Let’s Make Music, Baby!

I wonder how important it is to get infants and young children involved in activities. My friends and I didn’t participate in anything until we started school—no music lessons, no sports—and we turned out OK. But studies suggest that there is a very narrow window of time in which children can become fluent in music and languages. Anyone who has tried to learn another language as a teenager or adult knows how challenging it can be, and they’ll probably never get the accent quite right.

Babies have a real advantage when it comes to learning music or language. When an infant is six months old, they have twice the neuro-connectors as an adult, and they’re gone by the time the child is six to eight years old. That means a very young child can learn languages and music easily, and they can have good tone, pitch or accent.

Several local programs tap into that need to get music and language embedded in kids’ brains while they are still young and pliable. Children can learn anything if it is part of their everyday experience. The basis of the Suzuki method of learning to play an instrument came from the observation that Japanese children don’t have any trouble learning to speak Japanese (which is a difficult language to learn) because they hear it everyday.

Maybe I turned out OK without music and language lessons, but maybe I could be speaking Spanish fluently and effortlessly now, instead of hacking my way through it every time I’m in Latin America. Maybe I would be able to sing in a way that doesn’t make people cringe. Programs like Music Lingua, Kindermusik and MSU’s Suzuki Program give children the opportunity to speak foreign languages, play instruments and sing like they were born to it.

Music Lingua
“Music and foreign language both use different, but complimentary parts of the brain,” explains Gigi Swensen, President of Music Lingua. Swensen and Ellen Guettler co-founded this program in 2001 to teach foreign language to very young children through music, movement, storytelling and drama.

Music Lingua uses music because “everybody remembers something set to music far better than learning by rote (memorization),” Swensen notes. Music Lingua participants are given a CD (primarily written and recorded in Swensen’s attic/studio) to listen to “ad nauseum”. By the first class, according to Swensen, the children already know most of the songs, and they can then focus on comprehension using puppets and other props. “We can hold up a horse and say ‘cheval’, we don’t have to tell them that the word for horse (in French) is cheval.”

A child won’t be fluent after one Music Lingua session (many of the students are too young to speak at all), but they’ll have a grasp of some vocabulary and a good ear for the language, making it easier to pick up as they get older. Like anything else, the more they practice and are around native speakers, the more fluent they will become.

Ages: infant—eight
Contact: Gigi (French, German) 406.586.1770, Erica (Spanish) 406.582.0039
www.musiclingua.com

Kindermusik
In the 1960s music educators in Germany created a program where teachers led parents and their children through activities using music and movement. They gave it the unwieldy name “Musikalishe Fruherziehung”, or “music for the young child”. The program was adopted in U.S. in the 70s and its name was changed to Kindermusik.

“It’s a private musical playgroup that is developmentally appropriate for the age of the children,” explains Kindermusik instructor Jackie Swanson. The youngest children play percussion instruments and experience things like tempo, high and low, soft and loud. “But we don’t label them,” Swanson says, “It’s all very experience-based and high energy.”

As children get older an intellectual leap is made and they begin to learn about musical notes, crescendo, staccato and other musical terminology. Since they’ve heard and played the sounds, it’s a quick jump to understanding what they are hearing or playing. At this point they progress from simple percussion instruments to the glockenspiel—a German instrument similar to a xylophone.

“Kindermusik provides and overall education,” says instructor Christa Sheasby, “not just a music education.” Parents learn more about their children and how to bring music into the home in a positive way,” she explains. Kindermusik students take home CDs and books to bring music into their every day lives.

Ages: infant-first grade
Contact: Jackie 406.585.7946, Christa 406.581.3996
www.kindermusik.org

Montana Sate University Suzuki Program
The Suzuki Method, created by Dr. Shinichi Suzuki applies the basic principles of language acquisition to the learning of music. He called his method the mother-tongue approach. If children are brought up in an environment with music,” says Jennifer Frye, Director of the MSU Suzuki Program, “it will become a second language.”

While the Suzuki Method applies to all things musical, it’s violin that is taught at MSU and parents learn alongside their children. In addition to one group class and a private session each week, parents practice with their children daily. “I was a Suzuki kid and I treasure that time I spent with my mom everyday,” remembers Frye.

There is more to the violin classes than just learning to play an instrument. Dr. Suzuki’s goal was not simply to develop professional musicians, but to nurture loving human beings and help develop each child’s character through the study of music. Frye says that is an essential component of her classes: every child can learn to play music, and every child can be a loving human being.
Ages: three-adult
Contact: Jennifer 406.994.3402

Montana Parent
October 08, 2007

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