By Melissa Shaw
Seven pairs of parents and preschoolers stand in a circle -- but not for long. Soon they're pretending to be squirrels, digging, swinging their tails, hopping...and singing. At the direction of music educator Jan Barlow, the group quickly becomes ducklings, foreheads on the carpet, posteriors in air, mimicking ducks underwater. The group is still singing, but now there's a fair amount of giggling emanating from the 3- and 4-year-olds.
As the song ends, the group sits, a relatively rare occurrence in this 45-minute early childhood music class, which at times looks more like a fitness class for all its movement.
"If we were going to plant a garden, what do we need?" Barlow asks the children.
"Shovels!" "Seeds!" "Halloween!"
You never know what you're going to get from the preschool set, but here in this session at Apple Tree Arts in Grafton, a few things are clear. The kids are having fun, they're moving and thinking, and, perhaps unknown to their parents -- who are matching them note for note and hop for hop -- the children are developing their young brains in astounding ways that will benefit them through adulthood.
Parent/child music classes are some of the earliest extracurricular activities families can enjoy together. Infants too young to sit up unassisted can perch in their parents' lap, hold an egg shaker, and absorb tonal and rhythm patterns. While moms and dads may view the outing as simply a welcome weekly get-together with other adults, music exposure and early childhood classes can be key investments in developing a child in myriad ways.
Why Making Music Matters: Singing, Playing, Moving and Sharing in the Early Years, a research paper funded by Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute, reports that early childhood music programs provide six distinct benefits:
* Building brains and bodies * Forming relationships * Communicating and imagining * Sharing and managing feelings * Being with others * Belonging to a community
"Just as exercise builds physical fitness, music can 'tone' young brains and bodies," the report states. "Just like language, music is a shared, expressive, inventive, portable way to be together. If put to work, it can be a powerful force in the lives of young families."
"Music really engages your entire being -- your brain, your body, your fine motor skills, your gross motor skills. It's a full educational development experience," says Barlow, a 20-year veteran music educator, performer, and musician. "It creates a better whole being. We're all born with a tendency to being left-brained or right-brained; we work toward that strength naturally. If you add a creative component to that, you're using both sides of your brain and creating more brain activity."
And, she notes, the earlier exposure to music and movement, the better: "The more neurons we cross in our brains before the age of 9, they're ready for you for the rest of your life. At 11, those neurons that are being connected start to prune; the pruning goes on until they're 25. If you continually expose your children to a positive creative environment -- go to live music shows, go to plays, sing and dance every day at home -- that can have a huge impact on a child."
Early, continual exposure to music develops the vestibular system, which plays a huge part in creating the whole child, Barlow says.
"Your vestibular system -- the inner ear -- communicates to the rest of your body," she explains. "It's all about hearing. It starts 23 days after conception; the vestibular system is able to hear and translate sound. That is the system that creates your ability to move. It talks to your brain, which then talks to your spine. The vestibular system is talking to the brain, which is making all of the systems work. It also creates the development of your sight. Your hearing system is one of the most essential tools to help you grow and develop to the best of your ability."
So what on the surface may look like simple playtime fun -- singing songs, clapping, or pretending to be a leaf floating on the wind -- is a key building block in a child's development.
"A lot happens in there," she says of the class. "Everything we do is very purposeful. It looks like a party, and it feels like a party to the kids and the parents, but there's a beginning, middle and end to everything we're doing."
Early childhood music classes, such as those offered in music schools across Massachusetts and the world, are paying off in ways far beyond knowing all the words to "Mister Sun," parents say.
"The changes I have seen in Willow from the first class to the last class were dramatic," says Rebecca Baker, whose 4-year-old was a student in Barlow's Apple Tree Arts class this year. "She is a sweet, confident little girl with adults, but was a bit shy with children her own age. Miss Jan's class has truly helped her come out of that shell! It took her until about the last class to sing out loud when called on. What a gift, she was so proud and happy with herself! At home and in public she was just belting out all the many different songs she had learned. Willow would even correct me if I got some lyrics wrong, 'No, Mom, it goes like this.'"
Baker enrolled her daughter seeking an opportunity for more socialization with peers and says she was "surprised at just how much of an effect this class had on Willow's developing self confidence. It is now a common sight to see her singing out loud during the course of our day, even when we are out in public."
Danielle Wence's son and daughter enrolled in Barlow's class as preschoolers, several years apart, and each received different benefits, she reports.
"Because Anna is very reserved, I never expected her to participate and open up so much," Wence says. "She would get there and she was like a different child: She would sing, she would dance, she was very social. She's very shy, but she really came out of her shell with the music."
Four-year-old Benjamin takes speech therapy to improve his enunciation, yet Wence notes: "When he sings, we can actually understand him. It's helped both of my kids in very different ways, which as a parent is super cool to see. We're going through the same curriculum we did with Anna, but he takes very different things away from it."
Writer Amy Nathan is author of the Music Parents' Survival Guide and the mother of two sons who were captivated by music early on. Son Eric, a composer and assistant professor of composition and theory at Brown University, became entranced at 18 months old after watching an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood featuring famous musicians. Nathan wisely taped any future episodes featuring musicians, and those episodes -- and repeated viewings by the toddler -- led to Mommy & Me music classes, piano lessons at age 6, and later serious study of the trumpet. Today, Eric Nathan is an internationally renowned composer whose work has been performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and throughout the world.
And it all started with a chance viewing of Mister Rogers.
"Eric had to watch it over and over; he watched it so much he memorized the patter between Mr. Rogers and the musicians," she laughs. "That really sparked it."
Her younger son, Noah, now a political science professor at the University of Michigan, fell in love with jazz and played saxophone up through college. While he no longer performs, Nathan says her son remains an avid jazz fan, who reports that music and participation in bands delivered many real-life benefits that continue today.
"He thought he learned so much from jazz in terms of teamwork and cooperation, how to be a small piece of a much larger puzzle," Nathan says. "The concept of doing your part, how that aggregates into something collective you would never achieve on your own."
Nathan says her son also notes that studying instruments and being members of bands yielded other practical benefits.
"From practicing, you realize new challenges in new fields are not insurmountable," she says. "You think: If I can get to the point where I can learn this incredibly bizarre notation and come to the point where it comes naturally to me, it's less daunting to learn other new complex things, like statistics."
Noah Nathan says the collaborative nature of bands proved beneficial in unexpected ways, like navigating group research projects in graduate school, and the improvisational nature of jazz and the spotlight of solos helped him learn to think on his feet.
"He never has a problem now with public speaking because he had this experience learning how to stand up and do your solo in a jazz band," his mother says.
Music even helped her sons handle the challenging years of adolescence.
"Having music and being in ensembles and school bands gave them a sense that the cliques at school, those weren't the only people that were important," Nathan says. "It gave them a way to navigate the social situations of middle school and high school. They had their music friends. Socially, it helped both of them develop."