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Creating a Family Music Tradition

This article is a guide for parents (or relatives) who want music to be a part of family life with their kids. Before we get into specific guidelines, let me (Luke, the older brother in the family) share how things worked out for us.

Our story

From the outset, my parents wanted music to be a family tradition. We were a homeschooling family, so my parents took a homeschool approach. They had little musical knowledge to teach us, yet the results surpassed their wildest dreams. As it turned out, we didn’t need to be “taught” music much at all to become fluent in music!

This may sound shocking at first, until you appreciate that music is truly a language in its own right. Seen in this light, it is easy to see how we could learn music so spontaneously. After all, everyone learns their native language through listening and speaking, not from being “taught” the rules of language. Simply put, we learn to be fluent intuitively and naturally through just ‘doing it’—observation, trial and error. Kids are especially good at this process. (Ergo the Fourth Commandment: Stumble as a Child. But I digress…)

Instruments were around the house from the beginning. My parents gave my brother and I access to any instrument they could get their hands on: piano, recorder, harmonica, xylophone, modified guitars (more on that later), drums and percussion, and more. Then they started a “family music hour” once a week, where the only rule was that we kids had to be in the room while they did their best to play some folk songs.

My brother and I were free to experiment with the instruments as much as we liked during this weekly music time. In the beginning, we were just as likely to want to play with our [non-musical] toys. Slowly our interest in making music grew, and/or we just wanted to join in with our parents. Either way, we were learning the language of music. Much of the early noises coming from the instruments were not what most people would call “musical.” Then again, though, the first words we spoke did not make much sense either.

After a few years, the ball really got rolling as we kids became even more interested in developing our own musical ability. Soon we were teaching the parents how to be better musicians. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Specific Guidelines

Let’s start with the most important point. If you don’t yet play music, you must start by learning an instrument yourself. Whether you have musical talent or not makes absolutely no difference.

“But wait,” you say, “wouldn’t it be better if a music teacher helps my child? I’m not qualified to teach.” No problem, because you won’t be teaching! You, as an adult, are setting the example—not in musical skill, but in process. Your kids will learn far faster intuitively than you could ever teach them, so don’t get in the way. Just make playing music part of your family’s life, and the kids will follow. In fact, they will probably overtake you skill-wise before you know it—and that is a precious opportunity to give to your children.

So, choose an instrument and begin. If you find you don’t like your choice of instrument, choose another, and another if need be. Your mission is to foster a family music tradition to last perhaps generations to come. Your pace of progress doesn’t matter. Just keep the ball rolling!

Songs for family music

What kinds of songs create the best environment for kids to get involved? Certainly, children’s songs, or simple folk/ukulele songs work well, initially anyway. However, these may not be ideal over the long haul. Kids will outgrow children’s songs and will lose interest unless there is something interesting and challenging to grow into.

We suggest starting out with ‘mountain music’. Not only is it a perfect fit for the goal of ‘people music’, it also offers great depth of exploration for budding musicians down the road. It is accessible at a beginner level, yet by incorporating multiple instruments, melody-playing, and so on, this simple approach becomes multi-layered ensemble music. This means that people of all ages, skill levels, and interests can find a musical “niche” in a group.

As a side note, the depth of this music comes from two very distinct and age-old musical traditions: African and European. These blended into what is informally known as “mountain music” through years of cross-pollination in rural America during 1800’s. This was also the source spring of blues, rock, country, jazz, and just good old-time dance music. Thus, becoming fluent in this style of music also opens a clear gateway to those other styles.

Give the kids instruments to play with

Young kids do not have the same difficulties with music as adults. Therefore, any instrument that draws them may be the best place to start. Give them an opportunity to play around and experiment. In the early years, we ‘littered’ the house with all kinds of cheap instruments that one could tap, beat, blow, or strum. After age five or six, you can begin to be more deliberate about choices to offer. Here are a few specific ideas:

If you are on a budget, you need not bother spending much. Sound quality is not important at first, only playability. And $100 or less usually buys you something very playable. After a few years, once skill and interest have taken off, you can upgrade. Avoid the temptation to substitute expensive instruments for skill. Allow skill to determine the instrument.

…but which instrument is best for a kid?

