Confident, focused, self-disciplined, full of pride. Those are just some of the praises parents and music teachers alike sing when kids decide to pick up an instrument and dedicate themselves to learning how to make music. They all agree that the benefits go far beyond producing beautiful sounds.
"It instills this ability to try harder," says Melinda Hirsch-Robinson, professional viola player and private music teacher at Bergen Academy of Music and Art in Oradell. "It encourages kids to strive to do their best and achieve higher standards."
When Justin Zeitlinger's Montessori school offered violin lessons, his parents asked him if he was interested. Justin was just 3.
"The first year, the kids used a paint stick glued to a mac-and-cheese box to learn how to handle the instrument," his dad, Bob, explains.
The next year, he took lessons on a real violin. And nearly 10 years later, he's still playing and loving every minute. The advantages have been remarkable for the now 12-year-old Dumont middle schooler.
"He's doing very well in school and actually writing his own music on a software music program he got for Christmas," Bob says. Justin also plays in the Bergen Youth Orchestra.
For many kids, their first musical learning experience comes in elementary school. Tara Hutchison, vocal music teacher at Willard Elementary School in Ridgewood, loves nothing better than teaching young children.
"The little ones have such enthusiasm for music, they're open to absolutely everything that comes their way," she says. "So when you show that passion, they will find it interesting and enjoyable and will immediately want to participate."
Music is multi-sensory. It's not just singing; it's also movement and emotion.
"If they're singing, they're also getting up and moving around," Hutchison says. "It should make them happy. It should be about the experience and not a competition. Music will live on in their lives forever, and that's an incredible thing."
More often than not, when it comes to mastering a new skill, it's all about the teacher. For Ridgewood teen Dan Jones, who has played the saxophone for more than three years, it's his music teacher, Lou Caimano Jr. of The Ridgewood Conservatory School for the Performing Arts in Paramus, who has kept him on his musical toes.
"Lou is really calm, cool and relaxed," Dan's mom, Christina, says. "And Dan says he makes him feel comfortable and puts him at ease, so he isn't afraid to make mistakes. He tells Dan, ÔIf you're afraid, then you're not going to take chances and then you won't gain that confidence and learn.'"
Now a freshman in high school, Dan plays in both the jazz and woodwind ensembles at the private school he attends.
Sometimes all that confidence can come undone when it's time to perform in front of a crowd. But that is another lesson. Before Bergen Academy's Melinda Hirsch-Robinson sends her students out to play in their first recital, she tells them: "I'm already proud of you and all of the hard work you have done to get to this point."
The end result is amazing.
"You don't get a lot of opportunities in life," she says, "where you work so hard at a goal and then get up and really show it off, to share your art with others. It's pretty special."
There is science behind the benefits of music. Studies have shown that those students who pursue the arts do better on standardized tests. They also excel in math proficiency and language development. A study at Vanderbilt University, meanwhile, found that professionally trained musicians use a creative technique called divergent thinking and also use both the left and right sides of their frontal cortex more than most people. They also found that overall, the musicians had higher IQ scores than those who didn't play an instrument.
"Slow and steady wins the race," Caimano says, "and that's true in any intellectual or academic pursuit."
"We tell students we can give you direction," he adds, "but in the end when the air is coming out of you and going into the instrument and it has to go in a very, very exacting way, you have to figure that out on your own."
It takes a great deal of effort to make one really good note on an instrument, Caimano says. That's why only about one out of every 100 students will play music professionally. The other 99 take lessons for other reasons: to learn something new, to challenge themselves or to experience the pure joy of making music.
When elementary school music teacher Tara Hutchison's daughter was a baby, she played classical music for her, took her to mommy-and-baby music classes, and spent some of their special cuddling time teaching her about music.
"I'd rock her, play music and try to tap the beat on her back to make her feel the rhythm," she says. "By gently playing rhythms on her back, I would try to get her body to feel the music and not just listen to it. The whole music experience is such a wonderful way to bond with your baby."
Luckily there are places for moms and babies to connect over music and have a lot of fun doing it:
Music Together of Northern NJ
With classes offered in Ridgewood, Harrington Park, Wyckoff, Mahwah, Wayne, Park Ridge and Waldwick, your young one will be introduced to music through songs, rhythmic rhymes, movement and instrumental play. Classes are for infants through kindergarteners. Visit musictogetherofnorthernnj.com.
Music for Aardvarks and Other Mammals
For kids age 6 months to 5 years, Aardvarks classes provide a stimulating environment that includes musical storytelling, instrumental jam sessions and musical puppet play. Classes offered in Waldwick, Ridgewood, Park Ridge and Washington Township. Visit ahummusic.com.
Bergen Academy of Music and Art
With locations in Oradell and Park Ridge, Bergen Academy provides musical arts training for children and adults. Private and group music instruction is offered for age 4 and older for string, woodwind, brass, percussion and vocal disciplines. Visit bergenacademy.com.
The Ridgewood Conservatory School for the Performing Arts
Private instruction on piano, strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion and voice are offered at their Paramus location, as are chamber music and jazz ensembles. They also have music classes for young ones from newborns to age 7. Visit ridgewoodconservatory.com.
The Bergen Youth Orchestras
The BY Orchestras have three groups (concert strings, philharmonia and symphony), for which young musicians try out and perform three concerts a year. Their musicians have been as young as 6 and extend up through high school. Visit bergenyouthorchestra.org.
JCC Thurnauer School of Music
Thurnauer offers private lessons on all strings and winds, piano, percussion and voice. Their performing ensembles include orchestra, chamber groups, jazz combos, chorus and percussion. Music classes start at 18 months. Visit jccotp.org.