Combating “The Forces of Blah” with Music

Wendy Lias, LSW

I’m a piano lesson quitter.  Actually, I’m a piano lesson quitter two times over.  Since I’m fairly certain that nobody who taught me a) reads the blog or b) even remembers me—it was decades ago and it didn’t take very long for me to quit—I’m just going being candid and say that those lessons were a dry and joyless experience.  I felt no love for music lessons.  When my son was two years old, he started asking for someone to teach him to play the bass guitar.  Because he was two, it was really easy to put him off.  When he was three and dressing up like John Lennon for Halloween, he was still begging for music lessons.  Nobody was teaching three year olds so, again, I just took the “someday. When you’re older” approach.  The year he was four, he was still very insistent that he wanted to take music lessons, and so I started looking for instructors who would work with an early learner.  His love for music seemed so intrinsic to who he is as a person, that my biggest concern in finding a music program for him was to not replicate my experience with joyless music lessons.  I absolutely did not want formal lessons to drum the passion out of him.  It was while I was trying to find this unicorn of a learning experience that I found Meridee Winters.  Meridee was gracious enough to chat with me about what makes her approach to music education unique.

Tell us a little bit about yourself

I’m an author, educator, school director, lifelong musician and dedicated champion against the “Forces of Blah”! (In both comic books and in real life – more on that in just a bit.)

I’ve always had a passion for creativity and teaching. I began my career by leading a double life of sorts: teaching elementary school by day and performing in bands at night. Sadly, in both areas I saw a lack of creativity. I left the school system and became a music producer, where my specialty was working with professional artists to turn song ideas into completed albums. I was shocked by how many pro musicians couldn’t accompany themselves or construct a song. I developed a crash course in songwriting, theory and chords and consistently got the same feedback: each of them wished they had learned these skills when they were young. I realized that I could empower kids to be creative after all, by teaching them music with this same approach.

And now there’s a school?

My creative approach to learning resonated with people, and the school grew. Over several decades, the Meridee Winters School of Music has trained over 300 teachers and instructed over 10,000 students while earning a reputation for its joyful students, real results and convenience for busy families. (Our lessons are in-home and online. It doesn’t get much more convenient than that!)

My dream is to make the world a more creative place and to empower students to create, explore and find joy in music… and in life. At times, there’s a lot working against that – like the fear of making mistakes, books and lessons that just teach at the “rote and recall” level, and the view that arts are less valuable than other subjects. At one point, I started referring to these as the “Forces of Blah.” I’ve even created a villain in my Chord Quest series called “Dr. Blah.” I’m excited to combat these forces though learning, music and play.


You could say the forces of blah were strong in 2020, but I’m so inspired by how people everywhere got creative and adapted. Prior to the pandemic, we already had advanced students taking lessons online. We were fortunate to be ahead of the curve this spring and were able to convert the entire school to online lessons seamlessly. There were many challenges, but also some unexpectedly beautiful moments – for example, our Year End Recitals moved to an online film festival format and we had over 300 student-made music videos. They were incredible – so many kids were thrilled to work on a creative project and see what their peers had made. We had students who had never met collaborating on duets remotely. Students became film directors. Actors. Pop stars. We’ve begun returning to in-home lessons for some families, but we’re still teaching online students from around the country.

We also started to receive emails from parents, teachers and students from all over about how my music books – especially my Chord Quest and Chord Crash Course series – were helping them learn an instrument at home, or helping them bring energy to online lessons.

Another blow against “the Forces of Blah” was the launching of our Starbright Scholarship Project. We started planning it last fall and launched it in April after deciding that the pandemic wasn’t going to slow us down. As a result, students from Philadelphia are receiving free music lessons and inspiring me every day with their passion and creativity. My current commitment is to provide pro-bono lessons to a minimum of 2% of our school enrollment.

What thoughts can you share with our readers about inspiring a love of music in children of all ages?

