Monthly Archive: March 2014

4unnamedThis week I want to introduce you to individual musicians who are making a difference in their communities through their unique musical talents.

Today—meet Miriam Choi—a very talented, selfless musician! She lives in Melbourne, Australia and teaches advanced level Suzuki piano.

What makes her so special and so unique as a music teacher is that she is willing to work with young people with significant challenges—challenges that make learning to play a musical instrument rather difficult—challenges that include autism and selective mutism (SM).  Most people understand what autism is, but most do not understand selective mutism.

2unnamedSelective mutism is a disorder that occurs in childhood and is characterized by an inability to speak in certain settings such as school or public places. It is associated with anxiety and is thought to be a form of social phobia. So taking music lessons and performing in front of an audience can cause extreme anxiety.

But Choi understands these difficulties and using a combination of music therapy, a lot of love and patience, she connects with these young people and teaches them to play the piano at a high level of expertise.  She also helps parents to be more patient and supportive of their children and to use motivating vocabulary. Then going one step further, she gives these young people enough faith in their abilities to perform in front of others. Her gentle approach helps these students blossom into confident musicians.

1unnamedBenjamin has been taking music lessons from Choi since he was four years old. He has SM. Despite this, he is a talented musician and plays the piano with a high level of expertise and feeling. Through Choi’s support, Benjamin can now perform in front of audiences and even take a bow after his performance. Recently, he felt comfortable enough to introduce the piece he was going to play—Beethoven’s Sonata. He said, “The Sonata is written by Beethoven the Composer—not the dog!”

Today he is in secondary college and has goals to enter a university. Regarding Benjamin’s development in music and life, Choi says, “I have witnessed the power of music to help a young man overcome his disabilities and shine in many other areas of his life. Helping him explore his musical gifts has been most gratifying. He has gained admirers for his piano playing but also for his kind and polite attitude.”


The poet Robert Frost said, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” Miriam Choi is an awakener—through music she awakens children and transforms them into confident musicians and people.

(read more about Miriam Choi in my book, Good Music Brighter Children)

Sharlene 2014


Think about what it would be like attending a school where creativity is experienced at every grade level; where children discover things rather than being told things; where children learn to think using self-discovery and experimentation, and where music and the arts are utilized in every classroom, everyday.  Think about the excitement. Think about the possibilities…


Welcome to WoodrowWilsonElementary School in Bartlesville, Oklahoma—one of fifty-two schools in the Oklahoma network of A+ Schools—where music and the arts are an everyday learning strategy! Teachers at Wilson are dedicated to helping children learn through the arts and Kanda Hill and Darlys Lickliter are the specialists who play a key role in seeing that this goal is realized.

 Kanda Hill has been the school’s art specialist for the past nine years and is the A+ coordinator. She assists teachers with art projects and creates dozens of lesson plans that incorporate the arts. She fills the school resource room with art and music supplies, instruments, dance mats, art prints, puppets, math manipulatives, CDs and other hands-on materials to help children learn better.


4unnamed Hill also works with the Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra in bringing music programs to the school that complement learning in the classroom. One year, the symphony presented Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Students created plaster masks of their favorite character and wrote stories about Peter and the Wolf from the perspective of the animals.

Darlys Lickliter has been the music specialist at Wilson for twenty-two years. Her program includes Orff, Kodály, recorder, drumming circles, rhythm instruments, a keyboard lab, and an eighty-five-person school choir. She is responsible for the daily, “Rise and Shine—Wake Up, Wilson,” morning assembly where the entire school gathers together to sing songs. Students also learn about different composers. When learning about Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” they studied his life, his music and the characters in “Firebird.” Then, they created a stage and puppet actors and presented the play incorporating Stravinsky’s music.

unnamed Since Wilson has become an A+ school, the difference is noticeable. Lickliter says, “Our school has gotten away from worksheets. Learning is now focused on experimenting and hands-on activities. We use art, drama, and music to teach math, reading, social studies and science.”

 Even though Wilson has a large population of low-income families, the test scores are impressive and their students outperform students in other demographically-matched schools.

