This morning, I stopped to ponder the road I’ve traveled to get where I am now – which led me to consider a few of those roads that I didn’t choose. The one that stood out to me was that decision, nine years ago, to pursue graduate studies in Montessori education rather than music therapy - a decision that led to living and teaching in rural Mexico for three years, which ultimately led to an interest in Latin American history on Patrick’s part, which landed us here in the land of Duke, et cetera, et cetera.
Nine years ago, despite my background in classical music, my confidence in my voice, and my ability to read music and harmonize, there was one thing on the list of qualifications for admittance to the music therapy program that made my heart sink a little. The paragraph said something about fluency in guitar or piano or both. Fluent I was not. I was a putzer. A dabbler. A “learned-the-basics-but-never-had-the-discipline-to-REALLY-master-them,” decidedly amateur musician.
Had I known then what I know now, I would have applied anyway. For what I’ve learned, these past eight years of working with little children, is that they could care less how you play the guitar, or, for that matter, how you carry a tune. What matters is that you enthusiastically demonstrate your love for music, and surround them with it. If you do that, you’re already an amateur music therapist for your family. No need for a degree. I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned over the years that have helped make our family music time a joyful bonding experience.
1. Drop everything when there’s an interest
We don’t have a schedule in place for family music time. It happens organically, when one of us, adult or little one, feels thus moved. This morning, Finn finished his oatmeal, hopped out of his chair, and zoomed over to play the washboard. With no second thoughts or “we need to clean up after breakfast first” parent-y statements, we left our dirty dishes on the table and joined him. Lachlan had other plans, namely pushing his stroller around, but he eventually joined in, too.
We were recently gifted an old swing set by our neighbors, and have found it to be an unlikely help in the music department. I call it “captive music time,” when the boys are happily swinging and often “singing” along, yet both Patrick and I can bring out a few chairs, sit down with our guitars, and work on some more challenging songs and techniques. I think of it like modeling a love of reading – you aren’t going to curl up with Goodnight, Moon when you have a moment to relax – you’re going to read a good novel. No need to play children’s songs all of the time – nourish your own love of music, too. The kiddos will notice.
2. Provide a handful of real, yet child-accessible instruments
It’s been really wonderful to see the boys hopping from one instrument to the next, rarely squabbling over who gets to play what. In our music corner, you’ll find a ukulele, several harmonicas, a washboard and some soup spoons, a small pair of drums with drumsticks, maracas, shakers, and jingle bells. A popular item with both boys is the small basket of guitar accessories that only comes out during music time – a guitar tuner, regular picks and a set of finger picks, a slide, and some capos.
3. Make a list of your family’s favorite songs
Do you find yourself singing the same three songs over and over because you just can’t recall any others in the heat of the musical moment? We did. Oh my, we did. Queue internal parenting dialogue: “Oh cr**. If we sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider one more time, I’m going to wish for the rain to wash me out, and I’m going to wish for many, many rainy days so I don’t have to climb up that spout AGAIN.” Here’s the thing – I don’t think it’s just us adults that get stuck in a rut with a certain set of songs. Kids forget, and wish they could remember, other songs just like we do. Having a set of favorites that you can call on during family music time really helps.
The list doesn’t need to be fancy. It doesn’t need to be too long. I would suggest starting with at least twenty songs. Start with songs you know your child already loves. When other songs come to you – from your childhood, from a book, on Pandora, etc., write them down. Any song you enjoy singing as a family, or a song you’d like to teach your children, should go on the list. We keep ours on the side of our piano – out of the way but always there.
Not sure where to look for children's songs? We love All Together Singing in the Kitchen, Rise Up Singing, The Singing Day, Elizabeth Mitchell, Raffi, and listening to the Indie Children's music station on Pandora.
4. Learn, or make up your own hand motions and movements for songs
As tempting as it can be to hide behind your guitar and strum “D – D –A –D” over and over again, don’t. What really gets kids excited about music is movement – the hand motions, the spinning, the clapping, the stomping, the pretending. Make sure to add several movement-heavy songs to your family music time.
We all know the Itsy Bitsy Spider – what about Pick a Bale O’ Cotton? Look to the words to come up with your own motions. Have your kids pretend to be an animal while singing Old MacDonald – they’ll love it when you have to guess what they’re acting out!
5. Sing the same song in different ways
Nothing gets a three year-old going more than singing the same song fast, then slow, then loud, then soft, then operatic, then just plain goofy. Sing the song like a dog. Like a cat. Like a cow. Enough said.
6. Introduce new songs with stories
When I was teaching 3-6 year-olds in Mexico, before kids, I had a lot of time on my hands outside the classroom. I had time to knit socks, to knit sweaters – I spent a lot of time knitting. And talking to my cats. My cats spent a lot of time grabbing my balls of yarn and running around the house with them, much to my chagrin. This happened so frequently that I wrote a little ditty about my cats and their yarn addiction, which I shared with my students. “Una gatita,” (a little cat), was a hit because it had a story behind it. My own boys now love it as much as my students did.
When introducing a new song, try to come up with a way to personalize it, to make it come alive for your audience. Be it a true story from your childhood or a made-up story of the going-ons in the natural world, a little context goes a long way.
7. Turn on the speakers and jam
No need to be purist and only make your own music! I’ve found our Pandora jam sessions to be a great variation on family music time. It’s also a great way to expose kids to different genres. This morning, for example, we ended our time together with a few blues songs. We tried to name the instruments we heard and we worked on imitating the beat. Don’t hesitate to come up with dances for the various genres while you’re at it. Just make sure to have a video camera hidden in your hand to capture the cuteness.
May your music-making be merry!