From Milwaukee Renaissance

PeaceOfMind: MusicAsTheMedium

Music as the Medium

by Jo Simons

When people ask me what was the religion in my house as a kid, I always say “Music!” My parents, avowed atheists, were nevertheless the most spiritual people I ever knew. Mom, violist/pianist and Dad, conductor/violinist, waltzed through their endeavors as the Music Gods of Rockland County, NY (a mere 40 minutes from Manhattan), with wonderful flair. But when it was time for me to go to college, I was very confused about what I should study. Music by default? That’s what I did in my one-year stint at Bard College (piano) where I struggled with my decision. How do I make it my own?

Mid-semester during my work-study, I met my future husband and left college to raise a family. I also left music study behind for many years.

Six years later, now in Illinois, I started teaching piano to neighborhood kids. Music became my profession –- two generations in the same field.

When my middle daughter Diana was ready to go to college as a performance major in clarinet, my second husband and I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where I finally finished my music degree, graduating one semester ahead of Diana. She was the top clarinetist at UW Stevens Point and continues to play even though she is a single mom in Wausau, Wisconsin, and an English as Second Language teacher. Three generations of family musicians.

Four Generations of Family Musicians

My oldest daughter Alexandra (Xan) Fischer had fraternal twins in 1995, motivating me to find a babies’ music class and luckily, I discovered Music Together, a creative program for kids 0–4 with parents. All three of Xan’s children are powerful musicians on piano, violin and cello after being Music Together kids for years. Xan is now also a Music Together teacher after many years as a mom bringing her kids to class. The Fischer kids (13-year old twins and their 11-year old younger brother) have formed a rock group (Lower Ambush) that is very accomplished for their ages. Four generations of family musicians. Every year, we gather in Wisconsin for a family (musical!) reunion, including my very young 92-year old father, who inspires us all with his enthusiasm for life through music.

That in a nutshell is the family legacy so far! But personally, the importance of music in my life has always been about connecting with people – especially little people, and music is the medium. When I go to teach Music Together, no matter how crappy I feel, as soon as I see those little faces, so excited to be in my class, my spirits instantly lift. There is little-known research about the power of music in a child’s life. First of all, music is AS IMPORTANT as language in a child’s development --- developing countries seem to know this, yet we don’t! Secondly, infants are hard-wired to understand the complexities of music from the get-go – an ability that begins to diminish at age five. This is why we have so many tone-deaf adults! They weren’t exposed to music from the beginning of life.
Once every 12 weeks, I do a demo class for 10–15 moms with babies 6–9 months (Mommy/Baby hour) at a nearby community center. The babies are all fussing and doing what they do, but the moment I begin to tune my guitar, they all stop dead in their tracks and look my way – it’s absolutely incredible to see. And I haven’t even begun to play – just tune!

In the piano lesson setting, my strategy is to connect with the child first on his or her level. Children fascinate me anyway, so that is no effort at all. I listen to their silly stories – “a bug was flying before you got here and crashed into the window!” – “Wow, wonder how that felt to that bug?” (Let’s make up a song about that!) If their natural desire is to get up and do a cartwheel in the middle of the lesson, that’s great! Parents are often concerned, but I let them know It means their child trusts me and feels comfortable being herself, so just let it be. As soon as I see that there’s a positive mutual connection, we can start to get serious on the piano. This strategy has worked wonders over time and makes the lessons really fun for both me and the child. I get to “play” with that creative young mind while she does her thing on the piano. It’s rare that I hear a parent say their child doesn’t love the piano lessons, and all I had to do was let that child be who he/she naturally is. And they’re all so wonderfully entertaining. I feel so fortunate to have discovered this delightful pathway/triangle of children, the piano and me. I’m a Simons and I do music and I’ve figured out how to make it my own over and over again.

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