You’ve heard that listening to Mozart will increase your child’s brain
development. But did you know that studying music can do more than just make you
smarter? Today on Homeschool Heartbeat, Dr. Kristina Tanner shares how music
energizes her homeschool.
Mike Smith: I’m joined today by Dr. Kristina Tanner.
She’s a professor of music at Patrick Henry College, and she’s also a
homeschooling mom of four. Dr. Tanner, welcome to the program.
Dr. Kristina Tanner: Thank you very much.
Musical motivation [0:27]
Mike: Dr. Tanner, you’ve spent a lot of time studying and
teaching music. How do those experiences influence the way you approach
Dr. Tanner: I think there are two big factors. The first one is, as
a musician, I have learned a lot about how I learn and how to teach myself, how to
practice effectively, how to do things effectively, how to get things done quickly and
learn things quickly. And then as a piano teacher, I try to teach my students how to
practice, so that eventually they don’t need a teacher anymore. I don’t want
25-year-old students coming back after college saying they need more lessons.
And so, a lot of this relates to how I teach with homeschooling. Can I teach my
children to start to understand concepts by myself? How many different ways can I
explain the same thing? How can I get them to self-motivate, to do certain things by
themselves? You can’t do everything by yourself. But how much can she
learn—my oldest child is starting first grade this year—how much can she
learn to read by herself or structure her own time a little bit? And that will, I hope,
get a little bit better in the future.
The second thing is, my father used to say the reason that I never quit music and
kept doing music and doing music was that I had a teacher that was so excited about
music that she pulled me along with her, but also that I could never get perfect enough
at it to feel like I’d mastered it, so I just kept going and going and going. And
I think with homeschooling, I want to get my children to be that excited about loving
what they’re learning. And if I never give them a negative response to a
subject—if they say, “I don’t like math,” and I say,
“Well, math is still fun and here’s something that’s fun about
it”—then I can keep them engaged in just being excited about what
they’re learning, whatever it might be. And I think that applies across the board,
whether it’s music or something else.
A bridge to the world [1:59]
Mike: Dr. Tanner, why is it so important for children to study
music, in your opinion?
Dr. Tanner: This is one of those things, if you spend a lot of time
on social media you’ll end up seeing your musician friends post all these articles
about scientific studies that prove that music will make your child smarter, music will
improve their brain development, and music will get them more engaged in the rest of
their lives, and there was even a study a while back that said that playing Mozart to
babies in utero would make them smarter. And just in case you were playing that for
your children, unfortunately they’ve proven that study was not really helpful. So
actually, nix the Mozart in utero.
But from a musician standpoint, I think music help children learn discipline; it
helps them learn to sit still, it helps them learn that they don’t always learn at
the same speed. In music, kids tend to hit plateaus at certain points, where they kind
of struggle with a concept and it takes a bit longer. And I think, if they learn that
they don’t just get to quit then and they kind of have to keep working past it,
then they start to learn that this happens in life—that you get to something
where’s it’s going to be more challenging and eventually you’re going
to get past it.
I think the other thing that’s really great about music is that it opens up a
huge, wide range of experiences—whether it’s listening to music from
different cultures or different time periods and getting engaged with history and
places. And the great thing about modern technology is that you can access some of this
stuff through YouTube and not have to pay anything. Or you can access it at a library
and get recordings out. But it gives kids a chance to meet other people as well, in an
ensemble situation. And so they get to be in contact with people and places that they
might not have been familiar with, and a whole wide range of beautiful music that they
wouldn’t have gotten in contact with any other way.
And as a parent, we don’t necessarily have to be an expert in the music we get.
We can just pick up a CD, look at the CD case a little bit, play the music, and read off
the liner notes. “Hey this is from China! Did you know that Chinese music sounds
like this?” So it’s a great opportunity to get our children interested in a
huge range of history and culture without necessarily having to know about it at the
Mike: Well, I take it, then, that even though a child can’t
play a musical instrument, you think they should still study music. Is that right?
Dr. Tanner: I think they should. I went through with my
husband, I have this theory about teaching children music, and I will gladly talk to
anybody about this for hours, but I think that it’s great to start a child on
an instrument. I think it teaches all kinds of great skills and disciplines.
