Learning music the way we learn language

George Little 2013
By George Little
When I was still in high school and starting to teach guitar lessons, I was contacted by a mother of a three-year-old boy. She had seen my flier at the grocery store and her son, as she explained, absolutely loved the guitar. They had bought him a miniature electric guitar and she was interested in lessons. I thought, “Why not?” and we made an appointment to meet.

Immediately, it was clear I had no idea what I was doing. This enthusiastic young child barely knew his letters. Forget about assigning finger numbers to the left hand, or asking him to memorize a chord using a chart. Communicating in my accustomed information-dense approach was clearly not going to work. He couldn’t hold his guitar straight, so my attempts at correcting even the most basic guitar position were an utter failure. After thirty minutes of trying different approaches, I reported to his mother that I did not think it would work out. They should think about lessons when they were a bit older. Maybe seven or eight. Maybe older than that.

In graduate school I discovered Suzuki, a teaching philosophy that fell right in line with a number of ideas I had been considering since reading Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain.  He breaks down exactly how the brain receives, processes, and creates music. One idea struck out at me: The brain processes music like a language; it processes in the same regions of the brain as language; it even discerns inflection, character, and rhythm in much the same way it does with language.

It turns out, Shinichi Suzuki had made a similar observation about 75 years earlier. Although not nearly as scientific, he observed that if we taught music like a language, we could achieve more consistent results and typically to a higher degree than with a traditional approach alone.

One component to making learning music parallel language, in this “mother tongue” method, was starting young.  To make this work, many elements come together. For example, using miniaturized instruments that are still of decent quality is important. Appropriate size and quality facilitate making a great sound and not hinder it. Also, with young children we motivate students by making the experience fun. Lessons are paired with group classes where kids interact and play musical games with their peers using the very skills they are developing in the private lesson.

A parent must attend private lessons and follow up (a.k.a. practice) at home with instructions given by the teacher. The parent’s role is crucial, largely because a very young student cannot be relied upon to accurately retain the details of the lesson. If you have ever asked your three-year-old what they did at school, you know what I mean.  The parent or “home teacher” ensures success in the process. Without parental involvement and support, only a small percent of very young students succeed at music lessons.

The environment we create for a toddler’s first efforts at speaking is one of approval and encouragement. We almost never try to fix a two-year old who pronounces “penny” as “penniny,” or who doesn’t enunciate b’s from d’s. We model for the child and move on. This positive-feedback-based approach taps into a child’s inborn desire to imitate and seek approval and affection. Certainly we cannot hand a child a cello and simply cheer him/her on, expecting great success. We need to provide instruction, depersonalize mistakes, and emphasize successes using specific positive praise; include external motivators such as games and rewards. Creating a positive, nurturing and enthusiastic environment is perhaps the most significant element to developing the child’s love of learning and playing.

Learn more about South Shore Conservatory’s Suzuki Instruction at https://sscmusic.org/suzuki/ or find South Shore Conservatory on Facebook.

Guitarist George Little is the Suzuki Department Chair at South Shore Conservatory.

Music IS Medicine

Robert Bekkers

Guitarist Robert Bekkers

By Beth MacLeod Largent

As much as I love the fall season, it is a bittersweet time, as it brings with it the anniversary of my husband Med’s death. This year marks 11 years since his passing from cancer.  In the seven years before he died, we spent hours and hours in waiting rooms – first at Brigham and Women’s in Boston, then at Dana Farber Cancer Center (DFCC) in Boston, and finally at Jordan Hospital in Plymouth.  I went with Med to every single appointment, and, hands down, the waiting times that felt most comfortable were the ones at DFCC, when musicians were playing in the lobby.  Often there was a pianist who greeted us with soothing music, which felt normal to us, because Med and I were so involved in music and the arts.

