It's Not All About The Brain

by Linda Silva

Every child should learn music, but maybe not for the reasons you think.

We now know that playing music uses every part of the brain. To decode and sort what we hear, formulate a response, and then execute it—all in an instant—makes our brain spark and pop like nothing else. If we’re reading music it involves yet another layer of cognition and if we’re playing with other people there are social nuances as well. And that’s before we even get to the emotion of it, which comes from a deep and primitive part of who we are. When we play music the different parts of our brains connect to each other, and we connect to other people.

The neurology of music is an exciting field, with emerging research that tells us of music’s beneficial effects on the frontal lobe and its executive functioning (decoding, organizing, executing), the cerebellum (timing), the hippocampus (memory, discerning sounds we recognize from those we don’t), motor and sensory cortices (pressing a key), occipital lobe (reading notes), language centers (lyrics), and the amygdala (emotion).

I love reading this stuff and grasp it as best I can. What it says is that music lights up children’s brains as they grow and keeps our brains supple as they age. If the benefits of studying music could be distilled into a liquid, we’d be lined up around the block to buy a jumbo-sized bottle.

But that is not why children should learn music.

The brain is not the mind, nor is it the soul. It is a wondrously complicated organ that perceives and organizes and interprets in ways science may never completely understand, but it does not enjoy. It does not appreciate or revere. And it does not make the decision to put one note after another, combine this rhythm with that one, or add a crescendo right at the end of the third phrase. Only a musician can do that.

A musician is a whole person—not just a single organ--trained in the understanding of melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, timbre and form. It is a person who knows how to respect music’s parameters but also to find its open windows, a person who can imagine the possibilities inherent in every performance or composition.

So yes, every child should learn music. It’s good for their brains—very good—but that’s not the only reason it’s so valuable a gift. Studying music is important because it makes us people who can master a complicated skill, create something beautiful, and appreciate the mystery and rigor of art. It’s a gift we can enjoy our whole lives, either alone or with others. And it brings us into the tribe of music makers, which is just plain fun.

And if it makes us a little smarter along the way, so be it.

5 Easy Ways to Become a Musical Family

by Linda Silva

I’ve noticed that  young music students sometimes wonder why they’re learning music. Why are they the only ones who have to troop to the piano every day to struggle with new pieces? Why is every single Wednesday at 4:30 lesson time? Why are they prodded up onto a recital stage every few months? What, in other words, is the point?

What’s missing for these students is context. If music doesn’t have a place in their world, then practicing to learn it is meaningless. It’s just a chore no one else has to do. But if music reminds them of happy family moments, regularly brings joy into their home, and is something the people they love value, that changes everything.  Attention is never easy to garner, so when people are giving you theirs it’s energizing, and far more motivating than praise from a teacher or stickers on a chart. 

Having a musical household doesn’t require a musical background. That you never learned an instrument, or that you may sing off key, or that you can’t tell Mozart from Miles is not important. Bringing music into your home takes nothing more than the willingness to embrace something new.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

1)Listen—Have music playing in the house; it can be any kind you like. There is no music that is better to listen to than another. Alternate which family member gets to choose the music, and talk about what you like or don’t like in the different genres and pieces. For younger children you might ask: What does this make you feel like doing? Or, how does this make you want to move?

2) Move to music in any way you can think of—dance, march, wiggle, stomp.

3) Sing along. There’s a lot of catchy children’s music out there, or use your favorites from when you were a teenager, or the songs you played at your wedding, or whatever you love now.  Play the songs enough times so that everyone learns them. Don’t worry about how you sound. Sing with gusto! It’s good for your health.

4) Play whatever you can. If you once knew how to play an instrument, even a little, dust it off. Learn a couple of guitar chords from youTube. One parent I know took a single drum lesson so he could keep a beat while his young son sang his music class songs. And ask your young music student to teach you something! They’ll feel important and it will reinforce what they’re learning in lessons.

5) Seek out live music. Attend concerts, listen to musicians playing at fairs and restaurants, and look for people busking on the street. Take a moment to really listen. When you stop what you’re doing or saying or texting to hear someone play, that sends a powerful message. It signals to your child (and to the musician) that when someone plays music it’s a pretty special thing.

