Photo by Harold Shapiro
One rainy night in July, I drove to my dad’s house in Middletown to learn about my early childhood music education. From the kitchen where we sat I could see the door to his large studio, with the grand piano and piles and piles of music. I asked him what music I heard during my first five years of life, 1966-1971.
Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor. Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 3 in B minor. Works by Boulez, Chabrier, Fauré, Haydn, Webern, and others. Songs of the Sacred Harp tradition. At my maternal grandparents’ cabin on the Elk River, my dad recalled, “They had lots of sheet music. We’d gather around the piano and sing – ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,’ many popular songs like that.”
At home, my dad – composer/performer Neely Bruce – didn’t “perform” classical piano works; he practiced them on the old upright piano in our living room, the only instrument my parents could afford. Listening to him practice, I heard short phrases played, repeated, changed, replayed. The right hand, the left hand, two hands together. When he composed, I heard him puzzle through notes and chords at the piano. He went slowly. He wrote things down. It was my first exposure to the artistic process.
Over the last 15 years or so, public interest in early childhood music education has exploded, spurred in part by new research showing that music is good for the developing brains of children. I have my own children now, and most parents I know are at least vaguely aware that music helps make children “smart.”
This popularizing of scientific theory can be traced to the 1993 study that coined the term “the Mozart effect.” Researchers at the University of California, Irvine concluded that listening to Mozart increased spatial reasoning in adults. Other scientists have theorized that good music increases “neural plasticity” in the brain – a kind of structural flexibility believed to facilitate learning. More recently, exposure to music has been linked to increased mathematical ability; improvements in memory; enhanced verbal ability; and an increase in overall cognitive functioning.
But when my two young children spontaneously break into song, dance around the backyard, and bang on pots and pans, my first thought isn’t their neural plasticity. Of course, positive brain development is one great reason to expose children to music at an early age. But the research, as fascinating as it is, doesn’t capture the essence of what music is or why it’s good for children.
There are three major methods of music education, each developed by an individual musician in the 20th century: Kodály, Orff, and Suzuki. Today, early childhood music education programs continue to draw on these three great traditions, often explicitly, sometimes in hybrid forms.
The work of John Feierabend, Professor of Music and Director of the Music Education Division at The Hartt School, University of Hartford, is rooted in the Kodály method, developed by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály.
“Kodály believed that the voice is the most personal, accessible instrument,” Feierabend explained. “A lot of parents don’t know how to sing songs to their children. My goal is to teach songs to parents, so they can sing to the children.”
Kodály felt that folk songs from one’s own culture are the best songs to sing to young children. As they grow, children take their knowledge of folk songs and use it to develop classical music abilities. For older children, Feierabend explores classical music and movement in a program – available in two DVDs – that he developed with former Martha Graham Company dancer Peggy Lyman. But for the little ones, he says, singing folk songs is the best.
“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “This Land is Your Land,” “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me” – these are some American folk classics that I know by heart. I sing them easily. Kodály, I suspect, would say there’s a reason I know these songs. They are simple, elemental, and passed down through generations.
“I think it’s great that there’s a burgeoning market in children’s music,” reflected my dad. “But that kind of music doesn’t necessarily have a life after you grow up. Other music you can return to throughout your life, and find new meaning in it.”
The Kodály method de-emphasizes built instruments. The Orff-Schulwerk method is different. In the 1920s and ’30s, German composer Carl Orff designed a system of percussion instruments for children including xylophones, metallophones, and glockenspiels. Orff-Schulwerk (which roughly translates to “Orff for Schooling”) incorporates singing, movement, chanting, storytelling, rhyme, and keeping the beat in a process that gradually moves children into ensemble music-making.
Since 1978, Margaret O’Hara-Best has been teaching preschool and elementary-age children in the New Haven Public Schools using the Orff-Schulwerk method. The Orff instruments, she said, are completely accessible to people who have never been exposed to music before. To play them, children use gross motor, rather than fine motor, skills, ensuring a high degree of comfort and success.
In her classes, preschoolers have limited access to the Orff instruments. They use them to play “Stop and Go,” with O’Hara-Best serving as conductor, and they improvise within certain tonal scales. As they grow older, the instruments enable them to make musical sound together.
“A big part of the Orff philosophy is that instruments used to teach children should sound good. And they do,” said O’Hara-Best. “They’re beautiful.”
“Music is an art,” my dad reminded me. Children respond to music that is beautiful, expressive, and emotionally rich. For me, this is a key to understanding early childhood music education. As Feierabend put it, “We want children to be beatful, tuneful, and artful. It isn’t enough to give children skills. We want them to feel something. We want them to express something.”
Aesthetic values were important to Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki method. Suzuki observed how easily children learn their “mother tongue” (their first spoken language) and believed that every child could learn music just as easily. He recognized that even babies in utero appreciate music.
“He recommended that pregnant mothers choose one piece of baroque or classical music, five minutes in length, and listen to the same piece every day,” explained Dawn Rockwell, director of the early childhood music program at the Bethwood Suzuki Music School in Woodbridge. “The baby will recognize the music immediately after birth, and mother and baby will have this wonderful shared experience of music.”
