After-School Rockstars: Music Mama Wendy Mitchell’s Best Advice on Finding the Right Lessons for Your Kids

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom

Rocker moms and dads who want to start their budding Taylor Swift, Bob Dylan, or Ludwig van Beethoven on music lessons — but have no clue on what to do first — should meet Wendy Mitchell of Ridgefield, Conn.

In addition to playing bass and singing in various original and cover bands with her longtime husband Chris, she’s simultaneously raised three (3!) music-minded kids and held down multiple theater-teacher roles (she’s also battled a rare form of breast cancer, while barely missing a beat).

Recently, Wendy was tapped as the director for national music school Bach to Rock’s newest Ridgefield, Conn., location. In this role, she oversees the music program for the school, which, like its name, offers guided instruction and performance opportunities for most major instruments — guitar, keys, violin, bass, drums, etc.

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Wendy Mitchell at the mixing board

With the back-to-school activity sign-up insanity is in full swing, Wendy sat down with Rockmommy to talk about encouraging music-minded kids to thrive, what to look for in a teacher, and how to make practice fun.

Rockmommy: As a musician and mother of 3 — two of whom are talented musicians in their own right — how did you encourage your children in the arts at a young age?

Wendy Mitchell: Immersion— they were surrounded by music from the womb (I used to listen to classical and jazz when I was pregnant and put headphones on my belly to soothe them) so it was only natural for them to love it from the beginning. When my son was two he used to climb into the cabinet to play the pots and pans with the wooden spoon so we got him a small drum set when he was about 4 or 5 and he hasn’t stopped playing since.

Rockmommy: There are so many options for kids today, in terms of music and activities. What factors should you consider when trying to figure out the best option for your child (e.g., age, their attention span and whether it warrants private lessons, etc.)?

Wendy Mitchell: Each child’s personality and learning style is different so there is no cookie cutter formula for all kids. The best program to is one that enables your child to thrive, to feel comfortable, safe and valued, and of course one that’s fun. Music lessons shouldn’t be a chore or something they dread— music education should be a place where kids can come to express themselves creatively. As far as attention span goes, for little ones (toddlers), a program that engages their mind and body is one that will capture their interest and help them to learn the basics of music.

Rockmommy: What are some of the “signs” that your preschooler or young child might benefit from an after-school music program? And how do you decide which one (e.g., guitar, piano, voice/chorus, etc.)?

Wendy Mitchell: If your child is always tapping, moving, fidgeting and humming, chances are they would benefit from getting all that rhythm inside out. To figure out which instrument works best, keep in mind the size and shape of their hands and what they’re able to manipulate. For example, a five-year-old’s hands aren’t big enough to fit around the neck of a standard size guitar. Start him/her off on a 3/4-size guitar from your local music store and see how they like it. For kids age 5 to 6 we generally recommend our Kids & Keys program which allows children to reach the piano on their level (literally — it’s a shorter height). This teaches them the notes of the piano, scales and chords and basic rhythm patterns in a fun and interactive way that reaches them on their level. Kids are given a head set for part of the lessons and learn to match pitches and notes by playing a fun computer game..

Rockmommy: It’s been said that children need instructors who possess similar personalities, or enthusiasm. When hiring instructors, what qualities do you look for?

Wendy Mitchell: MUST love kids. PERIOD. Kids (and parents) can sense when a teacher is amazingly talented but hates their job. It’s hard to fake having fun when teaching kids music. We only hire teachers who are not only qualified but truly have a love and a passion for teaching and helping kids express themselves creatively through music.

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Wendy Mitchell, playing bass with one of her bands.

Rockmommy: Sometimes finances can be a challenge for parents — and the cost of activities can add up. How do you know if a music program or activity is worth the investment (e.g., it has to have great teachers with experience and references, etc.)?

Wendy Mitchell: You get what you pay for. If another music school’s prices are much cheaper than the “going rate” there”s probably a reason why. All of our teachers are not only qualified and come from the top music colleges form around the country but they’re also background checked across a national registry. Parents will know when a music program is worth the investment after they’ve seen progress and excitement in their child in that they want to go to their lessons and look forward to it.

Rockmommy: If your child becomes disinterested after one or two lessons, how can you encourage them to stick it out for at least a few more weeks?

Wendy Mitchell: Learning to finish what they started is a valuable lesson to learn in any aspect in life, especially when they’re young. If we allow our children to quit after things don’t go their way they will want to quit everything— from sports, to jobs, to good habits.

Rockmommy: Often times, parents expect teachers to work miracles — but if a kid doesn’t practice on his/her own, that can affect results. Given this, what advice would you offer parents?