One of the first things I tell our teachers in training is that music is a language art, but it’s rarely taught like one. For any age, I recommend you let a child explore that language. Improvise. Listen. Create. We certainly don’t expect young children to be able to read before they can talk – so why do we expect students to read music before they can play or write something?

Very early in lessons, you can learn the simple shapes and patterns that make chords, and then learn the chords to your favorite songs. For any student, the ability to play the songs they truly love will energize lessons and keep them from quitting.

If we can do all these things – keep students from quitting, help other students and musicians discover and learn, make music together online, teach through scholarships and through books, then I believe we’re contributing to a more creative and musical world. And those “Forces of Blah”? They don’t stand a chance.



Currently, the Meridee Winters School of Music has a trailblazing online music school in addition to offering in-person in-home lessons in the Main Line area of Philadelphia. As an author, Meridee has had five #1 new releases on Amazon in the last 2 years and her music method books are used worldwide, from Germany to Japan, India and beyond. Her teachers do workshops regularly in teaching techniques, video-making and of course songwriting. If you believe you would benefit from these creative music lessons, visit mwschoolofmusic.com.

Talk to us about your experiences getting your children involved with music learning. Comment here on the blog or join the discussion on Facebook or Instagram.

The Value of Negative Experience

Image Credit: Mel Kadel

Dr. Corinne Masur

Stacey Abrams tells the story of having been the Valedictorian of her high school class and, as result, being invited to the Governor’s mansion for a reception (as all valedictorians were in Georgia at that time).  When she and her parents arrived at the gates of the mansion the guard turned them away.  He said they did not belong there.  He refused to look at the list of valedictorians. It was not until Stacey’s father insisted that the guard checked the list and begrudgingly admitted them.  Twenty-four years later, Stacey Abrams decided she wanted to run for the office of governor of Georgia so that she could control those gates.

A young adult patient of mine told me a story that is similar in some ways.  In seventh grade she did very poorly in her Latin class.  The school had her tested and the psychologist who performed the evaluation told her that she would never be able to learn a language due to a learning disability.  When this young woman went to college, she made it a point to take Spanish every semester and to do several study abroad programs in Spanish speaking countries.  After she graduated from college, she got a better job than she had expected, based partly on the fact that she was now bilingual!

Some negative experiences, some experiences of criticism or humiliation or deprivation or limitation can actually provide the motivation for some children and teenagers to achieve. Such experiences can be formative in regard to how children develop, in determining who they decide they want to be and what they decide they want to do. Being told “no”, being told “you may not do this” or “you cannot do this” can lead some children to decide that they CAN and they WILL.  The anger and the hurt these children experience can be channeled into a powerful drive to prove those who said “no” wrong!

As parents most of us carry the burden of feeling we need to smooth our children’s way, of protecting them from hardship or pain. And of course, it IS the job of parents to keep our children alive and to maximize their chances of healthy development.

But is it healthy for children to always experience a smooth path?  To never meet with a failure or a “no”?

Is it best to try to protect children from every possible insult or danger?

I think not.  And furthermore, I believe this mind set leads to our fear/belief that the current pandemic and the limitations it has imposed will stunt our children’s educational, emotional and social development.

Life provides all sorts of experiences – for most of us these include success AND failure and everything in between.  We learn from our successes and perhaps we learn even more from our failures, our mistakes and the rejections and limitations we experience.  And we can be motivated by any of these experiences, not just the positive ones. 

Recently a post, supposedly by a superintendent of schools, went around on social media. She or he said:

“One of my biggest fears for the children when they return … is that in our determination to “catch them up,” …we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era … It is necessary to surrender the artificial constructs that measure achievement and greet the children where they are, not where we think they “should be.” … They did not miss the test prep. They did not miss the worksheets. They did not miss the reading groups. They did not miss the homework … Resist the pressure from whatever ‘powers that be’ who are in a hurry to “fix” kids and make up for the “lost” time. The time was not lost, it was invested in surviving an historic period of time in their lives—in our lives. The children do not need to be fixed. They are not broken”.

