Posted by: Mark Nielsen | March 16, 2008

Music, Kids, & the Art of Soulful Expression

Horace ReflectedHorace reflected
Jazz pianist: the great Horace Silver

We plan to take our son for his first ever piano lesson this week, and holy cow am I excited! At age five, he’s not experienced enough in this life to be very excited yet. He doesn’t really know what he’s in for. But he’ll learn, hopefully before the “slings and arrows” of life beat some of that creative spirit right out of him. If he learns well, he’ll have one more method of expression available to him, a whole second language other than English.

If we get this right — and if he practices and develops the discipline required to play well — then he’s in for a great ride. If it turns out we’re too early and he should actually wait a year or two, that will be okay also. But I think he’s ready. He’s a bright kid with a good attention span. Or if he’s not that talented after all, that will be fine, too. But I think he might have the makings of something. Which is why I’m excited he’s getting the chance to see (at an age when he’s still learning to read!) what it’s like to use something besides words, beyond words, to understand the world and interpret his own experiences.

We humans are all born loving music, whether we intuitively feel it in the beat of our hearts, or we hear it in the lullabye of an intimate moment with a parent.

For my wife and son, one of the main ways that they bonded when he was an infant and toddler was by her singing to him, repeating two or three specific songs that became a consistent experience they could share. For my part, I have tried to cultivate his appreciation for a wide variety of musical styles and forms. I brought him to accessible little folk clubs and coffeehouses for early shows when he was as young as a year and a half. I danced with him in the house to various styles and genres of music, from both past and present. I put on a wide variety of radio stations or CDs when we’re in the car, from Carole King to Springsteen to Ray Charles to Prince to Stevie Ray Vaughan to Stevie Wonder to Johnny Cash to Mozart to Public Enemy to Kanye West to Aretha Franklin to Ben Folds to the Dixie Chicks (did I miss anybody?… oh yeah, Bob Marley and Miles Davis, among dozens of others). Whatever we put on, Graham never complains. And thank God, he has never yet asked for the likes of Jessica Simpson, or those dumbed-down Kidz Bop versions of popular songs. Therefore, at five and a half, he now actually enjoys and requests such interesting things as They Might Be Giants (a rock/pop group making good music for kids and adults alike), or the classical music radio station, as well as some of the higher-quality music for kids like Raffi and those old Sesame Street classics. Graham listens closely to music. He cares about it, even if he doesn’t know much about it yet intellectually.

Today for example, he found a YouTube clip of Winnie the Pooh and his pals singing, of all things, some Soulja Boy song. (I don’t know how he found it… hopefully not through a Playhouse Disney link, but who knows?) I’m not too enthused about this choice, because I’m a purist when it comes to Pooh. (More on that issue later, probably tomorrow.) Nevertheless, my concern about the Souljah Boy/Pooh music video doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t want him listening to (or performing) rap and hip hop. I actually like that the energy, speed, rhymes and poly-rhythms of the song got him all giddy. 

My only concern is that he, and that we as a family, need to be careful. We should understand and control what he’s listening to, at this age and at every age till he’s out on his own. We should train him to listen more closely. Especially to the lyrics. I would not, for example, want him listening to Snoop Dogg at age nine and thinking that’s an acceptable way for people to talk about each other. A grownup has the capacity to hear Snoop sing “Cause I bang out, …shots go off quick/Catch yo’ ass buck naked while you wit yo’ bitch…” without automatically thinking it’s cool or funny. A grownup (which Snoopy ain’t, really, despite his age and having kids of his own), can make a distinction between art and commerce, between a show-off’s lies and the reality on the streets (or in the bedroom). A grownup can put Marilyn Manson in his proper context, both musically and philosophically. But a kid, even an older teenager, doesn’t quite get these finer distinctions. To today’s kids, sex has become about nothing but fun, and a gun is a song prop or movie prop, not a weapon. Not for my kid, though. Not in MY lifetime, anyway.

Why? Because music– and the words that go with it in most modern contexts –conveys values and ideas that can be either beautiful or ugly.  Music is often political, or sexual, or spiritual, or deeply emotional, all in ways that we only partly understand. So yes, I happen to think there IS such a thing as bad music. If it confuses the hearer or conveys values that drag us down as a civilization, it’s bad. It may be brilliant and inventive, really new and different… but if it’s destructive and exploitive at its core, chances are it’s not good music.

On the other hand, good music, in any genre and every era, can come from a place of either subtlety or boldness, of vulnerability or strength. Take James Brown: “Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud!” Handel’s Messiah. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which caused riots in the streets when it premiered in Europe. Take Led Zeppelin or Metallica, something like the Metallica classic Enter Sandman (that crunchy guitar sound and wah-wah pedal work is phenomenal). Look at Bob Dylan’s blues-rock tour de force Highway 61 (especially the white-hot Johnny Winter cover version). Or Bob’s Masters of War. (Heck, take anything of Dylan’s, old or new. You can’t lose!) Music is Life and Death, God and Satan, poetry, philosophy, sex, politics and the brotherhood of man– all artfully woven into this gorgeous, gutsy, ethereal stuff that transforms cultures in every generation. Music is nothing less than one of the great gifts of God to humankind.

A great jazz piano solo (click for Herbie Hancock & Oscar Peterson!), for example, can be like a prayer for both the player and the listeners. It’s something that is instantly improvisational and creative, that reaches for some higher plane of existence than we get to experience in the course of our normal day. That’s why, even in recorded form, and especially live, instrumental music will always be a crucial art form for every society, no matter how primitive or advanced. A good musician or writer of music understands positivity and negativity, volume and silence, energy, rhythm and balance. In life, as in music, these are valuable understandings, good things to know and to teach.

How Graham will “roll” once he learns the basics of music (and of life, for that matter) is his own business, his own choice. How far he takes it is up to him. I’m not likely to be one of those pushy “stage mother” types, recklessly getting my little prodigy into the top schools or competitions and spoiling the joy of it for him. If he stops –if he decides he’d rather play tennis more in high school, or becomes a civil engineer as an adult and barely plays piano at all– that’s okay. His musical skills, and the brain development that is aided by the study of music, will have already given him plenty of joy and satisfaction (speaking of another GREAT song… “I can’t get no-o, satisfaction…”).

Rock on, my “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller!” (to quote the inimitable Chuck Berry) I can hardly wait to jam with you when you’re twelve.


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