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posted: 6/6/2014 8:40 AM

Music Helps Kids Avoid the Academic Summer Slide

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  • Des Plaines Park District violin instructor, Pam Culley works on a duet for strings with her student.Lisa Haring

    Des Plaines Park District violin instructor, Pam Culley works on a duet for strings with her student.Lisa Haring

Lisa Haring

"A child who takes long breaks from learning can face academic setbacks. This problem is especially prominent during the summer, when students may lose more that two months of progress." President Barack Obama, National Summer Learning Day (July 9, 2009)

As schools across the country close their doors this week, and children are free for two months, parents are once again making choices about what's best for their kids: a schedule-free summer or structured activities, whether it be classes or camp. On each side of the debate are experts with strongly held opinions. "There are many parents who want their kids to relax and have fun, and that's understandable," said Florida International University Education Professor Laura Dinehart. "But it's possible to have fun and keep kids engaged in activities that can enhance their learning. Learning can be fun, and summer offers that opportunity. Your brain has to keep working," Dinehart said. "It doesn't make sense for kids to spend that amount of time without stimulation. It's very possible for skills to regress."

The long break from school can result in some children forgetting the academic skills learned over the school year. Studies confirm that kids can lose about 2.6 months of their math skills over the summer, and some groups of kids lose two months of reading skills. Teachers complain that when school starts up in the fall they spend way too much time trying to get kids back up to speed. Experts call it "the summer slide," and it puts children at a serious disadvantage at the beginning of a new school year.

The good news is: taking a break from school doesn't have to mean taking a break from learning. That's where music comes into play. Every new experience is an opportunity to learn and grow. The skills learned through the discipline of studying a musical instrument will transfer to study skills, communication skills, and cognitive skills useful in every part of the academic curriculum, especially math and reading. Learning to play an instrument encourages self-discipline, improves patience and concentration, and offers a forum where children¬ can learn to accept constructive criticism. "Music is about communication, creativity, and cooperation, and, by studying music in school, students have the opportunity to build on these skills, enrich their lives, and experience the world from a new perspective," according to saxophonist William Jefferson Clinton, former President of the United States. The act of learning and playing an instrument, the enthusiasm of a proud parent, and the encouragement of the teacher, will build a child's sense of pride and confidence.

Studying music with a private instructor gives children the personalized, one-on-one instruction that is important for beginners and more advanced students alike. Private instructors demonstrate the proper way to play an instrument, and give their students instant feedback to correct mistakes and congratulate successes. They customize exercises and repertoire; help students set realistic goals that match their abilities, and make sure students experience the joy and excitement of getting better week-by-week.

The Des Plaines Park District offers private music instruction in violin, guitar, piano, and voice. Lessons are taught by experienced, compassionate musicians who are vested in their students' progress. "Learning an instrument, especially the violin, which has a steep learning curve, teaches kids to persevere through their practice time to reach their goals," said Pam Culley, violin instructor for the Park District. Culley taught in Des Plaines District 62 schools for 25 years, was the conductor and director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestra, and is a clinician and adjudicator with the Illinois Grade School Music Association and the Illinois Music Education Association. "The violin is a wonderful first instrument for children, because of the social opportunities to play in an orchestra with other young musicians," she said. "This should be music to parents' ears," Culley said, "violins are available to rent at several local music stores, which makes learning to play affordable, too."

Dan Chernow, guitar instructor, agrees: "Students interested in learning to play the guitar can rent an acoustic or an electric guitar, so that the only real investment is the cost of the lessons." Chernow has his Master's degree from the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, and teaches all styles of playing to students of every level. He has been teaching for over 14 years. "Playing guitar is a great activity that anyone can participate in. The benefits of learning guitar include better brain development, developing a strong work ethic and a way to express yourself, and, it is something that you can do for fun no matter what age you are. Many parents of my current and former students have talked to me about the sometimes dramatic improvement in their kid's performance in school," Chernow said. "And, really, who doesn't want to be a rock star?"

Music and math are highly intertwined in the study of the piano. "The time signatures, tempo notations, and note values in sheet music are all mathematical in nature," said Kendrick Parham, piano and voice instructor. "Making music involves more than using your voice for singing or your fingers for playing an instrument. A child who is learning to sing, or learning to play the piano, has to tap into multiple skill sets, senses, and muscles," Parham said. Parham has over twenty years in both music and theatrical performance, is a member of the Steppenwolf theatre family and coaches the Park District's Footnotes Performing Troupe.

Music lessons at the Des Plaines Park District are thirty minutes long, once a week. Violin lessons are taught on Tuesdays; guitar lessons are taught on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; voice and piano lessons are taught on Saturdays. Registration for the summer session is in progress. Lessons begin on June 17, so there's still time to sign up. Class fees for musicians who register after the first lesson date are prorated, and students are encouraged to study year round. Complete information is available in the summer Spectrum program guide, on the website at, and by calling 847-391-5700.

While parents may find that children enrolled in music classes also benefit scholastically, the primary focus of learning a musical instrument is to help a child appreciate music, become more musical, and have fun, which is valuable in its own right.

"Music education opens doors that help children pass from school into the world around them…a world of work, culture, intellectual activity, and human involvement. The future of our nation depends on providing our children with a complete education that includes music." Gerald Ford, former President, United States of America