To Kara Goucher, and Parents of Little Musicians

April 29, 2016

To Kara Goucher, and Parents of Little Musicians

I don't personally post to Facebook very often, but I'm on it occasionally. So is my wife, who follows distance runner (and mom to a 5-year-old) Kara Goucher. If you don't know who Kara is, look her up. She represents a clothing line, speaks at events, is an Olympic-caliber runner, wife, and mom, and is active on Facebook. My wife and I have tickets to hopefully see her run in the Olympic Trials in Eugene this summer.

A few months ago, Kara posted a picture of her son listening to music in headphones, with this caption:

"This is my son listening to music tonight. As he says, "It makes my brain dance with rainbows." If anyone has suggestions to help a 5 year old obsessed with music, I'm all ears! PS - I love his love for music, I just want suggestions on how to cultivate it!"

Oh, man! I have a unique obsession for what she posted - I am a parent of two, my passion is music, I am a former elementary teacher, I study how music affects the brain - so I wanted to reply, but I had so much to say I never got organized and I didn't contribute anything. To be honest, once I get going on this I may never stop, but here's a start....

Dear Kara,

My Favorite Thing He Said

Maybe it was just an expression, but the fact that he mentioned "rainbows" leads me to believe that music, or sounds in general, cause his brain to visualize colors. Literally. It's called Chromesthesia, and I think it's super cool. It's similar to when you talk to him on the phone and hear him laughing, and you can't help but imagine his smiling face in your mind. In your case (and the rest of us), a sound directly related to a memory triggers that memory. In his case, the auditory cortex (the sound part of his brain) is linked to the visual cortex (sight part) in a more direct but abstract way [Check out This Is Your Brain On Music, Musicophelia, and The Future of the Mind to learn from true experts]. It happens intuitively for him, so the best thing you can do is help him become aware of it and enjoy it. Ask him about it. What colors do you see? How do they dance? Are there shapes, too? What's your favorite color? What's your favorite sound? What colors do you want to see next?

 You Know More Than You Think You Do

You, as his parent, are an expert in at least two things: a) your own passion, and b) your child. The former is your gateway to becoming an expert in his passion. The latter is self-explanatory.

I assume you run because you love it. Even if Kara Goucher is the least musical person on the planet, your ability to use what you know about running to connect with what he learns about music will be vast. I'm not an expert on running, but I enjoy it, and I have learned...

Running is more fun with friends. So is music. Listening to it, playing it, dancing to is meant to be shared. It makes for a great sanctuary when life gets crazy (so does an early morning solo run), but it's the community that makes it special. 

As a professional, you're probably not a one-woman-show. You have coaches (we take lessons from private instructors). You read books and magazines (we do that, too). You train with friends and run races (we have "garage bands" and "gigs"). You consult other professionals (we ask techies and consult "performance coaches"). You can obsess over new gear (guitarists call it GAS - Gear Acquisition Syndrome); but you love the simplicity of just going for a run (we play "unplugged" sets, "open mics," and "jams"). You set goals (how many times have I heard guitarists attempt Stairway to Heaven?), celebrate your successes (best solo ever!), and are mystified by your failures (I thought I had that passage down...). Most of your hard work is likely done in private (we call it the "woodshed"), but you probably bring the family to the track every once in awhile just for fun (my kids beg me to take them to my music room).

The quickest way to improve, if that's your goal, is to get a trainer/coach (take lessons) and work hard ("take it to the 'shed"). The best way to enjoy yourself is to just go do it. Make it easy. Accessible. Repeatable. Sharable. 

 Gear is fun. Really fun. But not necessary.

Running can be cheap or free (I appreciate the craze for barefoot running, but I'm glad we mostly agree that shorts are still appropriate.)

