Little Maestros

As music classes sweep the nation, parents and kids are getting in tune.

Introduction

Three-year-old Ellie is clearly happy to be at her "Music Together" class with her mom. After all, the weekly gathering in an airy room at the Armstrong Community Music School of Austin Lyric Opera in Texas is tailor-made to strike a chord with preschoolers. The 10 kids and their parents play with an assortment of music makers -- drums, tambourines, maracas, bells. They twirl beribboned sticks, sing along with teacher Jeane Burks's piano medley, and with a chorus of giggles, march around the room.

Burks's classes for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers help them expand their range of tones and rhythms. She sings out instructions throughout the class, noting that children remember things better when information is set to a tune. To improve melodic range and mouth movement, students imitate her funny noises and sing a nonsense rhyme accompanied by movement and clapping. "Parents, when you're at home, be sure to take advantage of whatever sounds and rhythms your child makes," she advises. Music selections in class run the gamut from lullabies to reggae; Burks believes the type isn't important, as long as it's something both parents and kids know and enjoy. Providing diverse music types helps young children express emotions and moods, she says.

Ellie smiles broadly throughout the class but only joins in the dancing and singing a few times. Yet neither Burks nor Ellie's mother, Wynne Prager, is concerned. "She's sometimes reserved at class, but when she gets home, it's like a Broadway show," says Prager. "She puts on her dress-up clothes and belts out every word of every song."

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Burks beams: another success. Her top goal is to bring music-making and singing back into the home. "The best way to do that is to get children to realize as early as possible, ideally before they get too self-conscious about 'performing,' that they can make music," says Burks, who has spent the past 15 years working in early childhood music education after receiving a master's degree in vocal performance. "Not so long ago, it was common for people to sing and play instruments and dance in their own homes and communities, and we'd love to see that return."

The classes have other benefits as well. "Music combined with movement is such a powerful developmental tool," says Ken Guilmartin, founder of the Center for Music and Young Children in Princeton, NJ, which developed the Armstrong curriculum."When children interact in classes, they learn skills they'll use all their lives, such as memorization and socializing with peers," agrees Armstrong director Margaret Perry.

Austin families are responding to the Armstrong approach. The school is flourishing, with more than half of the 600 participants kids under 8. Classes range from instruction in percussion and piano to chamber music and bagpipe lessons. Parents join in the Music Together classes for babies through age 5, as well as other classes intended for both parent and child, but aren't required to participate if their kids take group or individual classes.

Music classes are gaining in popularity elsewhere too. There are nearly 600 community schools devoted to music and the arts throughout the country, and enrollment in the Suzuki and Dalcroze methods of teaching music is also growing. Suzuki students, who begin music appreciation and instrument lessons as young as age 3, accompanied by a parent who also learns the instrument, now number roughly 300,000 in 34 countries. Interest in Dalcroze, which emphasizes improvised movement and singing starting in infancy, has increased in the past decade, says David Frego, Ph.D., assistant professor of music at the Ohio State University in Columbus.

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Children who learn about "musical literacy" from early on are much more apt to want to take music lessons and to do well at them. "We see evidence that early exposure to rhythmic learning helps children advance in instrument learning," says Dr. Frego.

Kyleen Piejko, mom of Michael, 4, and Rachel, 2, says the classes have had a wonderful effect on her children, particularly her son. "Michael would cling to me during the class, and now he can't wait to get up and perform." He also used to sing in a flat speaking voice, Burks says, and now has perfect pitch.

For Perry, the school's music-making mission furthers another goal: fostering community spirit. "When I see moms making plans to get together after class, when I see people who ordinarily would never consider learning music coming through our doors, and when I see how kids love working with performers in our 'opera in the schools' program, then I know that we're also bringing people together and getting them talking," she says. "It's really nice that the conversations started with music."

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