5 Things I’ve Learned from Music Together (So Far)

This Fall I signed Cora up for classes with Music Together.  Of course I’m learning a lot too.  And, as usual, I’m wondering how I can translate all that I am seeing, hearing, and doing in these classes into lessons for myself and my students in the field of visual art education.  Here are 5 things I’ve learned, or been reminded of, so far.

1. For-profit art education franchises need not be evil.
Based on my familiarity* with for-profit visual art education franchises, I was skeptical of Music Together.  Even though it came highly recommended by friends I respect on educational issues, I was concerned the class would feel superficial and contrived.  From the first session, however, I was convinced that this program was well-researched and delivered in an authentic manner.

All of which I will explicate further in my next few points. . .

2. Teacher enthusiasm for the subject she is teaching is a key ingredient to successful instruction.
As I wrote about the music teacher at my step-daughter’s school last week, being in the classroom with a teacher who demonstrates genuine, personal enthusiasm for what they are teaching permeates the learning space with an energy that is palpable and models a love for the discipline to students.  In our classes, Leigh plays her guitar and sings with passion.  She is 100% present throughout the entire 45 minutes of the class.  She dances during the free dance song with gratitude for those few minutes to move her body to the music with us.

Reggio Emilia credits a trifecta of teachers with student learning – parents, teachers, and classroom environments.  What the concrete block classroom where we meet in lacks in style, Leigh more than makes up for with her personality.

But a winning personality isn’t all it takes to make a great teacher. . .

3. Arts education advocacy demands parent education and involvement.
Leigh is not just a music educator, she is an advocate for music education.  She infuses each class with parent-directed commentary about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how to extend the activities at home.  This is generally done at the beginning and end of class, as she strums her guitar, and at other relevant moments during the lesson.

I never feel I am being pandered to or spoonfed factoids.  So often Leigh’s advice comes at exactly the right moment, as if she is reading my mind.  Like the week she encouraged us to indulge the kids when they ask to hear the same song over and over and over and over again.  (More on this later).  Suddenly I felt like a Super Mom for listening to “Ram Sam Sam” 13 times in one car ride. And this teaching helped me practice patience the next time I found myself in the same situation.

Unlike the storytimes at the library Cora and I attend, there are no side conversations between parents at Music Together.  We all sing.  We all play instruments.  We all move to the music.  Like today when we were in groups each making the sounds and enacting the play of different instruments – drums, trumpets, voices, and fiddles – as Leigh conducted us like an orchestra.  Our active involvement might be attributed in part to the fact that we are paying for the program, unlike at the library.  But I’m pretty confident that it is mostly because Leigh, and the literature from Music Together**, have convinced us that our participation is important to our children’s development.

Of course its easier to get involved when the content is engaging. . .

4. Introduce artistic exemplars that speak to learner on various levels.
I admit I was a bit nervous that the music in these classes would be lame and I would feel bored and irritated by it.  It seems so many programs with music for young children rely on the old standards – The Itsy Bitsy Spider, The Wheels on the Bus.  Thankfully, Music Together’s song collections come across as “research-based and artistically conceived and produced.”

Music Together employs nine song collections which they rotate, nationally, through 10-week class cycles.  In other words, this fall, all children enrolled in Music Together classes across the country are working with the Fiddle collection. Fiddle includes is a wide variety of musical genres – American folks soungs and international rhythms, most with lyrics but some without, most with instruments others acapella.  It is not hard to imagine how songs could be reused, following a spiral curriculum concept, to introduce basic concepts to younger children and more advanced concepts to older students.  I know I’m picking up different things from the music than Cora.

Which brings me back to listening to the collection over and over and over and over again for ten weeks.

5. Repetition can open doors to deeper understandings.
To be fair, Leigh warned us on day one that we would grow tired of the songs in the song collection before the class was over.  However, she also taught us that as we were growing weary, our kids’ would just be starting to master the lyrics and rhythms.  “Your children will learn through repetition, repetition, repetition, and, repetition, and then more repetition, repetition, and repetition,” she advised.  She distributed a growth chart with benchmarks for our children’s musical development and has encouraged us to look at them periodically to see how our children are growing.

This all got me thinking about the conversations I have had with people over the years about notable differences between music and visual arts education.  Unlike in music education where repetition and practice are guiding principles, we tend not to repeat ourselves that much in the visual arts.  We complete a project and move onto something new.  Of course most visual artists don’t work this way, they work in series.  They work with a theme.  Is there some place for repetition in the visual arts afterall?

I don’t mean for this to read as an advertisement for Music Together, although I am satisfied with the program and plan to reenroll for another term.  I realize that different instructors enact curricula differently and we may have just gotten really lucky with Leigh.  Regardless of the larger picture, in this particular setting, with this particular teacher, Cora and I are both learning a lot.

[*Admittedly, my familiarity with for-profit visual art franchises is limited to what I have read on their websites. Perhaps I ought to try out a class and write about that.  Would you be interested in reading about it me and Cora’s experiences in such a program?  Might enroll for research’s sake.  Who knows, I might actually find something about it I like.]
[**Wonder how many folks read the Music Together literature.  Wonder if they ever tried to find out.]
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12 thoughts on “5 Things I’ve Learned from Music Together (So Far)

  1. Thanks for your thoughts! I have my twins enrolled in a different type of music class but Music Together sounds much more interactive! I am going to look for a class in my area!

