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Kari Richmond on raising musical children

by Jean Van't Hul
December 6, 2010

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Kari Richmond is a mother of two and the director of Asheville Area Music Together. She is a wonderful teacher, sharing her love of music with many children (including my own two) in her Music Together classes. Please join me in learning more about encouraging children's musical selves. 

***Note: Readers will have a chance to win a child's hand drum at the end of this interview.***

JEAN:  Can you tell us a bit about your background and why you have been drawn to music and to Music Together?

KARI:  Before I was a Music Together teacher, I would have answered this question by talking about piano lessons, church choirs,  high school band, and so on.  But my Music Together journey has really reminded me of the true roots of my love of music, and to a large degree, my musical tastes and abilities.  My truly foundational musical memories include watching my parents boogie to their favorite oldies and classic rock records; creating "instruments" out of tinker toys and empty cereal boxes to form "rock bands" with my sisters; and an enthusiastically musical Children's Church teacher.  As I remember it, I was always the joyful and aggressive drummer (think Animal from the Muppets) in our make-believe rock bands, and I have vivid memories of playing the rhythm instruments during music time at church. I am a life-long devotee of the old Muppet shows and Warner Brothers cartoons, which effectively (though perhaps not intentionally) teach musical concepts through the silly antics of the characters.  Taking the Music Together Teacher Training workshop put me back in touch with really special musical memories, and teaching Music Together is the perfect outlet to be free and silly and spontaneous with music again.

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JEAN:  How do you feel parent/child music classes affect the families who participate?

KARI:  Kids often wait until they get home after class to display their musical *stuff,* so parents have given us a lot of feedback to let us know what's going on outside of class.  The most basic effect that parents notice is that their child's musical experimentation increases by leaps and bounds.  More humming, more singing, more tapping and bouncing.  On the older kid end of the spectrum, one mom sent me a video of her 4-year-old daughter singing a song that she had created–music, lyrics, the whole shebang!  

My favorite stories are the ones where music has helped grow emotional bonds within families.  I've heard stories of siblings creating and playing musical games together at home, based on the activities we did during class.  The Hello Song we use in class becomes a dinner blessing ritual or a morning wake-up ritual for many kids.  A lullaby at bedtime can become an important bonding time, and these connecting moments are cherished memories for parents AND children years later.  One of my Music Together families this past fall included a newly adopted 3-year-old.  The mom told me that Music Together classtime was one of the few times where she and the child experienced positive interactions with each other during their stressful acclimation.

I know from experience with my own children that music-making helps us get through our day more joyfully. Tricky times like transitions and clean-up times are more fun and efficient when we sing our way through.  Hopefully, Music Together class inspires parents to keep music in their minds more at home, to sing and move with their kids, to notice their kids' musical behaviors for what they are–musical "babbling" and play/experimentation–and to support those musical behaviors.  

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JEAN:  You’ve called music one of the languages of the world – will you talk about this concept?

KARI:  The Music Together founders refer to music-making as a birthright for every human being.  We believe that every child is musical, and this isn't just fluffy feel-good philosophy.  That statement is based on research that shows that potential musical ability is distributed on a standard bell curve across the population.  This contradicts the commonly held concept of musical Talent that is bestowed mysteriously on the "lucky few."  

Music activates our most basic emotions, stimulating hormone and other physiological changes.  Our regularly beating hearts render us individual rhythm machines.  Some experts suggest that humans were a singing species before we developed speech, and a fascinating book called "The Singing Neanderthals" discusses the possible evolutionary stages and advantages of music-making.

On a personal level, I find it incredibly exciting to trace our musical heritage and to know that I share a gut-level emotional response with folks of other cultures, whose music birthed our own modern American music genres.  Though I can't speak any African languages, I can recognize certain African rhythms and tonal cadences and can follow their evolution through blues, gospel, and modern pop music.  Our modern bluegrass music has long roots back to Celtic music, our modern classical music has been heavily influenced by middle-Eastern, Indian, and European musical traditions, and our cinematic music calls up music from any culture you can think of!  Our inheritance is not just a set of musical themes, but the moods and ideas that have been tied to the those themes for centuries.

JEAN:  I’ve often felt (and maybe this just shows my ignorance) that music isn’t as open ended as some of the other arts – that with music you can be right or wrong, which I don’t feel is the case with visual art. You can be off beat or get the notes or pitch wrong. Can you talk about the role of creativity versus skill and memorization in music?

KARI:  This is a really interesting question.  I do think that there is a right or wrong component to the majority of our musical context, but if you check out some of the post-modern music that people have written and performed in the past few decades, you might re-think where the right/wrong line can be…or even where the music/noise line can be.  There is a lot more flexibility in what's acceptable for tonal and rhythmic accuracy than most people realize.  Especially in pop music of the last hundred years or so, there's so much vocal sliding and rhythm "bending" going on that it's just become an accepted part of our musical tradition.  Some of our best-loved singing artists were/are really not that "good" in the sense of true accuracy…think Janis Joplin, Billy Joel, Nina Simone, Prince, Bob Dylan, Britney, Dave Matthews for goodness sake!  But that doesn't lessen our enjoyment of their sound!

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The beauty of music is that given a decent amount of exposure, babies start to decode musical information very very early.  My 6-month-old daughter lights up when I sing to her, and she often responds with musical "babbling" behaviors, like toning on my resting tone or a related note.  The more I sing to her and bring her to classes, the broader her experience becomes, with more opportunities to advance through the upward spiral of musical understanding.