These are wise words. Our children will be different because of the pandemic, but they will have learned things during this time. They may not be as versed in the school subjects that they might have mastered had it not been for the pandemic, but they WILL have better tech skills (video games, and social media); they will better know how to navigate the internet, they will be well versed in connecting with others via online platforms, they will know how to occupy themselves better. Moreover, they will have experienced frustration and boredom and disappointment – and they will have survived. They will know that they can endure difficult times and heart-breaking disappointments and losses.

The children and the adults who are fortunate enough to live through this pandemic will not only have been limited and deprived and frustrated, they will also have been inspired in ways that we can only imagine right now.

Who knows how many children and teenagers and young adults will have been motivated to go into medicine, nursing, epidemiology, game and social platform design?

Who knows how many will say a resounding NO to the pandemic and find ways to fight or prevent future events of this kind?

Who knows how many friendships and social gathering will be created out of the sheer joy of freedom that is felt after the vaccine has been distributed and children are freer again to experience the social world?

None of us know the answers to these questions – but I am quite sure there will be many, many people motivated to make the world a more connected and safer place once this pandemic is over, just as Stacy Abrams was motivated to run for governor and my young patient was motivated to learn Spanish well enough to be considered bilingual!

Listen here for more on this topic:

https://www.npr.org/2021/01/07/954479010/listen-again-school-of-life

Reading for the Expectant Older Sibling

Photo Credit: KM Photo

Wendy Lias, LSW

This week I was supervising one of my son’s Zoom classes when the teacher pointed out that a friend in class was wearing a t-shirt that read “BIG BROTHER.” The little boy explained that he was waiting, at that very moment, for news that his new sibling had been born. His excitement was contagious and I was transported right back to this time three years ago when I was preparing my own son for the birth of a new sibling. In my house, a huge part of the preparation was reading a plethora of children’s book to my son about what it means to add a new baby to your family. At the time I pretty much snapped up all the books on the topic; but after being asked to read them aloud innumerable times, I became more discerning. Now I fancy myself something of a connoisseur on baby books that add value to the experience and will still feel tolerable even after several readings.

Favorite Overall: Babies Don’t Eat Pizza

Babies Don’t Eat Pizza by Dianne Danzig is adorable and even funny at times, while still providing a lot of helpful information about the baby that is going to be joining your family.  The book covers topics from baby’s arrival to how newborns spend most of their time to the complicated feelings that a child might have about welcoming a baby into their home.  The book addresses a lot and if it’s difficult for your child to sit through reading the book in its entirety, you will definitely benefit from the fact that each topic is divided by headers within the book.  You can stop and start again with ease. 

Favorite for Dealing with Rivalrous Feelings: On Mother’s Lap

On Mother’s Lap by Ann Herbert Scott tells the story of a little boy who can make room for himself and all of his toys in his mother’s lap; but when the baby in the house rouses and wants to be held, the little boy does not feel like there is room.  Spoiler alert: in case, there is always room in that mother’s lap.  This is a very sweet story to read with a child who might be feeling a squeezed out by the arrival of a new sibling.  The illustrations by Glo Coalson are soft and lovely and really complement the overall loving and cozy feel of the narrative.

Favorites for Addressing the Biology of Baby-Having: What Makes a Baby and It’s Not the Stork

What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg does a great job of delivering the basics on eggs, sperm, gestation, and birth.  The vibrant illustrations by Fiona Smyth are terrific.  If you have a child who is wondering about where the baby came from in the first place, this is a nice place to start. 

Now, if the child that you’re reading to is even more curious about the physical differences between the sexes or has questions about how the sperm and the egg came to find each other in the first place, It’s Not the Stork by Robie H. Harris is worth picking up. 

Favorite for Tandem Reading: Wonderful You

Looking for something to read to while you cradle your new baby while simultaneously reminding your older child just how remarkable his or her own arrival was? Grab Lisa Graff’s Wonderful You!  The book celebrates how beloved your child is and has been, starting from the time when he or she was only the size of a sweet pea.  The illustrations by Ramona Kaulitzki are beautiful and embrace the fact that families are diverse and do not all look the same. 