    5a) And one more thing… The most important musician to take the time to hear is the one who lives with you! Show an interest in your child’s newest piece—what new concept does it encompass, what are its challenges, which is their favorite part? Know what they’re working on. Ask for lots of after-dinner and Sunday morning concerts. When there’s a recital, bring the whole family and go out for donuts afterward. Keeping a constant spotlight on your child’s burgeoning musical abilities will do wonders. What they’re learning is amazing, so tell them that and prove it by listening. You’ll be glad you did.


Amazing Afternoon!

by Linda Silva

Wow. I am still “catching my breath,” as Music Tree Board President Adam Gardner put it yesterday at the intermission of the Faculty Recital.  The performances were sublime. The program was varied and lively. The audience was wonderful; even the young children who attended were attentive throughout. I am so grateful to the teachers and families who gave of their time, talent, and money to join together to create such a special afternoon in support of Music Tree’s nonprofit programs.  The performers generously donated their time and Musical Beginnings absorbed all recital costs, so 100% of ticket sales and donations  go right to Music Tree and its efforts to support music education for all children. In particular, this recital will support our newest program, Play On!, which sponsors low-cost guitar and voice classes for students enrolled at Wright Middle School, across the street from Musical Beginnings. We’re excited to finally be partnering with our closest neighbor! I’d like to extend a huge thank you to the performers, volunteers, and audience members who came together to make the Faculty Recital such a success and to enable Music Tree to provide more music for more children.

A Summer Challenge

It’s okay to work hard. It grows our brain, strengthens our character, brings us to knowledge. Frustration is often part of it and so is being tired.  Sometimes we want to cry and sometimes we do. But then when we’ve achieved a difficult thing there’s that afterglow, a satisfaction that comes only from having persevered. Easy things don’t bestow that.

In that spirit we’re inviting students to go through a Music Boot Camp this summer. They have up to eight weeks to master these three things:
·      12 scales
·      3 chord progressions
·      3 memorized pieces
All of them have to be either brand new or a fresh variation on what has already been learned.

It may take extra practice, fleeter fingers, and increased concentration.  It may take time away from the nearest screen. It may make the family a little crazy. But when it’s over the student will be more accomplished than they were before and have met a not-so-easy goal. That will feel great. Plus they’ll receive a music “dog tag.”  Now what could make a summer more memorable than that?

Everyday Music

by Linda Silva

I recently visited the historic Pittock mansion in Portland, Oregon and was intrigued by its music room. I learned that back in the day, families “of means”--as the Pittocks eventually became after making their way across the Oregon trail as children –tended to make sure at least one, if not all, of their children learned to play an instrument. This was not to induce better math scores or plump up future college apps or even so they might one day grace a concert stage. The reason was much more straightforward: so the family could have some entertainment in the evenings. In 1914 recorded music was in its infancy and not destined to become a household product for several more decades. The only way to enjoy music was for someone to play it right in front of you. Imagine that: live music was the only music there was. So lots of people played it.

Since then society has somehow divided itself into music professionals and music fans. You are either a concert pianist or a pop star, or you download the music of concert pianists and pop stars and buy tickets to their concerts.  Ordinary people no longer consider themselves essential music makers.  Even those who play well often never play for others. 

Which is why it’s so difficult to get our kids to practice. They don’t know what they’re practicing for.  Sure, there may be the occasional recital around the corner,  but what’s the overarching reason?

Recently two Musical Beginnings teachers gave a house concert, hosted at the home of a student with a nice piano and a large living room.  It was an hour of lovely music in a casual, intimate setting. No traveling to a concert hall, parking, or paying a fortune for tickets. Just neighbors getting together to hearmusic from people gracious enough to share their talents. It made me want to go right home and learn a new piece.  I  imagine if such house concerts were an everyday thing, we would all go home and practice.

But in the absence of 20th-century music rooms and regularly-scheduled neighborhood concerts, how do we show our children it’s valuable for them to make music? Perhaps: by listening to them play. It might sound simple but in my talks with parents about the difficulties of getting their kids to practice, I find it’s rarely done. Even families that prioritize practice routines don’t always pay attention to what their music student is actually playing. So the message is sent that the study of music is just another homework assignment to be checked off the list.

However. The truth is that by tackling the study of music and taking on its years-long path to accomplishment, a person gives not only themselves but also those around them a great gift. They elevate life to something more charming than it otherwise would be. This is what we need to impart to our young musicians.

