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
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 helps 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
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 outset.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 one-on-one.
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
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
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 method.
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
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
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 glorifies God.
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.