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Hill also sees the change in Wilson, “School is no longer boring. Through the arts, classroom subjects come alive…students are not just a test score or a number. Through the arts, we are teaching the whole child.”

 William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” At Woodrow Wilson Elementary, teachers are using the arts to light an educational fire!

(read more about Woodrow Wilson Elementary in “Good Music Brighter Children”)

Think for a minute about your child’s current school teacher. Ask yourself—does he/she love to teach? Does my child’s teacher use creative, artistic, and music strategies to make learning fun and interesting? If you answered “yes” to these questions—then your child is fortunate because this is not the norm in most classrooms. However, Kristin Leidig-Sears, a sixth-grade teacher at President Avenue Elementary in Harbor City, California is a teacher who encompasses all these qualities.


Kristin Leidig-Sears with the book 

Leidig-Sears believes in the power of the arts for stimulating learning in children and for every subject she teaches—math, history, social studies, science, reading and language arts—the arts are infused. For example, when studying rituals used in ancient Egypt, students create their own rituals using music and musical instruments.


1unnamedWhen teaching fractions and ratios, she demonstrates the correlation between fractions and musical “straight eights,” quarters and sixteenths. When teaching science and the food web, students put their artistic talents to work creating ecosystems in a community. They write songs that feature the ecosystems found in a rainforest, tundra, a desert, grasslands or indigenous forests.

Everyday she stimulates her students’ creative juices through music and the arts. The result?  “Learning that sticks!” she emphatically says.

3unnamedCurrently, her students are studying the book, The Hunger Games. And of course, Leidig-Sears is off and running with ideas to incorporate the arts into her teaching. Students write essays while listening to the score playing in the background. And, like in the book, students are divided into teams. Each team of students is responsible to design a newspaper complete with original cover designs; an editorial section; an advertisement section; an art section that includes original costume designs; a food section describing what the team members eat, etc. Throughout the day, students can be found singing songs from The Hunger Games which weave over 100 vocabulary words taken from the book—which, by the way, is a great way to memorize vocabulary words!

2unnamedLeidig-Sears observes, “There is nothing like the arts for helping students totally immerse themselves in school subjects. And best of all, the arts teaches them that learning is fun.”

Plato said, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”  Through the arts, Leidig-Sears is awakening each student’s “soul to the universe,” “wings to their minds,” “flight to their imaginations,” and “life to everything!”

March is “Music In Our Schools” month and so to honor this month of music, I want to spotlight three amazing school music teachers from across the United States.  Today—Elva Jean Bolin, Music Specialist at Peoria Elementary School in Peoria, Colorado.


Elva Jean loves music and she loves to share what she knows about music with young people. Her career as a school music teacher and private music teacher spans forty-two years. And she has witnessed amazing changes with those students involved with music.

In 2000, she started the Peoria Violin Program at Jamaica, a kindergarten through third grade school. Her inspiration? The movie—“Music of the Heart”—a true story about Roberta Guaspari, who on a shoestring budget starts a violin program at Harlem elementary school in New York City. So with her principal’s support; a $10,000 grant from the Texaco Foundation to purchase violins, and thirty-two students, Bolin was off and running.


Today the Peoria Violin Program boasts eighty violins and with over fifty participating students. A free violin and free lessons are provided for interested students in the low-income neighborhood. Once students start the program, they can continue until they graduate from high school. Except for a small stipend, she donates most of her time to the program. Bolin also teaches general music classes to 522 children at Peoria.

“I’m fortunate to teach in a district that is supportive of the arts,” says Bolin. In 2011, Bolin was named one of “Fifty Directors Who Make a Difference,” by School Band and Orchestra magazine (SBO). In 2008, she was inducted into the Colorado Music Educators Association Hall of Fame and received a twenty-five-year service award.


Elva’s middle school orchestra teacher, college viola teacher and herself at the Hall of Fame presentation

Today, in addition to her music classes, Elva Jean is teaching five after-school violin classes and two before-school violin classes. Each day she works with thirty students on keyboard along with fourth grade students learning the drums; and second and third-grade students who are preparing for a music concert. And if this isn’t enough—in her “spare time” she teaches five private violin students and one viola student!