  2. I’m a sucker for fluffy mama-blogs; in fact I usually prefer them. They’re a respite from what’s hard and real. But what you’re doing is substantive and engaging. Yay for intelligent escapism!

    • Thanks so much, Elana! I am trying to straddle that line between self-indulgent reflective writing and something with a bit of scholarly value.

  3. This is a wonderful summary of the things that got me excited about Music Together when I was bringing my son to classes 10 years ago. Like you, I was skeptical. I was a conservatory trained musician and I had my M.Ed. I, too, worried about the music being too saccharine. Little did I know. We had already made the decision to send our son to a play-based preschool, and Music Together’s philosophy is/was a perfect fit for our family. It didn’t take long for me to decide to start teaching.

    Music Together LLC did something radical 25 years ago: They created a curriculum that actually incorporates early childhood research. For decades, educators have known (due to study after study) that kids learn best through play, but we continue to create preschools, day cares, and programs that utterly ignore what the research tells us. Not only do the founders of Music Together embrace the research (and conduct active research of their own in their lab-school in Princeton, NJ in order to learn more, tweak, and improve their curriculum and instruction), but–more basically–they have the most sincere intentions. I have never seen evidence that they are aspiring for wealth and notoriety. Rather, they exude a sincere desire to see more young children and families singing together. Plain and simple.

    Thank you for your reflections, Jodi.

    • Leigh, I know you attribute much of your success as a teacher to Music Together’s curriculum. But your musical and educational training, as well as your experience as a parent and all the other people, places, and things you have encountered throughout your life, must also play a role. So, I still wonder about how teaching in the program may vary from teacher to teacher and am VERY grateful to have you.

  4. Jodi, I couldn’t agree with you more. You have articulated a lot of the things that I try to tell our friends and family about why this has been such a wonderful experience for E and me. Honestly, I think I look forward to class on Mondays just as much as E does. I love seeing E do the things that Leigh and the literature tell us the kids will start to do. We were in the car the other day and just as one song was ending E started singing the lyrics to the next one even though it hadn’t started. Wow, the brain just blows me away. That point goes along with something I am noticing more and more. E is smarter and more perceptive than me. I think it was class 3 of MT and the play along song was ending and Leigh was starting to collect the instruments. E said to me, “Next is night night song. Leigh turn off lights.” I wasn’t sure if he was right. I actually thought maybe there was one more song before she sang the lullaby. I should have known that he would be right. I love that the class follows a pattern even though it isn’t glaringly obvious. I find that those types of patterns bring E great comfort. It reminds what a big and crazy world we live in and that our toddlers are just searching and searching to make sense of things.

    (this is emily by the way)

  5. I have to second everything Jodi has said about Music Together – it is a fantastic program and clearly research based – as well as Leigh’s approach. Her MT class is awesome, and has been wonderful for the twins. I have always felt that a good teacher can make all the difference in the world – good teachers are worth their weight in gold IMO – and Leigh is an EXCELLENT teacher (and it’s not just the curriculum – I enrolled the twins in another MT class simultaneously last spring. It was very good, and we enjoyed it, but it wasn’t totally *super-great*. Leigh’s MT is super-great). Here’s what makes her so wonderful:

    1) As Jodi mentioned, she is totally engaged and energetic; charismatic, even.

    2) She is very good at keeping the class focused. She explains the “why” behind the music and the methods. Most importantly, she encourages the grownups (in a low-key way) to incorporate the things they do in class in their daily interactions with their children, and she explains a variety of approaches. In other words, the grownups aren’t just passive spectators; they are expected to take an active role in their children’s learning.

    3) She keeps the material fresh by varying the approaches to the songs each week. By doing this, she accommodates the children’s need for repetition, while injecting enough variation through movement or song interpretation to keep things interesting. The variations are often clever and show how the actions of daily life can be woven into song and dance. She also will choose a song outside the MT curriculum for the free dance portion of the class session, which is something I personally appreciate (last Wednesday’s version of Ram Sam Sam? AWESOME).

    4) She is not judgmental. The children in her class are free to be themselves, and she encourages the grownups to accept where their child (or children) are at and accept the ways they are most comfortable learning. Prior to enrolling in MT, I took the twins to another class (different program, different teacher) where I had the nagging feeling that my children’s intelligence and behavior (as well as my parenting abilities) were constantly being evaluated. The twins were very reserved in this pre-MT class, but in Leigh’s class they have blossomed.

    5) She is highly professional. Not only is it obvious she knows her stuff as an educator and a musician, she is always present and focused on the children and their grownups, and I have always felt that she genuinely cares about the program and the participants in her class – it is never about her.

    Note: I was an art education professor in a former life, and over several years I observed a LOT of teachers in their classrooms: most were good, a handful were awful and had no business being in a classroom, and a few were truly excellent. Good teachers – and especially excellent teachers – don’t get the recognition or respect they deserve. Hopefully I have corrected that just a small bit with this post 🙂 Thanks for being a great teacher, Leigh!

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