Any parent wondering what the benefit of music is to infants and young children need only hand their child an overturned pot and a wooden spoon or a shaker full of beans and watch them entertain themselves.
Every child is born with a natural musical ability, says music teacher Stephanie Rockwood, and all children can develop musical talent with good role modelling from caregivers.
“It’s everybody’s birthright to be able to sing in tune and keep a beat and to enjoy music, and the window of opportunity for developing those basic music skills is actually wide open the first five years of life,” Rockwood said.
“It’s like learning to speak your own language, your native tongue.”
Rockwood, a native of Grand Falls-Windsor with degrees in music and education, spent 14 years as a music teacher in Torbay before moving to California for her husband’s job.
While looking for a way to teach music in the U.S., Rockwood came across a newspaper article about Music Together, a program established in 1987 and now offered worldwide.
The Music Together program is a research-based early childhood music and movement program for babies, toddlers, preschoolers and kindergarteners that emphasizes family participation. It’s not a performance-based curriculum, but more like an immersion program where children learn to sing and move with rhythm in a playful, fun environment alongside their parents or caregivers.
It’s a developmentally-appropriate program for very young children, Rockwood explained.
“It’s very inappropriate to expect a small child to perform. This is a participation program, where there are no expectations on the children. It’s a really good chance for families to bond using music.”
Rockwood contacted her local Music Together centre director, attended a few classes and fell in love with the program, realizing it was close to what she had done with her own children. After doing some research, she completed the training to become a certified Music Together teacher. She taught in the program from January 2002 until last spring, when she and her husband moved back to the St. John’s area.
Rockwood has established Music Together St. John’s and will start her first classes at the Dance Academy on Airport Road next week.
The 45-minute-long music classes will be for mixed ages of children. Parents might come with an infant and a three-year-old; grandparents might come as part of the family, and cousins, uncles and aunts can come, too, no matter what their ages. Even newborns benefit from music, Rockwood explained.
“We put the infants on their backs before they’re crawling and we do all the song actions on their tummies and their legs and tickle their necks. They wiggle and squirm and laugh and just love it,” she said.
“The mixed-age classroom works really well, because the younger children actually learn from the older children, and the older children become leaders and role models and learn empathy.”
Families sit on the floor in a circle, with the children allowed to wander or participate however they like. There’s a “Hello” song, including each child’s name, and a little song with finger actions. There’s a large movement piece where everyone gets up to dance, and a piece with instruments, where everyone sings, using egg shakers or rhythm sticks or resonator bells as accompaniment.
The highlight of the classes is often a jam session, in which everyone chooses an instrument from a big basket to play along with a song. Near the end there’s a lullaby, then a “Goodbye” song.
Movement is encouraged, Rockwood said, and for children is often synonymous with music.
“In some cultures, there’s no different word for music and movement. It’s the same. You can hardly see a child listening to music without wiggling,” she said.
“Even when we’re sitting on the floor we’re tapping the beat or swaying back and forth or doing some kind of movement, but we don’t expect the children to do it. They’re not expected to do anything, but they can’t help but join in in their own way, especially after they get to a certain age.”
According to the International Foundation for Music Research, which is based at the University of Texas, the benefits of music on a young child’s brain are many.
Music can benefit children’s cognitive abilities, reasoning and motor skills, and can lead to higher achievements in math, a larger vocabulary and better reading ability, the foundation has found. Working with musical sounds also enhances neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to grow and heal itself, the organization has reported.
The Music Together program’s main goal is to bring music back into the family, giving children a lifelong love of it, Rockwood said.
“If you look at all the people who play in bands around town, they’ll tell you that this is how they learned music when they were little — they didn’t take lessons, they just sat around at the kitchen parties and watched their mothers or their uncles and it just sank in,” she said.
“There’s no better place than Newfoundland for something like this. It’s so musically rich and people have an appreciation for live music-making. That’s one of the reasons why I was so excited to bring this here.”
Music Together classes are $160 for families with one child and $110 for each additional sibling for a 10-week session. Babies under eight months on the first day of the semester may attend free with a paying sibling.
Tuition includes a songbook, two CDs and a DVD parent guide. Classes start Sept. 20, but registration is ongoing until October. More information is available online at www.musictogetherstjohns.com or by calling 753-2424.