In summing up her music career, Bolin says, “The energy I have invested in the lives of my students has been paid back one-hundredfold by their excitement, love and enthusiasm for music.”


Elva Jean Bolin ready to play violin for La Pastorela

Bravo to Elva Jean Bolin—a music teacher changing young lives one musical note at a time!

Sharlene 2014

Today I want to discuss a topic I find extraordinarily interesting and is associated with people who oftentimes are connected to the arts and sciences. It is call synesthesia—and I think you will find it as fascinating as I do. But first, a little explanation is in order:

What is synesthesia?  Synesthesia is a word that comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aesthesis (perception) and literally means “joined perception.” It involves the crossing over of a person’s senses; particularly with sight, sound and taste. Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., author of The Man Who Tasted Shapes describes it like this, “Imagine a world of salty visions, purple odors, square tastes and green wavy symphonies.”  In his work, Dr. Cytowic met a man who literally tasted shapes; a woman who heard and smelled colors and other synesthetes (as they are called) who saw the alphabet in a wide range of colors.

Synesthesia can involve any of the senses, but the most common form involves colored letters and numbers. For example, the synesthete always sees a certain color in response to a certain letter of the alphabet or number. For example, they might see the word “flower” as bright pink or the number “5” as green. Many other synesthetes hear sounds in response to smell (a sound can taste like pickles), who smell in response to touch, or who feel something in response to sight or injury (one woman saw the earth bathed in orange when she experienced pain).  Just about any combination of the senses is possible.

It is estimated that synesthesia occurs 1 in 200 people to 1 in 100,000 people with women being three times more likely to have it than men and with left-handed people having it more often than right-handed people. It is thought that synesthesia may be inherited through the X-chromosome.

Some synesthetes see shapes and colors when listening to music and transform those shapes and colors into works of art. Wassily Kandinsky was such a synesthete. The vision for many of his paintings came from music and he believed that music and art were fused.  His artwork combined his interest in harmonious relationships between the sounds of music and color, and he used musical terms to describe his paintings, calling them “compositions,” and “improvisations.”

Music composer, Franz Liszt was also a synesthete. Read how he conducted an orchestra: Friedrich Mahling said, “Liszt would astonish the orchestra when he said: ‘O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!’ Or: ‘That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!’ First the orchestra believed Liszt just joked; more later they got accustomed to the fact that the great musician seemed to see colors there, where there were only tones.”

Another composer and synesthetic, György Ligeti said: “Major chords are red or pink, minor chords are somewhere between green and brown. I do not have perfect pitch, so when I say that C minor has a rusty red-brown colour and D minor is brown this does not come from the pitch but from the letters C and D. I find, for instance, that numbers also have colours; 1 is steely grey, 2 is orange, 5 is green. For most people the sound of a trumpet is probably yellow although I find it red because of its shrillness ….”

With the creation of the Internet in the 1990s, there are websites devoted to synesthesia and international organizations such as the American Synesthesia Association have been created. Because of the nature of synesthesia, it has been and continues to be a source of inspiration for artists, composers, poets, novelists, and digital artists who possess this ability.  I’m just presenting the tip of the iceberg about synesthesia, so my suggestion—get a book related to the topic (see below), or go online and begin the discovery of this baffling phenomenon.

A short-list of famous Synesthetes:

Music Composers: Franz Liszt, Zoltan Kodály, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Leonard Bernstein, Billy Joel, Alexander Scriabin, Olivier Messiaen, Jean Sibelius

Musicians: Itzhak Perlman, Kanye West

Artists: Wassily Kandinsky, Vincent Van Gogh, David Hockney,

Poets: Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud

Scientist: Richard P. Feynman (physicist)

Screen Star: Marilyn Monroe


Book: The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard E. Cytowic, M.D.