But this can be hard, especially if you’re a parent, and you have multiple
children, and one of them is really struggling at an instrument, and you’ve got
competition between your children, and what do you do? It’s okay to let a child
stop trying to play the instrument. They can still learn to love the music, and in fact
in some cases if you force the continuation of the lessons with a student that’s
struggling, and you don’t let them take a break, then you may kind of kill the
love that they have for music.
But try introducing music that they can listen to that’s not the instrument you
were trying to get them to play. You know, let them sing. I love to sing with my kids
around the house. Let them listen to songs and just get a sense for, “Hey this
stuff is beautiful. This stuff is fun!” And it keeps them engaged with loving
Many people aren’t going to end up playing music instrumentally in later life
anyway. There aren’t that many opportunities for a grown-up tuba player,
unfortunately. But on the bright side, you can get a chance to listen to music you may
have played as a tuba player, you can enjoy it, and you can go to concerts of it, and
you can listen to recordings of it, and you can convince your children that this is
really fun stuff and enjoyable stuff. And incidentally, it relates to what they’re
learning in history, and sometimes math and that kind of stuff.
So I think there are a lot of values to both singing music, which helps with pitch
and rhythm and melody and has nothing to do with instruments, and with just listening
and learning different kinds of music, regardless of whether they can play anything.
The million-dollar question [5:35]
Mike: Dr. Tanner, tell us about how you teach music to your own
Dr. Tanner: Well, I should admit right now that my oldest child is
only 5. I have a 5-year-old, a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old, and a 14-month-old. So a lot of
what we do at home is not formal music training yet. We do a lot of singing. We sing a
lot of songs that they heard at church, we sing songs that are kids’ nursery
songs, we listen to children’s songs.
We also listen to a huge variety of music. My husband really likes Middle-Eastern
music, and so we listen to a lot of Arabic music. I like—obviously classical music
is my expertise and I love to listen to it—but I also like listening to Irish
music and klezmer music. And so we listen to a wide variety of music and they get
exposed to a lot of different music.
I teach my 5-year-old piano lessons. I think it’s a really good idea to start a
child at piano or violin when they’re between 4 and 7. With boys it can be later,
because they tend to not have the patience to sit still as well. They have the motor
skills, but they don’t have the sitting-still patience.
And the last thing that we do in homeschool is a little bit unusual. I take my music
appreciation lectures from the week and distill them into about a 15-minute lesson,
where we might talk about, “What is ballet?” Or we might talk about,
“What was Gregorian chant and why did they do it in the Middle Ages?” (My
oldest daughter is just getting into the Middle Ages in history.) And then we listen to
a little of the music and we watch a video on YouTube. We might point out instruments on
the video on YouTube, and so we do a little bit of that. That’s probably
more specific to myself as a musician. I don’t know that most parents want to do
that with a 5-year-old, and a 4-year-old, and a 2-year-old.
Mike: Dr. Tanner, how do you balance your homeschooling and
parenting your children with being a college professor?
Dr. Tanner: That is a million-dollar question. I do not sleep a lot
in specific times of the year. When I have a lot of grading to do, I tend to lose some
sleep. And my husband is, you know, giving me trouble about remembering that I do have
to sleep. Most of the time, it works very, very well, as long as things are organized
and running pretty clearly. I have a wonderful friend from church who comes two days a
week—how often I’m here at Patrick Henry. She comes to watch my children.
She has been watching my children since the oldest one was about 1. So she knows my
discipline ways, she knows how the children behave, she knows their temperament. When my
husband deploys, she actually lives with us some of the time during the week. So
she’s really familiar with how my children work. And that gives me the opportunity
to know that homeschooling is going to work well, because I write out the plan for the
day: “Here’s what each child needs to go over. Here’s what
they’re going to do with it, here’s the book to read to them, and that kind
of thing.” And that helps with the structure. And I have a very, very strict plan
of, “Here’s the day that each piece of housework gets done: this is grocery
day, this is vacuuming day.” My children know all those different days if you ask
them. And that helps the basic structure of the house to work.
I love to teach. I don’t think I could or would put myself through this much
chaos of stress without loving to teach. But I have to love my kids more than that, and
I really would not want to not get the chance to be there with them. And the
homeschooling gives us a chance to do a lot of that too.
