By Margaret M. Treadwell
Our grandchildren remind us that children are born with an innate joy in music. Four-year-old Lily has found her voice in creating tunes and lyrics, which she sings in her bath or first thing upon waking. Her sister, Nola, 3, quickly learns words to songs on the radio concerning adult concepts of love and yearning, which she loudly belts out as if on stage. And John, 3, is a guitar player who wildly strums his made-up pieces usually ending with the ABC song. They call me “Singing Nana” and frequently ask for my rendition of the WWII songs my mother taught me when I was their age.
Curious about children and music, I consulted the musicians at my church, St. Columba’s, in Washington, D. C., who shared some stories and their passion for their work with me.
The music program at St. Columba’s began in the 1970s, when rector Bill Swing and nursery school director Sylvia Buell wanted to give younger people a voice in the congregation and something meaningful to do in church. Over the years this first choir grew to include a Primary Choir (grades one and two), Boy and Girl Choirs (third through eighth grades) and The Gallery Choir (ninth through 12th grades). Parents and grandparents became involved in helping kids get to church on time to meet their responsibilities, obligations and commitments.
One of the program’s goals is to keep the innate joy of music alive. In an atmosphere of fun and encouragement, a group success is a personal triumph, which gives children a sense of well-being and dignity. No one ever is told they have no talent or don’t sing well; sometimes a child sings “off key” because they want to hear their voice distinct from others. Even when they don’t have vocal range, they expand their abilities if not discouraged or hurt by criticism. The youngest singers learn basic rudimentary diction and how to sing at their own level in a group. Soon they outgrow the fear of singing in front of the congregation, and this self-confidence spills over into dancing, acting and other areas of their lives.
Play, movement, drama and service are all part of the nursery school’s approach to music. For example, learning the Stone Soup Song several weeks ago involved the following steps:
1. Identifying the beginning, middle and end of the Stone Soup story and committing the song to memory.
2. Cooking the soup while learning about different vegetables and how to prepare them.
3. Experiencing the adage that many hands make light work and whatever one brings to the pot is a gift.
4. Examining the finished product in individual cups to learn about science and math.
5. Sharing the soup with neighbors – the church’s ministry for homeless men – to understand what joy in life is all about.
6. Eating yummy vegetable soup (well, almost everyone participated in that last step).
Music helps self-regulation as children figure out how to move and understand their bodies, including how to sit still. Then you can create your own songs. The following example is one my granddaughter, Lily Gordon, sings in her bath:
The wind blows softly and it pushes me to you.
It is time to go now,
I am ready to go now to kindergarten. I am ready.
I have to go now but it is more about me than it is you.
What can parents and grandparents do to promote music at home? Here are recommendations from the pros at St. Columba’s:
1. Sing to your baby while in the womb. She or he will recognize the song after birth.
2. Make as much music available as possible. Have a basket of musical instruments – xylophones, drums, shakers, violins and keyboards – and encourage noise and loud singing. Pots and pans with a wooden spoon will work too.
3. Turn off the TV and encourage all the family to participate in the fun. We learn best in relationship with each other. Remember that a child’s natural expression of joy isn’t necessarily convenient for parents, so make spaces for it.
4. Help children memorize songs. We own a song when we sing it by heart.
5. Provide opportunities to hear concerts and musical plays at an early age, but if your child wants to leave early – leave!
“Teaching music is not my main purpose. 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.” – Shinichi Suzuki
Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. She teaches a course on congregational leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary.