Musical babies

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February 17, 2003 // UPDATED 4:38 pm - April 27, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Downtown's MacPhail Center for Music teaches kids as young as six weeks, but their goal isn't making prodigies; it's making music fun and natural

The next Mozart, Pavarotti or Britney Spears could be among the infants, toddlers and pre-school music students at Downtown's MacPhail Center for Music. However, MacPhail's early childhood program -- teaching kids as young as six weeks -- is not meant as a training ground for tomorrow's American idols or precocious pre-Suzuki geniuses.

MacPhail early-childhood arts director Dianna Babcock says the program naturally draws a handful of "stage parents" who insist their children are prodigies. But overwhelmingly, the MacPhail early childhood program is for any parents who want their children to have fun with music.

In Music for Baby and You, a class for caregivers and babies as young as 6 weeks to 9 months, teacher Sarah Hruska Olson's class starts with a song during which she and the caregivers sing each baby's name, then clap. A baby named Grace sobs during the clapping part so Hruska Olson quickly adjusts the song so that it does not include clapping.

According to Hruska Olson, her job in the Music for Baby and You class is not to teach the babies or their caregivers about musical theory. "I'm here as an idea generator and group facilitator. I'm teaching parents things to bring home," she said.

The seven babies in Hruska Olson's current class are between 3 and 10 months old. They seem amazed just to see other babies. This social interaction is part of the goal of the class. "Babies just love seeing each other," Babcock said.

During the class the caregivers bounce, rock, pet and sway their babies while almost constantly singing or making some kind of noise.

Babcock said this class helps build a bond between the baby and caregiver. "A lot of times we're educating the parents. Children don't care what an adult's voice sounds like. They just want to hear them sing," she said.

Brain building Babcock said many parents bring their children to music classes because they have read that exposure to music can help a child's brain develop. It's a claim some academics dispute.

MacPhail's early childhood programs are not the rigidly structured music lessons that parents might remember from their childhood. Instead, in classes like Musical Make-Believe and Music for Creepers and Toddlers, children and their caregivers sing songs, play instruments, make art projects, run, dance and listen to stories. They use these different activities in conjunction with music because the MacPhail staff believes that is how children learn best.

Said Hruska Olson, "Music is at the core of what we teach, but we're trying to make music part of life. We don't do music in a vacuum. It wouldn't be as natural and joyful."

So through this integrated approach, Babcock believes that children can develop their "Seven Intelligences" proposed by psychologist and educator Howard Gardner (Frames of Mind, 1993). Gardner's intelligences are linguistic, logical-mathematical, kinesthetic, spatial, musical, interpersonal, intra-personal.

MacPhail literature for parents outlines how the early childhood classes explore each of these intelligences: "Music is one of the seven areas of intelligence, and it uses some of the other six components. Songs are linguistic, rhythm is logical, dance and finger manipulation on instruments is body kinesthetic, musical interpretation is interpersonal and the connection between musicians and instruments can be intra-personal."

However, music as a developmental tool has had its detractors since a study that claimed listening to Mozart raised IQs was disproved.

Babcock herself is skeptical that Mozart could raise a baby's IQ. She also does not claim that classes at MacPhail will make a child's IQ go up.

"I don't know about the IQ stuff," Babcock said. "But I think they definitely get a lot of benefit from it. It helps them with general things like math, reading, social skills."

Babcock said that she has seen firsthand the differences between children who have had music education and those who have not.

"I have children who are in grade school now and they have classmates who are very uncomfortable with singing -- they tend to be ones also who have more difficulty with other academic things," she said. "You can tell children who have had music early on."

Fun Whether or not MacPhail's early childhood programs are building little geniuses, one thing is for sure -- these kids are having fun.

In Yelena Tsvetovat's Musical Trolley class for 4-year-olds to kindergartners, the children learn how to contrast staccato (bumpy) and legato (smooth) sounds. This may sound like a dry subject area, but try telling that to the 4- and 5-year-olds who run around like staccato galloping ponies and slither like legato snakes.

Like most of MacPhail's early childhood classes, the Musical Trolley class runs like a "Sesame Street" show -- very short segments related to a theme or concept that streams throughout the entire class.

By the end of the hour-and-a-half class the kids have played with jingling bells, listened to a story, created an art project, gone "ice skating" on the terrazzo floor and even played a viola. By the end of the year, they will have been exposed to every instrument in an orchestra.

MacPhail assistant director Dan Abdon offers an example of integrated teaching: how to illustrate the musical concept of staccato (a rapid, short sound) using a popcorn theme.

"We read a story about popcorn. We pretend our bodies are popping corn. We do an art project with popcorn. They might get out the parachute and move in smooth and bumpy ways. Through their voices they sing in a smooth or bumpy way," Abdon said. "They'll also see what staccato looks like in music. All of these things are giving them the experience of staccato in many different ways."

Said Tsvetovat, "[The children] can use terms like staccato. Parents will tell me they were driving and their child said, 'Mommy, this road is staccato.'"

Next door to Musical Trolley, a group of 3-year-olds and their caregivers might be learning the concepts of accelerando and crescendo using a train theme. The 3-year-olds in this class, taught by Lucia Magney, may not be able to pronounce those words, but they do learn more about getting faster (accelerando) and getting louder (crescendo). The train theme works well for such a lesson because as trains get going they get faster and louder.

Magney used activities such as listening to a train story called "Window Music," playing with toy trains and creating trains out of scraps of paper, cotton balls, glue sticks and construction paper to supplement the more musical portions of the lesson.

They also sang songs like "I've Been Working on the Railroad," played with a musical instrument called a cabasa that makes a choo-choo sound and listened to recorded music.

While they are taking in these musical concepts, Magney also hopes the children are learning cooperation and gaining some school-readiness skills.

Although the classes are structured, they are far from inflexible. In the middle of the train story, a 3-year-old named Alex announces, "I have to go potty." No one seems bothered as he leaves the room with his mother, later to return looking very proud.

Parent Ashley Ilvonen said that although he had only been to one class with 3-month-old daughter Arianna, he has seen the effect music has on his daughter.

Said Ilvonen, "I'm not normally inclined to sing. But Arianna likes to be sung to. I've seen that that's been helpful in catching her attention."

And Lori Ginsberg, mother of Talia (4 months), laughed as she said, "[My daugher] comes from a family with no musical ability. This is her only chance at having some."

(Note: MacPhail recently changed its name from MacPhail Center for the Arts to MacPhail Center for Music. MacPhail president David O'Fallon said, "As we move forward into an exciting stage of growth for MacPhail we thought MacPhail Center for Music helps clarify what MacPhail does -- which is to provide excellent music instruction in programs ranging from early childhood arts to jazz, pop, world and classical.")