of numerous recordings, including one with the world-renowned Canadian Brass, with whom she also appeared on stage.

No wonder I did everything I could to foster my kids' interest in this amazing world. My part, by comparison, was easy:

- I made a point of taking the family to concerts, hanging out at music stores and, of course, attending recitals. The Jr. Kindergarten rendition of Blue, Stand Up is etched in my heart forever.

- For the first couple of years my daughter studied piano, I faithfully joined her at the keyboard for her daily practices. The pieces she was learning often had lyrics we could sing together, or we would take turns plunking out the scales. Eventually she developed her own motivation, and I was no longer needed.

- On holiday travels, our family made a point of checking out the local music scene. While my son was studying flute, we practically did a world survey of primitive wind instruments, which, it turns out, are available shaped like birds, harpoons and fans as well as the typical tin whistle. My son could toot out the opening bars of Ode to Joy whether we were in Bolivia, Mexico or Paris.

- I devoted one of my summer holidays to act as choir chaperone on a tour of Cape Breton, a place I'd always wanted to visit. Between concerts, we went tidal bore rafting; saw the famous miners' choir, the Men of the Deeps; and drove the Cabot Trail. I was in awe of the professionalism of the 27 choristers, who rehearsed rigorously daily and performed sometimes twice a day for the two weeks we were away.

- I joined a choir myself and discovered the unique attraction of being bullied by the drill sergeant of the music world, the choir director.

- Can't forget fundraising. I sold oranges, poinsettias, magazine subscriptions, wrapping paper and chocolate almonds. And I learned never to begrudge matching government grants to children's music organizations. I promise you they deserve it. For every person who receives some of those tax dollars, a dozen volunteers are behind the scenes flogging chocolate almonds, organizing silent auctions, washing cars or grilling hot dogs, typing choir memos, washing shirts, selling concert tickets, serving juice at concert intermissions and filing music.

This habit of being there for one's children, I've since learned, falls into the parenting style known as "high expectation-high support" -- and Walter Gretzky can tell you all about that. It goes hand in hand with the school of positive reinforcement.

My daughter's wonderful piano teacher, Linda, who let me sit in on lessons whenever I wanted, was a master at this. When I was cringing at missed notes and skipped beats, Linda would praise the one chord that had rung true before gently reworking the piece.

Positive reinforcement -- you praise truthfully, not indiscriminately -- is a mainstay of the famous Suzuki school of music, where the story is told of a lesson involving the founder: After a child finished an excruciatingly bad performance, there was a long pause before Dr. Suzuki finally exclaimed enthusiastically, "You played!"

Whatever playing my children are doing is out of earshot for me now, and I use the skills of positive reinforcement and high expectation-high support to train the puppy that has moved into my empty nest. Bach is on the CD player.

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