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“Shenandoah” vs. “Mad Men” (with a little Suzy Bogguss for good measure)

11 Oct

“Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you…” I’ve always wondered who the singer longed to see in this song. A person? A place? Some other kind of noun? It seems there’s no clear answer as to the intention of the song. Some say it’s about an Indian Chief’s daughter. Others say it’s about the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. What is certain is that by the 1880’s, “Shenandoah” had become a favorite song of river boatmen and sea-faring sailors around the world. Of course, each singer added his own set of lyrics and layers of meaning. (I say “his” because there weren’t too many women sailors knocking about in the 19th century.) In class, I love singing songs with this kind of rich history — it reminds me that music is something that connects us to generations past and future. In 30 years, our children will likely sing “Shenandoah” at some point, while the latest iPhone app or episodes of “Mad Men” will be long forgotten. (Hey, I love John Hamm, too, but I won’t remember in 30 years that he disappeared from his daughter’s birthday party on a cake run that lasted 5 hours. OK…maybe that’s a bad example.)

There are loads of singers and instrumentalists on YouTube giving “Shenandoah” a try, and it’s fun to poke around and see what’s out there. Here’s one I found by Suzy Bogguss (love that name) at this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin. She’s singing in a bar, accompanied by guitar, upright bass (with a bow!), and harmonica, while the unseen patrons talk and talk — at least until they get up and dance. Suzy’s singing is lovely and soulful, and you can clearly see and hear the instruments in action. I wonder what the two-year-olds out there will think of the harmonica? Let me know!


Singing With Others – The Key to a Long, Happy Life

1 Oct

Recently I caught an installment of “This I Believe” on the radio, and I discovered what experimental musician/producer Brian Eno holds to be his truth: that singing–especially singing with others–is the key to long and happy life. In his words:

Well, there are physiological benefits, obviously: You use your lungs in a way that you probably don’t for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too: Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call “civilizational benefits.” When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because [group singing] is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings—to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.

It’s no surprise that I agree! I also believe that singing (and music-making in general) is an essential part of life. What I especially appreciate in Brian Eno’s words is his focus on the power of making music together. I see it all the time in class–adults who never met before this semester share a laugh, a moment, an awareness of one another that they would not have discovered if their children had merely played together at the park. Music connects us in a way that other interactions simply cannot.

Eno declares that the world would be a better place if singing were included in the core of school curricula, and I heartily agree. But even if that were to happen, those of us over 18 would still have to find our own opportunities for group music-making. Thankfully, we sing together all the time in my house, and I know my children will do the same with their children, and so on. I hold the deep hope that families in my classes are doing the same–establishing a lifelong routine (and legacy) of singing together. If Brian Eno is right, we’ll all be smarter, healthier, and just plain happier for it.

To read the transcript of Brian Eno’s “This I Believe,” follow this link: And, don’t miss his paragraph that begins, “I believe that singing is the key…” Hot stuff!

Music Helps 4-Year-Olds Become Helpers!

11 Jul

Every week, I see children and adults work together in class to not only make music within their own families but to also help each other make music as a group. And it does take work! (Especially when Miss Anne “makes” the class sing rounds or execute square dance moves.) Beyond the community of music-making, though, I see children work together to put away instruments and otherwise conform to group norms in class–something that’s really not developmentally appropriate for two-year-olds. This evening, I read an account of a study that helps explain why all this teamwork and helping behavior is taking place.

Evolutionary psychologists Sebastian Kirschner and Michael Tomasello (“Joint Music Making Promotes Prosocial Behavior in 4-Year-Old Children”) found that when four-year-old children were given the opportunity to dance and sing together, the music-making children were afterwards far more likely to help other children in need than were those who hadn’t been making music together (even though the latter group had been equally physically active and verbally interactive). Here’s what the researchers have to say:

We propose that music making, including joint singing and dancing, encourages the participants to keep a constant audiovisual representation of the collective intention and shared goal of vocalizing and moving together in time — thereby effectively satisfying the intrinsic human desire to share emotions, experiences and activities with others.

Well said. And I’ll let you decode that research-speak to your heart’s content. My take-away is this: The more we make music, the more harmonious and helping we are, and we all need more of that in life! (In a couple of days, I’ll reprise a post from my family camping trip a year ago that reinforces this assertion…and I’ll remember to sing and dance more on our trip this summer, to increase my pre-teens’ helpfulness and community-mindedness.)

So…sing and dance with your children, and give them lots of opportunity to sing and dance with each other and with other grown-ups.  Who among us couldn’t use more helpers? (And who among us couldn’t use more music?!)

For more information:

Unconditional Music Love: “I love to hear you sing”

8 Jun

I remember being in 6th grade and singing a song to myself in school — maybe at recess? maybe in the cafeteria? — and some boy saying, “Hey, who sings that song?” After I called out the name of the singer, the boy said, “Better let HIM sing it then…’cause you sound AWFUL!” Ha, ha. Very funny. And I can still feel the sting of that “joke.”

