News & Politics

The Sound of Music

Playing an Instrument Takes Lots of Practice, but It Can Be Fun and Offer Life Lessons. Here's How to Interest Kids in Music From an Early Age.

"My grandmother was a pianist, and my mother was a piano teacher," Martha Smith says. "It's in my blood to teach piano–I can't help it." Since 1977, Smith has taught children music out of her studio in her home.

"Music is close to divine," she says. "It can always be with you. I sing in the car for the sheer joy of it."

Smith was born in 1944 in Phillips, Texas, where her father was a Phillips Petroleum manager. The family lived in a tiny house. "One time my architect daughter, Lil our home here," Smith says. "It took up two bedrooms and two baths–with three children and two parents living in it."

But that house had a piano. Her mother taught 50 students a week in half-hour lessons for a dollar each.

"I'd been stuffed with music so long that at 17 I didn't want to study it anymore," Smith says. She attended Rice University and majored in history. But she did play piano for the school's musicals. After graduation, she earned a master's degree in piano pedagogy from Catholic University.

She worked three years as a researcher and librarian for McKinsey & Company in Washington, and then a year at the Commerce Department. "I didn't begin teaching music until I taught my own kids," she says. "I needed to know more about teaching. I started in nursery schools, just singing with the kids."

Smith is past president of the Virginia Music Teachers Association and writes for American Music Teacher and Keyboard Companion magazines. She gives workshops called "Winning the Hearts and Hours of Elementary Piano Students" and "Positive Approaches to Teaching Adolescents."

Smith lives in Arlington with her husband, Steve, who does affordable-housing financing for the Richman Group. They have three children. Lilli, 33, is an architect in Cambridge, Massachusetts. David, 30, and his wife live in Miami, where he works for a mortgage-banking firm. Shelby, 26, got married in October and will be practicing law in Dallas.

In Smith's basement studio, we talked about what she's learned.

What does music education do for kids?

It teaches them to listen, to find patterns in sounds–rhythmic and melodic patterns, patterns of form. It helps them memorize. This helps them later in fields like medicine or law.

It's especially valuable in teaching them to perform under pressure. That's key in life–whether giving a recital or an oral report. Kids learn to keep their cool, express themselves, and stick with something hard.

Playing the piano is athletic. Kids use all the muscles in their torsos, stretch their arms, use their feet. Some children are better at fine motor skills than large motor skills. Music helps them develop their skills in ways sports can't.

I prefer to take students who have developed rhythm in their big muscles by doing gymnastics or dance in preschool. Karl Orff, a German musician, designed xylophones and large instruments for little kids to play. I use his approach to produce rhythms and sounds.

Downstairs is an alto xylophone for the kids to play perfect fifths, perfect fourths, and perfect octaves. They get those intervals in their minds by playing simple songs and going "dong dong dong."

During lessons, I vary activities. I get the kids off the bench, on the bench, off again. I use a bag of balls, tossing them back and forth to teach the musical alphabet, with both of us saying, "A, B, C, D, E, F, G," and then backward–G, F, E, D, C, B, A. Then we do skips–A, C, E, G, and so on. Then in fourths and fifths.

We step on the seven stairs down to my studio, using them for the letters of the musical alphabet. The students move around to get a feel for how music moves.

My studio has a Steinway grand piano and two uprights, so I can play along with students. Plus the kids can use the computer and a MIDI-compatible electronic keyboard. I have lots of CDs and videotapes to loan out as well as games to play.

Do all kids have an aptitude for music?

All have some level of musical participation. I hate the term "tone deaf," since people can find their singing voices even late in life.

What percentage have real musical talent?

Maybe 5 percent. But such a small percentage also applies to kids supremely gifted athletically or verbally or in other ways.

How early can you detect if a kid has that talent?

When one girl–now getting her doctorate in music at Rice University–was five, I noticed her in our church nursery improvising in four parts. On the piano, she was playing not only the melody but the three other parts that harmonized with it. She did all that without any instruction. I told her mother to get her a teacher–quick.

Most good players begin by age seven. But I know one guy who started at 16. He lived on a farm without a piano. When visiting another farm that had one, he played by ear as much as he could. He had all this pent-up demand. But that's rare.

An exceptionally gifted child with great concentration–who can read and track well left to right–can begin serious music training at five. The more usual age is seven or eight. Girls learn earlier generally, as boys have a tough time sitting and concentrating at that age.

Parents can begin the musical experience of life when their child is 11/2. A program called "Music for Young Children" has been offered through Arlington County and some YMCAs, where children sit on the floor with mothers, fathers, and the instructor, and they roll balls back and forth. This gives the children a sense of call and response, of rhythm, waiting their turn, jumping in when the time comes.

How do you choose the right instrument?

Parents might read a good book, Sound Choices by Wilma Machover and Marienne Uszler, to help figure out what instrument fits. I like starting with violin or piano. Violin helps develop the ear first. Piano helps kids read both clefs and realize a fuller sound of harmony and melody. Single-line instruments–violin, woodwind, brass–play just one note at a time instead of chords, as on the piano.

From the piano, students can go on to other instruments. By then they've developed the reading and listening skills needed for that other instrument. They've learned to read notes and gain a sense of intonation, listening for the right pitch.

