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Music and Brainpower

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Early this year, Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia asked the legislature to allocate $105,000 for classical-music cassettes and compact discs to be given to the mother of every newborn. His hope, he said, was "to boost baby brainpower." Within a week, the proposal had generated so much support from the public that Gov. Miller decided it could be done through the private sector without state expense.

When the national media first picked up the story, I was delighted to hear of a governor focusing so directly on children. I was delighted, too, by how his proposal evoked memories of the musical home in which my late wife, a flutist, and I, a pianist, raised our four children.

I remember, for instance, being amazed to find that at 11 months our first child (musical, yes, but no Mozart!) could accurately duplicate the pitches of the bedtime songs we'd been singing to him: Gov. Miller is right in believing that children are far more responsive to music, and at far younger ages, than we usually think.

At a slightly later stage, I recall the children's uncanny responsiveness to the different sorts of music I would play for "musical chairs"--how they would romp wildly to the extravagant flights of Charles Ives' "Concord Sonata," strut boldly to the march-like first variation of Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations," or skulk in sinister contortions to the sinuous windings of Schoenberg.

Above all, I recall how and why we decided that each child would learn to play an instrument, and to play it well. It all began when our oldest child brought home his first papers from school, all bearing cheery comments like "You write so well!" "Keep up the good work!"--when in fact, though not without promise, the papers were riddled with mistakes. After pressing the teachers--"It's great to encourage him, but he really should learn to spell"--but to no avail, we decided we had to take matters into our own hands.

We believed that it was crucial for children to learn to do something difficult well--writing, playing an instrument, figure skating--and that such learning in one area would transfer to others. Since in school--sadly--it seemed our children were likely to be praised for doing lots of things not very well, it was up to us if we wanted them to have the experience of mastering a difficult, complex skill.

Given our backgrounds, the natural starting point was for each child to learn a musical instrument, an activity that requires discipline, care, concentration, and perseverance over a long period of time.

And so we began. Above all, we wanted each child to really master one instrument--we ended up with two violinists, a cellist, and an oboist; they all also studied the piano, and one violinist doubled on flute, the oboist on violin and viola. To make sure that they learned to play well, we insisted on regular, intense, and fairly extensive practice, and a great deal of the time we practiced with them.

The result was a music-filled household, though I hasten to add that its sounds were often not pretty. Indeed, those early years evoked much parental soul-searching: Did we really want to spend most of that too-short period when our children were at home wrestling them to their instruments, driving them to their lessons, screaming in from the kitchen, "G SHARP! Why can't you get that right?"

But our faith in this approach was of a long-run nature, and in the long run it worked. Before too long, the children could all play quite well, and for a period we had the delight of giving family concerts together, and of sounding pretty good in the process. All four children, again in the long run, ended up loving music enough to study it at an advanced level, and though only one is now primarily a professional musician (a violinist in the Utah Symphony), all continue to play and to perform regularly, and with pleasure. An unexpected outcome was that all four married other musicians, so we have added to our ranks a violinist--in the Atlanta Symphony--a concert pianist, a flutist, and a wonderful soprano.

The major point, though, is that what the children learned from studying their instruments has indeed transferred to what they do today. All now have complex jobs that require precisely those skills we hoped to foster--the will to take on a complex and challenging task, the ability to marshal the physical and emotional and intellectual energy required, the discipline and fortitude to stick with the quest until one gets it right. Whatever they are doing--one is a fund-raiser, another a recording engineer, a third a director of marketing, the fourth, as mentioned, an orchestral musician--all, I believe, have now forgiven us for screaming about those G sharps, and all would admit that those early musical experiences were worth the struggle.

So--three cheers for Gov. Zell Miller: Playing good music for the young can only lead to good things. But if we really want to "boost brainpower," let's insist that, whether at home or in school, in their writing or their musicmaking, our children learn to master difficult skills.


David H. Porter is the president of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. A version of this essay originally appeared in The Atlanta Constitution (March 20, 1998) and is reprinted with permission.

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