Suggested Activity: Okay, so most of us are not synesthetes, but like synesthetes, is it possible for us to be influenced in other ways by, let’s say, color? The answer—absolutely! Each color of the rainbow, like music, vibrates at its own frequency as does every organ and cell in our bodies. When we are ill, these frequencies are distorted. However, color therapists can help restore these frequencies by using colored lights to bringing balance to the cells and thus initiating healing. Rather than going to a color therapist, try a “colored meditation,” to bring healing energy into your body. Close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting in the sand looking out over the ocean or on a mountain top looking out over the colorful horizon. See the details of your experience: the blue water ebbing and flowing, the yellow sun, the blue sky, the green mountain tops; the rich brown soil, etc. Then look up at the sky and imagine a beautiful rainbow forming.   In your mind, quietly ask that the color you need most at the moment will flow out of this rainbow and into your body, filling it with healing energy.  I love doing this with one of my favorite CDs: “The Pachelbel Canon with Ocean Sounds.” Expect a soothing, healing experience!

Sharlene 2014

For the past two weeks we have discussed the “Five Musical Musts.” And now I want to add what I call “The Four Musical Methods.” These are fun ways I developed to enhance your musical experience, whether you are playing one of the “Five Musical Musts” or any other classical piece of music.

These four methods include different activities to do while enjoying the music. They include:

  • Listen to the Music

  • Beat out the Rhythm

  • Dance to the Music

  • Draw what you Hear


Listen to the music: builds aural or listening skills. At home or in the car, turn on the CD player and just sit and listen to the music. Listen for specific instruments being played; the nuances of loud and soft in the music; the images you are seeing in your mind. Let your mind wander, imagine, and enjoy. Discuss your feelings about what you have listened to with a family member or friend. A book with music suggestions geared for this activity is a Metropolitan Museum book entitled: Can You Hear It? by William Lach. The book is filled with paintings from the master artists and suggestions for music listening. For example, Remington’s painting of cowboys depicts gunfire which you can listen for in Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid. This is a great activity to do with your kids!

Beat out the Rhythm: Now that you have purchased rhythm instruments, bring them out and help your child beat out the rhythm of the music. Using musical sticks, drums, triangles, sand blocks, bells or a xylophone help him feel the beat of the music. Understanding the rhythm, feeling the rhythm, and mimicking the rhythm with instruments all help to develop your child’s timing, coordination and thinking skills…plus it is fun to bang out your emotions on something!

Dance to the Music: this is the perfect time to bring out scarves, feathers, ribbons, and balloons and move and dance to the rhythm of the music. This is active, expressive listening and moving at its best! Simply put, movement is an indispensable part of learning.  Try different colors and lengths of scarves found at “Music in Motion,” or clean out your closets for something for your children to flutter while moving. For something fast and festive to dance to try: Khachaturain’s Sabre Dance or Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto RV 425 or Chopin’s Grand Valse Brillante, Opus 18 (all found on Baby Dance CD).  Bottom line—children never grow tired of dancing to music.

Draw what you Hear: Pull out the paper, the pens, the crayons, and the paints and let your child’s imagination swell and soar as she listens to the classics and draws what she hears. This activity develops visualization, imagination, creativity and imagery thinking. I love the music on the Baby Dance CD, but for something a little slower try “Listen Learn and Grow Lullabies” CD. Hang these artistic expressions on the bulletin board and give these mini-masterpieces a creative title!


Scarves, etc: Music in Motion: Look under “Music and Movement” for all kinds of colorful scarves of various lengths to dance with.

CD: Baby Dance (Erato) Once again, this is a very versatile CD that can be used for many occasions and introduces your child to some wonderful classical music selections.

Sharlene 2014

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has been one of my very favorite stories and pieces of music since I first saw it on Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Let’s discuss it in two parts: the story and the music.

The Story:


The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was written by German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He wrote it as a poem, “Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and it was based on an ancient Egyptian legend. (Goethe is considered as famous a German writer as Shakespeare an English writer).  When Disney created the movie, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, they were careful to follow the poem and tell the story exactly as Goethe wrote it. It is about an apprentice whose job is to fetch water for his boss, the sorcerer. When the sorcerer leaves one day, the apprentice (Mickey Mouse) decides to cast a spell on a broom and put the broom to work doing his job. Everything seems to be going swimmingly well, (no pun intended) but then things take a sudden turn for the worse. Unfortunately, Mickey doesn’t know how to break the spell and the broom continues to fetch water, filling the house. To further complicate matters, the apprentice chops the broom in pieces—only to have the pieces change into brooms already “programmed” to fetch water. Fortunately, before the apprentice drowns, the sorcerer returns and saves the day.