Honorable Mentions:

Lots of my favorite children’s collections include books about welcoming a sibling.  These books to be more generic and don’t answer nearly as many questions.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t perfectly delightful.  Books that fall into this category include Angelina’s Baby Sister (Angelina Ballerina), The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby and The Berenstain Bears and Baby Makes Five, and The New Baby (Little Critter).

What have you read and loved?  Which excellent books escaped our attention?  Come find us on Facebook and Instagram to share your thoughts.

Get Your Paws on Outfoxed

Wendy Lias, LSW

In her recent post, Winning and Losing, Dr. Corinne Masur discussed the importance of working with children around issues of sportsmanship, sore losing, and winning with grace.  I could not agree more that one of our responsibilities as parents is to help kids wrap their brains around these concepts. Our children’s eyes are on us and their ears are open—perhaps nothing demonstrates this better than my two year old repeating some of John Mulaney’s standup routine that her uncle and I were quoting to each other over Facetime recently—this means, that one of the best ways to teach children how to handle winning and losing is through modeling the behaviors ourselves.  In my family, our absolute favorite way to do this is by playing games with our kids. 

               This brings me to one of our current favorite games: Outfoxed by Gamewright.  A variation of the classic whodunit premise, Outfoxed asks players to work cooperatively to find the fox who’s guilty of stealing Mrs. Plumpert’s potpies before it has the chance to vanish down its foxhole.  Players share the common goal of discovering clues, revealing potential suspects, and stopping that wily fox from making it to the end of the board.  If you’re working on tricky winning and losing behaviors in your home, one of the best things about a game like Outfoxed is that everyone can practice them together.  Either all players jointly accomplish their goal and you can model gracious winning or all players were unable to successfully beat the game and everyone loses together.  As someone who tends to be super competitive myself, I can tell you that it’s so much easier to practice not being a sore loser when there’s no beaming winner staring at me from across the table.

               Even if your focus is not on the winning and losing, Outfoxed is an excellent game for younger players.  The game allows children to hone skills like visual discrimination, deductive reasoning, basic game strategy, and respecting the decisions of fellow players.  And if all you’re looking for is a game that you can play with your kids without being driven up the wall, Outfoxed still fits the bill.  The board and illustrations are vibrant and whimsical without being in-your-face and the game play is fairly intuitive.  My one word of caution is this: make sure you troubleshoot the use of the clue decoder before you start your game play.  That said, our three consecutive defeats because we were using that piece incorrectly certainly gave us ample time to practice our losing skills. Oops. 

               What games have you been playing with your kids? Are you interested in some of our other recommendations? Let us know in the comments here or on our Facebook or Instagram.  We look forward to hearing from you!

Local Love: The Franklin Institute

You don’t have to be a Philly local to benefit from The Franklin Institute right now. The Franklin Institute is sharing all kinds of fun online science videos this winter!

One of our contributors, Wendy, and her kids aged 2 and 5 years experimented with the Tinker Tuesday that was posted today. The project which used watercolors and salt was is a great way introduce ideas like hygroscopicity, absorption, and texture. While results varied based on approach, a fun time was had by all!

Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Supporting our children through the next wave

Guest poster Karen Libber Fishbein, MSW, LCSW is a Philadelphia-based clinical social worker and mother of two girls.

Here we are in December of 2020, ending a year with large-scale health, racial and political crises. Our children sense the daily tension and they feel the growing tedium.  Life in the present is difficult to tolerate: COVID rates are spiking, school is opening and shutting and opening again, the days are getting shorter, the weather is getting colder, warm weather activities are no longer possible, and indoor gatherings are increasingly risky. The holidays this year will be very different than in previous years. 

But now we have news of the vaccine!  Health care workers and people in long term care facilities will be vaccinated as early as this month!

There IS light at the end of the tunnel!

But can we feel ourselves lightening up yet?

Can our children feel the hope that the vaccine implies?