There are many options to choose from. One of the most suitable instruments is the ukulele. It’s small, inexpensive, can be used for both rhythm and melody-playing, and prepares one for moving to guitar (or other instruments) later on if desired. Here’s a video overview of how to set up an open-tuned ukulele that will get the little ones started with ease:

As for the other instruments…

Here is a video overview of some other instrument options for kids:

Fiddle: ‘Fractional’ violins (¾-size, ½-size, ¼-size, and even smaller sizes) suit the very young since their hands can navigate the fingerboard with ease, and their youthful flexibility is a big plus in bringing the bowing hand to life. You’ll want to use tape to make ‘frets’ so fingers know where to go. Be sure to offer the option of a chin rest; even a rolled up towel can work. Don’t forget to outfit it with fine tuners and an electronic tuner. An in-tune fiddle sounds much better, but even then can be hard to listen too. Simple clip-on rubber or metal silencers can lower the volume nicely.

Mandolin: The mandolin’s small size makes it ideal for small hands, at least compared to the guitar and banjo. A mandolin uses four pairs of strings. You can remove one string from the pair for a while until finger calluses develop. Also, use the lightest strings available. ‘Lowering the action’ places the strings closer to the frets making them easier to press, although too low will produce buzzing. You can use a banjo capo to play in different keys until the child learns the closed chord positions.

Baritone ukulele: The four strings of the baritone-size ukulele are tuned exactly the same as a guitar’s top four strings, this prepares one for guitar. You can use a capo (ukulele, banjo, or mandolin capo) to play in any key. Note that you may have to replace the fourth string with a low-octave string, if your ukulele is tuned in “my-dog-has-fleas” tuning.

Guitar: There is a wide range of sizes from which to choose. The larger guitar will produce a fuller sound normally. If six strings are too much for short fingers to handle, just take off the two thickest strings. This effectively turns the guitar into a big baritone uke. Naturally, use the lightest strings available (preferably steel though) at first.

Open tuning: Tune the guitar or baritone ukulele to an open major chord makes playing the three main chords for these songs even easier. All one does is move up and down the fret board, pressing across all the strings at the fourth fret to make a 4 chord and at the fifth fret to produce a 5 chord. The task of pressing all the strings down can be make easier by simply placing a ‘bottle neck’ (short length of chrome steel pipe) at those positions.

KEY OF G open tuning for the guitar, from thick string to thin: D-G-D-G-B-D.
For the Baritone uke, or for a guitar without the two thick low strings: D-G-B-D.

KEY OF D open tuning for the guitar is: D-A-D-F#-A-D.
For the uke and four string guitar: D-F#-A-D.

KEY OF C open tuning for the standard ukulele: G-C-E-G.

Note: The limitation of using open tuning is that you can’t easily play in every key as you can otherwise. In the early years, this is hardly a problem. Anything that gets music up and running is great. When open tuning on just four strings, the KEY OF D is slightly preferable because it will produce a more solid-sounding chord. Also, the banjo and Dobro are normally open tuned, but could be more challenging for children due to their size and weight.

Other options: you can put tape on the frets to show where the pattern ‘tones’ are initially for one key only. You’ll want to remove this very soon to allow intuition to take over. Outfitting all the instruments (except the violin and bass) with a strap makes the music more mobile, something kids will really appreciate.

You may encounter difficulties as you travel towards establishing a family music tradition. The next section addresses an overall approach that can help overcome some obstacles one can face.

A Successful Approach and Common Pitfalls

First, sending kids off to music teachers is the nearly universal practice. Alas, not only does this frequently fail, it does nothing to help create a family tradition—if anything, just the opposite. So avoid using a teacher to substitute for music at home, and only consider seeking a teacher if your child asks for it.

Now, the principal challenge you face is to know how to draw kids peacefully into the process of developing a family music tradition. The secret lies in the parent-child interaction that occurs over a decade or more. The following are thoughts on ways to rise above and move past some of the main difficulties encountered along this path.

Pushing vs. pulling

The difference has a powerful influence on how children respond to parental guidance. Younger children especially tend to be more intuitively ‘in touch’. They can detect ulterior motives or parental pushing even though they are not cognitively aware of it.

