Why Your Kids Should Definitely Study Music…and Maybe Even Ballet.

September 21, 2013 at 2:43 am (Kids, Music) (, , , )

So an old friend posted two articles from The New Republic on Facebook today. In one, the author says “don’t make your kids play an instrument or take ballet.” In the other, a different author says “make your kids play an instrument,” skipping ballet all together. Mr. Con says that classical music and ballet lessons are a giant waste of time, because they don’t teach the student any practical skills she’ll take into adulthood. Mr. Pro says you should study music to commune with musical deities like Bach, and to be part of a centuries old tradition. I don’t agree with either of them.


Full disclosure – I met that Facebook friend way too long ago at a high school music camp, where it’s fair to say that we shared one of the most sublime musical experiences of our lives before or since as we rehearsed the 4th and 5th movements of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. (Schubert wrote it when he was 22, which produces the same kind of distress in me as the fact that Keats was only 25 when he died. But that’s an aside…we all have issues).


So yeah, I studied cello. I started when I was 11 or so and played through high school and college, and unlike the anti-music lesson author, I still play it. Mostly when I’m helping my son with his violin lesson, but sometimes when I’m looking for something to do, I take out my dog-eared copy of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites and make like I’m Pablo Casals. I also play the violin a little bit, the piano a little bit more and the guitar pretty badly. And I’m looking forward to starting the viola with my youngest daughter this afternoon when we go to her very first Suzuki viola lesson. In the interests of being thorough, I’ll tell you that I also sing in a church choir, and cantor at two different churches, sing the occasional wedding and perform with two different rock bands. You might be getting the picture that music is pretty damn important to me.


But wait! I haven’t told you about ballet yet! I started when I was six. I was supposed to begin at five, but I broke my arm standing on a folding chair that folded – kids, don’t try that at home! – so I started in first grade once I got my cast off. I danced seriously until I was 18. I performed with my town’s professional ballet company in countless productions of The Nutcracker. I continued to take ballet lessons in college, but I also discovered other forms of dance there, and when, after I graduated, I realized that directors would hire me to dance in musical theater, it was like I had found the holy grail, combining as it did both music and dance. I am not exaggerating when I say that my twenties were filled with music and dance, and that I would not trade those memories for all the world, nor would I give up the friendships I forged doing those shows.


I will admit that I have an uneasier relationship with ballet than I do with music – I have some injuries now that I’m 40-something that I blame on dance, and I worked through some fairly gnarly body image stuff that I also blame on ballet. However, I am one hard-working and disciplined mother (no, really, I’m a mother) and I credit ballet with that too. And my confidence! Come on, I used to prance around on stage regularly in little more than my underwear – what can possibly embarrass or cow me now? And I still take an occasional dance class, just to kick the cobwebs off.


So where do I shake out on this issue for my kids? Well, all three of them study an instrument, and they will continue to do so until they no longer reside under my roof. I’m lucky so far in that no one wants to quit yet. I don’t know whether any of them possess any real musical talent. How could I know? They’re 10, 8 and 6. There aren’t all that many musical prodigies out there – there are way more people who work and work and work and get better incrementally. Anyway, that’s not the point. I’m not expecting to raise the next Joshua Bell here. My children take music lessons because music is a central part of the human experience, something that binds us together and sets us apart from other animals. They study music to learn discipline, and hard work. They play music with each other to realize that working together, disparate people can achieve a thing of beauty. In fact, they play instruments to create beauty, to put beauty into our broken, often ugly world. Surely that last in and of itself is enough of a reason. And contrary to Mr. Con, I believe that they will take all of that into adulthood, whether they continue to play the same instruments, or whether they pick up the guitar and the ukelele instead, or whether they stop playing all together. And as far as Mr. Pro goes, well, I don’t actually think it’s carrying on the classical musical tradition that’s the point either. If my violinist wants to start fiddling in a bluegrass band, that’s fantastic. If my pianist wants to switch to jazz, that’s awesome too. If the soon-to-be-violist wants to find some way to funk that up, well, good luck kid, but by all means, go for it.


And with regard to dance, my youngest takes ballet and tap, although not at the professional ballet school I attended. My mother was horrified by the bootie-shaking at the spring recital, but Lucy loved all of it, and truthfully, so did I. The oldest used to take ballet, but asked to stop when she was in second grade. I was okay with that, although I told the aspiring actress that dance would help her move well on stage. She’s asked to go back to it this year. All three of the kids took a hip-hop class this summer too, and we all faithfully watch So You Think You Can Dance every week it’s on, which inevitably leads to a family dance-off. Again, I’m not aiming for Barishnikov here, but dance is a great form of exercise, and like I said, I attribute my work ethic and persistence to my years of ballet training. I love dance, in all its forms, and like music, with which it is so closely aligned, dance is one of the things that separates us from the rest of the animal world, something that elevates us, sometimes literally! toward the divine. Listen, either you believe that the arts have intrinsic value on their own, or you’re dumb. I mean, or you don’t.


So I’m staring down the barrel of years and years of chauffering the kids to various music and dance lessons, let alone sports, (how would we feel about an article that said, “don’t make your kids play sports?” I wonder if there’d be a different reaction?) and I don’t dread it all. I’m glad to do it. Even though it may not seem like it during those first screechy string lessons, or tentative tendus, they’re already artists, and they’re creating beauty…and like Keats said, at age 23, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”



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In which the author gets super depressed but is saved by laundry and music

October 9, 2012 at 9:43 pm (Faith, Music, Politics) (, , , )

A Facebook friend’s recent post troubled me.  (Maybe that sentence in itself is troubling, but whatever.)  It was a link to a “Catholic” blog post in which the author condemned (not too strong a word) the voices that question the Church on anything, but specifically birth control.  And then of course, I descended down the rabbit hole of the website, which seems to me to be totally focused on three issues:  abortion (anti),  gay marriage (anti), and health care (anti).  And then I got super depressed, because is it possible for us both to be good Catholics, the Judgy McJudgerson author and me?  Is there really no room for debate on any of these issues?  Am I deluding myself when I try to be a good Catholic, because let me clear something up, not that there was any doubt…I have a lot of questions, and I struggle with the answers I get from my church, I really do.