So…relax on the couch and listen to your child play through their pieces without checking your phone or rifling through the mail. Sit in on a lesson every now and then. Ask a question about a piece. Request that they play for you after dinner while you have coffee, or that they give the family a Sunday morning pajama concert. (And if you play too, by all means join in!) Bestow upon them the old-school attention due an artist—no screens, no interruptions, no talking.  Leave corrections to practice time or to their teacher; during the concerts only praise and enjoy. Realize how each performance  is a gift your childgives you and that your undivided, enthusiastic attention is your gift back to them.

Then watch how fast they learn.

Learning Music as an Adult

by Linda Silva

Susan comes in cautiously, pausing to look around her. She isn’t sure where she should go, and not entirely certain why she’s decided to come in the first place. Why did she think she’d be able to do this? Still, she takes a seat and waits. She notices all the doors are painted different colors and finds that odd.

 The three other people in the room are children. One thumbs through a purple Level 1 book, one pokes furiously at an ipad, and the other sits slumped forward in a beige metal folding chair and stares at his feet. Susan sets her purse on the floor and folds her hands in her lap. She gazes down at them, at the veins that are so much more prominent now—why does that happen, anyway?-- and wonders how dexterous they might yet be. She listens to Bach’s Minuet in G starting and stopping from the room behind her; she wishes it would just keep going. She’d had that so well memorized when she was young; she played it for a recital. Then the blue door  opens and a girl of about nine hurtles out. The woman following her sees Susan and holds up one hand in greeting. “Hi! Susan! I’m Tracey.” Doubt courses through Susan again. This woman is probably too young to be her teacher and definitely too perky. It will never work. But since she can’t think of a polite way to leave, Susan follows her into the room and takes a seat at the weathered piano.

I’ve noticed a growing number of adults of all ages taking up music in the last few years, either for the first time or after an absence that often spanned most of their adult lives. I find myself often surprised at how steadily they improve, and am especially impressed when people who have never touched an instrument before in their lives are proficient players after just a few years. Contrary to popular myth, children do not necessarily learn faster than adults. In fact, my experience with adult beginners has been that they often will progress more quickly that their childhood counterparts. My theory on this is that adults want to be there and are eager to learn. They are able to grasp overall musical concepts fairly easily and practice steadily. Basically, they know how to learn. (This is something that children are still figuring out.) And adults enjoy the opportunity to learn because the rest of their lives is often spent “outputting” what they already know—working at jobs, teaching children, managing homes--rather than taking in something brand new themselves.

And there’s even more good news for adults who study music: Music gives a boost to the brain, helping it to compensate for certain age-related losses. A study of music instruction on adults from 60-85 at the University of South Florida, for example,  showed gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions, compared with those who had not studied music. These gains came after only six months of instruction.  According to another study published in the journal Neuropsychologia, piano instruction can contribute to preserving cognitive functioning as we age because the curriculum gets harder as it goes along, requires focused attention and concentration, and uses complex two-hand movements.

Music is also good for our brains because it requires different cognitive functions to work together in a way few other activities do. Consider: playing an instrument requires  a person to take in information (reading notes or hearing another musician), analyze that information (figure out which notes, chords, rhythms, and styles are involved), and respond (by playing the notes on the page or improvising a chorus with the band) all at the same time. There’s a lot of computing going on.

The desire to keep our minds sharp throughout life is nothing new, and researchers have been testing different ways to do this for quite a while. But one of the big challenges they report is coming up with activities people want to keep doing after the study is over. A daily brain-training puzzle may not be scintillating enough to tear us away from our favorite Netflix show.  Activities we truly enjoy and that make us feel accomplished, however, we are much more likely to continue. And this is where learning to play an instrument comes in. It’s fun. It feels good to get better at it. We can show it off.

So meanwhile, back at the piano lesson…

Susan’s hands move nervously across the keys as she tries to follow Tracey’s directions. She doesn’t recall the notes at first…oh, wait…now they’re coming to her. After a couple of tries she makes it through the first line, but it’s slow. She’s frustrated; after all, she knew this piece as a child.  But by the end of the page she can feel her focus sharpening. She begins to recall what it’s like to play—the concentration, the struggle, the breakthrough. She turns the page and continues.