You can do it [8:29]
Mike: Dr. Tanner, I’m sure our listeners want to give their
kids a good musical education. But some of them may not feel musically gifted or
proficient enough to do it on their own. What would you say to them?
Dr. Tanner: I think the first thing to remember is that there are
plenty of times when it’s okay to find someone else that can teach your child on
an instrument, or in a situation where you don’t feel proficient. It is often
something that I have found to be something you can even barter for. I know a lot of
people worry about money. I barter, sometimes, piano lessons with other homeschooling
moms. I say, “I will teach your child piano for an hour if you will sit down and
do reading and math with my child.” If it’s a musician, you can barter
straight across: “I’ll teach your child violin and you teach mine
piano,” or something like that. I don’t teach violin; I’d be the piano
one. And that, I find, really works when you’re talking about individual
But I will strongly tell parents, if you’re not talking about one-on-one
instrument instruction—you’re talking about, “I want to teach my child
music history, I want to teach my child about music, I want to teach my child rhythm, I
want to teach my child basic songs”—almost anyone can do that. Because
really what’s important is loving music, and the ability to read a basic book so
that you understand the music history: you’ve heard of the composer you’re
talking about, that kind of thing.
But if you can get your child engaged, it works very much like any other subject.
Most of us are not nuclear physicists. And so when we get to teaching science, I can
teach my child how many planets there are, but I may not know the exact velocity of Mars
going around the sun. That doesn’t keep me from wanting to teach it. And it
doesn’t mean that I can’t look it up if she asks. And so I think that really
makes a huge difference when you’re teaching music—just knowing that the
biggest thing is instilling the love and excitement about music in your children.
I would also point out that most of us, when we first start homeschooling, think
it’s terrifying, and anything that’s less familiar is going to automatically
be more frightening. But it is very hard to convince a child not to like any music. You
have to really work to get a child to dislike all kinds of music across the board. And
so bear that in mind with confidence: there will be something that your child will come
out loving about music.
Sharing a beautiful gift [10:31]
Mike: A great thing about music is that you can enjoy it with other
people. What kinds of social opportunities, Dr. Tanner, are available to homeschooling
Dr. Tanner: Some of that depends on your area. And that’s true
for anybody across the board, any kind of school. There are more, different
opportunities for musicians available in bigger areas with more students in them. But as
a general rule, if your child is going to violin lessons, look for a teacher that does
group lessons. Most violin teachers offer that as part of what’s called the Suzuki
As a general rule, any child anywhere can join a choir. There’s always a
children’s choir at a church, at a local events center, at a recreation center,
some auditionable choirs—Washington Children’s Chorus if you’re in
Washington, D.C.—it’s a big, big thing. But no matter what, there are choirs
to enter. And most of those, especially with younger children, you don’t have to
audition for. You just show up; it’s like taking soccer lessons.
Another thing with older children is, instrumental ensembles are wonderful and a lot
of times as homeschoolers we think, “My child might miss out on band.”
That’s not actually true. A lot of co-ops have instrumental offerings; they have
different ensembles that they offer. Every state has a music educators association. So
if you can get on the website for the music educators association in your state, you can
look up band offerings—they’re usually district bands and honor bands that
children can enter later.
The last thing I would recommend is, some states will actually let you join a band or
an orchestra program through their school so that you can be in a group ensemble
setting. And a lot of organizations will let you know which states will do that. I think
HSLDA may even be able to tell you that. So something that would be worth looking
Mike: Now you’ve given us a lot to think about when it comes
to music education. But if there’s one thing our listeners should remember about
music education, what would it be?
Dr. Tanner: For me, I think it’s the reminder that, as
Christian, music is about worship. So everything, whether it’s performing or
enjoying it—even just listening to it—is like looking at the beauty of
nature and saying, “Oh my goodness, God inspired the creation of this. God
inspired this composer to write this.” So just reminding myself that all of this
As a parent, it’s the reminder that music is this amazing thing. I think all of
us love some kind of music and we get to instill this in our children, and maybe even
teach them about things we didn’t already know. I think it’s a great
privilege to get to share something that beautiful with our children.
Mike: Well Dr. Tanner, thank you for being with us. I know our
listeners will be able to think a lot about this, and perhaps we’ll have more
musicians out there as a result. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.