A Teacher’s Perspective
Hungarian Vera Mitford began learning the cello at the tender of age of 6 and took her love of music through to university. She graduated first from the Bela Bartok Conservatory in Budapest, then obtained her cello teaching certificate and performed as a chamber musician at Szechenyi Istvan University in Gyor.
Mitford moved to China six years ago when her husband relocated to Beijing for work. The relocation meant an end to playing professionally, so she became a teacher and started working at the British School of Beijing (BSB) Sanlitun in 2007, subsequently qualifying as a primary music teacher at the University of Buckingham in the UK.
As well as teaching music classes at the school, she leads the choir and orchestra, and in her spare time plays cello for the Beijing International Chamber Orchestra.
Mitford has two children, Emma (age 5) and Benjamin (age 2), both of whom attend BSB Sanlitun. As a music teacher and a mother, she is well-placed to understand how to encourage musicality in children. We recently caught up with Mitford to get her take on music education at home.
Why is music an important part of a child’s education?
The number one [benefit]of music is its recreational value. If people have been brought up with music, they find it so much easier to enjoy a concert.
It also has strong benefits for literacy, math, and creativity. I have a large selection of percussion instruments at school and I can just throw the kids into it. They discover they can create something, whereas previously they may not have believed musical creativity was their forte.
What steps should parents follow if they want their children to be musical?
Early and regular exposure to music is key. Parents should offer a wide variety of engaging music at home, and make music part of everyday play and routine. You can play percussion instruments (even bang on pots and pans) to your favourite tunes. I recommend dancing, singing, and listening to live music whenever possible.
What kinds of music should parents listen to with their kids?
I’m a classically trained-musician, so when I started my teaching career I was way too rigid and rigorous when it came to choosing the “right” piece of music. I learned the hard way that you can’t reach certain children unless you throw something popular in the mix; you can gradually introduce them to better-quality music over time.
Is there such a thing as “tone deaf”? What if a child has no ear for music?
Anyone can distinguish between different pitches to a certain extent with regular training in a friendly environment. Children with less courage to sing or the ones who get carried away with the excitement of singing and lose control over their voices are often classified as non-musical or tone deaf.
Children are often assessed on their musicality based on their singing skills, but I would be very careful about doing that. You really don’t have to be able to sing to be good at music. I went to music college with students who didn’t have the vocal control necessary to sing in tune, yet turned out to be excellent performing instrumentalists. Rhythm is a very important part of music as well.
There are kids who have no sense of control or pitch. Piano is the best instrument for children with less singing ability; I wouldn’t start children with less of an ear for pitch on the violin. With the piano, there’s a feedback loop; you learn to recognize pitch because you are playing a perfect note [unlike violin].
At what age should parents introduce their kids to a musical instrument?
Learning an instrument requires a minimum concentration spurt of 20 to 30 minutes and good coordination. Children typically reach that level by the age of 5 or 6 depending on the individual. We offer instrumental tuition at BSB Sanlitun starting from Year 1 based on that principle.
What are your top tips for parents?
If you want your child to approach music with love and enthusiasm, you need to be their role model. Without your active participation, they’re unlikely to get excited about music-making.
Encouraging your children to share their instrumental skills with you gives meaning to their hard work and makes them proud about doing something you probably can’t (unlike all the other school stuff you’re better than them at).
At BSB Sanlitun, pupils are encouraged to share their instrumental skills at every level with their peers during music lessons, assemblies, and recitals.
What kind of children take to playing an instrument?
Most children can learn an instrument to a certain level; to become a musician is a different story. That takes talent, passion, and a lot of hard work.
The Primary Instrumental Programme at BSB Sanlitun provides every child with an opportunity to explore an instrument in small groups and this is something the children really enjoy. After the initial exposure, some of them choose to take individual lessons and learn more about playing that instrument.
How much time should a child practice an instrument?
I would suggest short but regular practice sessions. Ten minutes daily for beginners, which can be gradually increased as the child gets older and practising becomes part of their routine.
What’s the best way to encourage kids to practice?
Each child responds best to a different approach; however, most children enjoy working towards little goals, such as a small performance or sharing a session with family or friends. Praising and occasionally rewarding good work also gives children confidence and encourages them to keep going.
What should parents do if their kid wants to stop learning an instrument?
Learning an instrument requires hard work, dedication, and resilience. Many children reach a point when they want to quit or switch to another instrument. In some cases it is fine, depending on their talent, the length of time they have learned the instrument for, and their reasons for giving up.
Is it better to take exams or learn for fun?
Some children respond well to pressure and some enjoy working towards smaller goals. The right tutor should be able to tell you if taking exams is the approach for your child. Some exams can also be fun, providing a nice selection of pieces to choose from.
Would you recommend a career as a professional musician?