Most important is to notice what the child likes. If he's always beating a rhythm on the table, he should try drums. Often the spectrum of sound counts a lot. I really like bass voices. That's one reason I married my husband–he has a beautiful bass voice. Other people like tenor voices, or some are crazy about viola or flute.

How do you get kids to practice?

Parents, teachers, and students must work together. The students have to be interested.

It's best if the child's friends are also learning music. Several kids taking lessons together makes this a social activity. Sometimes we have round robins, with one kid playing eight measures, jumping off the bench when another kid takes over.

In the studio there should be lots of peer activities–playing duets or different instruments together. One kid might be good at improvising, another a great sight reader, another a whiz at rhythms. Appointing each child to listen for a different thing, and then rotating that, helps all of them get good.

Festivals and recitals are critical. When a kid goes to a high school and sees 2,000 other kids showing up on a Saturday to play two memorized pieces for judges, there's a sense of belonging and accomplishment.

Do students resist practicing?

I'm very specific in my assignments. Kids and their parents know exactly what they're supposed to do. I hold them accountable.

Generally, that works. Some children are in too many extracurricular activities and lack any chance to practice. It's up to parents to make sure there's time every day–just like brushing their teeth. Gold stars on practice charts do wonders, especially if the chart is put on the refrigerator.

I hear people say, "I wish my mother had made me practice." If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that, I'd be rich.

Why does that happen?

They don't take responsibility themselves. Ultimately, it was up to them, not their mothers.

Music isn't easy. It takes five or six years to become a functional musician, to read anything on sight and play with some ease. That's a long slog for a child.

Is it tougher now that music education is being cut in schools?

I keep hearing that but don't find it's true. Music education isn't much different than it was 20 years ago.

Isn't it frustrating to teach music when so few jobs exist in the field?

No. I'm not training for careers in music per se. I want kids to begin a lifetime of listening and playing, to stay interested in music, to make it a major part of their lives.

If the child is intent on competitions, I send him to another teacher, who likes to train for competitions. Only a few of my students have gone on to music careers.

How soon can you tell if someone is really talented?

Maybe after ten minutes. It doesn't take long.

In the MTV age, how do you interest kids in classical music?

I focus on a different country each year. Last year it was France, so we featured Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, and Poulenc. We all waved the French flag, tasted French bread, and smelled French lavender. For the little kids, we played "Frère Jacques" as a round and "Sur le Pont d'Avignon" and "Alouette." This year the country is Austria.

I ask my kids to download classical music onto their iPods. Kids are often proud to know something their friends don't know. Many are proud to be included in the fellowship of classical-music lovers.

How should parents choose a teacher?

Best is by word of mouth. Ask people you know. If a kid is excited about her teacher, the teacher probably has a waiting list.

There are some fine music schools in the area. I'm impressed with the Levine School in DC. Many music stores list teachers. And local organizations like the Northern Virginia Music Teachers Association have referral services. You can go to and click on "Find a Teacher." Excellent teachers are out there looking for students.

It's best to interview several teachers. See which your child has a rapport with. Remember that this is the start of a very tight, unusual relationship.

Do local music organizations help parents and teachers?

Yes, especially since music is a lonely pursuit for students and isolating for teachers. We need groups like the Northern Virginia Music Teachers Association and Virginia Music Teachers Association, which hold annual conventions and sponsor workshops, competitions, and festivals.

I love MusicLink Foundation, which connects teachers with talented, low-income students. One such student grew up in Uganda, singing and dreaming of playing the piano. Three years ago, she moved to Arlington. Her choral teacher at Wakefield High School, one of my former students, put her in touch with me and MusicLink. A student of mine who had bought a new piano donated his old one to her, and now her dream is coming true.

Are opportunities for music education good in Washington?

Yes. The National Symphony Orchestra's composer portraits are great. Leonard Slatkin is a genius at writing explanations of music, with Martin Goldsmith, former host of National Public Radio's Performance Today, delivering them. They did a program on Beethoven's life and works, followed by the NSO playing the Fifth Symphony. It was fabulous. In 2003, they portrayed Tchaikovsky.

I try to get my students to live concerts each year.

That's expensive, isn't it?

It can be, but not if you go to the Arlington or Fairfax symphony. They have wonderful concerts for about $8. Last spring, five of my students and their parents came to a performance. It was marvelous. Parking was easy. A family can go for less than going to a baseball game.

What have you learned about music education?

To immerse a child in good sounds from day one. Have your children listen to great music but also to natural sounds–crickets, doorbells, rain.

Help them develop their individual tastes. They're not all going to love Brahms as much as I do. But they've taught me that rock musician Ben Folds has interesting harmonies and rhythms.

What have you learned about life?

There's a book by Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing a Life, about being lucky enough to weave together various aspects of life into one grand tapestry. That's what I'm feeling right now. At 30, I identified three major loves–travel, music, and writing. Through my studio and music organizations, I've woven the three together.

I've learned that my students aren't finished yet. Give them a break. Try to understand where they are in the construction of their lives. Try gently to lead them from where they are to where they want to be. That's real teaching.

Thank God we have music when times get hard. It helps us through the toughest of situations.

Keep old friends. I keep up with lots of mine. Eight of us who started first grade together meet regularly. As our original families die–I only have one brother left–we need to reach out to such friends. It's wonderful to know people for so long that we don't have to explain much. We simply understand and accept.

Do what you love and don't worry about whether it pays the bills. Somehow you'll find a way.