Urban Baby Moira McNeel takes advantage of free time with the instruments after class. Photo by Lewis McNeel
Urban Baby Moira McNeel takes advantage of free time with the instruments after class. Photo by Lewis McNeel

One of our greatest hopes for our Urban Baby is that she will love music. 

My husband, Lewis, is one of those gifted types who can make music out of just about anything. He easily taps out complex rhythms on a pizza box, and whistles identifiable symphonic melodies (and harmonies). He studied classical voice performance. He can play the didgeridoo.

I am more of a hum-along type. An enthusiastic patron, but not the one to lead the singing.

So I figured that, genetically speaking, our daughter had a 100% chance of liking music and a 50% chance of being able to make it.

Rebecca Morgan, assistant conductor of the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio (CCSA) told me not to put too much stock in the genetics.

“We are musical people, whether our parents think we are or not,” said Morgan.

Music Together Class. Courtesy photo.
During  a recent Music Together Class. Courtesy photo.

That’s great news for parents who love music, but are afraid that they don’t have the “gift” to pass on to their kids. Surrounding your child with music is the best way to help them develop musical inclinations.

To that end, we enrolled Moira in Music Together, the Children’s Chorus family music program for ages 0-7 and their caregivers. They had two classes at the Radius Center on on a recent Saturday morning, which made it Urban Baby ideal, since she has two working parents and lives downtown.

She enrolled in the 10-week winter session. The 10-week spring session is open for registration now, and the six-week summer session will be open for registration soon. 

I was surprised to see the packet of papers that came home with Lewis and Moira after their first class. The theory behind Music Together is far more intentional than I had anticipated, to great effect.

Music Together is an internationally recognized program with 2,500 locations in 40 countries. It has developed a curriculum that is “high-touch,” to help children discover the pleasure of making music themselves, instead of leaving it to iTunes. It focuses on rhythmic and tonal developement, using real instruments rather than synthesized accompaniment.

For caregivers, the program has particular appeal as well. Those who consider themselves non-musical gain the tools and guidance to incorporate music into the home. Trained musicians appreciate the intentional theory and developed skill set.

All parents seem to enjoy the eyes of an expert on their child, pointing out the child’s natural talents, tendencies, and discoveries. What I thought was just Moira randomly bouncing in place, turned out to be the beginning of deliberate rhythmic movement, as her teacher explained.

Music Together teachers must be certified in the program, which teaches them about the musical development of small children.

“Hello to Moira, so glad to see you,” sings a circle of small children and adults, led by Kristen Burnham, a Music Together teacher and graduate of Trinity University’s music program.

The philosophy of Music Together places an equally heavy emphasis on the communal aspect of the class setting. Not only are children encouraged by their parents’ participation, but the varied age range is valuable as well.

The Music Together curriculum is divided into Babies Class (0-9 months), Family Class (birth-five years), and Big Kids Class (five to seven years). The Babies Class and Big Kids Class are focused on the particular developmental stages of the students, but the Family Class is their hallmark.

Rather than grouping children by age, the Family Classes accommodate a mix of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. This allows siblings in various stages of musical development to sing together, and it also builds confidence as the tiniest learn from the “big kids,” and the pre-schoolers learn to lead by example. At 11 months, Moira was all about watching her older classmates.

Kids who come back for three years in a row will cycle through the entire Music Together song collection, which is made up of nine collections. Winter, spring, and fall introduce new song packets, and summer is a review of the year. Children who come back for a fourth year will get to show off how much their skills have developed, as they repeat songs from their infancy, now as the leaders of the class. In the fifth year, they have the option of moving to the Big Kid Class, or continuing another year in the Family Class.

Parents are likely to notice accelerated cognitive development in other ways as well. 

In the information the hospital sent home with us after I gave birth to our daughter there was a PSA-style list of the best brain-stimulating activities to do with your child. I was not surprised to see reading on the list, but I was a little surprised to see singing.

The science of childhood development tells us that singing to and with children stimulates their brains and opens up pathways to to further development.

Executive director Anne Schelleng has spent a lot of time with the data. She pointed me toward a study out of Bridgeport, Connecticut, that measured the results of the Music Together program. Preschoolers whose learning included Music Together showed significantly greater gains in cognitive, language, and physical development than their peers (in the same preschool) who did not.

Schelleng also shared Havard psychologist Howard Gardner’s claims that music intelligence is equal in importance to logical — mathematical, linguistic, and spatial — and bodily — interpersonal, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic — intelligence.

The development of this intelligence can begin from birth, but obviously, babies need someone to introduce the stimuli. Not all parents feel confident in their ability to do so.

Movement and song at Children's Chorus of San Antonio's Music Together Family Class. Courtesy photo.
Movement and song at Children’s Chorus of San Antonio’s Music Together Family Class. Courtesy photo.

This research has also led the Children’s Chorus to partner with Haven for Hope to bring the benefits of Music Together to the children living at the facility. As the staff watches the benefits of Music Together program over time, it becomes easier and easier to see the need for sharing the class with children who wouldn’t usually have access to it.

Morgan feels that this is all part of fortifying a broader musical culture.

In 1998 Morgan, a Children’s Chorus alumna, moved back to San Antonio after college to work with the Children’s Chorus program started at age nine. But Morgan was convinced the benefits could be multiplied if they started earlier.

She then, with Children’s Chorus founder Marguerite McCormick, led the Children’s Chorus’ downward growth, establishing the Prelude Choir for ages seven to nine. But Morgan didn’t want to stop there. She was simultaneously teaching in a public elementary school, and noticed how many children made it to age five unable to echo a melody, train horn, or any other tone.

“As we become a society of music consumers, we are less music makers,” said Morgan.

Morgan believes that music is a skill, and like all skills, improves with every opportunity to practice. After a year of searching she chose Music Together as the best curriculum to give families the opportunity to start their child’s musical development from day one.

After our Urban Baby completed her first ten weeks of Music Together, we would agree. Whether she is rocking out to “Des Colores,” or making her own music on her xylophone, it’s obviously that her brain is lighting up, and so is her soul.

*Featured/top image: Urban Baby Moira McNeel takes advantage of free time with the instruments after class. Photo by Lewis McNeel.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.