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.
“The music in and of itself is worth it,” says Stone Ridge resident Susan Hoffman, staff writer and editor of Music Together’s national newsletter PlayAlong. “So much is learned through music: rhythm, meter, melody, tonality. There’s lots of information in the simplest song or chant. We teach body awareness. We stimulate emotional intelligence. Music is a uniquely coordinating experience, connecting eye, ear, voice, brain, heart, and the kinesthetic self. It is the essence of being human. We are on a mission to change the world, one song at a time.”
With Music Together classes now offered in over 14 countries and across the US, they seem to be well on their way. Guilmartin and Levinowitz continue to collaborate, offering original music for instruction that is pitched in the right range for children’s voices (slightly higher than adults), in a full assortment of tonalities and meters. Instrumental play-alongs, rhythmic chants, and songs with thought-provoking lyrics make Music Together classrooms around the world reverberate with wonder and feeling.
Callie Hershey’s daughter, Reina, is now three years old. She prefers to hold back at first in class, blossoming when the instruments come out. A four-year-old girl in Miranda Hadyn’s Catskill Mountain Music Together class is emboldened enough to offer a unique rhythm pattern to her peers, who echo it back to her, inspiring her younger sister to attempt such leadership. She is less capable than her older sibling, but she laughs off her frustrated effort. She has watched what can be done, and is confident that she is heading in the same direction.
So it is that children react in a variety of ways within the classroom. Outside the classroom, they show the impact of the Music Together experience through how they express themselves and relate to others. Lucas has been taking class since he was three months old. His mother, Christine, reports of her 10-month-old, “We can be in the grocery store and if he is upset, I can sing a song from class and he starts to smile and calms right down. He loves to rock back and forth when he hears music, and loves to play his maracas. I have to say he always shakes them with a beat, too!” Lily has learned how to walk and how to dance at the same time. Four-year-old Elizabeth, introduced to Music Together at six months, was able to comfort a little girl who began to cry after her mother dropped her off for a play date. Elizabeth sang her “They Always Come Back,” Music Together’s song about separation anxiety.
Parents frequently report that they have rediscovered the delight of creating music. They thought they were tone-deaf or inept dancers, and have been able to release this self-judgment and have fun with their children. Whole families are transformed, and, with them, the teachers. Before finding the program, Kelleigh McKenzie was a singer and songwriter plagued by a mysterious ailment that numbed her hands and prevented her from playing guitar. A friend told her that she didn’t need to play to teach Music Together classes, and she decided to investigate. Eight years later, McKenzie reports that working with children has changed her life. She has come full circle. The feeling in her hands has been restored, and she is back on stage.
As Jurs states, “Music makes everything we do better.” Like the people of Ghana, those involved in Music Together—administrators, teachers, parents, and children—have made music a way of life. It is not performance, it is play, and it enriches all they do.
Guilmartin writes, “In this new millennium we will see a return to balance created by the reawakening, rediscovery, and creation of aesthetics, philosophies, traditions, and rituals that support participation. Stimulated by the music-making of their parents and caregivers, children will be able to develop the basic music competence that is their birthright. Guided by skilled and joyful early childhood music practitioners, the musically active family will be at the heart of this renaissance.”
Callie Hershey laughs as she shares what might serve as a powerful motto for such a renaissance. “You can sing,” she says, “and you must.”
Catskill Mountain Music Together
Miranda Hadyn; (845) 657-2600. Bearsville, Saugerties, Red Hook, and Kingston.
Mid-Hudson Valley Music Together
Kelleigh McKenzie; (845) 658-3655. New Paltz, Poughkeepsie, and Stone Ridge.
Music Box Arts
Carol Jurs; (518) 393-9580. Classes in the Capital Region.
For more information, visit www.musictogether.com.
- Hillary Harvey
- Making a joyous noise at Music Together.
- Hillary Harvey
- A Catskill Mountain Music Together class engages in a group sing-along.
- Hillary Harvey
- Miranda Haydn, the director of Catskill Mountain Music Together.
- Hillary Harvey
- One of Haydn's classes at ASK Arts in Kingston.