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Chit Chatting with Liz from Musical Folk in New Haven – part 1

You already know that kidHaven is a fan of Music Together.  It’s no surprise then, that I tracked down New Haven’s Music Together guru, Liz McNicholl, to talk shop.  We got a little carried away, so this is part one of two of our chit chat :) Enjoy!

Before we talk shop, I wanna know more about you!  Tell us a little about yourself and how you started Musical Folk in New Haven, and the Music Together® program?

LizPhotoI’m originally from a small village in Ireland where I realized at a very young age that music was a huge part of my life.  Many of Ireland’s youth back in the 80’s were immigrating to the States due to lack of employment.  So in 1987 at the age of 18, I headed to New York.  Believe it or not, for many years I was in the corporate world and was assistant manager in the billing department at Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital in NYC.  When my husband and our two young boys moved to CT, I found that I wanted to spend more time with my children so I left my position in NY and returned to my “Musical Life”.  I’ve played in many groups over the years and have my own folk/American band here in CT called the Crickstones.

Six years ago, I started working for Music Together® of Fairfield County part-time in their office and fell in love with this program.  I decided that I wanted to teach Music Together® and went to their training workshop.  I remember my first day at the workshop calling my husband and saying “this is what I want to do forever”.  I never really understood the power of music until I attended the workshop.  It’s there that I learned the value of introducing music early in a child’s life, the earlier the better.  Little did I realize that I would own a Music Together center in a few years time.  In 2008 we moved from Norwalk to Hamden, and I discovered that the New Haven Music Together was for sale and my dream of running the Music Together program in this area became a reality.  I do business under the name “Musical Folk”, but offer the Music Together program as well as instrument lesson offerings.  I am so excited to say that I now have Music Together classes in five locations; New Haven, Hamden, Woodbridge, Branford and Madison.

I feel so lucky to have found this program and being able to make music everyday and share this love with families and young children is a dream come true for me.  I never imagined that music would be my career.

We learned about Music Together when we moved to Connecticut and signed right up!  For us new kids on the block it was a great way for us to meet other families, but tell us, what is the premise behind Music Together classes?

Most families do come to Music Together to get to know other families but quickly find the benefits for their child are vast, and keep on returning each semester.  Music Together’s philosophy is that all children are musical and it is their birthright to sing and dance.  Most people think that music is an innate talent.  While some are given special talents, music really is a learned skill and we can all achieve what’s called “basic music competence,” which is to sing in tune and keep accurate rhythm, provided we are in a rich musical background on a consistent basis.  Introducing music at a really young age is an important part of achieving this when the early critical periods of brain development are happening, between the ages of newborns through 5. While attending one semester of our classes is great, the real benefits are truly seen when a child has consistently attended for many semesters.  Each semester a child will pick up new concepts that perhaps they weren’t ready for 2 semesters ago, storing all their experiences  in their brain, and  it may take a few semesters to connect all the pieces.

Music Together’s philosophy is that all children are musical and it is their birthright to sing and dance

We really want to foster singing together as a community and to be music makers, rather than music consumers.  While it is fun to listen to music, to experience the joy of “making music” is something very different and has incredible value (besides all the fun).  In our classes, there is a strong sense of community, singing & dancing together.  We often make up verses to songs, we ask for different ideas on ways to move for our large movement songs, and draw on the children’s and adults creativity in the room.  Everyone brings something different to the table each week.   And a lifetime of musical memories and a special bond is created, that you and your child will often reflect on over the years.

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Describe what a typical Music Together class is like?

Well first and foremost, it is an incredible amount of fun for the whole family, teaching families music and movement activities to do at home as well as in class.  We have mixed ages classes, which consists of children ages newborns through 5 with their mom/dad/grandparent or caregiver.  Because we have mixed age classes, the caregiver can bring siblings to our classes.  There is great success in having mixed aged classes, as the younger ones learn from the older children, and the older ones can thrive on being leaders in the class, and learn important social skills while interacting with different ages.

