by Katherine Doud of the Kalamazoo Gazette, Kalamazoo, Michigan
Composer's Music has noteworthy effect on children
There's something about children and Mozart.
Parents have known it for years. One of the first songs they teach their children to sing is "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," a tune Mozart loved so well he created a series of variations for it on the piano. Many children learn their ABC's by humming this simple melody.
Now, researchers are catching up with what parents knew, intuitively, all along. They're finding that listening to Mozart's music can stimulate the brain - a phenomenon known as "The Mozart Effect".
This musical anomaly has caught the fancy fo the American public. It's been widely publicized in the news vehicles ranging from Newsweek magazine to NBC's "Dateline". It was hotly debated in Congress, during this year's attempts to bolster funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
This fall, Don Campbell published a new book called "The Mozart Effect," (Avon Books, $24) which documents research proving that early exposure to music raises a child's IQ.
This Mozart-mania has left many parents wondering: Is there any substance to this latest craze? Area music teachers give an unequivocal "yes".
"I totally believe that listening to Mozart's music 20 or 30 minutes prior to an exam will bring up the student's score," says Satoko Robert, a Suzuki viloin instructor who directed Kalamazoo College's Suzuki Strings Program for eight years, until moving to New York City this past fall.
"Listening to Mozart does . . . create a mind-effect," Robert says. "I always tell my students that music influences math skills. 'Stick with it,' I tell them, 'and you will have an easy time with your math classes.'"
One of the most important research studies behind "The Mozart Effect" confirms what Robert has found among her own students. In 1996, scientists Frances Rauscher and Gordon Shaw of the University of California, Irvine, discovered that preschool children who studied piano or singing had stronger problem-solving skills than those who did not. That same year, the College Entrance Examination Board reported that music students scored higher on the verbal and math portions of the SAT test than students with no musical training.
While all this may be artillery for educators and politicians trying to annex more dollars for the arts, what it means for parents is quite simple: Music is an important part of childhood. It seems clear that music should be a part of evey child's life "from day one - and maybe the day before," says Robert, who believes even children in vitro can benefit from a musical environment.
"Sing with your children, play with them, let them clap out little patterns," encourages Marilyn Boal, director of Early Childhood Music, a program for children ages 4-7, and the mother of two grown sons. "Introduce them to some of the music of classical composers just by playing little bits of it."
Although experts are now touting Mozart's music as most beneficial for developing children, parents actually have a wide range of music to choose from in creating a nurturing, musical environment at home.
"When the baby is born, try (a variety of) music," suggests Robert. "Watch very carefully which music calms the baby down or makes the baby smile and relax. Then, repeat it as often as you, yourself, can stand it. For some reason, children do not get tired of repetition. . . in fact, they like it. It's comforting."
In her own home, when her two children were growing up, Robert played classics such as Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," and her children were also surrounded by the sounds of her own practicing the violin.
Parents searching for good music should try Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart or early Beethoven, Robert suggests. Even good jazz, played as background music, can provide a solid musical environment, says Jane Rooks Ross, director of education for the Kalamazoo Symphony.
Once a child reaches pre-school age, parents can begin to think of formal musical training.
When to start traditional music lessons depends upon the individual child, says Boal. "Although many piano teachers prefer that the child begin about age seven, this can vary," she says. "It actually depends on the instrument the child is learning, the requirements of the program or teacher and the readiness of the child."
Teachers using the Suzuki method, developed in Japan, can take students as young as to 2 to 3 years of age, says Robert. Oftentimes, the very young students will play on miniature versions of stringed instruments, until their hands are large enough for the standard versions.
Most music teachers starts students several years later, in first or second grade. Parents wishing to pursue music lessons for their children would do well to check with individual teachers for the optimum starting age, says Boal.
Parents can also provide musical "experiences" for their child, including taking them to concerts, such as the local symphony orchestra.
Whether or not music actually raises IQ or sends test scores soaring, one thing is for certain: It enhances human life. "Music is everything! . . . Without music, I feel blind . . . incomplete," said Duke Ellington. Jazz artist Benny Goodman has gone so far as to say "if it hadn't been for the clarinet . . . judging from the neighborhood I lived in . . . I might just as easily have been a gangster."
If nothing else, "The Mozart Effect" hype has served as a reminder to busy parents - and to all busy adults - that beauty still holds a vital place amid the hurly-burly of everyday life.
"Every parent should expose their children to beautiful music. It is a big plus. Music is one of the joys of life, one of the joys of being human," says Robert. "Without music, we are not the same."
"I'm not saying everyone has to play an instrument. But to be surrounded by beautiful music makes us better human beings."