By Cindy Atoji Keene
Anwell Tsai is an accomplished violin soloist who has performed with many regional symphonies – so he knows a thing or two about classical music. That’s why it might come as a surprise to see him surrounded by curious preschoolers, encouraging them to toy around with a violin, plunking the strings, creating random sounds and being irreverent with a serious string instrument. But Tsai, founder of the Lexington based start-up Playful Tunes, wants to change the way we think about early childhood music programs using real instruments, technology, and social awareness. “A lot of times, the way kids are taught music is very technical so the fact that music can tell a story is lost to them,” said Tsai, who works in partnership with numerous preschools in Boston and the suburbs to test new musical ideas and adventures. He’s gotten over 1,500 preschoolers to try a violin and has a goal of making “happy musical moments” for a hundred thousand kids.
Q: Kids sitting on or throwing a violin – isn’t that a bit sacrosanct?
A: We’re trying to make instruments more approachable and make that first experience with a violin – or any other instrument – fun and exciting. We call it an Instrument Zoo, a hands-on, experiential learning time. Instead of worrying about breaking the violin, we create an atmosphere of freedom. Kids don’t have the fine motor skills that adults have, so accidents can happen, but the cost of instruments are going down, so affordable versions are not revered treasures that need to be kept on a shelf. When you put a violin in a child’s hand, they can start experimenting – what kinds of noise can I make? What happens if I put my ear up against the sound box? Kids discover by touching, listening, moving.
Q: How do you use your background as a professional violinist to reach a new generation of potential musicians?
A: I’ve always had an ability to reach out “to the fringe” and light a fire for those who might not typically be excited about music. My background was entirely geared towards classical music performances until I was asked to create the first fully funded and mandatory string program for a middle school in Louisville, Ky. This was the start of sharing my love of music – and this group of kids really responded. I’d ask them to make the violins scream or cry, sound spooky, or even ugly. The most satisfying kids weren’t the ones that could play the fiddle and got straight A’s, but the ones that took a leap of faith to try to create something new. My biggest reward came when the school’s tough lacrosse team took out their violins and played after winning a league championship – it was a musical celebration.
Q: How do you use technology to engage kids?
A: We use interactive white boards, projectors, recording software, motion detecting software, and sometimes just old-fashioned lighted keyboards. An example is that we’ll tell kids they’re going to create the story of a car coming home through a rain storm. The kids have to make all the sounds – an engine revving, tires going through gravel, wheels spinning on smooth roads, thunder and lighting. This audio of the children and their sounds and voices is added to images of the kids acting out the scene, and then it’s spliced into an actual car commercial. So the kids will see a car coming home in the rain storm and see their voices, noises and movement as part of a unified story.
Q: It’s well known that involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skills, and much more. Is there a little known aspect to the benefits of music that you’re helping to develop in preschoolers?
A: For kids up to age six, arguably the most critical part of their development is emotional recognition or developing empathy. Our core lesson in general is that sound becomes music whenever it helps tell a story; we then apply this to, ‘How can music show or change emotions?’ Take Mary had a Little Lamb – what if you changed this to Johnny Had a Dog and then the dog got lost. What does sadness sound like? How does Johnny feel? No matter how stretchy, scratchy, on or off pitch that a sound becomes, it can become part of a story that helps children with emotional labeling, which is so important at that age.
Q: Do you still practice the violin?
A: Not much, because if it would require a complete focus on just the violin. When I was a conservatory student, I loved performing but didn’t like to practice. I sometimes practiced as early as 4 or 5 a.m. – this way, I had more time to play basketball and practice my shot before school. I recall proudly telling my violin teacher that I practiced three hours a day. In a very kind and gentle way, he told me that was like poverty for me. So today, it would still take just too much commitment.