So here’s what I did.  I went and did some laundry, which is a good indicator of the state of my brain, since it is my least favorite household chore.  And as I was feeling shitty and folding the mountain of clothes on my bed, I listened to my favorite Pandora station.  (Although all of my Pandora stations are starting to sound the same, which is kind of funny).  These two songs came on, one right after each other:

and then:

And you know what?  I felt better…AND my laundry was folded.  A happy ending.

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Birthday Dancing

January 11, 2012 at 3:11 pm (Kids, Music) (, )

My oldest child turns nine today. Nine! She keeps trying to freak me out, saying things like, “Next year at this time I’ll be double digits…” and “In four years I’ll be a teenager…” and “In seven years I’ll be driving.” She doesn’t need to work so hard to needle me though – I am well aware of the weird wonder of the occasion.

Last week she and I went to a mother-daughter PJ party at her school. She ate ice cream and I drank wine. We laughed with our friends and boogied to Justin Bieber and Katy Perry (oh my twenty-year-old self is shuddering right now, but I’m ignoring her!) I spun her around, her skinny legs flying around the room, the colored lights blurring, and my eyes welled up with tears as I thought, “This is a perfect moment. Please let me hold onto it.”

I can’t of course, any more than I can hold onto the sweet, goofy, smart, anxious, kind, loving, chatterbox eight year old. All I can do is listen to the music and find the groove of nine. Bring it on.


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A family affair

October 24, 2010 at 10:56 pm (Community, Faith, Music) ()

At mass last night I sang, Mom read and Dad ushed. Nice.

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A constant struggle…

March 9, 2009 at 2:31 am (Community, Faith, Interfaith, Kids, Music)

In my family we have a Jew, a Catholic and the three little Jatholics. Sam, the Jew, is not currently very observant, but his Jewishness is an essential part of his identity. I, the Catholic, am very observant. The three little kids are too young to decide for themselves, but the oldest, at six, attends a Catholic parochial school. However, although we belong to it, that school’s parish is not where we primarily attend mass. Instead, I sing in the choir and cantor at the cathedral downtown, as opposed to the parish down the street. This is for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the fabulous music at the cathedral.

However, as a Catholic mom, one of my primary responsibilities is to educate my children in my faith. Neither the three-year-old nor the baby currently get a lot out of Sunday mass, but the six-year-old is old enough to get something out of going, so my options are the following:

A. Stop singing downtown and go with the kid to the church down the street where she can attend the children’s liturgy.

B. Take the kid to mass downtown on Saturday evening and then go back myself to sing on Sunday morning.

C. Get my Jewish husband to take all three kids to the church down the street on Sunday morning while I’m at church downtown.

D.  Take the kid downtown with me on Sunday morning and get my dad, who has already been to church on Saturday evening, to watch her while we practice and then sit with her during mass.

E.  Go to church downtown by myself on Sunday and don’t worry about the kid’s religious education since she’s at a Catholic school.

Did I forget anything? The truth is that we’ve tried all of these options and there are positives and negatives of varying degrees to all of them.

A.  It’s a nice, involved community at our parish church. The place is packed, and there are tons of young families and kids. It feels really alive. Riley really loves the children’s liturgy and there’s a nursery that Henry and Lucy can play in. I like the pastor and the associate pastor too. However, the music is…it’s just not…I don’t want to be snooty. I mean, I am by nature pretty snooty, but…Here are concrete things I can say: the piano always sounds out of tune. The repertoire is really heavy on sort of 70s/80s church music, you know, the Glory and Praise songbook? It’s the kind of music that takes me right out of the liturgy instead of lifting me up… Plus, and maybe this is just me projecting, but I feel like there’s this de facto rule that families with young kids sit in the back…well, the problem with that is that young kids don’t pay attention to anything if they can’t see what’s going on. My kids are so much louder and more fidgety in the back of the church than in the front. The biggest negative here however is that I would hate, I mean hate to give up the choir at the cathedral. I have dear friends there, and I love making music with them.

B.  This is a great option, but difficult to put into practice. I love going to church with my whole family. I love going to my church with my whole family. However, I’ve never been a Saturday night church-goer. Church is for Sundays! and the weekends get so busy, it’s hard to make the commitment to go twice. Also, and this goes for the rest of the options too, I feel bad about not participating at our school’s church.

C.  Sam doesn’t mind taking the kids to church, but it’s a little weird, I think, if I’m not there. Plus, I feel like it really isn’t his job. And why do I get the benefit of really great liturgy while they don’t?

D.  This is what we’ve been doing the last few weeks. On the plus side, I think my daughter and my dad both get a lot out of the time they’re spending together. My dad has already been to mass, so he’s really able to concentrate on helping my daughter follow along and participate. While I’m not sitting with them, I do see them, and it makes my heart happy. Today as I passed by during communion, my daughter was fiddling with the pockets on my dad’s cargo pants, which cracked me up on several levels, of which the funniest to me was my dad wears cargo pants? Nevertheless, I feel a little guilty about it, like I’m shirking some responsibility. What can I say, I’m Catholic?

E.  This is not actually a realistic option. That was a test.

So yeah, D is where we’re at. I don’t think there is a perfect solution, but maybe I’m wrong. Have I missed any options?

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