As far as education is concerned, learning is radically different for many children regardless of how or where they go to school. Children attending school must adhere to social distancing guidelines and pay close attention to their activities and behavior. Children learning from home need to find the emotional and physical space to focus on their virtual instruction and navigate the novel world of remote learning.  Teachers are working on overdrive to deliver their lessons in the smoothest way possible as they adjust to policies and procedures that may not fully account for the complexity of their students’ individual needs – or their own.

Children’s family members and caregivers are also struggling as they navigate these unprecedented times.  Many caregivers are spread too thin as they take on numerous roles throughout the day without natural transitions and boundaries. Normal coping strategies (e.g. going to the gym, dining at a restaurant, attending a yoga class, asking friends and family to come over and help with the kids) are no longer feasible solutions. 

A family member of mine is an experienced pediatrician, and he noted that families have been sharing with him that some of their children are starting to reach breaking points.

So, no.  Perhaps our children cannot yet feel the hope that the vaccine implies.  Children live in the present and the present is still hard.

Some children are not turning in work.  Some are logging out in the middle of class. Most children, except perhaps those with the most energetic, exceptional teachers, are bored.

The personal interaction children had with teachers is absent.  The desire to work for the teacher, to please him or her is more remote with remote learning.  The motivation to pay attention is in short supply as a result.

So what can we do, in these dark days of winter, to help our children with their feelings of  sadness, anger, boredom and loneliness, in other words, to survive in the present?

My two daughters, ages 5 and 7, continue to express frustrations about their radically different daily routines. My older daughter has been a champ with her 100% remote instruction. She signs into her classroom on time every day and seems to be keeping up with her responsibilities. While I am beyond grateful for her success, we run into difficulties after school. When I try to encourage non-screen related activities, there is usually backlash. “Mom, I don’t want to go to the playground, I don’t want to go outside and ride my scooter.” Last week as she was making these assertions, she burst into tears and said, “I really miss my friends, I want COVID to be over.” In that moment, I stopped pushing my agenda and then validated her and held her close as she cried. 

My younger daughter is faring better during COVID than she was previously.  The extra time with family and the slower pace of life has resulted in reduced anxiety for her. While this sounds all well and good, my husband and I are beginning to explore in person pre-k for her because she is not cooperative in our home schooling attempts and we don’t want her to fall behind.  As we have broached this subject with her, her expression immediately shifts, and she becomes visibly sad and anxious about the prospect of returning to school. 

I realize that my girls’ experiences may or may not be in line with the experiences of other children, but I’m going to offer some ideas that have worked with my kids and may be helpful for others during this next wave of darkness.

  1. Validate your children’s feelings and let them know that they have every right to feel the way they feel. It also may be helpful to let them know that you are struggling in your own way as well.
  2. Understand that your children’s exaggerated emotions regarding day-to-day challenges are likely reflective of deeper tensions they are holding.
  3. Praise your children when they adopt healthy coping skills on their own, for example if they engage in an activity on their own terms (e.g. arts and crafts, reading, playing with their toys.)
  4. Take a day trip somewhere new where you and your kids can spend time outside, i.e. hiking, visiting a farm, or exploring a new town. 
  5. Encourage meaningful use of screen time such as FaceTiming with friends and family members or watching learning-oriented programming on television.  My girls are loving shows on TLC right now. They also love calling their grandparents and friends to say hi! This feels much healthier than getting sucked into endless YouTube clips.
  6. Consider letting your kids have a special treat when days are tough.  Wendy’s is our go-to—we load the kids in the car and then allow them to order a meal at the drive-through. This activity is especially appreciated on a rainy day.
  7. Engage in a charitable activity and enlist the help of your kids. We have collected canned goods a couple times and, as a family, have delivered them to a local food bank. We then use this as an opportunity to focus on gratitude for the privileges we do have.
  8. Get creative with babysitting. Depending on your COVID risk tolerance, consider having a babysitter or young teenager come over. We have been in touch with families in our community and have invited a few select babysitters over to help.  The kids really love having the younger babysitters (i.e. middle school or high school age) over because they are often more interested in playing. We  evaluate COVID risk by checking in with their parents to assess how much exposure the potential young babysitters  have had and vice versa. Right now, we have a 13-year-old coming over who is in virtual school 100% of the time and has had minimal contact with people.  The kids have spent hours playing together and it feels somewhat normal.  It is fun for the younger kids and provides meaning for the older kids. 