It’s brilliant to play for fun, but becoming a professional musician is not a good career choice. I was brought up in a communist country where classical music was culturally important. It was a competitive environment and not many of us made it as professional musicians. My brother is a professional – a violinist for an opera house orchestra – and life is a struggle.
Where do you recommend buying instruments?
Most music shops in Beijing are either on Xinjiekou Nanjie or Gulou Dajie. They offer a huge selection of instruments and accessories for every level and price.
A Student’s Perspective
Nine-year-old Jason Fung (from Hong Kong) is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, performer, and composer – a little boy bubbling over with enthusiasm for music. Head of Music Vera Mitford explains: “Teaching Jason is amazing. He can do anything. It’s really challenging because it’s hard to stretch his skills within a normal music class. His piano skills are way above average, and he is extremely musical.”
Jason and his mom Phoebe Fung arrive to our interview fresh from a musical assembly where he sang “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” with other students singers at BSB Sanlitun. Soon, it becomes apparent that Jason is in the process of losing one of his baby teeth. “My tooth is bleeding,” he announces and grins to display a wobbly incisor. “I don’t believe in the tooth fairy,” he adds, “so I don’t think I’m going to get any money for this.”
While he may not succeed in trading his ivories for renminbi,
Jason is highly successful at tinkling the ivories. He excels not only at piano and organ, he plays at least one instrument from every family of the orchestra: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. “I play flute, trumpet, violin, ukulele, piano, organ, and the drums,” he says with a smile. “I’ve been playing music for longer than I can remember. The first instrument I learned was the organ; I started when I was 3.”
Phoebe Fung interjects, “When he was in Hong Kong, we started Yamaha organ courses and added piano when he was 3 1/2. We realized he was really talented when he was around 6 years old. He was one of a couple of children selected for a specialist class at Yamaha. He began composing songs and performing them, and then we understood that he was gifted and had a unique talent.”
Jason’s musicality came as a surprise to his parents. “Neither I nor my husband Willy are musically-gifted,” Fung adds, “though his brother Kayden (age 5) is musical too.”
Mitford witnessed firsthand Jason’s ability to master new instruments in a short period of time. “He learned the violin at BSB and picked it up so quickly. Now he has started learning the flute. All I can do to stretch him is give him an instrument he’s not that confident at and try to get him out of his comfort zone.”
Jason works hard, receiving Distinctions and Merits in all of his Associated Boards of the Royal School of Music (ABRSM) grades. This year, he is studying for his Grade 8 piano exam, which is more commonly taken by children twice Jason’s age. To achieve this advanced level, he practices piano and organ every day for an hour and a half. “I enjoy practicing,” he says. “I tell myself that if I keep going I will get really good at music, and maybe one day I could even become famous! First, I play the piece slowly a few times and then I play it faster until I get to the right tempo. Never giving up is the most important thing.” He is currently learning Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” but the piece he dreams of learning one day is Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca.”
Jason was introduced to composition through advanced classes at Yamaha. “I write all types of music,” he explains. “I composed my first song when I was 6 1/2. I listen to different types of music and get ideas from it. Then I improvise a motif and add to it. I repeat the melody, improvise and play with it, making variations until I hear something I like, and then I develop that.”
Jason’s extraordinary gift had a knock-on educational effect on his mom. Phoebe Fung explains that she learned musical theory by following his progress. “I am gradually becoming more informed about his process. I can’t do what he does but I’m learning about it through Jason. When he was doing Grade 2 and Grade 4, I sat beside him when he was practicing, but at Grade 6 and Grade 8 I couldn’t help him anymore. The notation is so complex; I can’t read the music or follow the part he is playing. Now I just let him learn by himself.”
To date, Jason has composed three songs: “What a Wonderful World,” “Praise for the Great Wall,” and “The Sound of Northern China,” which he performed at the China National Junior Original Concert in 2013 hosted by Yamaha. He is currently working on a new piece.
“He is very creative when he writes his own music,” says Mitford. “I can give him a bassline and ask him to go next door, and he comes back with a piece. He really understands music; it’s not that he has just picked it up by repetition.”
In addition to performing his own compositions, Jason plays a key role as accompanist for the school choir. “He’s been [accompanying the choir]for two years now, since he was in Year 3,” says Mitford. “I can give him a piece of music and tell him ‘There’s a concert in two weeks’ and leave him to get on with it.”
As assured as Jason is backing up the assembled voices of BSB Sanlitun, he prefers playing by himself. “Playing with a choir is harder,” he says. “Sometimes they sing faster or slower than they should, and I have to change my speed to keep up.”
Given his commitment and passion, it is not surprising that Jason dreams of a career in music. “When I grow up I’d like to be a composer or work for an orchestra. Music is fun, and it makes me feel relaxed, happy, and good. I love music because I can enjoy it every day, and I can make music whenever I like. I think a world without music would be boring and negative.”
photos by Mitchell Pe Masilun
This article originally appeared on p40-43 of the beijingkids February 2014 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com