Wendy Mitchell: I’d say that a parent has to be on board and follow what the music teacher suggests in order to get the most our of the program. All parties must be on the same page.

Rockmommy: How do you encourage children to excel at music, while not putting too much pressure on them?

Wendy Mitchell: Practice, practice, practice! Michael Jordan, Arianna Grande, Gabby Douglas or any star athlete or performer didn’t get to where they are without hard work, dedication, and practice at their craft.

— Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.

‘I Started a Band with my Toddler’: The Nap Skippers’ Julie Rustad on Life and Gigging with a Wee One

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom

Lots of musician parents dream of their offspring rocking the stage one day, perhaps after their kid finishes high school. But for drummer mom Julie Rustad and her guitarist husband Jon, their son Syver hadn’t even hit kindergarten before he started showing an interest in the big stage!

Today, the Tucson, Ariz.-based Rustads — Julie, Jon, and 5-year-old son Syver — rock out, family style, at all-ages events across the country with their band The Nap Skippers.

And for moms like me, who play guitar and sing, it’s pretty inspirational to watch.

Recently, mama Julie Rustad chatted with Rockmommy about what it’s like to start a band with your musically inclined toddler — from practicing to playing a gig in front of lots of other families and little ones. While creating a family band might not make sense for every rocker mom — especially if your child, like mine, hates performing — it’s pretty neat to see how the Rustads make it work.

(And if you want to listen while you read, check out their new single “I’m a Desert Dweller” on iTunes or Spotify). Or, check out our video page to catch a glimpse of the three-piece family band!

Rockmommy: How did you get started as a musician? 

Julie Rustad: When I lived in Philly I would play [drums] on cardboard boxes, and took one basic drumming class at Drexel. My first kit was a digital Yamaha kit because I lived in an apartment.

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The Nap Skippers with Syver Rustad on guitar and lead vocals, and Julie Rusted on drums. Photo credit: SpryTime (Tucson Festival of Books)

My first band started when I moved to Tucson about 13 years ago and it was an all-girl rock band. It got started because the band, a three-piece, they needed a drummer. We called it Sara Bellum. I was out one night, and mentioned I was a self-taught drummer, and this guy I knew mentioned the band, and said, ‘these girls I know are looking for a female drummer. You should hook up with them.’ When I got in the band, I got an acoustic kit.

Rockmommy: How did things change when you became a mom?

JR: My son will be six in September, so he’s over five and a half and he’s my only child. Before I had him, I was in a band called Mozart Sister, and the HypnoGogs with my husband, Jon, and up until 8 months pregnant I was playing shows. Once I had my son, I realized it’s really hard to have an adult band with your spouse — you’ve got to get a sitter, because you’re going to be out, and practice is really hard because of the baby. The family band came as a natural way to do music. So things really shifted from “rock and roll” to family friendly music.

Rockmommy: How did that make you feel? 

JR: It’s really fun because our son’s a natural, to see him thrive is really fun. As for me, I do miss rocking out and that kind of thing. So it’s a balance of feelings.

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The Rustads (with Jon on guitar and Syver on vocals) play Tucson Festival of Books. Photo by SpryTime

Rockmommy: How old was he when you got started? 

JR: He was 2 or 3. He’s the lead singer, and so … I think it was his second birthday we had a party at the Children’s Museum, and we said, ‘hey, let’s just play some music, some kids’ songs.’ Everyone loved it and that’s how our band was formed. If you go on napskippers.com, you’ll see live videos — he’s the lead and he sings all the songs, and plays different instruments — none obviously, he’s super proficient in — but he’ll strum guitar, or play harmonica. And the first song he wrote was when he was about 3 was called, “Cowboy Kitty.”

Rockmommy: How do you sit down and write a song with a three year old?

JR: I credit Jon, who would kind of sit with Syver, and make a tune while Syver would talk about the words, [like] about this cowboy kitty who’s riding a horse. Jon would come up with the melody and they would come up with it together. It’s almost like normal band practice when you’re writing music when you’re older and doing it too. He’s really humorous!

Rockmommy: Can you tell us about the name ‘Nap Skippers’?

JR: The funny part is he took naps up until the beginning of summer because he started camp, so he had been an awesome napper until he was five, so it’s kind of a joke. But the play on the name is that it sounds a little rebellious [like rock and roll].

Rockmommy: How often do you practice, and play gigs? 

JR: We practice maybe every two weeks. When we have a show, we’ll practice more. We play shows, and we’ve played for our county fairs. Why it took off is that there’s all these family-friendly venues that love having entertainment but family-friendly entertainment. Kids can relate to Syver because he’s a kid! And because he’s a kid, no two shows are ever the same. Sometimes he’ll come up with a weird joke, or do some new move.

