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Mar 18 2014

Teaching My Son to Be a Mensch Through Music

By at 3:18 pm

Music-mensch

When I say my 3-year-old son Ben is into music, I mean it. Toddler parents will get my seriousness when I say he loves music more than his beloved trucks, play kitchen, and extensive puzzle collection. Looking for Ben? Check his “concert,” a corner of our living room that’s become packed with kazoos, shakers, a ukulele and a “guitelele,” and–our third birthday present to him–a beautiful djembe drum.

My husband and I were both high school band types, and going out to hear live music was a big part of our pre-Ben social life. So it felt right to take Ben to his first concert at age 8 months, to a Saturday morning family show at Club Passim, the famous folk music club in Harvard Square.

Alastair Moock, the musician who played that show and later appeared at such prestigious venues as Ben’s second birthday party and the Grammy Awards, did not, to our delight, wear a costume or do a goofy “character” voice. He played real instruments–guitar, banjo, ukulele–and sang wonderful original songs plus folk classics I recognized from my parents’ record collection. Ben stared intently. He was in.

We quickly discovered a vast and exciting world of kids music that–thank God!–couldn’t be further from the synthetic, branded, too-high-pitched tripe I’d feared we were in for years of. Children’s albums from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger soon anchored a collection that includes funny rockers like Ben Rudnick and Justin Roberts, folkies like Elizabeth Mitchell and Dan Zanes, a bluegrass duo, The Okee Dokee Brothers, that sings about nature, and Josh and the Jamtones, a dance-y ska group whose front man also happens to be a refreshingly fun song leader at our synagogue.

Ben has been to so many live performances by now I couldn’t possibly count. He and I have also worked the library sing-along and toddler music class circuits–soon we’ll begin our 6th session of the nationally popular Music Together program.

And the home concerts–such fun! Last week, Ben composed an original song with these lyrics: “When you eat pasta and broccoli and chicken/It feels so good in your body/And when you wear your hat/When you go in the pool/It will get wet.”

We have heard so many times, from family and friends, how special Ben’s musical interest and acumen is. “He’s going to grow up to be a musician!” “He’s so talented, he can keep a beat!” “He’s a born performer!” “He’s going to do so well in school because of his music!” Though we enjoy hearing these compliments, we are quick to recognize that all, some, or none of this might turn out to be true (the last, particularly when it comes to better math performance for musical kids, was largely debunked last year by a Harvard study). Those parts that suggest that music is a source of pure fun and joy for Ben? True with a capital T.

The thing is, we don’t need Ben to be a star. We want him to be a mensch. And music is getting him there.

Don’t get me wrong–he’s 3, and he wants to be a star. “Clap!” he often commands at the end of a song. And we do, heartily.

But he’s getting so much more out of music than parental praise. He’s learning to be a respectful member of an audience, to notice, for example, that other friends can’t see the stage if you stand up in your seat. He’s learning his is one voice among many (“All God’s critters got a place in the choir,” goes Bill Staines’ well-known folk song). He’s learning to use his voice, but also to listen to others’. He’s learning “self-modulation,” that parental buzzword, by pulling back between “loud” and “soft” playing. And he’s learning that music is a vehicle for all sorts of feelings—that djembe drum is particularly helpful when it comes to “ANGRY.” Rob and I try to consciously explain, reinforce, and model some of these lessons for him. But others are just things he seems to be absorbing for himself–concert by concert.

Don’t get me wrong, all of this is a work in progress (sometimes more “work” than “progress”), but again and again, music has presented itself as a vehicle for moral learning as well as fun noise-making, and it’s proven to be ultimately calming and sanity-saving for all of us (the “calming” part is pretty solidly backed up by science).

Jews sing our prayers as often as we “say” them, and when we sing Shabbat blessings as a family, Ben beaming with pride that he can now sing along, I can’t help but feel a simple but powerful synergy with all the music we’ve been able to pour into his life—the home concerts, library sing-alongs, live shows, classes, massive car playlist, all of it. Parenting a toddler is hard work, and those musical moments we enjoy as a family have proven to be both a soundtrack and a salve through the journey so far.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described Shabbat as “a sanctuary in time,” and the centering, connecting power of music makes it just that for us, no matter what the week hath wrought. Music, in short, is a mitzvah in our family.

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