Some Kind of (Wonderful) Spark

Documentaries about music education are a rare find – though when you stumble across one, they have a way of tugging on your heartstrings.

Music, unlike other academic subjects (I’m thinking of you, mathematics), has such a universal, emotional appeal. Anyone and everyone can sense a connection to music. You don’t need formal training or years on the road or in the studio to have such deep appreciation for the world’s most beautiful language.

Enter Director and Producer Ben Niles, creator of ‘Some Kind of Spark’, a film documenting the lives of seven inner-city children attending a special music program at Julliard in New York City. (Mr Niles is no stranger to making movies – his latest film, ‘Note By Note (The Making of Steinway L1037)’ won top honors at the Sarasota Film Festival and was screened in over 30 countries in 5 different languages.)

‘Some Kind of Spark’  features the personal stories of these children and their teachers, shot over a two year period, beginning in 2010. It shows the powerful impact music can create, regardless of who you are and where you come from. It follows these kids inside the classroom, in their homes, and on stage.

The film also acts as a chilling reminder about the decline of money invested in music education in US schools over the past quarter century.  (It’s not much different here in Canada, unfortunately) This trend, Niles notes, is not looking good for future generations:

[It’s] compromising our children’s education and jeopardizing our culture. Low-income children-children who also tend to be from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in the performing arts-are missing out on the immense value of music training on a child’s development. Children who study music do better on standardized tests in both math and reading and are more likely to go to college. And music programs are proven to be an effective tool in keeping kids off the streets and preventing teen violence. Through music study they learn many life skills such as problem-solving, self-discipline, creativity, empathy, compassion, and the value of hard work. Not to mention that many students-including the poor, the disadvantaged, and the emotionally disturbed-who might otherwise be unreachable can often be taught through the inspiring power of music. (http://www.somekindofspark.com/)

As an independent film, the film’s producers will not take money from Julliard to help fund post-production costs, citing that it is not meant to be a promotional tool for the world-renowned school. It’s aim is to squarely raise awareness about the powerful influence music can have on our children’s lives.

To raise money for this project, Niles’ team has put in place a few online campaigns to garner support. One is backed by Women Make Movies, which allows any donation to be tax-deductible. There’s also an online campaigned featured on  Kickstarter.com.

So, music friends, if you are in a position to donate, please do! Any amount is appreciated. It’s a project we can all feel good about.

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Is your child ready for music lessons? 5 signs to look for

As a music teacher, one of the most common questions I am asked is “What age should my child start music lessons?”

Surprisingly enough, kids can actually start formal music training as early as age 3, when their brain circuits start to mature and are ripe for learning music. Studies have shown that learning music as young as this can increase brain development and cognitive power.

No matter, you have to take each child and situation on a case-by-case basis, as all children have different learning styles, interests and goals. Here are a few things to look out for when deciding if your child is old enough to take the plunge into formal music training:

Actions speak louder

Observe and listen to your child attentively. Could they be displaying an interest in music that they don’t yet know or how to verbally express? Are they running around the house dancing, singing or creating rhythms on their own? A full-sized instrument (such as piano) may be too intimidating for them; your child may be comfortable with creating sounds and rhythms using familiar object and toys. This could be an indication that they enjoy music and would appreciate lessons.

Is there interest?

Young children who display a natural fascination for music will soak up lessons faster than those who display no interest at all. Look for signals that your child enjoys listening, dancing and creating music on their own. Do they talk about music? Do they ask questions about sounds, make comments about different tones, pitches and timbres? The more they display an inclination to music, the better suited they will be for classes.

Talk about it

Talk to your child! Discuss with them how music lessons work, what is involved and what they need to put in. Explain the benefit and necessity of consistent practice and how it will make them better over time. A lot of young students love making music and hearing sounds, but they can fail to understand that music lessons, like regular school, require a little bit of effort to make it enjoyable and beneficial in the long run. If your child is okay with putting in the effort to learn, they may be ready to go!

Be supportive

Even if, as a parent, you have no background in music or the arts, it is important to lend support and encouragement to your child if they are keen on taking lessons. Even when a child doubts their own abilities, stay supportive and remain positive; explain that hard work is necessary but the benefits far outweigh the costs. If they do well, praise them! Let them know you are proud. It is important that your child knows they have a network of support so they will want to continue to learn.

It should be fun!

Never, ever, force a child to learn music if they absolutely do not want to. This will only lead to a waste of their time and yours. Keep in mind, if a 4 or 5 year old displays no interest in music, that may not be the case a few years down the road. Starting a child too early is music can have adverse effects and ruin any love they could develop for that particular art if they are given the time to express it on their own, at a later time. First and foremost, learning to play an instrument should primarily be enjoyable. If your child isn’t enjoying it, then perhaps it isn’t time just yet.

It’s not an exact science to determine the proper age for a child to start taking formal music lessons. As a parent, it’s up to you to determine if your child is ready based on what you’ve seen and the inclinations of each child.  If you don’t think your son or daughter is ready for formal music lessons, try joining an early music education program which focuses on fostering a love of music, rhythm, and self-expression. By exploring how different instruments sound, and how music makes them feel, your child may learn to appreciate music more than they realized!

No matter what the scenario, age, or instrument, the most important thing is that your child’s experience with music is fun!