When brother and sister Matthew and Margaret Straw were each 4 years old, they were learning to recognize notes by ear on child-sized stringed instruments.
“We adhered to the Suzuki method,” Melissa Straw, their mother, said. “They start by developing the ear to hear the notes, and then they learn to read the music.” Music was never optional for the Straw family; both music professionals, Melissa and her husband, Michael, have deliberately infused it into the daily life of the family.
“We knew we wanted them to play,” Melissa said. “Exposing our children to music was very premeditated. We felt that it was just as important as teaching them manners or how to read.”
After about three years on the strings — Matthew on cello and Margaret on violin — the children began taking piano lessons. On a typical day, Matthew, now 10, practices piano with his dad before school, then he has “pp,” or personal practice, on the piano after school. He also has personal practice on the cello and works with his mother in the afternoon.
Desiring music to be more than simply an outlet of expression, the Straws have created a musical world for their children with the intention of building self-discipline into their character.
“We see music as a confidence-builder and an opportunity for them to start something new and see it through,” Michael said.
Matthew said he didn’t start playing because he wanted to. “My dad said we were going to start cello, and I said OK,” he said.
Mary Manulik, who has taught Matthew since he began taking cello lessons, praised the boy’s musicality, noting that he plays pieces as though he’s singing them. “That’s a rare thing in someone as young as him,” Manulik said. Although Margaret, now 8, is the youngest musician in the family, she plays the violin with authority: standing, straight-backed, her face composed and her music memorized. Although she is in the third grade, she can’t imagine life without music.
“I don’t think that would ever happen,” Margaret said.
Musical roots for the Straw family run deep. Michael, 52, has been the music director at Broadway Christian Church for more than 20 years and teaches voice in his home. He grew up in Carthage, in southwestern Missouri.
With two musical parents, his love for music started early. Michael participated in musicals in elementary school and sang in church. “In sixth grade, I was Prince Charming in the community theater production,” Michael said. “I was hooked.”
After graduating from Pittsburgh State University, Michael came to MU for graduate school. While singing in the University Singers choir at MU, Michael met Melissa, a music education major who caught his eye. The two were married in Columbia in 1993.
“We were the most fun in the group,” Melissa recalled with humor. “So it was natural that we got together.”
Melissa, 37, grew up in Carrollton, in the north-central part of the state. Like her husband, she was raised in a household filled with music. The pleasure of being part of an elite ensemble clicked for her after participating in Missouri All-State High School Choir.
“It was then that I became aware of the magical qualities of music,” Melissa said. “It was the first time I came to an aesthetic understanding of the beauty of music, I was with people who had the goal to create the most beautiful thing together.”
Melissa has taught choir and comprehensive music at Smithton Middle School since 1995.
Early on a recent Wednesday, she stood enthusiastically before her concert choir. When Melissa heard something that needed work, she stopped. The students sat down on the risers, waiting.
“A lot of people don’t think guys your age can sing well,” Melissa told them, “but that’s because they don’t think.”
Melissa knows that sometimes she requires odd things of her students to encourage their progress, including on this day bobbing up and down on the beat and making fish faces. “It may seem strange, but what I’m doing is in your best interest as musicians,” Melissa explained to the choir. “Thank you for taking that risk with me.”
Melissa speaks with equal favor of her position as the director of the Missouri Symphony Society Children’s Choir, a position she has held since 2003. “It’s an elite auditioned ensemble of some of the best singers in the area,” she said. “It’s such a pleasure to watch how hard these students work.”
With as much enthusiasm as his wife, Michael Straw gives voice instruction in the basement of his home. One blustery fall evening, he accompanied 16-year-old Robert Seigfreid of Mexico, Mo., on his 9-foot grand piano as Seigfreid sang “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”
“A song like this allows you to work on muscle memory for the voice, but it still gets you in the ho-ho spirit,” Michael told the young man.
Seigfreid has taken voice lessons from Michael since August and has noticed exponential improvement in his singing ability. “He knows what he’s talking about,” Seigfreid said.
Most of Michael’s students juggle a variety of activities, including voice lessons. Unlike many teachers, Michael does not emphasize hours practiced or mastery levels reached. He does, however, expect to see that his students are learning and progressing.
“The joy for them is coming every week to sing because they want to,” Michael said.
Hours of practice are never discussed in the Straw home. Michael and Melissa tried to develop practice time with their children by practicing alongside them. Now, they encourage personal practice time.
“Sometimes I get tired of practicing,” Matthew said. “But then I’ll hear Scott Joplin, and I’ll get excited about playing again.”
Margaret is particularly motivated by her daily practice time. Perhaps that has led her to be less afraid when she performs for an audience.
“I used to not like playing quite as much as I do now,” Margaret said. “Now I feel more anxious and excited to play instead of nervous.”
Melissa stressed that their musical experiences have been rich.
“The true luxury is having children who are happy, well-balanced and who have been exposed to something great,” Melissa said. “It was incumbent upon us as parents to expose our children to music.”
As Matthew played a rousing rendition of a Joplin rag, Michael insisted there is nothing extraordinary about his family’s love for music.
“I don’t think of us as a musical family,” Michael said. “I just think of us as a family who happens to do music.”