In the West African country of Ghana there is no word for performance. The act of sharing music is instead called play. Children spend their days crafting elaborate clapping and singing games, and their nights watching adults offer traditional songs to each other. Drumming is common. Singing accompanies most daily activities. Thus, play is everywhere, traditions are carried forward, and children learn how to cooperate and solve dilemmas. Music generates togetherness.
Not so in our modern society. Unlike many indigenous cultures and our own previous generations, most of us do not build music-making and dance into our existence. And because musical skill is something that must be coaxed from a child, many people have grown up feeling they can’t carry a tune or keep time to a beat. They feel that music is something for the exceptionally gifted to make, while they pay to take in its mystery. Music has become something we consume rather than something we create. The truth is that making music and exploring movement is for everyone. It’s not about performance; it’s about expression, celebration, growth, fun, emotional honesty, and community.
This is the spirit behind the groundbreaking, internationally recognized program called Music Together. In a time when music education budgets are among the first to be slashed in public schools despite empirical evidence supporting their value, Music Together nurtures children from infancy through kindergarten, cultivating their musical development with care, dedication, and joy. There are classes geared to specific age groups and mixed classes as well. Parents participate with their sons and daughters; adults and kids sing, dance, chant, and play instruments together, and leave with recordings and songbooks so that they may re-create these magical moments at home. Specially trained teachers, exposed to the latest research in early childhood music development, facilitate with enthusiasm and sensitivity, encouraging the native ability in all human beings to make music and dance. They believe this ability to be as natural as walking and talking.
Callie Hershey is a new teacher at Mid-Hudson Valley Music Together. When her daughter Reina was 15 months old, they attended their first Music Together class, and Hershey was blown away. She had been teaching elementary school for 10 years, but she had never seen a program do so much to unite parents and children in open, cheerful exploration. “Your child thinks your voice is the most beautiful voice in the world,” she says.
Former classical opera singer Carol Jurs, director of Music Box Arts in Albany, would likely agree. For her, watching these interactions is one of the greatest rewards of teaching. She observes, “You see the wonderful connection between parents and children, and how music secures that bond, deepens that bond.”
“Supporting the emotional experience of music is the most important reason to teach,” says Kelleigh McKenzie, director of Mid-Hudson Music Together. She is granting families a new way to communicate. Children are respected and their caretakers empowered. Parents get to watch children learn, and through this they discover what enhances this process and what undermines it for their child. In the end, they are the real students. They are the role models for their children, the ones who will weave the richness of music and dance into their family’s everyday life.
This fall, Music Together will celebrate its 20th anniversary. The organization has just moved into its new international headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey: a 13,000-square-foot, 150-person facility, with a special dance floor, large community room, grand piano, state-of-the-art sound system, and environmentally friendly geothermal heating and cooling system. Considering the group’s humble roots, this is a great achievement.
Kenneth K. Guilmartin established the Center for Music and Young Children (CMYC) using the royalties generated from a copyrighted version of the original song “Happy Birthday to You.” It had been written by two sisters from Kentucky, kindergarten teachers Patty and Mildred Hill. Guilmartin’s grandfather, a music publisher, had helped the Hills to set up a fund; all proceeds from their original classic were funneled to early childhood music education. By 1987 CMYC had expanded, and Guilmartin joined with Lili Levinowitz to create the materials used for the first Music Together classes.
While it is true that schoolchildren who learn music tend to do better in math and that the College Entrance Board has found that high school seniors who have studied music appreciation score roughly 60 points higher on the verbal and 40 points higher on the math section of the SATs, such academic statistics were not Guilmartin and Levinowitz’s primary motivation. They looked instead to psychologist Howard Gardner’s work that supported music as its own separate human intelligence and focused on the learning theorist Edwin Gordon’s evidence that all people have at least average musical aptitude. They noticed that this aptitude had been stunted in many children because it was not being nurtured during those crucial years of development before grade school. This was devastating to them, and they wanted to work toward changing it.