Get your children ready to sing in a choir or blow into a recorder, and you'll be enhancing their higher learning abilities as well.
Schools have been giving the arts the ax since the late 1970s, when belt-tightening and a renewed emphasis on the basics began to edge arts classes out of the curriculum.
Yet, studies, including a new one from UCLA, suggest that music and other art forms taught early on ought to be as fundamental as the three Rs.
UCLA professor James S. Catterall analyzed the academic achievement of 6,500 low-income students. He found that, by the time these students were in the 10th grade, 41.4% of those who had taken arts courses scored in the top half on standardized tests, contrasted with only 25% of those who had minimal arts experience. The arts students also were better readers and watched less television.
Previous studies have found that young children who received early piano and voice lessons showed superior academic achievement later on.
But with many schools minimizing arts education, music enrichment is left more in the hands of parents, many of whom don't know where to begin or wince at the $80 or more a month that private piano lessons generally run.
A great place to start right now is at La Habra's Children's Museum, which is offering a summer exhibit centered around music and instruments from different cultures and generations. Kids listen to and play homemade "kitchen" instruments, keyboards and sitars in a mini-orchestra. The entrance fee is $4; (562) 905-9793.
There is no consensus on when formal music training should begin, but experts say that children should first be exposed to plenty of music at home. "One of the things you can do is to sing to them," said Mike Sorrells, who teaches elementary school music in the Santa Ana Unified School District.
Sorrells plays Mozart and the Beatles at home for his children. Anything, he said, but hard rock and rap. His favorite children's audio tapes include "The Carnival of the Animals" by Saint-Saens in which each instrument represents an animal and "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" by Britten.
Parents also can tune in to Radio AAHS-AM 830, the children's music station.
Once an appreciation of music has been developed, introduce your child to an instrument, said Nadia Lawrence, who taught music at elementary schools for 20 years. She suggests an inexpensive recorder as a first instrument. Reading and creating notes on the instrument is relatively easy.
You can arouse interest in different instruments by helping children make them at home. There's always the old favorite of filling glass bottles with varying amounts of water and blowing over their tops or striking them (gently!) with a spoon. Buy or borrow from the library a book on making simple instruments such as shakers, thumb pianos and tin-can violins.
City recreation departments offer a variety of inexpensive music classes, including parent-child classes for the very young.
For instance, Kids in Rhythm, offered by Irvine at $25 for two months, teaches 2- to 5-year-olds to sing, dance and play musical instruments.
On a more advanced level, some recreation departments have voice-training workshops and beginning instrument classes in group settings. Garden Grove offers beginning instruction in band instruments, piano, guitar, woodwinds, brass instruments and harmonica. The lessons cost about $65 for several weeks of classes.
Anaheim offers group piano lessons at $30 for four weekly sessions.
Eight- to 16-year-olds with budding vocal talent can audition for the county's Pacific Chorale Children's Chorus, which puts on several performances and offers training for $250 to $350 per year. The next set of auditions is Aug. 9 and 16, by appointment; (714) 662-2345.
Summer also is the time for live, free concerts in the park. The weekly concerts in various cities range from symphony orchestras to steel-drum bands. Concerts are held every Sunday in Huntington Beach's Central Park; Orange holds its concerts early Wednesday evenings in Hart Park.