The Music:

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Paul Dukas, (1865-1935) a French composer wrote the music of Sorcerer’s Apprentice which is considered a symphonic poem (music that tells a story) and premiered in 1897. Dukas was a talented composer, but was very critical and destroyed most of the music he wrote and allowed only a very few of his musical works to be published. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is considered his most famous work.

How to Appreciate:

I think most people my age remember when they saw for the first time, Disney’s version of Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It was spellbinding; the sorcerer was downright scary, and we were hooked! To best enjoy and appreciate this, watch the Disney DVD version because it was written as a story, first, with the music following.

Because The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a story, it has all the trappings of the literary theme of consequences and choices. Yes, you can choose the beginning of the road, but not the end of the road. And all choices have consequences—both positive and negative—and like it or not, we are all responsible and accountable for the choices we make.

This is one to enjoy over and over again—it is truly a classic!



DVD: Walt Disney’s Fantasia or Fantasia 2000 (both are in the vault and would need to be rented)

Book: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Disney Book Club

Book: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Mary Jane Begin (there is a girl in this version)

Book: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Sally Grindley and Thomas Taylor

Sharlene 2014


(Maple Youth Ballet Nutcracker, Northwood Performing Arts Center, Irvine, CA)

“Nutcracker” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky should be considered a classic family favorite! The story, similar to a fairytale, is about a young girl named Marie (in some versions her name is Clara) who discovers that the nutcracker she received from her godfather for Christmas is real. Through a series of exciting events, he proves to be a young man who has been put under a spell by an evil mouse king. Throughout the story, Marie and the nutcracker visit many lands, including the land of the Sugarplum Fairy and Toyland.

I was a young child when I went to my first Nutcracker ballet at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah. I had been taking ballet at the University and some of my teachers were in the ballet.  It was mesmerizing and my favorite part was when the tree magically grew onstage to this enormous, reach-the-ceiling Christmas tree. Years later, when I took my sons to see “Nutcracker” their favorite part was—the same as mine—the Christmas tree that grew! Keep in mind…when you expose your children to this enchanting ballet, it will stick in to their memory banks forever.



(Maple Youth Ballet Nutcracker, Northwood Performing Arts Center, Irvine, CA)

“Nutcracker” is performed as a ballet usually around Christmas time and it is both visually exciting and beautifully entertaining. Watch for a production in your neighborhood around the holidays. In preparation for attending “Nutcracker,” read one of the many books available. You can choose from a variety of illustrators—each one colorful and enchanting. For older children, check out the book; Dance Me a Story by Jane Rosenberg.  Also, help your children to understand exactly what a ballet is. Ballets are enchanting stories told through colorful dancing and music and can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Many years ago, the dancing was the most important part of the ballet and the music was considered “background.” Then famous composers such as Peter Tchaikovsky began writing ballet music that was as beautiful as the dancing. So, today we go to see a ballet to see both the music and the dancing.


(Maple Youth Ballet Nutcracker, Northwood Performing Arts Center, Irvine, CA)

Last, don’t limit your family to just enjoying “Nutcracker” at Christmas time—it can be enjoyed year around by watching the DVD version or listening to the music on a CD. Be creative and have a “Nutcracker” party; have people dress up in costumes; serve fun finger foods; play the music and watch the DVD. Make this a year-around family tradition!


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CD:The Nutcracker,” Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra (Philips)

DVD: Nutcracker Mikhail Baryshnikov, American Ballet Theater

Book: The Story of the Nutcracker Ballet by Diane Goode

Book: Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann

Book: Nutcracker, pictures by Maurice Sendak

Book: Dance Me a Story by Jane Rosenberg

Nutcracker Costumes: see Music in Motion (800-445-0649)

Sharlene 2014

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