As adults some of us use music as our ther­a­py. If we are lucky it is a dai­ly occur­rence, no mat­ter if it’s play­ing an instru­ment, lis­ten­ing to a favourite CD or singing alone in the car (my pref­er­ence!). It is intense­ly per­son­al. I do not always find the music my hus­band plays in our house to be therapeutic…for me. Often it is music that he feels the need to hear — I am par­tic­u­lar­ly averse to Christ­mas music here in the US since it makes me feel extreme­ly sad and home­sick for the hap­py (non-com­mer­cial) Eng­lish Christ­mas’s of my child­hood — thank good­ness we are final­ly in the February! 

Part of the rea­son that music isn’t always in my world, much as I have CD’s that I absolute­ly love, is first­ly that my own CD play­er (I have yet to move to hav­ing my music on my phone or own­ing my own ipod!) isn’t in an acces­si­ble place to be per­ma­nent­ly plugged in, sec­ond­ly I am rarely at home by myself, but per­haps more to the point our main home CD play­er set­up has always been too com­pli­cat­ed for me to operate!

How­ev­er, music is vital in my world of work­ing with babies and tod­dlers. I reg­u­lar­ly try to sing to one, or sev­er­al, know­ing each of them well enough to under­stand their favourite tunes. Some­times it just involves singing a fun song or even a made up one that’s per­son­al to the child, some­times it’s singing along to a favourite nurs­ery rhyme in a book. (I always tend to ‘read’ the book after­wards so that we can diver­si­fy the expe­ri­ence and label more of the char­ac­ters in the book — adding broad­er vocab­u­lary, vocal expres­sion and actions too).

It is dis­heart­en­ing most days to work with one col­league who real­ly does­n’t love music, espe­cial­ly music which works well with chil­dren – even pleas­ing clas­si­cal music!

I per­form music ther­a­py exper­i­ments in our class­room almost every day. Ask­ing myself if I have a spe­cial song which will cap­ti­vate at least one child. I am grate­ful to one fam­i­ly whose lit­tle girl loved ‘Baby Bel­u­ga’ — when we final­ly got the book in our class­room I start­ed singing the song as best I could — appar­ent­ly I was close enough because she always sat and lis­tened! It even became a tool, a reward, to per­suade her to coop­er­ate, and she did.

I offered one of our 15 month olds the chance to lis­ten to my sons singing bar­ber­shop har­mo­ny — it was a qui­et day, oth­er­wise I would­n’t have tak­en out my phone and pulled up youtube! How­ev­er, this exper­i­ment has been remark­able because of its effect on that child and that I’ve been able to repeat the same piece of music once a day for sev­er­al days and get the iden­ti­cal response from her: she peace­ful­ly lays against me slight­ly sway­ing, occa­sion­al­ly bur­bling along and ask­ing me to name the four singers (which I’ve done each time we lis­ten and watch). She now calls them ‘boys’ because I ask her if she wants to ‘hear the pret­ty music with the boys singing’.

Con­verse­ly, one oth­er more agi­tat­ed, dys­reg­u­lat­ed and emo­tion­al­ly unsta­ble 18 month old sim­ply said “No, No” when I played it. Bar­ber­shop har­mo­ny did­n’t calm him. For him I tried a lit­tle com­e­dy song that I sang from my child­hood, and my chil­dren’s, called ‘The Bee Song’. I real­ly just sang the refrain for him, but he loved it, it made him feel hap­py and he smiled and laughed a lot! I repeat­ed that exper­i­ment for sev­er­al days until he trans­ferred to his cry­ing state in our Tod­dler class­room. No one knows the song there and sad to relate I’m not sure it would fit in their ‘pro­gramme’ either, how­ev­er he does seem hap­pi­er than he’s been in more than 18 months!

It is even sad­der to relate that no oth­er teacher seems capa­ble of using ‘my’ type of music ther­a­py with our babies. 

In my expe­ri­ence my ‘music ther­a­py’ ren­ders these babies calm and hap­py — what more could we want of music?

Con­trast that with the record­ed music used in our Pri­ma­ry class­room where­in the words and the voic­es are gar­bled (as in so many ‘made for chil­dren’ CD’s), even though the sen­ti­ments of issues like ‘recog­nis­ing strangers’ are most valu­able. The response last week of the old­est child (almost 5) was quite telling, to me at least: “Why do we have to lis­ten to this every day?” 

I feel that such a song would be bet­ter taught by the teacher’s voice alone in her very clear dic­tion. The effect of learn­ing by rote from a CD was brought to my atten­tion after the school hol­i­day par­ty when that old­est (and prob­a­bly bright­est child) in the Pri­ma­ry class­room lead the group loud­ly singing for me ‘Rudolf the Red Nosed Rein­deer’, end­ing with ‘…he’ll go down in my…ste…ry’ NOT ‘hist…o…ry’!

We need to be close to and fac­ing our babies and young chil­dren as we teach them lan­guage through speech or singing — oth­er­wise they sim­ply learn the gar­bled ver­sion from CD’s, DVD’s and TV, and, as I dis­cov­ered sev­er­al years ago, lan­guage learned that way is extreme­ly hard to correct!

Let’s all expand our musi­cal reper­toire and share those rich­es to cre­ate a more amenable learn­ing envi­ron­ment every day.