- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2001

Pallavi Mahidara is concentrating on a complicated Beethoven piece. Her fingers are flying over the piano keys in her Bethesda home. Her shoulders and head are moving with the passion the composer intended.

Practice sessions like this take up a good part of the 13-year-old's day. The accomplished music student has traveled to several countries and will play in music festivals in Maine and Spain this summer.

Her rendition of Beethoven's Opus 53 (Sonata No. 21 in C Major, which is also known as the "Waldstein" Sonata) recently beat out performances by musicians of all ages at a prestigious Beethoven piano sonata competition in Memphis, Tenn.

Music has given Pallavi a career goal she wants to be a concert pianist and composer and a focus that belies her age.

"Music has instilled discipline in me," says Pallavi, who also is a straight-A student at Pyle Middle School in Bethesda. "I have to be more efficient with my time in home and school if I am going to do homework and have time to practice. I know I have to practice to be able to play a piece perfectly. I am the same way in school; I always do projects over and over again until I get it right."

Pallavi's experience is an example of the intangibles children get from learning to play music, says Kathleen Wilson, dean of the Levine School of Music in Northwest.

Sure, there are the obvious benefits such as the ability to read music or the excitement the first time a child plays a recognizable tune. But music can have an impact in more subtle ways as well, Ms. Wilson says.

"I think learning music enriches our lives in a way beyond words," she says. "Every person needs music in their life at some level. What I have seen is that it teaches discipline, as you have to learn to organize your time. It teaches social grace as you learn to bow, respect your teacher and not fidget. You use both hands, which engages both sides of the brain, and that can really help with reading and math."

As in sports, music also teaches teamwork, adds Ardene Shafer, director of member programs for the Virginia-based National Association for Music Education.

"Children who play in an ensemble or orchestra often get a great deal of enjoyment being part of a group," Ms. Shafer says. "There is no winner or loser, but either the notes are played right or they are not. The rest of the group is depending on you, though."

Research has been done recently into how learning to play music pays off in other areas of the classroom.

A 1999 study by Frances Rauscher, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, followed 62 kindergartners, half of whom were given keyboard lessons twice a week in a small group setting.

The children in both groups were given tests that featured spatial-temporal tasks that used the same sort of reasoning used in math. The group given keyboard lessons scored higher when tested after four months of lessons and after eight months of lessons.

University of California at Irvine researchers conducted a similar study in 1999. They followed 135 second-graders who had four months of piano training and spent time playing with computer software that had games involving spatial reasoning and geometric puzzles.

The children who had the lessons and the game scored 27 percent higher on math and fractions tests than the 102 students in the control group, says Gordon Shaw, the study's lead author and a physics professor at the university.

"Piano instruction is thought to enhance the brain's hard wiring for spatial-temporal reasoning, or the ability to visualize and transform objects in space and time," he says. "Music involves ratios, fractions, proportions and thinking in space and time.

"Students who used the software and played the piano also demonstrated a heightened ability to think ahead. They were able to leap ahead several steps on the problems in their heads."

Pallavi was not part of either study but is proof that the researchers may be on to something. Pallavi's favorite subject is math.

"I think music has helped me in that area," she says. "To me, math is easy."

Getting started

Some sort of music class is available for every child at every age, but parents should keep in mind their children's attention span and level of interest before signing on for too much too soon, Ms. Wilson says.

Many music schools and recreation centers offer classes for babies and toddlers. Those types of music and movement classes are good for introducing very young children to the fun of singing, listening and moving their bodies, she says.

"I think it is never too early to start," Ms. Wilson says. "You can start day one by singing to your baby. But I think parents sometimes push kids to learn an instrument when they are not developmentally ready."

Though many variables will influence the decision to begin formal training, she says 7 usually is an age when a child will have the attention span to succeed.

If parent and child are interested in beginning music training earlier than first grade, the Suzuki method is popular for children as young as age 3 to learn violin or piano, Ms. Wilson says.

The Suzuki method is named for Shinichi Suzuki, the educator who developed the method in the 1930s. It is based on the idea that every child can learn even though every child does not have the same level of talent.

Children in Suzuki learn by listening rather than by reading, says Mary Findley, a Suzuki strings teacher in Northwest and a professor of music at George Washington University. Parents also are involved in lessons and practice.

"Suzuki works for young children because it believes if the parents are working with the child, the parents can be the home teacher," Ms. Findley says. "It is based on the idea that a person can learn at any age. It starts by getting the position set and learning the basics before trying to read music."

Piano and violin are good choices for beginning to study music, Ms. Wilson says. Other instruments, such as the flute or cello, require the musician to be physically larger. After learning the basics, many students move on to other instruments around fifth grade, she says.

When it is time to move on, a good teacher will help a student choose an instrument suited to him or her.

At the Levine School, for instance, new students are interviewed and invited to a "petting zoo" where they are given a few minutes of hands-on playing time with a variety of instruments.

"A good teacher should look at a child," Ms. Wilson says. "Some kids need to move; others need to sit still. If a child wears braces, then playing the trumpet may hurt. If he has a short lip, playing the oboe would be miserable."

Tina Anderson, conductor of the McLean Youth Orchestra and a music teacher for more than 30 years, says looking at a student's personality is almost as important as taking into account the youngster's interest and body type.

"If you've got a melody person, you've got someone who has got to sing or be the kingpin," she says. "They need to play the melody with a flute or violin. A more introverted person is the harmony. They might be more suited to the viola, the bass or bassoon."

Practice, practice, practice

As in sports, dance or virtually any of the performing arts, one of the key ingredients to a successful performance is practice.

"Being professional in any area involves practice," Ms. Findley says. "It is all about discipline, and discipline is doing something you want to do when you don't feel like doing it."

Ms. Wilson says parents should try to motivate children and enable them to see the payoff of their hard work. If a student has to be badgered into practicing, the family might want to rethink the endeavor, she says.

"It has to come from the child," Ms. Wilson says. "Every child needs some sort of motivation, but if it is an uphill battle, it is not worth it."

Ms. Shafer advises parents that a child of elementary school age should practice just about 15 minutes a day.

"If they like it, they will do more than that," she says. "If parents are positive and have a noncritical attitude, it will help motivate the child. Rather than forcing them, why not say, 'I love it when you play that piece'"

As a child gets more involved and more advanced, his or her practice time should increase. Pallavi, for instance, is at her piano up to five hours daily. She says she does not love to practice but knows it is necessary.

Erin Page, 18, a violinist from Alexandria, practices the violin about an hour each day. After more than a decade of playing, she says it is as vital to her well-being as eating or sleeping.

"If I couldn't play, I would probably go bananas," says Miss Page, who recently finished her first year at St. John's College in Annapolis. "Practice became fun after a while. Now I love it. In college, it has really taken a load off, stresswise. Stepping away from what I am doing to practice has improved whatever else I was doing, and I am then ready to go back to it."

Miss Page has not declared a major at St. John's, a liberal-arts school. She might choose music as a profession. Even if she doesn't, she says her violin will go wherever she does.

"Music will be with me for the rest of my life," she says.

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