Holiday Diaper Drive

This season Musical Beginnings is holding a Diaper Drive to benefit the International Rescue Committee (IRC). IRC is a refugee resettlement organization with centers all over the world, including Los Angeles and Sacramento. The agency responds to the world's worst humanitarian crises and helps people to survive and rebuild their lives. When families come in they are  supplied with the essentials of beginning a new life in the United States, including household goods, clothes, and supplies for babies and children. To help in this effort we ask that you drop off a package or two of disposable diapers at Musical Beginnings now through Dec. 20. All sizes are welcome, with toddler sizes slightly preferred. There are baskets in the main studio waiting room and also at the Annex. The diapers will be collected and brought to an IRC center. For more information on the agency please visit: Thank you and happy holidays!

Community Music Day

Please join us for our first annual 

Community Music Day!

Sept. 10, 2016 at Holy Nativity Church and Fellowship Hall

All proceeds benefit Music Tree, our nonprofit program dedicated to bringing more music to more children.

Here’s what’s in store…stay for the whole time, or drop by for just a part.


Featuring: Mark Balling, Eleonora Boreyko, Susie Chung, Heather Crawford, Nir Eitan, Elisabeth Ekornes, James Higgs, Sophia Kahn, Daniel Linder, Rebecca Rice, Polly Schaffner

2:30 MUSIC AND ART FOR LITTLE ONES  (Fellowship Hall)

A time to play and sing for ages 0-6. Children under 3 must be accompanied by an adult. Children 3-6 may be dropped off as long as they have a grownup on the premises, such as at the Faculty Concert.

4:00 FOOD AND VISITING (Fellowship Hall)

4:00 BAND JAM (Fellowship Hall)

An opportunity for intermediate and advanced students, as well a interested parents, to sit in with teachers and professional musicians Dave Green, Beau Simpson, Alan Silva, and Hiroo Nakano. Please drop off 4 copies of your lead sheet to the office by Sept. 1. Students should work on their piece with their teacher. Advance registration strongly suggested.


Suggested donation: $30 per family, in advance; $40 at the door

All donations are tax-deductible and 100% goes to provide music lessons and classes to children who may not otherwise receive them. The teachers are volunteering their time and Musical Beginnings absorbs all event costs.

Spectacular Seniors

On April 30 we had our first senior recital of the spring series, featuring Erik Godlewski on piano, Sadushi De Silva on violin, and Michelle Rigsby on piano. Sadushi and Michelle have studied with us for the past several years and Erik has been at Musical Beginnings since he was a 5-year-old in Foundations. I was so pleased to hear them all play so beautifully. It was one of those times my job seems most worthwhile. Now they're all off to college--University of Portland for Erik, UC San Diego for Sadushi, and Cal State Northridge for Michelle. Their teachers and I are proud to be sending them off with the skills they need to make and enjoy music their whole lives long.

Register for Fall Classes

It's back to school time and that means it is also time to sign up for Fall Classes. Our classes start on September 1 and we have options for babies through age 12. Visit our classes page to learn more and to register.

Fall registration is also open for private lessons. We have lessons available for pianists, guitarists, violinists and singers of all ages and abilities. Visit our lessons page to learn more.

Summer Flashcard Challenge

Here's our summer activity:

A Flashcard Challenge that students can do in their lessons. No fee or advance signup required...super easy!

Here's how it works:

  1. Students see how many music flashcards they can do in one minute.  (Teachers will place them in either the A,B, or C group according to their level.)
  2. Their score is recorded on a chart in their lesson room and also online.
  3. They do this 6 times between now and the end of August.
  4. At the end of the summer the highest score in each group receives a $10 itunes card or a music pin. (Their choice.)  There will also be prizes for Most Improved Scores.  
  5. All participants who complete the 6-week challenge will receive a certificate. 

If students want to practice for the challenge outside the lesson, they can buy flashcards from us or at Amazon. You can also get the Music Tutor app for your phone or tablet; it's very good.

Although the students' scores will be recorded in their lesson rooms (or on a chart their teacher carries if their lessons are in-home), they will be competing with everyone in the studio. Check the blog at the end of the summer to see the results!

Foundations Class Graduates

Congratulations to our new Foundations Graduates! We're so proud of them. Now they are ready to start learning an instrument.

Spring News

We've just completed our spring recitals, three May Saturdays filled with lovely performances and proud students and families. And congratulations to our teacher Susie Chung who just received her doctorate in piano from USC. She accompanied some of our May 30 recitals and was beautiful to hear. Now on to summer! Class and lesson registration is now open.