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January-February 2011 Selected Content

Music Without Music Lessons - Robin Phillips

33 Ways to Explore and Enjoy Music

Composing a duet for violin and viola.
Not interested in providing music lessons for your children, but still want them to have some appreciation for the music of the world? Here are 33 ways to delve into music history, composers, famous songs, instruments, and musical genres using the senses of hearing, sight, taste, and even humor!

Analyze movie music. Using a movie and its sound track, ask these questions: What is used to provide background for sad scenes, touching moments, or joyfulness? Which instruments and what range do they play in to make listeners anticipate fear, comedy, or the reunion of main characters? How are silences used and when? Which instruments seem most versatile? Compare the ending music with the beginning song. What mood does each convey? Try The Mission, Sabrina, Father of the Bride, or The Aristocats.

Compare an orchestra and a band. What is different in the makeup of each group? How does their music differ? What types of events are each used at? Would a military band get the same effect if they used stringed instruments instead of brass?

Explore the chamber music of the Gaudette Brass Quintet, Calder Quartet, and the Zodiac Trio. What type of music do they play? Why? When are they used? Where might you hear chamber music today? Think weddings, receptions, or any intimate gathering.

Check out Putumayo's World Music CD offerings of Bach for Breakfast, Mozart for Morning Coffee, Beethoven for Book Lovers, Tchaikovsky for Tea Time, Hawaiian Playground, or African Dreamland. Listen to several and discuss these questions: Which music winds you up? Which makes you melancholy? chipper? relaxed?

Keep a list of music you hear in businesses. Notice the genres played in an elevator, hotel lobby, grocery store, department store, gas station, hair salon, restaurant, or hospital. Does it promote a particular ambiance or atmosphere? Is it owner preference or mandated by a national headquarters?

Research how music promotes healing. Music therapy is used with people with developmental disabilities, speech and hearing impairments, psychiatric disorders, and physical disabilities.

Read a libretto (the text of an opera), then watch a professional production. Many are available on DVD, and you have the bonus of being able to watch these in increments. Try The Magic Flute by Mozart. Did it help knowing what would happen?

Watch popular performers of today. PBS airs great concerts. Some of our favorites include Andre Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra, Patrizio, Il Divo, and Andrea Bocelli. Check for scheduling.

Search the Internet or your library for recordings of Jacqueline du Pre and Yo Yo Ma (cellists), Isaak Stern and Hilary Hahn (violinists), Ella Fitzgerald (American jazz singer), Benny Goodman (clarinetist, the King of Swing), and Wynton Marsalis and Louis Armstrong (trumpeters). Listening to the best musicians can help you discover what music can be.

Add a little history by reading stories about musical pieces by Anna Harwell Celenza. In The Heroic Symphony, Beethoven dedicated his work to Napoleon, then changed his mind when Napoleon named himself emperor of France. In The Farewell Symphony, Haydn wrote his piece for Prince Nicolas of Austria when his musicians were unhappy because they couldn't have their families with them during their lengthy stay with the prince in the country.

Explore the music of nature. What patterns do you hear with cicadas, crickets, robins, mourning doves, aspen trees, trickling water, rushing water? Write or draw what you hear.

Write your own music. Go to for an inexpensive computer program to compose your own music using your computer keyboard. All my kids have enjoyed creating their own pieces on this.

Learning the parts and mechanics of the viola.
Research a single instrument. How is it made? What changes have improved its quality or playability? What type of training or machinery is needed to produce the instrument? Look at The Living Violin, The Living Flute, or The Living Piano.

Listen to someone else's music lessons. Sometimes a teacher will allow you to quietly sit in a lesson to get an idea whether the instrument or lessons are for you. It gives the teacher a chance to show their teaching style and you can see what lessons are like without a commitment.

Watch a video of Victor Borge, a Danish comedian and pianist. I never realized music could be funny until I watched him in action. His "Piano-Tuner" and "William Tell Overture Backwards" are classics.

Choose music from a particular decade. Ask how it reflects the larger historical issues or cultural changes taking place? For instance, why is big band and swing more popular than opera in the 1940s in America?

