When I grew up, we took music for granted. The town where I grew up provided a district-wide music program for K-12. Prior to entering elementary school, my mother exposed my siblings and me to classical, jazz, Latin American music, and Broadway show tunes. We also learned songs from popular children’s entertainment such as Disney movies. In fact, I don’t recall music ever absent from our home. We listened to, performed, and explored music.
Fast forward to 1997 and the publication of Don Campbell’s book The Mozart Effect which brought a shift in consciousness to how we view classical music, in particular, as it relates to emotional, physical, and mental development. Pregnant women introduced their fetuses to Mozart’s violin concertos and mothers played Mozart recordings to jump start their toddlers’ brains. However, the years that followed the book’s publication brought criticism especially with the concept of employing music to enhance mathematical and spatial-reasoning skills in children.
Neuroscientist and author Daniel Levitan counts himself among those critics of the research findings. In his book, This is Your Brain on Music, Levitan argues that music education should be for the sake of a musical experience and not just to boost math abilities. I couldn’t agree more since my approach to music has always involved the entire being.
While Mozart’s music boosts a learning environment, it does so for the brain, body, and emotions. But only focusing on Mozart’s music for early child development is a huge mistake. Children need a variety of sound experiences, including exposure to music from other cultures, playing age-suitable instruments, and given the space to engage, and lose themselves in the joys of musical expression.
Hilary Field, a co-founder of Mulberry Bush Music and Movement (Seattle-based music program for infants and toddlers) says, “My personal feeling is that music education helps to build the intellectual and emotional character of the whole child.” Field elaborates further, “A non-judgmental environment of positive reinforcement helps to create a safe place to learn, to make mistakes, to take risks, and to explore one’s own creative potential.”
Founder of the New York City-based music program, Timbalooloo and jazz reed player, Oran Etkin released the children’s recording, Wake Up Clarinet! September 2010. Etkin who discovered Louis Armstrong during his formative years, introduces young children to diverse musicians such as Mozart, Tito Puente, Willie Nelson, and the African musician Babatunde Olatunji. On his recording, he engages children with the jazz clarinet through innovative teaching.
“I developed the Timbalooloo Method, which centers on games, stories, and songs that I designed to help children internalize fundamental concepts of music intuitively and providing them with a full vocabulary of the musical spectrum by use of songs from the masters of various genres,” says Etkin.
The jazz musician employs a whole body approach to learning music. “Music is unique because it combines many forms of development at once—mathematical thought, coordination, emotional expression, speech, social awareness, and cultural awareness are all at play when you make music,” says Etkin.
One device he uses on his recording and in his classes involves storytelling. Etkin says, “I tell stories about Brazil and about (Antonio Carlos) Jobim as a little boy and they learn the samba, count it (‘one chi-ka-two, one chika-two’), dance it, drum it and sing a song by Jobim.”
Children benefit from both listening to music and performing it starting in infancy. Parents can play any of the Putumayo Kid CDs for instance in the background, sing to their infant, give the infant a rattle to shake, and dance holding the child.
Founders of Woodstock Chimes Music Collection, Gary and Diane Kvistad produced the Chimalong in the 1980s after giving birth to their children. “Many other instruments were added which were geared towards children of all ages, but mostly focusing on young children who needed good quality musical toys to play with that would give them the sound of real instruments at a reasonable price,” says Kvistad.
Adults now in their late twenties mention to Kvistad that they grew up with instruments from the Woodstock Chimes collection. “Several had told me they are now musicians and the Chimalong was a major factor in their love of music,” says Kvistad.
With so many grade schools cutting out music programs, music in the home proves crucial to a child’s development and appreciation for various musical genres. Kvistad reflects, “It’s sad that school programs have cut back on the arts since studies have proven year after year that musical experience not only allow children to become creative, it helps in their learning in general in all subjects.”
Kvistad suggests percussion instruments, “(they) offer eye-hand coordination benefits more than other instruments due to the physical nature of playing these instruments.” The best environment isn’t the one that transforms a child into a virtuoso, but a setting where a child finds the musical experience joyful.
Field says, “Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, the founder of the famous Suzuki method for children, exclaimed, ‘Teaching music isn’t my main purpose. I just want to make good citizens. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth, and learns to play music himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline, and endurance.’”
Let’s not forget, that the genius Mozart heard music in his mother’s womb and his father was a respected musician. Amadeus and his musically-gifted sister grew up in a musical home, and city. Exposure to music won’t transform every child into a genius, but at least into a sensitive citizen.
(A different version of this article originally appeared in the Skagit Valley Food Coop newsletter, The Natural Enquirer).