I hope you find these strategies helpful as you navigate this next wave of darkness. With any luck, as spring emerges, and the  vaccine is delivered, we will return to some level of normalcy. Then, at that time, our children may need different guidance and support since “normal life” will not be normal, it will be new to them!

COVID-Era Nutcracker

If the Nutcracker is part of your family’s traditions during the most wonderful time of the year, you may be feeling like you’re missing out this time around. Well, San Francisco Ballet is trying out a fun, kid-friendly, and Fauci-approved alternative. This evening (6pm est) on the company’s social media one of their dancers, Tiit Helimets, will be retelling the classic story while he illustrates it live! It should be amazing to watch since this world class dancer also happens to be a gifted visual artist. You can follow along on the company’s Facebook live or on YouTube.

Enjoy!

Paper Turkeys

Wendy Lias, LSW

Thanksgiving is right around the corner and the kids are home from school (for a week? Indefinitely? Who even knows at this point?!). I’m looking for ways to fill the time.  I had the vague idea that I’d like to do some sort of Thanksgiving themed art with my kids BUT the project had to meet the following criteria for selection:

  1. Both my kids (ages 2 and 5 years) need to be able to participate
  2. There cannot be a single “correct” way to complete the project
  3. I’m not heading to the store and so the project must be feasible with supplies readily on hand
  4. No white-washed representations of the historical origins of Thanksgiving

My Googling left me very disappointed and I devised my own little Thanksgiving turkey craft that I’m now happy to share with you.  The only supplies that you absolutely need to complete the project are paper, scissors, and something that can make marks on paper. 

Step 1: Create your turkey tail: cut a large semi-circle out of paper and divide it into sections

Step 2: Decorate the sections of your turkey tail with any supplies you have on hand.  Paint sticks were a popular choice in my house, but markers and crayons also got some play.  If you look at the pictures of our final project, you’ll see that my 2 year old contented herself with going bananas with some gems and glue.

Step 3: Add a turkey body.  There are two ways to do this.  You can cut out a large turkey to create a standing turkey or a smaller, front-view turkey body to create a flat decoration.  In hindsight, I think flat would have been easier for everyone in my house; but I realized that once we were already most of the way finished with the project.  If you are aiming for a standing turkey, cut small slits in both the body and the tail and then fit the two pieces together.  For a 2-D craft, simply tape or glue the turkey’s body onto its decorated tail.

 

Flat turkey

If free-handing vaguely turkey shaped drawings is not on your agenda today, I’m including a template that you can print and use at your convenience.

Did you recreate these versatile turkeys on your own? We’d love to see what you came up with.  Share your results and tag Thoughtful Parenting on Facebook or Instagram.  Did you come up with an entirely different Thanksgiving activity to do with your kids? We’d love to see that too!

Thanksgiving Treats

Remember these delicious treats we shared last Thanksgiving? It’s the perfect time of year to make them again!

Thoughtful Parenting

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Here is a fun Thanksgiving dish kids love to make!

You can have kids of any age help with this:

Steve’s Sweet Potato Marshmallow Balls

You will need:

sweet potatoes
1 bag marshmallows
brown sugar
butter
corn flakes

Roast how ever many sweet potatoes you need (2 for a small gathering of 4 people, more for a larger gathering) at 400 degrees until soft.  Let sweet potatoes cool then remove the skin and put into a large mixing bowl. Mash the potatoes using a potato masher or hands.  After mashing add a little brown sugar to taste.

Now for the fun part!

Put corn flakes on a cookie sheet with sides and have your child mash with his/her fists.

Then have your child stand at the counter and take a scoop of sweet potato and form into a ball around one marshmallow.  Each ball should be larger than a golf…

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