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Last year, my 9-year old son, seemingly out of the blue, came to us and said, “I want to learn how to play the bagpipes.” Consequently, I’ve learned more about bagpipes than I ever thought I’d learn. I now know, for example, that there are only 9 notes on a bagpipe, and none of them are sharp or flat. I’m also learning to appreciate that, since bagpipes are always “on,” the way to generate diversity in articulation is with a variety of embellishments, like grace notes.
When I first started playing guitar 24 years ago, I remember there being a little bit of a learning curve, in terms of getting my fingers to stretch over the fret board and developing some calluses on my fingers so that it wasn’t quite so painful to push down on the strings. Still, within a couple of weeks, I could strum a pretty decent version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Of course, now that I have an electric guitar, I’m learning to value the dexterity involved in a complex guitar solo, but I think there is a reason that the guitar is the ubiquitous campfire instrument—you don’t have to be a virtuoso to get everyone to sing Sweet Caroline with you.
Not so with the bagpipes. My son spent 7 months just learning how to play a scale and enough embellishments to get to the point he could play Amazing Grace on a practice chanter. We’re almost to the point of acquiring a set of pipes, nearly 11 months later. Even after he gets his pipes, it will take several months to get to the place that he can play them with all the drones.
Several weeks ago, the Song of the Heart Studio Facebook page (a font of great information, and worth following, by the way) led me to this article from New York Magazine, written by Po Bronson. In it, the author details a research study that highlights how important it is to praise kids for their efforts, rather than their genius. Doing so leads kids, even those who may not be so “smart,” to choose harder puzzles without fear of making a mistake and looking not smart. They stick to a task and work at it more energetically–habits that lead, obviously, to other successes.
Research studies continue to tell us, “Organized music lessons appear to benefit children’s IQ and academic performance have a high correlation to success in school.” (American Psychological Association, June 2006, Vol 37, No. 6 Print version: page 13.) (And you can also find articles about it here and here.) I’m sure there are lots of things happening in the brain that support why this is so. But, based on my own anecdotal experience, I think that part of the correlation comes from the intrinsic payoff that comes after putting in the hard work of learning a song.
For instance, I’m noticing with my son that because he has to continue to work at his chanter, he’s learning to persevere through things that don’t come easily. He’s learning how to be careful and slow down so that he can get all the embellishments in while keeping to a steady rhythm. He’s learning the habit of practice, and the value of repetition in building muscle memory. In other words, an intrinsic reward of creating music functions as the praise for hard work, rather than for genius. Solving yet another math equation on a story problem worksheet just doesn’t generate that same emotional high.
That’s not to say that there aren’t tears and tantrums over practice time in our house. And I’m still on this parenting journey, so I can’t say that this one thing will be key to his overall success as a fully-functioning adult. Nevertheless, the fact that he dares to wear his kilt to school, he finds joy in a birl well done, and he has worked to save money for his pipes, as well, I think these are all promising factors.
I continually sing Kindermusik’s praises for developing the whole child. But part of this whole child development includes music instruction, too.