Music Making Sandbox

Come play in the music sandbox!

My flute student James told me about a new “music sandbox” website that provides mini lessons for the budding composer. James’ friend, Dennis DeSantis, was involved with the project.

These mini music lessons are perfect for people wanting to learn more about composition, especially in apps like Garage Band. My 12 year old son, who likes to work with loops in Garage Band, will enjoy these simple lessons. Lovers of electronic music will find this especially helpful.  The lessons are progressively more difficult so if you can skip ahead if it’s too simple. I promise you will find something in these lessons that will challenge the way you think about music composition, digital or acoustic.

I learned something new. As a classically trained musician, I understand tempo markings like “Adagio,” “Allegro,” or “Andante,” but I didn’t know these:

  • Dub: 60-90 bpm
  • Hip-hop: 60-100 bpm
  • House: 115-130 bpm
  • Techno/trance: 120-140 bpm
  • Dubstep: 135-145 bpm
  • Drum and bass: 160-180 bpm

Everything on this website is presented in a simple, visual interface that allows for discovery. There are parameters, but we are free to experiment. Music has rhythm and pitches, but the magic is made in the infinite combinations.

I enjoyed the section on writing bass lines. As a flutist, this is not something I have a lot of experience with!

music sandbox

screenshot on section about composing basslines.


Try it out and let me know what you think!

Grit for Musicians: Practicing and Parenting

Is Grit the Secret to Success In Music?

I first heard about Angela Duckworth and her research on “grit” on a Freakonomics podcast. Duckworth talks about how persistence, not talent, is the secret ingredient for success. It got me thinking about how grit translates to music, especially its application in practice.

What is grit?

According to Angela Duckworth, grit is “passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals.” It seems clear that studying music is a gritty activity. Learning to play an instrument is a long-term commitment if any success is to be achieved.

From the book review of Grit in Scientific American: (

In this standardized testing culture, Grit is a good reminder that an exclusive focus on ability and potential can distract us from the importance of other variables important for success.

Grit may be more important than talent.

There are plenty of musicians out there with natural talent. Some even have the almost mystical ability of perfect pitch. Yet not all people with perfect pitch become professional musicians. It seems that talent can kick-start a musician because it creates a positive feedback loop. Talent says, “I’m good at this. It’s easy. People recognize my innate ability.” But talent can also be a hinderance. When music practice becomes difficult (and it does get hard at some point for everyone), only the gritty will push through and learn new skills. Of course when a student is endowed with both talent and grittiness, the chance of success is high. As a music teacher, however, if I had to choose between a student with lots of talent or lots of grit, I would choose the grit. Every time.

Want to find out how much grit you have?


Even if you score low on the “grit scale,” the good news is that grit can be cultivated, even increased.

What do gritty people have in common?

By studying people who are particularly gritty, Angela Duckworth has observed four things the grit paragons display and cultivate:

grit in musicians

Cincinnati Symphony – paragon of grit

  1. Interest
  2. Deliberate Practice
  3. Purpose
  4. Hope

Duckworth observed that people who pursue one interest for long periods of time “learn to substitute nuance for novelty.” I love that. As a musician, I’m not constantly switching instruments. I’m delving more deeply into the repertoire of the flute and perfecting the craft of teaching. There is always more to learn about a subject.

Deliberate practice is something I have discussed many times on this blog. Brain research is helping us understand that some kinds of practicing are better than others. Good practice habits include being able to isolate a mistake and employ solutions to remedy it. Another “grit” researcher, Anders Ericsson puts it this way: “So anytime you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the most effective way of improving performance.”

How can parents help kids become more gritty?

As a parent (see my admission on this blog about being a Tiger Mother), I want my kids to grow up to be gritty. How do we foster resilience in kids? Perhaps studying music is one way to cultivate grit. When your child studies an instrument, there will be opportunities for improving grit (theirs… and yours!)

Don’t let your child quit music. Teach your child that playing an instrument is a long-term commitment. Everyone comes to a point when things get hard and quitting seems the only way out. Help your child understand that music, like many other pursuits, will seem really hard from time to time. Remind your child of other times they have been frustrated but persevered and overcame the challenge. If your child is just beginning to study an instrument and wants to quit, don’t give in! Set a reasonable time period (6 months – 1 year) after which you will discuss the possibility of changing instruments.

The Atlantic Magazine recently published an article “How To Teach Students Grit.” The author wondered about the role of grit in academic settings. One of the most interesting findings was the role of intrinsic motivation in achievement. Behaviorism, using rewards and punishments to change behavior, is proving to be a colossal disaster in the classroom. A 2011 study of behaviorism in New York public schools (“Financial Incentives and Student Achievement“) showed that incentives such as money had no effect on changing student performance.