As children go through life, they all encounter “music bullying” like this. Sadly, it seems to be a part of our culture. As parents, perhaps we can provide an antidote to this kind of music bullying. WE CAN SING!  The more our children hear us sing, whether we’re “good” at it or not, the more they develop an understanding that music is just something we do as part of our daily lives, regardless of what other people do or say. And, we can say to our children, “I LOVE TO HEAR YOU SING” — regardless of what they’re singing or how they’re singing. (Of course, we can do the same thing with instrument play: “I love to hear you fool around on the guitar.” Or, “I love to watch you play the drums.” And we can fool around and play ourselves, too.)

Instead of being so focused on the end result, saying, “I love to hear you sing,” simply honors the process of singing, regardless of outcome. It’s unconditional musical love. Instead of saying things like, “You sound great,” (which is all about the product, not the process) it’s easy just to say, unconditionally, “I love to hear you…,” or, “I love to see you…” That’s what I strive for in music class — with the children AND the parents — and it’s what I strive for at home. I’m hoping that when some music bully says to my kids, “You couldn’t carry a tune if it was in a bucket!,” the unconditional music love antidote will go to work, and they’ll just keep on singing.

Singin’ Out the Stress

7 May

Cortisol is a hormone that, when optimized, helps regulate the immune system, blood pressure, and insulin levels. However, when levels are too high, it can have the opposite effect (high blood pressure, blood sugar imbalances, immune system suppression). In children, prolonged elevated cortisol levels can cause brain cells to die and can reduce the number of neurological connections created in brain. Who wants that?

Recent studies have shown that singing can shift this cortisol stress response.

  • A study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto (Shenfield, Trehub & Nakata), showed that when a mother sings to her baby for 10 minutes,  the level of cortisol in child’s body is optimized–whether elevated or depressed, the level comes back to equilibrium. An added benefit? The cortisol optimization lasts for 19 to 22 minutes after the singing stops.
  • In a study of adult singers, Dianna Kenny (a professor of psychology) and Sinan Ali (a biological scientist) measured the cortisol levels in choir singers before and after a one-hour rehearsal. They found an approximate 40% reduction in cortisol levels in the singers.

So, perhaps we should be singing all the time–for ourselves and for our children. OK…maybe not ALL the time. I won’t be singing my pizza delivery order to the guy on the phone, for example. But if I did, would it de-stress him, too? I’ll spend some stress-free time thinking on that for a little while as I sing a song to myself.



“It’s not about being perfect…”

14 Feb

At the Grammy Awards this past Sunday, the band Foo Fighters won the awards for Best Rock Album, Best Rock Song, and a few others. The lead singer, Dave Grohl, said something incredible during an acceptance speech: “The human element of making music it’s what’s most important…It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about sounding absolutely correct. It’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in here [pointing to his heart] and it’s about what goes on in here [pointing to his head].”

The music industry, and its ever-more refining production techniques, have resulted in a proliferation of recorded music that no human can really, truly sound like. When “regular” people listen to that music–and compare the music they make to that recorded product–they come away thinking that only people who sing or play like the recording have the right to make music. And, since that “music” is created by a team of technicians, computers, and other equipment, the truth is that no one person can ever sound like the recording. It’s an impossible standard that leaves the millions of musical people in this world feeling like they aren’t musical at all.

Baloney! “It’s not about being perfect…It’s about what goes on in [your heart] and it’s about what goes on in [your head].” If we can impart to our children the core belief that the music they make is valuable in it’s own right, exactly as it is–without alterations or corrections or auto-tuning (please, no auto-tuning)–then we will have given them the power to express their musical selves, the freedom to enjoy the music around them, and the armor to deflect the cultural expectations of unachieveable perfection. Now, that’s something that’s pretty close to perfect, if you ask me.

Children + Music = Brain Power!

12 Jan

From a neurological perspective, why is it important to listen to and play music from an early age?” That’s what asked of Don Campbell, co-author of the new book Healing at the Speed of Sound. Here is Campbell’s answer:

The more participation there is with music early on—through singing and movement—the more it simultaneously activates multiple levels of the brain. If you look at the corpus callosum [of someone who plays music] there are more connections made between right and left sides. A child who is moving, dancing and singing learns coordination between their eye, ear and sound early on. And [the experience of participating in music education] helps integrate the social, the emotional and the real context of what we’re learning.

In other words, when our children engage with music—by playing with it, hearing it, seeing their important grown-ups making it—their brains become more connected and their learning becomes deeper and richer.

So, now when I mention in class that our children’s brains are wired for music, you’ll know I’m telling the truth!  🙂


Here’s the link to the full article: