If you’re looking for a way to keep your kids active this summer and make sure they don’t forget everything they learned in class, try this tune:
Encourage them to play a musical instrument. Or, if they already do, urge them to practice, practice, practice.
Beyond developing musical talent in a child, playing an instrument teaches everything from self-discipline to teamwork, educators say. And, for those who can afford it, private lessons can add greatly to the experience.
“We felt it was very important to have private instruction. It gives the individual child a huge advantage,” said Mark Therriault, president of the Dartmouth School Music Association, a not-for-profit organization that supports Dartmouth Public Schools’ music programs.
Therriault’s son will be a senior this fall at Dartmouth High School, where he participates in the marching band and the indoor percussion group.
“It’s an exponential difference in what it does for the individual, and it makes the ensemble that much better.”
DSMA Treasurer Jeanne Avila added, “I am a believer in the benefits of music and instruction 100 percent. The instruction (is) pivotal in their success in the music program. The music program (is) pivotal in the success of their life.”
James Shetler, music director at Wareham High School, said it is easy to tell which music students have had private instruction, outside school music classes or band practice. And there are benefits beyond musical talent.
“Practicing a musical instrument can assist students with problem solving and critical thinking; they must apply previously-learned concepts to new musical examples, they must learn to read long strings of rhythm,” Shetler said. “It can also help build physical coordination in younger students; they must learn to breathe, use their fingers, mouths, and read music all at the same time.”
Shetler said parents can start their children on some instruments — such as violin — even before they enter school.
But for band instruments, third through fifth grade is customary. Public schools offer elementary school or middle school students the chance to try out instruments in what some call an “instrument petting zoo.”
Therriault said that in Dartmouth, the instrument introduction night is for sixth grade students, though it used to be fourth grade. That was when his son decided on percussion.
“He came home and said, ‘I want to play drums,’ so I said, ‘OK,'” Therriault said.
In addition to finding an instructor, parents will want their children to practice. It is a balance between the internal motivation of the child and some gentle prodding, parents said.
“High expectations are very important,” said Diane Comeau, vice president of the DSMA, whose three children played or used to play instruments in Dartmouth schools. “If I’m taking the time and money to provide lessons, I expect my child to practice. The amount of time expected varied depending upon the age of my child and upon the goals of the individual child.”
Ann Marie Dreher, the DSMA recording secretary, publicity chair and past president, used a hands-off approach with her son Peter, 17.
“We are very fortunate that Peter has always loved to practice his trumpet,” she said. “We never had to nag him.”
During the school year, “marching band practice is about 12 hours per week, not including band class itself or competition, and my son practices one to one-and-a-half hours on his own each day,” Dreher said.
“As far as getting kids to practice, they have to want to practice or they will not have fun — and you as a parent will not have fun.”
While there are many benefits to music lessons, there are downsides as well, in the form of financial concerns and hectic schedules. Comeau described herself as “banker/taxi” with regard to her children’s music.
“One year I was five days a week for my children’s lessons,” she said. “This was in addition to driving my children to and from their marching, jazz and show band practices as well as supporting their other extracurricular activities … We were lucky enough to be able to afford to pay for five private lessons a week. We did without in order to pay for the lessons.”
Shetler acknowledged that for many people, instruments, let alone private lessons, are cost-prohibitive. Lessons often run $20 to $30 for a half hour, he said. But the cost of an instrument itself can be defrayed by shopping around.
“Instruments for beginners are generally less expensive,” he said.
Even if parents cannot afford to give their kids private lessons, their children are still able to participate in music and band classes at their school.
“Any student who wants to experience music should be able to experience it,” Shetler said.
In Dartmouth, the school system does not discriminate against students who lack private lessons and are not as skilled on their instruments, Therriault said. The school is not large enough to hold tryouts for its bands and ensembles, so everyone who wants to be a part of a group is allowed in.
The model is working. The marching band and color guard have been United States Scholastic Band Association National Champions three years in a row.
“The kids are dedicated and … I consider our staff to be the best of the best,” Therriault said.
Nelson and Ann DeFrias, who are involved in several committees in the DSMA, attributed a top-notch staff to the career choices made by their son Nicholas, 18.
“Due to the strong support that Nicholas received from Dartmouth’s music program and its excellent instructors, he made the decision to major in music education,” they said in an e-mail. He now attends Rhode Island College and “his goal is to one day share his love of music with middle and high school students as a music teacher.
“What a wonderful way of expressing his gratitude to Dartmouth’s music instructors — he would like to follow in their footsteps,” they said.
From fostering critical thinking to encouraging responsibility — not to mention developing musical talent — getting musical instruction can help make a student well-rounded. And parents can take heart that there is no magic age by which a person needs to have picked up a trumpet or a set of drumsticks, said Bob Williamson, owner of the Symphony Music Shop in North Dartmouth.