In Dallas, students were paid to read books. In New York, students were rewarded for performance on interim assessments. In Chicago, students were paid for classroom grades. I estimate that the impact of financial incentives on state test scores is statistically zero, in each city. -Roland G. Fryer, Jr.

Behaviorism relies on the ability of external forces to change behavior. When students are motivated by rewards, it is called extrinsic motivation. Students who are intrinsically motivated do things because they want to or because they know it’s the right thing to do. As parents, we must be careful of using too many rewards, thereby discouraging intrinsic motivation.

I’ve discussed motivation in music in other blog posts (Motivation: Parenting and Practicing, Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective), but if you are going to use rewards like a sticker chart or money to reward your child for practicing, do it for a short period of time.  Recitals, positive feedback, and continued success in music will foster intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is critical for finding purpose (see #3 in the characteristics of gritty people list.)

Be sure to show your child the world of art and music. Your child needs to see that he or she has a place in the arts, that she is part of something larger. Give them hope that there is more in the world of music than high school marching band. (Not knocking marching band– it’s awesome, but there’s so much more to discover.) A hopeful outlook is one of the hallmarks of a gritty individual.

A final thought

If grit is the secret to success in music, and music is the key to success in life, then grit and success have a direct relationship. The more grit, the more success. Not just in music. In everything.

Tiger Mother book review

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

OK, I’ll admit it: I’m a (Hybrid) Tiger Mother.

I will never be a full, genuine Tiger Mother because I’m not Chinese, like Amy Chua who is the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. My dear husband knows how to balance me out when I bare my savage teeth. And I’ll never have the time or energy to sit with my kids while they practice for three hours each and every day. But I relate to Amy Chua’s struggles as the mother of two young musicians. A previous blog post touched on this briefly and provided fodder for the Tiger Mothers out there. This post will examine Chua’s book and my feelings about it more deeply.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua should be on everyone’s book club list. Since its publication in 2011, Battle Hymn has received so much press that the term “Tiger Mother” is part of our lexicon. Among my friends, there seems to be two polarized camps: people who resonate with Amy Chua’s story and those who think she is a terrible parent. I think many people are missing the parts of this book that are meant to be read as tongue-in-cheek and self-parody.

I find the book to be an honest, often self-deprecating, look at a style of parenting that seems to contradict a lot of the popular parenting books. Top parenting books with titles like Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and The 5 Love Languages of Children seem to suggest that the only way to be a good parent is to offer unconditional love and use soothing tones. But there is a rising volume of voices that suggest this kind of parenting leads to narcissistic kids who don’t become productive, happy members of society. Jean Twenge’s books The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement and Generation Me are in the latter category.

On her website, the self-described Tiger Mother, Amy Chua writes

“My book has been controversial. Many people have misunderstood it. If I could push a magic button and choose either happiness or success for my children, I’d choose happiness in a second. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that; it can be a tough world out there, and true self-esteem has to be earned.”

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is about Amy Chua’s struggles as a Chinese mother raising two “Chinese-Jewish-American” daughters. The older girl plays piano and the younger is a violinist. Amy Chua and I share some rules: practice is top priority, get good grades in school, be kind and respectful. When I read that Sophia and Lulu practice even when on vacation (Chua calls around to find a piano in the city they are visiting,) I was inspired. That’s a great idea!

Like the author, I don’t like sleepovers (or not-sleeping-overs) because the children turn into zombies for the next couple of days. However, I my husband and I don’t prohibit sleepovers. Amy Chua never let the gils have sleepovers while they were young, though she does allow them now. Our family is considered unusual in our small town because the kids each play one season of club sports. (No travel teams or year-round activities like most of their friends.) But the author’s girls are not allowed to play any sports at all.

Despite the strict rules, Amy Chua’s love for her children comes shining through. She wants the best for her children and she’s highly invested, in time and money, in their success, even hiring people to sit with her girls when they practice. I’d like to note that Amy Chua’s girls do not like to practice their instruments (nor do my kids, as I admit in the blog post “Parenting and Practicing.”) In Chua’s book, we read about her often resorting to screaming, threats, and bribes. I think it’s very brave of her to write about the times that she lost control or pushed too hard. It happens to everyone, but not everyone admits it… or writes about it with brutal honesty.

Amy Chua does not hold herself up as a shining example of the ideal parent. She simply says that this is one way of parenting. Western parents would be wise to examine their own decisions through a different cultural lens. Interestingly, Chua’s husband is also an author and has been thrown into that parenting spotlight with his wife.  I’m fascinated to follow Amy Chua’s story into the future. Everyone is wondering when Sophia and Lulu will write their memoirs.

daughter with flute

“I don’t want to practice” — watch out… here comes Tiger Mother!



