Wednesday, 10 October 2012


Mozart, ShMozart - can learning an instrument help my child succeed in school?

Music helps cows to produce more milk! Mozart makes your child cleverer! Great headlines, but how accurate are they really?

A recent project in seven Newham primary schools called 'Literacy through Music'* confirms the benefits making music can have on your child's development. Children advanced their reading age on average by 8.4 months and in some cases by as much as 18 months!

The children also said that they felt more included. This confirms results from a German long-term study**, which reported that children making music together significantly reduced incidents of bullying, or excluding peers from play.

As a seasoned musician and music teacher I am not surprised by the findings - making music uses so      many parts of brain and body at once:

using your fine motor skills necessary to hit the right notes,
listening to the others you are playing with, working as a team
following and understanding instructions from the teacher
reading music to sharpen your analytical skills

Any new skill will boost your brain and making music even more so - learning an instrument is a complex activity, stimulating your child intellectually, physically and socially.
Have I mentioned that making music is fun, too? If your child is not enjoying their lessons, speak to your child's teacher to find out what you can do together to make it fun.

*  Literacy through Music, a research evaluation of the New London Orchestra's Literacy through Music Programme, IMERC

** The so-called Bastian Study (after Prof. Bastian)

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Proper Practise Prevents Poor Performance - always refer to the book!

I am quite excited about being interviewed on Colourful Radio tomorrow - it's fantastic to be given the opportunity to spread the word:

Learning an Instrument is great!

Respecting to the old adage that 'proper preparation prevents poor performance' I have been practising to get my points across and to remember to mention my book!
So, as I am saying in my book 'A Parent's Survival Guide to Music Lessons' making music can be one of the best experience you can have on the planet - and I wrote the guide to encourage parents to give the opportunity to make music to their children.
It is not just about classical music, whatever genre is for YOU, the principles of good teaching and successfully making music with other are not that different.

From a personal point of view, I wanted to encourage parents who consider themselves as unmusical or who maybe are unsure about how to navigate the 'system' with practical and jargon-free information.
My own life story would have panned out very differently, if my parents had not found out rather serendipitously about music lessons. Neither of my parents play an instrument and I do not come from a so-called musical family. My mother was also an immigrant and it was by luck and tenacity that she did find out about the local music school. Consider this - I ended up with two degrees in classical music and  music has played a most important part in my life.
I occasionally try to imagine what course my life would have taken -  I am sure that I would definitely not have had as much fun, although possibly I might have been richer....musicians on average really are not earning a lot of money.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A Determined Toddler

I might have been a catalyst today. If there is a little Wunderkind violinist emerging in 5 years time - I will be claiming credit!

My friend’s cutest little 3 year old has been demanding violin lessons - quite unusual, really. Even more unusual is the fact that those demands have been pretty persistent for about 6 months now - which in the universe of a 3 year old has to come close to inspired and doggedly determined!

How to go about teaching such a young child, in particular if you are a busy professional in a demanding job and other siblings to attend to as well?

The Suzuki method would be a good option for very young children, but it demands a fair amount of parental involvement - as the parent basically learns with the child. Not necessarily the best option, if parents and grand-parents are sharing the shuttling of kids to school and activities. 

Normally it is preferable to have a teacher who is experienced in teaching the very young - so enquiries were made, but logistics or geography would prove impractical. A three-year old will not be able to have a lessons lasting much longer than 10 to 15 minutes - and  the journey to the teacher needs to be relatively short, too.

In the end a slightly unusual but possibly very good solution was found - a extremely well trained, post-grade 8 teenage violinist attending the same school. This girl - mature and very fond of little children - would be able to give a short lesson before or after school, and because of the ease of logistics would be able to do two 10 to 15 minute sessions a week. 

Two sessions a week are very good idea to keep kids of any age on the straight and narrow with regards to correct technique - bowing and left hand fingerings are fairly complex movements. A week is a long time for a young child and it can be easy to forget how exactly to do things and for weird little habits to creep in - which will have to unpicked in the next lesson.

This is evidently an unusual situation - I would not necessarily suggest that you entrust your toddlers music education to a teenager - but sometimes circumstances are such that the usual avenues will not work out and you have to try new things.

Of course my friend could have waited till her child was older, but it would seem a shame not to reward such determination and motivation and to find out where it might lead.

I am very excited to see how this toddler gets on - and will keep you posted here!

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Mummy does not know best!

Can you show me again how to do this, darling? I still cannot do it!

A few years ago my oldest friend decided it was a good idea to start learning an instrument with her children. Her youngest, then 9 and fiercely competitive had just decided to take up the guitar. Much cooler than the recorder – which is what her older sister played.

My friend lives in a rural area and has to hang out during her kid’s music lessons. As she had to observe the lessons anyway, she felt quite inspired to try out what she had learned at home – secretly also hoping that her efforts might rub off on her daughter, too.

Unsurprisingly this had the opposite effect! Of course, my friend was ahead of her daughter – she knew how to read music, could accurately reproduce rhythmic patterns etc.

Did I mention my friend’s daughter is highly competitive?
So, rather than inspire my friend brought out the competitive spirit in her daughter. She wanted to help her child by showing her daughter how the piece should sound, what the teacher meant etc. only to induce stubbornness and indeed the odd tantrum.