The waiting rooms at DFCC were quite large, which meant that you saw people at many different stages of the disease. In the beginning this was disconcerting, but then we became friendly with some of the patients we would see week after week. The times when music was playing in the lobby, everyone smiled as they entered the space. Sometimes, people would just sit, close their eyes, and listen while they waited for their ride.  It was a moment of calm in an otherwise turbulent time.

Fast forward 11 years to the fall of 2018.  Executive Director of the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Weymouth, Jennifer Croes, reaches out to South Shore Conservatory, asking us to provide music for the center’s patients, caretakers and staff member. Concerned with burnout with her dedicated staff members who deal with seriously ill patients every day, Jennifer wished to bring them the healing powers of music.  She felt SSC had the quality of performer that would be perfect for the cancer center.

With the memory of Med’s medical journey still fresh in my mind, and having experienced inner peace through music, I was thrilled that SSC with DFCC connected to create a three-month trial performance series called Music is Medicine.  The first Friday in October, we presented our inaugural concert in the lobby of Dana Farber, and the patients were incredibly grateful.  Cellist Benjamin Swartz greeted them with beautiful Bach cello suites; soothing, calming music, and was rewarded with wide and genuine smiles.  One of the patients stopped and closed her eyes, soaking in the music.  When Ben stopped playing, she cooed, “It’s like hearing the angels…but I’m still here!”

Moving our performances from the concert hall to remote locations, such as medical facilities, means we are able to reach more people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to feel its healing power. This brings me great delight.  Last month, I was blessed to witness pure joy on the faces of people actively fighting a battle most of us can only imagine.  That glimpse was enough to let me know that my own experience was universal. I’m fortunate to work at SSC, where we can provide such comfort.

I’m not the only SSC faculty performer who feels this way.  When I emailed others about this performance opportunity, within a matter of hours I had a waiting list of performers eager to participate. We ALL need to feel that we can help in some small way to ease pain in others.

In November, South Shore Conservatory’s Music is Medicine series features pianist Sarah Troxler with flutist Donald Zook performing a variety of tunes that range from the playful (think variations on Old MacDonald Had a Farm) to the familiar (think Moon River), and on December 7 features holiday classics with Robert Bekkers on classical guitar and Donald Zook on flute.

Learn more about South Shore Conservatory performances at sscmusic.org.

Beth MacLeod Largent is South Shore Conservatory’s Director of Performance and a member of the voice department.

Take a peek for yourself

Banner - preschool 6By Elaine Sorrentino
The most satisfying hours of my workweek are spent in South Shore Conservatory’s (SSC) afternoon PreK program, where I am permitted to teach literacy, culinary arts and a slew of other subjects in an inspiring manner that is meaningful and ripe for learning.  I am grateful for this arts-based approach which affords me complete artistic freedom in how I present my lessons.

For example, in honor of Halloween week, I was excited to introduce my four and five year olds to Ed Emberley’s If You’re a Monster and You Know It book.  Using the familiar tune, we learned how to snort and growl, smack our claws, stamp our paws, twitch our tails, wiggle our warts, and give a roar.  Fun, yes, but it’s also a lesson about following directions and waiting your turn; plus it allowed them to be a little raucous during Halloween week, and to take the air out of any monster’s tires.  We finished off with a Halloween age-appropriate Mad Lib – give me a type of scary costume, a color, a type of food – you get the idea.  This allowed them to use their imagination to create a very silly story.

South Shore Conservatory’s playful, arts-based curriculum for Preschool, PreK and Kindergarten is a natural and inspiring way for children to explore all the world has to offer. Dramatic play, movement, culinary arts and visual arts, as well as music are all important components of this unique program. Through the rhythm of a drum, children learn math fundamentals and the cadence of reading.  Through the Cha-Cha Slide song, children giggle through discovering right from left, forward from backward, and counting.  Through a humorous, over-the-top manners play, teachers demonstrate what “naughty” behavior at the table looks like.  This dramatization leaves our children with their mouths open in disbelief.  It is a lesson they cannot unlearn.