Rockmommy: Does he have stage fright?

JR: He does not have any stage fright. We once played for 500 people in North Dakota. The more the better for him. That’s what I mean about him being a natural. I’d be such a shitty parent if I forced him to ‘do it’ or ‘go out there.’ But he loves it!

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The Nap Skippers. Photo credit: Trish Winter

Rockmommy: Don’t you have to have structure at shows? 

JR: He reads the order of the songs we play on paper. We’ve really kept the set kind of the same for a long time. He does like knowing the order of stuff, and we keep it pretty consistent, so if I try to switch the order he knows.

Practice is disjointed, but when there are people there, he feels like it’s a performance [and takes it seriously]. That’s what does it for him — having an audience. Once, when were going to audition for “America’s Got Talent,” one of the talent guys said, ‘send us a good video,’ so we kept recording us playing songs. But when I saw the videos I realized something was missing. Syver seemed kind of ‘blah’ so I asked one of his classmates and her family to come to our studio …  and that’s the video I ended up sending to “America’s Got Talent” — it was better when he had someone to play to. That’s what does it for him. He loves having an audience.

Rockmommy: Does he want to play any instruments?

JR: He says he wants to learn guitar. He’s five and a half, so now we think he’s ready to learn some of the chords.

Rockmommy: If someone wants to play music with their kids, what advice do you have? 

JR: Jon always has a guitar in the living room. I would say, definitely, keep your instruments out and allow for jamming and being spontaneous. Keep them accessible. And make it fun. Band practice is so random, it’s short and he’s all over the place. He’ll jump from the banjo to the ukulele — and Jon and I will hold down the guitar and drum parts — but, you know, he’s a kid. You’ve got to treat it loosely.

— Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the founder and editor of Rockmommy.

Practicing Guitar During Maternity Leave: 6 Tips

Maternity leave is a time to heal and bond with your baby. But for first-time moms it can be just as hectic as it is blissful, with baby crying at unpredictable times (like 3 a.m.) or waking up in the middle of the night several times. Still, that’s no reason you have to let your guitar playing go!

Like working out or investing time in anything you love, keeping “in shape” with your music skills is essential for guitar-playing moms.

Here are some tips on how to make time for music — or how to not let life as a mom of young ones to get in the way of playing guitar.

1. Set easy goals. When you have a child, time — the amount you have, how you use it, and how you value it — changes. Before my first son, Nathan, was born, I used to play guitar in the mornings, from 9 to 10 a.m., when I was most relaxed. In addition to teaching guitar, I played several hours every week — often times with a band in tow. Now, with two under two, I barely have time in the morning for myself other than make coffee! So I set a simple goal: play 1.5 hours a week for myself (not including time spent working on lesson plans). Sometimes a wailing (and hungry!) infant interrupts a song, but for the most part, having the goal has kept me motivated to stay in shape.

2. Keep Your guitar out of its case: When you become a mom, life is hectic even if you have help. And sometimes, even the thought of taking your guitar out of its case can be overwhelming. Do yourself a favor and keep it out in full display. If you have a toddler, like I do, install guitar hooks on your wall (we just bought several and intend to put them up any day now with my husband’s new drill).

3. Practice in chunks of time. I totally get it — you’re not going to play for two hours straight, only getting up for bathroom breaks. I’m not, either, save for the two times I had a gig last year and I lined up a babysitter so I could rehearse for two hours straight. Unless you’re a professional musician, you don’t have that kind of time anymore. What I recommend instead is practicing for 15- to 30-minute increments throughout the day. You can either time yourself or just play a few songs until baby wakes up for his or her nap.

4. Play five minutes every day. Some people wake up and meditate. Others stretch into gorgeous yoga poses. Most days, I wake up and reach for my acoustic — or at least I try to. The advice “play at least five minutes a day”— which I heard from another guitarist when I first started playing — has served me since college. And for moms, it’s especially important: Playing for just five minutes is better than not playing at all.

5. Play even when you don’t feel like playing. Do you always feel like working out at the gym? I certainly don’t! But I love the benefit of having a great figure, and feeling mentally and physically fantastic. The same goes for playing guitar: You need to practice regularly to stay in shape, or else your fingers will get sore and you will slowly forget how much you loved playing.

6. Play to your baby (even when he/she cries). This is, perhaps, the most important tip of all! Music is magic. I played guitar several times a week when both kids were in utero, and as a result, they love listening to me play. Nathan actually dances now when I play “Old McDonald Had a Farm” (although I just play E major over and over again!). Music is linked with all kinds of health benefits, such as improving mood and brain function. And when music comes from mommy, it’s even better!