One of the catch-phrases that kept coming back in my Teacher Training workshop is "Repetition is good.  Repetition is good.  Repetition is good."  Young children thrive on repetition–they love it and learn through it–and most kids go through a stage of preferring or requesting one or two particular songs over and over until the parent thinks she will lose her mind if she has to listen to THAT SONG one more time!  This repetition helps the child decode that song over time until it is mastered–meaning the child can sing it in tune and in time.  With each new song, the the decoding process is more efficient and shorter with each new musical obsession, until the experienced music-processing child can actually predict the ending of a song she's never heard before.  Along the way, any musical understanding that is accumulated becomes the jumping-off platform for creativity.  You only have to know one note to make a chant.

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One reason it's so important to get young children into musical environments and exploration is that they are not self-conscious about whether they sound "good" or "correct."  For them, making music is all about the experience itself, not the product, and learning happens naturally and efficiently through play.  That is the kind of pressure-free environment we try to establish in Music Together classes too.  We lay out the information like a buffet table, and we invite each child to sample whatever is attractive and appropriate to her.  Depending on the child's stage of development he may be more focused on trying to match what he hears, or he may be more interested in experimenting with new sounds that he can create.

Consistent exposure to rich, varied, joyful, live music-making environments (Music Together class!) supports children as they build their musical foundations; a child's personal musical experimentation games become intuitive musical understanding.  An intuitive grasp of music concepts gives the child increased opportunities for creative outlet.  

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JEAN:  What can parents do to encourage musical exploration at home?

KARI:  Young children are highly motivated to learn to do what their parents do.  Most of us are not Grammy-award winning musicians, and most adults I know loudly bemoan their lack of musical skills. But even if you can't sing in tune or tap in rhythm, you are not off the hook for teaching your child to be a confident, joyful music-maker!  Modeling musical exploration is so so simple and so important.  Get out a shaker or a drum…or a pan and a spoon…or Tinker Toys and empty cereal boxes, and sing and bang along to "I've Been Working on the Railroad."  Sing along with your favorite CD–certainly doesn't have to be "kids' music!"–and dance around with your child.  Sing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" or "You Are My Sunshine" while you're changing a diaper.  Make up short little songs or chants to describe your child's activity (i.e. Picking up your blocks, picking up your blocks, Hi ho, the derry oh, picking up your blocks to the tune of "Farmer in the Dell").  Leave familiar musical phrases unfinished to see if your child will chime in with the last note.  "Happy birthday to ____!"  Bring your child to a fun class where he or she can experience the community music-making environment.  Take your child to live musical performances as often as you can.

So many parents fear that they will somehow "mess up" their child by singing out of tune around them.  This is simply not true.  The only way to raise a child to be fearful of or inept at making music is to NOT make music with them. 

Think of how you would introduce your very young child to creating art or to any sport or to reading books. Most 2-year-olds don't have the "equipment" to read, but we don't have to wait until they do to get them excited about books, familarize  them with the reading process, and instill an early foundational *propensity* to read.  We present our little ones with attractive age-appropriate books, and we model by reading out loud.  Luckily, we don't have to be prize-winning authors to be qualified to teach our children a love of reading and basic reading skills.

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JEAN:  Will you share your favorite instruments or music games for young kids?

KARI:  I'm pretty spontaneous about what my favorite game is at any given moment.  The best game is the one we're playing right now!  Because that's what's relevant.  And spontaneity and silliness often go hand in hand.  

Though everybody gets excited when the parachute or the instruments come out in class, I try to help parents understand that children can only truly learn to play instruments after they have mastered "playing" their own bodies.  I love games that reinforce the parent-child bond or that build a sense of community.  With all this in mind, we do lots patty-cake type activities, hugging, rowing, rocking, hand-holding, tickling, dancing, anything that involves loving physical interaction between parent and child.  

Peek-a-boo!  It's a universally beloved game, and it can be taken to new heights when you add music.  We do things as simple a singing "Peek-a-Boo" on the cadential notes of a song, and as involved and protracted as having a whole 4-phrase chant that is basically one long peek-a-boo game.  "Jack in the Box" is a favorite chant along those lines.

I do love the instruments too, and I have a special place in my heart for the drums.  There were never enough drums to go around when I was a kid, and I SO wanted to be the drummer!  I love the big ol' booming gathering drums!

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JEAN:  Anything else you’d like to add?

KARI:  While books-on-tape are fun and useful, you wouldn't rely solely on them to teach your child to read.  Likewise, don't fall into the trap of thinking you can teach a child to be musical by relying solely on recorded music.  You may raise a skilled consumer of music this way, but probably not a confident music-maker.

Also, I want to encourage parents to keep on singing, even when you're not receiving accolades from your child.  It is typical for every child to go through a protracted "No Mama, don't sing!!" phase.  My son did this from about 2 1/2 years until 3 1/2 years.  But "How can I keep from singing?" Eventually he outgrew that phase, or maybe he just gave up!  No matter what your child says at any particular moment, your voice is the most important and beautiful one in the world to him.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to spout off about musical learning for young children! I would love to hear your readers' reactions to any of what I've said and answer questions, so fire away!

JEAN: Thank you so much, Kari!

Registration is now open for Asheville Area Music Together winter classes. If you live in the area and have small children (between 0 and 5), I highly recommend them! And if you live elsewhere, there is likely a parent-child music class somewhere near you.

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Drum Giveaway:

To be entered into a random drawing for this child’s hand drum, please leave a comment about a favorite musical experience you've shared with your child – this could be a favorite song sung together, a show you’ve attended together, a favorite musical routine… Comments left by Thursday, December 9th at 12 midnight EST will be included in the drawing.

The random number generator picked #70 so Ann wins the drawing for the child's hand drum. Congrats Ann!

I love Music Together. We play the CDs and my boys now 7,7 and 10 still love them. Last night in the ER with my 2 year old we sang "open, shut them" together while waiting for her to get stitches in her forehead. For a Christmas present I want to give her (and me) registration to Music Together classes.

 

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