Teaching Social Values through Music

By Patricia Shih

The following piece is reprinted from www.parentinginformer.com

Probably like most of you, as a parent I have always been concerned with teaching my child positive values about large issues in the big world as she grew. I of course tried to use words carefully and set a good example through actions and attitudes. But there is also a very powerful and enticing tool available to everyone, and it works like magic… music!  Music incites and invites excitement, and can enhance learning about social issues in a creative, fun way.

During my own very early years, in my house classical music and Broadway show tunes were often played by my parents on the stereo. I remember as a preschooler my little heart soared with the sounds and emotions of the classics; I could not explain why or how music touched me, but it did, and in a big way.

I was also being grabbed and drawn in by show tunes. I was particularly fascinated by the words that told these really compelling stories. So these were the styles of music I grew up with, and that I still love. These were the sounds that began my musical education, made me fall in love with music, and have since and forever stuck in my ear and heart.

Back then, I didn’t listen to “children’s music.” First of all, there really wasn’t a strong, robust separate genre nor were there a lot of songs that could be categorized as such. Of course there were standards such as “Skip to My Lou,” “London Bridge,” “Ring Around the Rosie” and my favorite, “I’m a Little Teapot,” (and its variations) but as a whole they never really interested me.

As I grew and my world opened, my older sister discovered pop music by the likes of Lesley Gore, The Four Seasons and Frankie Avalon, which competed with Beethoven and Broadway on the stereo. Music on the radio started blaring in our house. Then my body began to bounce and move and dance, and I discovered the excitement of strong rhythm.

But THEN, to my great good fortune, as I grew into adolescence along came . . . The Beatles. Not only did they change my life, but they seized and shook the world like a cultural earthquake. Music has never been the same since. Around the same time the “folk music scare” and folk-rock boom began. My friends and I started listening to Pete Seeger (who was not really “new” but was new to me), Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel; suddenly, as I was “coming of age,” music — the songs themselves — excited me as never before because they spoke of issues and ideas as well as emotion. They appealed to my mind as well as to my ear, my heart and my body. Suddenly music was not just sound; it was a vehicle to involve a listener totally, with ideas and attitudes, as well as deep feelings.

Much of my world view was informed by this new music I listened to. It affected me profoundly, as much as anything in my short life did, maybe even more. Why? Because music has that power.

At age 13 my parents bought me my first guitar so I could play these songs I loved. I found guitar easier to play than the piano, plus it was portable. And it was cool – the Beatles played guitars, not piano! Very shortly after I learned the instrument I started composing on it, and it was these kinds of songs – with content as well as heart and soul — that interested me most.

At age 15 I signed my first recording contract and signed with a manager/agent in Washington, DC. That really launched what was to be a life-long career in music. I have been happily captive every since. As a teenager I continued to write and perform “music with meaning” for adults, singing in clubs, coffeehouses, TV and radio; my first record, a 45 single, was released when I was 16. One of the highlights during that time was I got to sing on the grounds of the Washington Monument for the very first Earth Day with Pete Seeger (my gosh! One of my musical heroes!!!), in front of thousands of people.

Fast forward: In 1986 I started writing and performing for children and families. This coincided with my daughter being born within a year. Naturally I searched for children’s music for her that I also loved, and found… not much. Some Tom Chapin, some Raffi. I found songs about animals and shapes, colors and movement, but very little about values. So, I thought I’d better write these kinds of songs myself. So the same kind of music that I had been writing and performing for adults – songs with content – I started writing for kids. And that is how I came to perform in the schools and libraries, parks and festivals, etc. for children and families. Back then very few people were doing this, and the arts-in-education programs in the schools on Long Island, where we live, were just beginning.

I find it supremely ironic that I started as a child singing for adults, and now I’m an adult singing for kids. The great singer and songwriter Roger Miller put it very well: “If you want to change the world, sing to children.”

Anyway, the point of all this is that I learned that songs can change the world, one person at a time. And that if music can make that kind of impact on me as a young person, it must be so for most everyone. Ergo, if we are to make a positive impact on the future of the world, we must start with children.

The best resource I know for people interested in music for children is The Children’s Music Network.

Patricia Shih is a former Board member of The Children’s Music Network.

1 comment

  1. Very nicely stated. Thank you.

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