Singing is free. So is dancing. Instruments cost money, but don't have to be expensive. Some tips:

  • Sing everything. Brushing your teeth, making a sandwich, saying hello. You don't have to be Adele, and nobody is comparing your melody to a Top 40 hit. Just make a little tune out of everything.  Everything.
  • Dance with him. Every time a song comes on the radio or TV, get up and dance. Or just put music on and dance to it. Again, it's not Riverdance. It's just having fun.
  • Keep music going in the background. Find something and play it quietly in the background. Peaceful, lively, instrumental - it doesn't matter. The fact that it's constantly on means his brain is constantly processing it. Keeping it in the background prevents information overload and fatigue.
  • Sign him up for group or private lessons. But only if he wants to go. If he switches interest, switch with him. At some point, you'll want to encourage him to decide and commit to it. But not at 5 years old. At this age, you want to foster a love for exploring music. Which means you'll need...
  • Stuff to play with. If you just want to give him stuff to explore, buy a bunch of cheap instruments and fill the house with them. Kazoos, harmonicas, djembes, bongos, ukuleles...there are a million instruments (I said, "instruments," not "toys") that are under $50 and kid appropriate. Toys are fun for abusing and making sounds, but they often are what we call an "instrument-shaped object" that won't function well enough to play actual music, and they eventually frustrate kids because the kiddos figure out in a hurry that this isn't the real deal. Some blend of the two may be appropriate - toy percussion instruments and cheap kazoos or harmonicas, but a real keyboard or ukulele. The goal is to expose him to a bunch of instruments that are okay to explore and that work, and that belong to him.
  • There are classes you can do together. Music Together and Kindermusik are popular for little ones. At Five Star Guitars, we partner with a roster of local instructors who teach private lessons to kiddos as young as 4. Again, the goal is to find a class or teacher who makes it enjoyable.
  • Get out there and experience it. In the same way that attending a live sporting event gives you a rush of excitement that you don't get when you watch at home on TV, music is a different experience when you see it live. From farmers' markets to Disney on Ice, there are a lot of opportunities. Our instructors book gigs for the students to play so as soon as they're ready, they're out there playing their favorite songs for an audience. Students are arranged into bands so they play with other people at the same level, performing in front of family and friends.
    And they love it.

Let him experiment. Choose. Explore. Repeat.

You've probably done this with training methods and distances. Diets. Coaches. He'll do this with songs, artists, or genres; instruments and playing styles. To an outsider, it's confusing to try and figure out why you changed directions. For're just looking for something.  Something. And sometimes you won't know until you find it...So let him search, and go with him. But also, model that search for him in what you do with your running. He already looks up to you. Show him how you search, how you learn, what you find, how you make choices, why it makes you happy, and how you got better. He'll figure it out. I bet he's pretty smart. 

Being a professional happens many ways, but going pro isn't the only way to have a rewarding life following your passion.

I, and many of my colleagues and employees, gave up one life to get another. Actually, we all do that in some way, but here's what I's typically assumed that the only way to go pro at music is to get signed to a record deal and then tour the world. You know, an acceptance speech at the CMA's. But I, like many, gave up a life on the road (300 gigs in different cities; living out of a duffle bag and a minivan) and possible stardom for a more steady career as a local business owner and parent. And I'm happy.


If he loves to listen to music, but doesn't seem too interested in playing it, have him draw (and eventually write) about it. Maybe he'll be a music critic, expert, or historian.

If he's articulate, maybe he'll make a good teacher. Good teachers are tough to come by, and good music teachers are being hunted to extinction by budget cuts. But YouTube spawned a whole new generation of instruction, and you can now make money with it...If he's really good, maybe he can come teach for us! ;-)

If he's a great player/dancer, but doesn't want the fame or to travel a lot, there is a renewed interest in local music and the arts in general. A lot more is happening at the local level, and it's great. Quality, accessible, and realistic.

American Idol, The Voice, or whatever it will be 10 years from now. Start a band and tour. If he wants to go for a career as a performer, then that's what he should do. Rock on, little man.

Or Not

There's no reason he can't be an engineer and have a completely fulfilling life enriched by music. Sometimes the best way to enjoy what you love is to keep it from becoming your livelihood. Sometimes the pressure destroys the passion. That's for him to decide. But when it's time for him to choose, I'm sure you will have raised him to make his own good choices and he will be forever grateful that your guidance has lead him to a life he'll love. He will know exactly how to balance, cultivate, and thrive.

I told you that once I got going I probably couldn't stop. It's true, I have so many more thoughts and I'm just getting started....

But then, so are you.

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