When you visit our school, you will be delighted by the amount of laughter you hear within our learning environment.  Even in our kindergarten class, you’ll see involved, engaged, inquisitive children at work, happy to be collaborating with peers on hands-on activities. In an effort to make all learning count, this arts-integrated approach celebrates the creativity within each student.  With this program, we’re not focused on creating future musicians, so much as creating future critical thinkers with curious minds.

I invite you to attend one of our Take a Peek tour sessions and see for yourself what arts-integrated learning is all about. It’s a whole-child, whole-body learning approach that appeals to the creativity inside all of us. It sets our children up for success and helps foster a lifelong love of learning.
SSC’s Take a Peek interactive, child-friendly Preschool/PreK/Kindergarten tour is the first Friday of each month.  The tour sessions give you a first-hand experience of our arts-integrated approach to learning and are about one hour long. To reserve your spot, contact Preschool/PreK/Kindergarten Director Rachel White at 781-749-7565, ext. 36 or email her at r.white@sscmusic.org.

Learn more about SSC programs at sscmusic.org, or find South Shore Conservatory on Facebook.  South Shore Conservatory is located at One Conservatory Drive in Hingham.

Elaine Sorrentino is South Shore Conservatory’s Communications Director, and a specialist in SSC’s afternoon PreK program.


New faculty members shine at SSC Debuts

Laura Swartz headshotBy Laura Swartz
Mozart’s Le nozze di figaro was the first opera I had the privilege of seeing.  Just a teenager, I found the experience overwhelming, with so many different actions taking place on stage, and the music seeming to soar over everything – it nearly ripped the emotions out of me. Even though I already loved to sing, that powerful opera experience made me hungry to learn how to create such incredible drama with the voice, while simultaneously telling a story that connected with the audience.

Immediately following my first opera experience, I asked my parents for vocal lessons. I dreamed that one day I could sing like the people on stage, and stir others’ emotions, much like my own during that first opera experience. I was fortunate enough to take vocal lessons throughout high school, a time during which my love of music grew, and lead me to pursue music as my career.  I continued my studies through both undergraduate and graduate degrees, and now sing as a professional.

In voice lessons, I expected to improve my singing.  But what I actually learned was so much more! I learned that singing and performing was more than just about vocal technique. It was about exploring the emotional depth within each piece, and connecting to the lives of the poets who wrote the text, the composers, and the artists who originally performed those pieces. I learned that in order for music to be performed with richest intent, there must be personal connections between the music and its performer. Once I discovered the importance of those personal connections, I began looking for music to sing in a new light. Each time I uncover these hidden gems, I learn more about what it means to be an artist as well as a human being.

As I looked for an appropriate ending piece to my master’s recital at The Boston Conservatory at Berklee, I was drawn to Benjamin Britten’s Cabaret Songs. Though these songs are beautiful, what I love about them is that they portray a wide range of emotions within each piece. Within the set, each of the four songs depicts a woman in different aspects of her relationship; for example, the third song, titled Johnny, depicts the woman’s enthusiasm for romance while the man, “Johnny”, is simply not interested. This well–set story challenges the singer to express complex emotions through portraying each character through the perspective of the woman, and doing so in a way that moves the audience to care about the woman and her unreciprocated affection.

This song captures so many elements of the human condition – love, humor, rejection, and sadness – and show cases the intense drama and storytelling that first drew me to music so many years ago. I am delighted to share Johnny from Britten’s Cabaret Songs at SSC Debuts, South Shore Conservatory’s concert introducing new faculty members. I hope you’ll join me.

SSC’s Conservatory Concert Series presents SSC Debuts on Sunday, November 11, 4 pm at One Conservatory Drive in Hingham.  Tickets are $5 per person. Students are admitted free. Audience members are invited to stay after the performance for a reception, and to meet the performers.  For tickets or more information, visit sscmusic.org/ccs or find South Shore Conservatory on Facebook.

Soprano Laura Swartz joined South Shore Conservatory’s faculty this fall.