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On the Job

Lexington violinist teaches kids to tell musical stories

Anwell Tsai and his son, Alec, 6, played a Chinese spouting bowl. Alex helps Tsai test new techniques for his Playful Tunes music instruction program for children.
Anwell Tsai and his son, Alec, 6, played a Chinese spouting bowl. Alex helps Tsai test new techniques for his Playful Tunes music instruction program for children. (Justin Saglio)

Anwell Tsai is an accomplished violin soloist who has performed with many regional symphonies, so he knows a thing or two about classical music. Tsai, founder of Lexington based Playful Tunes, wants to change the way people think about early childhood music programs by 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 has gotten more than 1,500 preschoolers to try the violin. His goal: making “happy musical moments” for 100,000 kids.

Kids sitting on or throwing a violin — isn’t that a bit sacrilegious?

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We’re trying to make instruments approachable. 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 discover by touching, listening, moving.

How do you use your background as a professional violinist to reach a new generation of pote ntial musicians?

My background was entirely geared toward classical music performances until I was asked to create the first 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. My biggest reward came when the school’s lacrosse team took out their violins and played after winning a league championship.

How do you use technology?

We use interactive white boards, projectors, recording software, motion detecting software, and old-fashioned lighted keyboards. We’ll tell kids they’re going to create the story of a car coming home through a rainstorm. The kids have to make all the sounds — an engine revving, tires going through gravel, wheels spinning on smooth roads, thunder and lightning.

Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skills. Is there an aspect to the benefits of music that you’re helping to develop in preschoolers?

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For kids up to age 6, the most critical part of their development is emotional recognition or empathy. Our core lesson is 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 the dog got lost? What does sadness sound like? How does Johnny feel?

Do you still practice the violin?

Not much, because if it would require a complete focus on just the violin. It would take just too much commitment.


Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.