Our semesters are 10 weeks long, in the fall, winter, spring and a 6 week semester in the summer.  There’s a maximum of 12 children per class.  We also have a babies specific class coming up this fall for newborns through 8 months with their caregiver .   Each family receives a CD (double) and music book.  Every week we sing about 12 songs from that CD.  Did you know that most adults only know a handful of songs?  Most parents want to sing to their children but don’t know where to begin, or have a repertoire of songs to pull from their pockets.  Imagine after just one semester the great number of songs you can sing with your child!

We sing, dance and play instruments such as, egg shakers, sticks, resonator and jingle bells, etc.  Each class has a structure & certain ritual songs (e.g. Hello & Goodbye song), which the children thrive on.  They know that after the instrument play along jam, the lullaby comes next where they snuggle up to their loved one and then it’s the Goodbye song.  The children love the ritual of these songs and we hear parents share with us that their child won’t go to sleep at night without singing the Goodbye song, or a lullaby.

Parents have also shared so many wonderful stories about the benefits of our classes, saying that it’s music from the minute they get up in the morning until they go to bed.  During the day their child will line up all their teddy bears and play “teacher” and sing some of the songs we did in class during the week.  They sing in the kitchen as they make dinner together, and at bathtime.  One nanny shared that the child she takes to class, won’t go to bed until everyone sings the “hello” song.  Or those that can’t even speak yet, can show motions with their hands to their favorite song letting their parent know that they want to hear them sing that song.  So while we meet once a week, the benefits of our classes  last all week long, and music has been woven into their family’s daily lives.

What is the prime age for starting Music Together with a child?

The younger the better.  I can’t emphasize this enough really.  Research has shown that the ideal time to introduce music is between the ages of newborn through 5, particularly babies through 3 years old being the most prime time. They are wired to receive so much at this age and everything is so much easier for them and these are the critical years in brain development before their brain becomes fixed around the age of 6.  Don’t worry, you can still learn music later than this, but introducing music at this young age will help lay down a great foundation of musical concepts.  Children that have taken an early childhood music program for a few years will have many of the basics in place for when they begin thinking about taking on formal instrument instruction (more on that later). But besides the musical learning, we know that music learning supports ALL learning and also benefits them in language development, cognitive, emotional, social and physical motor skills.

Children that have taken an early childhood music program for a few years will have many of the basics in place for when they begin thinking about taking on formal instrument instruction

I am happy to say that many will take music class just because it is so much fun, and they don’t need to hear anything further on the subject, but I know that some folks are interested in hearing the research that has been poured into this area over the centuries.  Scientists have been studying this for years, and while they don’t yet know why young children are particularly drawn to music, they do know that they are ready for music the minute they are born (even while in the womb).

In the Music Together’s headquarters they are constantly doing research and have discovered that a baby can “coo” on the resting tone as early as 3 weeks old.  That’s pretty incredible to those who did not know this, considering they are miles away from even speaking.  In our classes, we hear young babies singing on the resting tone and when we sing our next song in a different key, the baby will be right there singing the resting tone again in that new key, cooing along at different times during the song and when the song ends, singing that resting tone for everyone to hear.  Once you’ve heard them do this, you will be able to recognize that they are doing this all the time, and you can enjoy musical conversations with your baby.

Twinkle_Twinkle_Little_StarI recently ended a demo class, asking the class for their favorite lullaby.  A 3 year old girl said “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, we were only two lines into the song, when a baby – only 9 months old – started to move her hands, over and over again, towards the sky, as “she” clearly recognized this melody as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.  I told everyone in the class to look at the little baby, and everyone was floored by what they were seeing.  That tells me a number of things, that A) someone has been singing to the baby, and B) the baby at 9 months can recognize the melody even though she can’t yet speak, and even though we were singing different words to the song.  That’s such a powerful recognition and conviction that the earlier you start with your child the better.   I have sung “Baa, baa black sheep” in several classes since then, and asked if anyone knows other songs that have the same melody.  Not too many could tell me, but yet the 9 month old baby who couldn’t speak could!

…to be continued tomorrow!

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