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“I learned that it’s OK not to be shy.”

6 Apr

Last week, I gave a presentation on early childhood music development to a group of grown-ups (pre-school parents and teachers) in Jersey City, NJ. At one point, we all sang “Clap Your Hands” (doing all sorts of clapping, tapping, beeping, and stomping together). After the song I asked: “If you can imagine that you all were children during that song, what do you think you were learning?” The group gave a variety of answers — all pretty profound — but the one that has stuck with me is this, from a mom: “I learned that it’s OK not to be shy.”


I learned from her that, whether we are children or adults, when we are allowed to play — to just be silly and goofy in our music-making, regardless of whether or not we’re “doing it right” — then it feels safe to make a sound, make a movement, experiment, and explore. When we provide this kind of supportive, informal, play-based environment — in a Music Together class and at home — we are giving our children a safe space to be musical in their own way.

Keep making music at home in that kind of goofy, silly, non-judgmental way — it’s a huge gift to your children (and to you!).

[A NOTE ABOUT BEING “SHY:” Some children — and grown-ups — will certainly be what we call “shy” in class (or in other settings). I think that the Jersey City mom was talking more about risk-taking than actual shyness. For my own shy child, at Music Together she was able to take her own kind of risks — like leaving my lap to get an instrument, or making eye contact with the teacher — because she felt so supported in the class setting. However, she never stopped being “shy.”]


“Your Trick Works!”

4 Apr


Last semester, we played in class with leaving out the words in songs and chants, which gives our children the space to audiate (or hear inside their heads) what’s missing. Once our children can audiate songs/chants, they can start to express the music (by singing or chanting parts and, eventually, the whole) themselves. One mom tried this leave-out-the-words game at home, and was surprised with the results! Here’s her story:

“There’s this song, Captain of the Ferry Boat, that my parents sing to [my daughter]–and I started singing it to her as well. Today I tried your little trick of leaving out words at the ends of phrases…and she said the words I left out. I was pretty flabbergasted. Thanks for the tip!”

Magical things can happen in our purposeful silences. Give this a try at home, if you haven’t already…

[Note: This mom recorded an audio clip of the game in action and sent it along to me — not only was her one-year-old daughter saying the words the mom left out, but she was also working to match the pitch of the missing words — she was singing.]

Never Say Never

4 Mar

OK, so when my 8-year-old daughter started making noise about wanting to see the Justin Bieber docu-movie, I cringed. I don’t have anything against The Biebster (in fact, I don’t understand why so many people knock him), but did I really need to see thousands of tweenies screaming for him, and in 3D, no less?! Apparently — yes — I did need that. My daughter and I saw the movie last weekend and I loved it. Didn’t want it to end. Crazy, right? Listen, I enjoyed the music, the dancing, and the vast numbers of kids I saw singing at the tops of their lungs. JB’s story (at least the version told in this movie) is compelling, and I was rooting for him the whole way. There are even a few hilarious self-mocking moments that make him seem even more like a “normal” boy (which he’s not, I totally get that, but I allowed myself to be swayed while in the theater).

From a music development perspective, there’s an interesting section in the movie about the house where he grew up: His mom was a teenager when she had JB, and her teenage friends would come to  her apartment and hang out (’cause that’s what teenagers do, after all), and they were musicians. They sang and played guitar, bass, drums, etc., and JB was right there in mix. Between that home scene and his church (also musical), JB seems to have grown up in an environment filled with music (which explains, at least in part, how he could drum some amazingly complicated rhythms as a four-year-old — the home movies are ridiculous!). Now, not everyone with a rich musical home environment is going to become a Justin Bieber, but I will hazard to say that it’s harder to become a Justine Bieber without it.

I’m glad I volunteered to accompany my daughter to the JB movie (while the rest of my family saw something with far fewer screaming tweenies in it). When I first saw the previews I thought, “Well, I won’t be seeing that movie.” Know what? Never say never.

“Is he usually this shy in class?”

28 Feb

Last week, a grandma brought her grandson to class (giving his mom a much-needed break), and she had a great time. After class, she asked this question about her grandson: “Is he usually this shy in class?” Interestingly, I didn’t experience the not-yet-two-year-old boy as “shy” at all — he left his grandma’s lap many times to roam about the room, get instruments out of the box and put them back, and explore my guitar; he bounced, rocked, and swayed to the music; he sang notes here and there; and he watched me intently throughout the class. I suspect it’s this last behavior that the grandma interpreted as “shy.” When he’s at home, she said, her grandson is loud and energetic and has a generally big presence. Seeing him with a different kind of energy in class was — well — different. It makes sense to me: We do all kinds of things in class that don’t usually happen in a concentrated 45-minute span at home, and many children respond to class activities by absorbing, taking it all in, and storing up the musical information to experiment with later. That’s not the same as being shy, though — which is great to know! I told the grandma about another mom who described her child as being “on record” in class and “on play” at home. “Oh,” said the grandma, “That makes so much sense!” Now, she can notice her grandson’s “record” time as the way he’s processing input, without labeling him as anything more than “taking it all in.” I’m sure that once she got him home, her grandson pressed his “play” button…and turned the volume up to 11.

