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The Power of Music

By Patricia Zarate

Sometimes homeschooling families worry about the pace of their children's emotional, behavioral, and physical development. In my years of homeschooling I've noticed that responses to this concern rarely include music as a solution. My view is that because music works at every level in the brain, all human challenges could be eased with music, from sleeping in newborns, to dying in the terminally ill, from learning to walk, to learning math drills.

Music is a natural phenomenon that directly affects humans at every level possible, including physical, emotional, and spiritual levels. I have experimented with music for over twenty years. I've used it in homeschooling for over ten years. Whenever my three children, my husband, and I, who are all musicians, encounter issues with our family, we use music to solve them, from relaxation exercises with music to starting a difficult conversation. When we want to learn about a new culture, we start by researching the music.

All of the suggestions that follow could be done with all children no matter what their circumstances. I have tried music with children with brain damage who can move only one finger in their bodies, as well as with other children, including mine, and the result is almost always the same: joy, learning, and development. I have experimented with myself (an ex “problem child”), with my husband, and with both of my grandparents when they were terminally ill.

When I feel overwhelmed by the children and work, I take a break and try different relaxation techniques with music, or I purposely put calm music on for the children to relax and be quiet.

Whenever there is any tension in my marriage, I have found that going to high quality concerts helps our relationship at a deeper level because we get out of the house, take a break from the children, and enjoy something together. We always feel a need to talk after the concert and discuss every single aspect of the music over a drink. We agree and disagree about the music we heard; we express our feelings, reflect, and start asking ourselves why we do music in the first place. We start "talking and communicating" again, so going to a concert becomes a nice transition from being angry at each other to communicating again and expressing ourselves and finding common ground.

Added to that, the jazz songs we used to hear when we were young and falling in love with each other 18 years ago always remind us how far we have come as a family. One day we set the pictures of the delivery of our first child to music and we started crying because it reminded us of how hard it was for us to have our first baby, and at the same time we realized how blessed we are to still have each other.

I have also experimented with my grandmother when she was terminally ill after many years living with dementia. I had to go to Chile for four days to say good bye. I teamed up with my cousin, Veronica, who is a Reiki Therapist and we gave our grandmother a combination of therapies, including music, for those four days. In addition to a CD with the familiar nature sounds of birds, wind and water, we brought her flowers, and we used aromatherapy (eucalyptus, which was a very common smell 20 years ago before the deforestation of the eucalyptus trees). Even though my grandmother had major brain damage and dementia — she could recognize no one and nothing around her, could not move or talk — during those four days she "woke up" at least once a day for just a couple of minutes and became totally normal, recognizing both my cousin and me, saying our names, hearing us when we told her that we loved her, and telling us she loved us back, expressing that her head hurt (from severe brain hemorrhages), but that overall she was feeling much better. After a couple of minutes she would collapse again. Just having one minute to say good bye to her in the right state of mind was therapeutic for all of us and I have never felt better about death than after that experience.

Something similar happened with my grandfather when he was dying and I went to Chile to say good bye. He was in a bed, not moving or talking, with severe dementia, unable to recognize anyone or anything. Since he did not recognize me, none of my tricks to communicate with him worked. I decided to take the guitar out and start singing. He heard the song, opened his eyes, and started singing his lungs out. We sang the song together loud and clear, looked at each other, smiled, and when the song ended, he went back to his death bed state and died days later.

Music can be used with children even if you think you have no musical skills. For example, take the well-known song “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and change the lyrics to adjust it for your needs: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are” could become, "Twinkle, twinkle, brush your teeth, right before it’s time to sleep” or, “Twinkle, twinkle let’s go far, buckle up before we start” or, “Twinkle, sprinkle, time to start, potty time means candy bar.”

Here are 11 suggestions for parents about including as much music in your life as possible:

  1. Find beautiful music you like to hear in your house, while cooking or playing or doing anything else. Think about the music, tell your children why you like that music. Talk about the music with your children, and explain to them why that music makes you happy. Music can be a great start as a transition for bedtime: as the song fades out and a soft story begins, it’s much easier to move into silence.
  2. When someone is happy playing quietly, reading, or drawing, put on some meditation music, jazz, classical, world or ballads. I have experimented with this and thanks to music any quiet activity becomes three times longer, more efficient, and more attention to detail is achieved. For families who live in a heavily congested, high noise, urban environment, try closing the windows to muffle the sounds and play CDs with bird songs or bird calls. I love to do this with aromatherapy — especially eucalyptus, which at one point in my childhood was the main smell in my great grandmother’s house.
  3. While pregnant, listen to lots of music and go to many live concerts. The fetus can feel the music from the inside.
  4. Start listening to music with your children from the moment they're born. There are several music programs that serve babies. I recommend Music Together.
  5. Find out more about the power of music by reading about the newest research on the American Music Therapy Association website. You can also Google “music and the brain” and you will find many institutes, including one at Harvard University, that have devoted years of research to this topic and many papers are online and free of charge. There is also a Music Therapy Symposium that the Berklee College of Music Music Therapy Department organizes every year in Boston, which is free of charge.
  6. For children who are considered to have behavioral difficulties or hyperactivity, you can try having one music therapy session every week, or every two weeks, in addition to regular music lessons. To find a Music Therapist close to you, refer to the American Music Therapy Association.
  7. Find some time during the week when children can play their music, even if it is something you dislike, and talk about why he/she likes it and why you don’t. Be rational and research why that music does not connect with you.
  8. Go to as many concerts as possible. There are many free outdoor concerts during the summer in Massachusetts, which are great for babies and young children who need to move all the time.
  9. Register your child for music lessons in your community or at home. Any instrument is OK. Many children don’t like to practice, and this is normal. Try different instruments until they fall in love with one and like practicing it. Don’t push your child into music. If he/she dislikes a music teacher, change teachers; music should not be painful. If he/she does not want to enroll in a music school, that’s OK — there are many other ways you can include music in your life.
  10. Start playing an instrument yourself. Struggle with it in front of your children and struggle together as a band. It is incredible how many values you can practice with your children through the performance of music and the art of improvisation. Taking turns, tolerance, sharing, perseverance, silence, attention to detail, leadership, following and supporting, spontaneous creation, and many other things could be learned while performing.
  11. If you think you know nothing about music, try these:

Last but not least here is a wonderful video about music therapy everyone in the world should see. It’s old but music has worked the same way for thousands, maybe millions of years.

I hope this helps.

Born and raised in Chile, saxophonist Patricia Zarate, moved to the US at age 20. She holds a Bachelor Degree in Music Therapy from Berklee College of Music and a Masters Degree in Jazz Studies from New York University. She is the founder of the Latin American Music Therapy Symposium and currently works as the Executive Director of the Panama Jazz Festival. She homeschools her three children ages 2, 7 and 9 in Quincy, Massachusetts, and has also homeschooled her adopted children from Panama with her husband, UNESCO Artist for Peace, Danilo Perez.