The Suzuki method is famous for its approach to instrumental lessons for young children, sometimes as early as ages 3 or 4. Suzuki placed great emphasis on listening. Before young children learn to read music, they learn to hear music through a process Rockwell describes as “listening and translating.” The Suzuki early childhood method of pre-instrumental group classes was developed by Dorothy Jones. This method incorporates Suzuki’s core principals of listening, parental involvement, and exposing young children to classical music.
Is there anything young children shouldn’t listen to? Absolutely. According to John Feierabend, very young children respond best to the unaccompanied voice.
“Research has shown that as you add layers of accompaniment to a song, babies and young children lose their ability to hear the melody,” he told me. “When a child hears heavily accompanied music, they ignore it. They can’t take it in. This kind of music actually desensitizes young children to music.”
Feierabend described a 1997 study by a high school student who exposed mice to different kinds of music, then recorded their progress navigating a maze. Mice listening to no music reduced their maze time by 5 minutes; mice listening to Mozart reduced their maze time by 81⁄2 minutes; and mice listening to acid rock added 20 minutes to their maze time. Incredibly, these mice actually ate each other.
“They did the study twice and got the exact same results both times,” laughed Feierabend. “I guess children shouldn’t listen to acid rock.”
For parents seeking to enroll their children in early childhood music classes, Neighborhood Music School (NMS), located in downtown New Haven with satellite programs in Guilford and Madison, offers a range of opportunities, reflecting the school’s understanding that every child is unique and learns differently. Beyond being a great place to expose young children to music, NMS fulfills an important civic function: it’s a community resource for people of all ages, a center for the learning and sharing of all forms of music and dance.
“We have a philosophy that creating a rich and stimulating atmosphere is critical for human development,” said Larry Zukof, director of NMS. “The more stimulating, the better. We know that children need human contact, song, vocalization, movement, and a variety of materials that they can manipulate. We also know that putting young children into lessons – more structured learning – too early can impede their musical development.”
At NMS, early childhood music classes combine music and movement and expose children to a variety of musical forms. Pam Welch, director of the school’s early childhood music program, and many of the early childhood educators at NMS have trained with Feierabend and draw on his Kodály-based approach. They also incorporate classical repertoire. Some NMS early childhood faculty members are Orff-Schulwerk educators. This fall, the school has added two Orff-Schulwerk classes for children in grades 1-2, further increasing the diversity of its program. NMS also offers early childhood Suzuki classes through the Teddy Bear Rhythms program in Guilford (older children may continue with Suzuki lessons at the New Haven site).
For children ages 6 months to 4 years, NMS’s core early childhood classes, “Making Music,” offer an integrated approach that keeps kids playing, singing, listening, and moving. For children ages 3 and 4, the program branches in two directions: “1-2-3 Sing With Me,” a more singing-based class, and “Rhythmic Movement,” which is more dance-oriented.
For a different approach, Liz McNicholl, director of Musical Folk, teaches Music Together classes at two locations in New Haven and will soon be expanding to Branford. Music Together, a play-based program, offers fun, interactive musical learning for young children using songs, rhythm instruments, and recorded music. Songs are arranged or composed to appeal to children. They demonstrate particular musical principals and build on one another. Some of the music is traditional folk; many songs are composed by Music Together founder Ken Guilmartin.
Like Music Together, Kindermusik, another early childhood program, operates as a for-profit business. Music by the Sea offers Kindermusik classes in Branford, North Madison, Guilford, and Old Saybrook. Music Together works with a mixed group, ages 6 months to five years. NMS, Kindermusik, and Suzuki classes group children within more limited age ranges.
While classes offer valuable learning opportunities for parents and children, they are expensive. It costs several hundred dollars to provide continuous early childhood music classes for one child for one year. For many families, especially those with more than one child, the cost may be prohibitive.
But singing at home is free. I have an anthology of folk songs, and I search the Internet for new song ideas and lyrics I’ve forgotten. The public library has resources too. Neighborhood Music School offers scholarships in early childhood classes. And McNicholl periodically offers free Music Together classes at the New Haven and North Haven public libraries. For parents so inclined, religious communities such as churches and synagogues have always played an important role in music education by exposing children to live music. As they grow older, many children in the Greater New Haven region are fortunate to work with wonderful music educators like O’Hara-Best and others, both in public and private schools.
Music educators agree: live music is best. As my dad put it, music doesn’t come from a box.
“You saw from a very early age that music is something people do,” he said. “Today many people basically think that music is recorded. In the music stores of my childhood, there was only one small section of recorded music. The rest of it was sheet music, instruments, music stands – things for making music.”
When people make music together, they embody community in its best, most joyful sense. I see it in my own children and have experienced it in my life. Most children won’t become professional musicians. And that’s fine.
“Teaching music is not my main purpose,” Suzuki said. “I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline, and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.”
It was late. My dad yawned. He’d gotten up at 4am that day (to practice the piano of course). I had 35 miles to drive and a busy day of work and children ahead of me. I thanked my dad. For the dinner. For the conversation. For the love of music he instilled in me from the beginning.