Motivation: Parenting and Practicing


As parents, we want to support our kids. We know that playing a musical instrument is good for them, but the issue of practice can be thorny.

I’ve seen this struggle from the teacher’s perspective when parents ask me how much they should insist on practice. There are power struggles and concerns about the child being “turned off” music forever. Parents are worried that motivation is lacking.

I have had five years to wrestle with it myself as a parent of two young musicians. I don’t know all the answers and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I know that every family and every child is different, but I’d like to share with you some of the things that have worked for our family. I’d love to hear about the things that work for you.

Practicing is not a choice at our house. That may seem harsh, but chores aren’t a choice either. The children do, however, have a choice about when they would like to practice. Our children are motivated by SCREEN TIME so they are allowed to play on the computer or iPad/iPod when they have finished all chores and all practicing. We keep a fairly consistent routine at home and I think this helps us maintain a regular practice schedule. Music isn’t the only activity the kids are involved in, but it is the highest priority. If we have to choose between baseball practice and a piano lesson, piano is always going to win.

Our ten-year-old son would rather die than miss a day of “Minecraft” so he is eager to finish all jobs as soon as possible. Screen time is his ultimate motivation. We have to keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t rush through his practice or forget something, but generally this works well. He is advancing quickly and practices 45-60 minutes every day.

However, our daughter (8 years old) has inherited my dear husband’s proclivity to procrastination. She is easily distracted during her practice. If the cat walks through the room or her brother is making noise, she is likely to get sidetracked. There have been days when we have had to hold a firm line with her about screen time and there have been excuses followed by tears. As long as we continue to gently remind her and redirect her attention when it begins to wander, she will practice 30-40 minutes every day.

In the book How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Faber and Mazlish encourage parents to be consistent. They argue that consequences should be fair and directly related to the situation. They also encourage parents to let kids make decisions, though the choices should be agreeable to all. Last night, Daughter was complaining heartily about having to finish her practicing. We were in the kitchen, having just finished dinner. I looked around at all of the dinner dishes and mess from cooking and I understood how she felt. I didn’t want to clean up the kitchen either. In fact, there are a lot of things I have to do everyday but I don’t feel like doing. So I gave Daughter an option: she could clean up the whole kitchen (clear the table, do the dishes, wipe the counters, etc.) while I practiced the flute -OR- she could finish her practicing without complaining while I cleaned up the kitchen. After sizing up the mess, Daughter walked upstairs and started practicing right away. It made me think about the research that showed that “grit” is an important indicator of success. (Check out Glenn Kurtz book Practicing: A Musician’s Return To Music for more on that topic.)

I know that motivating my kids is like the Whack-A-Mole game. The things that work right now are different than what has worked in the past, and we’ll have to stay creative in the future.

When the children were younger, we would award stickers in their lesson books for good practice. This worked for awhile, but it required a bit of management from me to have the stickers at hand. I wasn’t consistent enough to make it work long term. However, I was giving Daughter a lesson this afternoon and offered her stickers for perfect scales. It worked! She played three scales perfectly, earning three sparkly stars… and then she put them on her face! Tomorrow this trick isn’t going to work because the novelty will have worn off, but I was grateful for those silly stickers today. We were able to laugh together and she learned the scales. Victory!

stickers for motivation

stickers for motivation (today)

I know other parents who use money as a reward for practice time, similar to allowance, and that works well for them. I have been wary of over-using rewards as motivation ever since I read the book Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn. If the rewards are fair and not a burden to the parent, I think they can be used for motivation, but we have to be vigilant about making sure that musicians understand the intrinsic value of practice.

Performances can increase motivation.

CMC fall concert

piano trio concert

Studio recitals are great, but think about other places your kids can perform too. Could they play for their class at school? Church? A nursing home? Even a concert at home is fun. At Thanksgiving dinner for the past several years, the four of us put on a mini-recital after the big meal. My student Ada* played a concert as her Christmas gift to family, and even printed a concert program. Try asking your child to play their lesson assignment for you. It’s silly, perhaps, but I like to clap at the end of each piece to make it feel like a performance. We once invited my son’s friend over for a “playing play date.” The two musicians played for each other and sight-read duets. Ask your teacher (band or private) about competitions, solo and ensemble contests, talent shows, etc.

Most days my kids are motivated to practice because they want to have their “screen time.” Maybe as they achieve success in music, there will be a positive feedback loop to keep them intrinsically motivated. But until then, it’s my responsibility to make sure they are supported in the ups and downs. “I’m so glad my parents let me quit my instrument,” said NOBODY EVER!