What if Sting Sang “Happy Puppy” Sometime?

23 Feb

“Happy Puppy, Silly Cat” is a fantastic song — older children love to tackle all those words and the younger ones love all those “meows” and “arfs” — and yet grown-ups tend to have a hard time with the rhythm. Why? Because it’s not symmetrical — you can’t just tap your knee mindlessly in and up-down / up-down way, and you can’t just sway back and forth in a la-la-la / la-la-la way. It’s more like “la-la-la” on one side and “up-down” on the other. What kind of groove is that? Well, for those of us born and raised in the U.S., it’s a weird groove, that’s what. But for people from other parts of the world (think Greece, or Bulgaria) it’s totally normal. And for jazz musicians, too, playing rhythms that are not symmetrical is just another day at the office. So, unless you’re a Bulgarian jazz drummer sitting in on a Music Together class, “Happy Puppy” can be a bit challenging. The great news is that it won’t be nearly so challenging for your kids as they grow up. I can testify to that: My 10-year-old and 8-year-old children sing and tap along to “Happy Puppy” (and the other asymmetrical Music Together songs they’ve grown up with) as easily as they do to “Twinkle, Twinkle.”

As for Sting, here’s a clip of his song, “Seven Days,” which also sports an asymmetrical meter (notice how, like “Happy Puppy,” the song defies your attempts to just easily sway back and forth or tap a simple up and down rhythm along with it?). Think one day he’ll lay down a recording of “Happy Puppy?” It’d be fun to hear him do all those “arf”s…

Can you hear the cinnamon?

16 Feb

My 8-year-old daughter is not a big fan of cinnamon in her baked goods. Sometimes I make cookies or muffins and try to sneak a little cinnamon in the recipe, just because the rest of us in our house really like the spice, and still she can taste it right away. (That means more muffins for the rest of us, but that doesn’t seem quite fair.) At the same time, she loves cumin and is happy when that flavor crosses her taste buds (though, I confess, I don’t put cumin in my oatmeal cookies just ’cause she’s a cumin-lover). What I notice in all this is that she has had enough exposure to a variety of spices to actually recognize them and form opinions about them, and I am happy to have given her a rich assortment of foods to experience.

Same goes with music. Our family sings and listens to a rich variety of music (pop, blues, rock, musical theater, world music, classical), and my children can recognize (and form opinions about) the “spices” used in certain songs. Once, during a musical interlude at Sunday services, my daughter said, “Hey, they’re playing a Chinese song!” Now, I don’t know if the song was from China, but it shared the same “spice” as other Chinese songs she’d heard (she was taking Mandarin in school at the time). In this case, that “spice” she heard was the “pentatonic scale,” and the pentatonic scale is the “basic scale of the music of China” (source: Wikipedia). She recognized that pentatonic-spice quality in the song and was able to describe it with words, which allowed her to have a deeper connection to the music than she otherwise would have had. (Luckily she reacted better to the pentatonic scale than she does to cinnamon.)

Each Music Together collection is loaded with a mixture of musical spices. Most songs in our Western culture sound a certain way — they’re in a “major key” and they have a four-beat, “marchy” rhythm (think: “The Wheels on the Bus”). If we only listened to those major-marchy tunes, it would be like eating plain noodles with a little salt — all the time. Instead, we throw in songs like “The Love Song of Kangding” (not major! it’s in the “pentatonic” tonality); “Happy Puppy, Silly Cat” (not marchy! it’s got an “asymmetric meter,” with three-beat and four-beat chunks taking turns); “Mix It Up!” (not major! it’s in the “mixolydian” tonality, like The Kinks: “You Really Got Me”); and, let’s not forget the song of songs (as far as this blog is concerned), “Spin and Stop” (not major OR marchy! it’s in the “dorian” tonality AND it’s got a three-beat, waltz meter).

By giving our children this musical variety, we are filling their developing musical brains with examples of different tonalities and meters that — once they encounter them again in life — will enable them to have a deeper connection with music, a greater facility with music, a heightened appreciation for music, and a generally easier time with music. Given how many U.S. adults these days consider themselves to be completely non-musical (argh!), this is a great gift to our children!

So, why don’t you throw on a little Kinks and take a listen to “You Really Got Me,” again, now that you know it shares the same spice as “Mix It Up!”. Can you hear the “cinnamon” in both songs? Your child probably can, and that’s pretty cool.

Baristakids: Music Education is Essential

9 Feb

Check out this article on Baristakids about the importance of making music, both in a family and school setting.

Music as a doorway to creative thinking? You betcha.