The result is that children ‘rebel’ against the pushing behind hidden, or not so hidden, parental agendas. Strong feelings of need, insecurity, or fear are what drive this parental push. Pulling children into a tradition, on the other hand, is the gentle, peaceful, and successful way to sow the seeds for family music. In short, parental desires and worries close the door on opportunity for their children.

Liberty vs. limitations

This balance is another powerful influence in children’s lives. Too much of either will generate extreme and usually undesirable reactions. Allowing children to make mistakes is liberating; it allows them to become ‘who they are’. On the other hand, “drawing the line” provides a sense of security—when children feel it comes from balanced parental concern. Over-concern usually translates into more pushing rather than pulling. In short, balance is the key.

Your children can read your mind

Young children easily pick up on where someone is coming from through body language and tone of voice. They feel honesty and sincerity; they feel hypocrisy and ‘agenda projection’, and their feelings drive their reactions. How does one know they are following the more balanced, pulling approach? Simply by noticing how children react. While simple in principle, it can be difficult to put into practice.

Children yearn to be an integral part of the family

When children feel they are helping the family, there is a deeply integrating effect. The pushing approach discussed above negates this by stirring up self-defensive and rebellious feelings. Conflicting ‘love-hate’ feelings easily arise.

The most effective way to help your children to feel an integral part of the family is to give them the opportunity to help. The ability to becoming fluent, musically or otherwise, is the hallmark of childhood. Their nervous system is very plastic (adaptive, flexible) and soaks up experience like a sponge. What begins as parents leading the way can quickly turn into children giving back something truly unique. Seize the opportunity—let your children educate you!

Your secret weapon: patience

The only true leverage a parent has over a child is patience! Patience is profoundly effective in pulling. Impatience (i.e., zeal, enthusiasm, fervor, annoyance, anxiety, anger) usually accompanies pushing and evokes rebellion, which is invariably counter-productive. In short, impatience is the child’s realm. Parental impatience only results in a battle between impatient children and their impatient parents. Patience is crucial.

Patience can look like these:

  • Thinking ahead and setting up a long-term multi-year plan – ‘As you sow, so shall you reap’.
  • Allowing children to stumble and make mistakes. Childhood is the time and place for lots of that.
  • Only helping when children ask for it rather than giving a lot of unsolicited advice.
  • Having a child simply be present while music is happening, and being patient enough to wait for them to want to play too. This is an example of limitation balanced with liberty. Limitation in being required to be present; liberty in being free to do nothing much but simply be present.

Spare the rod, spoil the child? Not exactly!

A balance of liberty and limitation is the key. Parenting is an on-the-job learning process, and every child is different. Child rearing geared towards the unique personality of each child promises the most success. Fortunately, more often than not, we intuitively know how to tailor the right mix of liberty and limitation for each of our children. How a child reacts are the symptoms that cue us to what is going on.

However, this intuitive knowing collapses when the parents’ needs dominate their awareness. At that point, parents push their agenda at the expense of effective child rearing. Too much stick, too little carrot—or too much carrot, too little stick—becomes the rule. Patience is more powerful that any (figurative) stick I find. When parents lack patience, they lose perspective and more easily resort to the stick, unfortunately.

In desiring to have a certain outcome with children, we easily fall into the trap of impatiently pushing too hard to achieve success. We lose the intuitive sensitivity that could guide us toward finding the right mix of ‘carrot and stick’. I see this tendency to push too hard as an unforeseen consequence of civilization. We are biologically set up to survive in natural wilderness conditions. Living under those circumstances utilized our innate energy resources in a well-balanced process of life. Through civilization, and the tools that make it possible, we have made life continually safer and more comfortable. This places less demand on our innate energy resources. Yet, that primal energy remains within us and is now on hand to push for what we desire ever more urgently. It easily becomes “goodbye, balance!”

There’s plenty of hope

Granted, modern circumstances stack the odds against success for numerous reasons. Nevertheless, I have found that having an understanding of some of the underlying forces at work opens the door. There is plenty of time—usually a decade or so of childhood—to turn a deepening understanding into a balanced practice. To consider some of the other possible underlying forces, read Origins: The When and Why of Music (article coming soon). It is a perspective piece that speculates on the roots of music.

You don’t need talent. You don’t need skill. All you need is the right kind of approach: patient, inviting, un-needy, and balanced. The rest takes care of itself.