Match foods and music from the same country. From Russia, enjoy black bread and jam while listening to Peter Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. From France, treat the kids to chocolate (chips or chunks) baked inside crescent rolls for breakfast while listening to Claude Debussy's piano music, particularly "La Mer."

Match art and music. Look at Piet Mondrian's abstract art while listening to Erik Satie's piano music or Georgia O'Keefe's brilliant flowers and Argentine tango music. Those are pairings I make, but you can mix and match many others. If the art is soft outlines and muted colors, such as Monet, use Brahms waltzes; if the art contains vivid colors like Andy Warhol, try more energetic music like Elvis' blues and country tunes.

Don't neglect Eastern music. How does traditional Japanese music remind you of the country? What does a sitar look like, sound like, and who plays it in India? Find wonderful examples of Arabic, Indian, and Japanese music on compact discs produced by Putumayo.

Attend music concerts from full-fledged orchestras to small groups whenever feasible. If your children are too young, unable to sit for long periods, or tickets are pricey, try an alternative. Have a concert at home. Choose a CD of Aaron Copeland's "Appalachian Spring" or "Rodeo." Turn the lights low, sit in comfy seats or lay kids on a blanket for whatever period of time you think they may handle. Don't worry if it's only a few minutes at first. The only rule is that people need to be quiet while the music plays. You can pause or even stop it, as needed. Once they've had enough, let it go. Kids know when they've absorbed as much as they can. On the other hand, they won't try to listen unless you make them understand it's important by listening quietly yourself. Treat the concert as special and they will, too. What did the music make them think of? What sounds did they like? Which piece or movement did they like best?

Purchase instruments for experimentation at home made music. Secondhand stores, garage sales, or "looking for inexpensive mandolin" ads may produce treasure for less than you might think.

List relatives or friends who play instruments, and ask if they'd be willing to share an evening explaining how they put the instrument together, the upkeep, the sounds possible with that instrument, the type of music they play the most, and anything interesting they know about it or experiences they've had with it. (Keep in mind many musicians are not comfortable having others touch or use their instrument. It's nothing personal, so respect their wishes.)

Read biographies of musicians, both modern and from the past. Try Lang Lang: Playing With Flying Keys for a look inside the world of piano performance and competition.

Browse a music store to view various instruments you've already shared with your young kids. Older kids may be allowed to try them, if they have a rental program.

Rent an instrument from a music store that rents to schools, get a book from the library, and try it out for three months.

Work through National Public Radio's classical music listening list. Two good lists are: 100 most important musical works of the twentieth century ( or 50 essential classical music CDs (

Read magazines about music: Strings, Classic FM, Vintage Guitar, Flute Talk, Opera News, JazzTimes Magazine, or Making Music.

Put your own music sequence together for a homemade LEGO (TM) movie, puppet show, stuffed animal dance, or art exhibit.

Let members of the family take turns choosing the music to accompany dinner or chores.

Teach yourself to play an instrument; then teach your kids, or learn together with self-teaching material. Hal Leonard Corporation offers books and DVDs for bass, piano, saxophone, cello, trumpet, banjo, flute, drums, guitar, and clarinet. No one says you have to learn or teach perfectly. Much of practice is experimentation, with or without a teacher.

Study church music from Gregorian chants to hymns to gospel. How does the music define a church? What is its purpose--worship, teaching theology, offering praise?

Study lyrics of songs of a particular historical period, such as the Civil War. "Ashokan Farewell," " Aura Lee," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "When Johnny Comes Marching Home"--they all tell a story of the times.

Finally, just listen, of course! Choose a relatively quiet period while eating a meal, coloring, driving in the car, or crafting. Get a stack of CDs from your library and choose any genres mentioned above--anything you have never wanted to listen to nor are familiar with. Listen to each at least five times before deciding whether or not you like it.

Learning to appreciate music means being familiar with it and familiarity only comes through time spent with the subject. Whether you pop in Asian Dreamland before bed or buy a used piano, don't let a lack of formal music lessons keep you and your kids from enjoying music. There is a world of musical possibilities to explore © 2011, Robin Phillips


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