In her case the opposite strategy would have been more effective. Children, in particular competitive ones enjoy a bit of one-up-manship. 

Try to get your child to teach YOU, pretend (or maybe you do not even have to pretend) that you do not understand something, make a few deliberate and silly mistakes and you might have a delighted music student at hand who is enjoying their new found superiority and is showing off their musical competence with delight.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Importance of Music - the National Plan for Music Education revisited

For some potential last minute changes in my book Parents Survival Guide to Music Lessons regarding the new Music Hubs, which are replacing Local Authority run Music Services/Music Trusts I revisited the National Plane for Music Education - simply entitled The Importance of Music.

Here is the overview of the Plan's core roles taken from the document:

Core roles
a) Ensure that every child aged 5-18 has the opportunity to learn a musical 
instrument (other than voice) through whole-class ensemble teaching 
programmes for ideally a year (but for a minimum of a term) of weekly tuition 
on the same instrument.
b) Provide opportunities to play in ensembles and to perform from an early 
c) Ensure that clear progression routes are available and affordable to all young 

d) Develop a singing strategy to ensure that every pupil sings regularly and that 
choirs and other vocal ensembles are available in the area. 

Extension roles 

a) Offer CPD to school staff, particularly in supporting schools to deliver music in 
the curriculum.
b) Provide an instrument loan service, with discounts or free provision for those 
on low incomes. 

c) Provide access to large scale and / or high quality music experiences for 
pupils, working with professional musicians and / or venues. This may include 
undertaking work to publicise the opportunities available to schools, 
parents/carers and students.

What I am really missing in the plan is a clear commitment to instrumental music teaching, including 1:1 lessons. Why does not one of the core roles read simply:
provide instrumental music tuition for every child?

Of course, the reason is funding. Whole class-lessons are cheap - in particular if delivered by a salaried primary school teacher who has been on a CPD course. This is not to detract from the value of group lessons or whole class teaching as a taster for an instrument. Of course group lessons are a valid way to teach students, in particular beginners can benefit and there are many very positive aspects to group lessons, such as having a ready made ensemble to hand in the lessons.

Much of a song and dance (geddit) is made in the document of progression of talented students onto schemes like the MDS (Music and Dance Scheme) and NYMO (National Youth Music Organisations), like the National Youth Orchestra etc.

But, the standard required for inclusion in the MDS (Music and Dance Scheme) is very high and to be allowed to even audition for any of the National Youth Music Organisations you need to achieve a distinction at grade 8.

 The DfE currently supports 2000 students with MDS bursaries. These students attend either specialist music schools, e.g. Menuhin, Purcell, Cheethams, or CATs (Centres of Advanced Training), i.e. the junior departments of the national conservatoires, e.g Junior Royal College of Music, Junior Guildhall etc.

There are around 11.000.000 children living in Britain. 2000 children on MDS is a tiny number. And they won't have reached the standard required by a Junior Conservatoire by having whole-class ensemble teaching (ideally for a year).

p.s. 1:1 lessons get mentioned in a diagram on pg 18 of the plan, but a 'find search' of the term revealed no other mentions

The new redesigned Cover. Replacing a smiley little girl with pig-tails. She was cute, but I do like this one better.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Social Meejah Presence

My lovely friend and PR head honcho Katie Bond from Bloomsbury told me to pull my finger out and get on the case with my social media presence. As the author of the up and coming Parents Survival Guide to Music Lessons I need of course all the help I can get - and as Katie is a legend and award winning publishing PR her words need to be obeyed!
So I dutifully put some thought into what to call my blog, how to set up get another FB page get a 'Google+ page and of course a Twitter account. The next step is to establish myself as a mumsnet blogger. Apparently Mumsnet is where it all goes down.

One of the questions going through my mind was - by separating the personal from the professional am I diluting my 'digital identity'? I guess the answer is a slightly mealy-mouthed 'yes' and 'no'. Prospective readers and 'likers' on FB, Twitter and Google will want to hear my thoughts on music and music education and will most likely not be interested in private in-jokes between myself and all my globally scattered friends.
so here it goes:
the FB page!/MusicalFamilies
Twitter @musicalfamilies
Google + Elizabeth Lawrence

Blame it on the Boogie!

I recently heard the most tragic tale of a music education cut short by parents' and teachers' intransigence. A dutiful 14 year old pianist had reached grade 8 - a very good achievement for that age - and was becoming increasingly frustrated by his old-fashioned (and dare I say it old) teacher. He wanted to play different repertoire and was drawn to Trad-jazz and Boogie-woogie. His teacher flatly refused to teach that type of repertoire, the parent refused to find another teacher. Consequence - the child stopped and never touched a piano again. Granted - this story is from the late seventies and times have changed, but I wonder for how many readers this will strike a chord? (sorry for the pun)
Finding inspiring pieces and making sure your child is learning to play in a genre they love is paramount in keeping them going. There is no point in forcing a Metallica fan to play dainty Haydn sonatas. When I take a prospective student I always enquire about the repertoire they want to play or sing. If the answer is Jazz or Musical Theatre I usually decline to take them on. Not because there is anything wrong with these two genres, but because I do not play in those styles and because I don't feel that I can teach it adequately. Luckily today you can find teachers to instruct you in more or less any style - so before you embark on lessons try to clarify for yourself and your child what genre they are most interested in. Playing pieces you love is one of the best motivations for practise there is!