Preschool Music Unplugged

As a young child, I loved singing around the campfire. I was fortunate to grow up at the height of the folk music revival, to the voices of Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez singing to our souls. In the late ’60s, what 4th of July barbeque would have been complete without a spirited round of “This Land is Your Land,” joined in by old and young, one and all? In preschool—called ‘nursery school’ in my day—we were not sitting outside in nature, but often on the classroom floor or in an orderly circle of chairs. Even under less romantic auspices, I fondly remember singing “Oh Susanna,” “Darling Clementine,” and “I’m a Little Teapot.” 

There is great power for children in group singing. It might be the first time we hear our voices merge with others, singing the same words, melody, and rhythm. Songs help us to find our expressive voice, pave the way for theatrical or filmic performance, oration, public speech. The repetiton of song lyrics aids the development of memory. As Gabe Turow Ed.D. observes in his Foreword to my teaching memoir, On Another Note: “Abstraction of sounds into discrete units is the basis of musical thinking, and this has clear overlaps with reading acquisition.”

In recent years neuroscientific research has uncovered a trove of findings about the effect of making music upon the developing brain. For example, in 2002, a study at St. Xavier University demonstrated that preschool children taught with an early exposure to music through games and songs showed an IQ advantage of 10 to 20 points over those children taught without exposure to the songs. In the same study, students at age 15 scored higher in reading and mathematics tests compared to children without such musical experiences.

In 2007, research from Stanford University School of Medicine revealed how music engages areas of the brain involved with paying attention and making predictions. In December 2015, MIT neuroscientists reported yet another breakthrough finding: that music-specific responses reside in the brain’s auditory cortex. “An important question for the future will be how this system arises in development,” writes an MIT professor of cognitive neuroscience. “How early is it found in infancy or childhood, and how dependent is it on experience?”

Answers to these questions will shape the preschool music curriculum. But just at this exciting time when music is shown to be more crucial to human development than we thought even twenty years ago, musical participation is increasingly difficult to elicit from preschoolers. In our twenty-first century, young children have become particularly restless and easily distracted. Gabe Turow writes, “Engaging a room full of children in song and movement is an art in itself.” Against the odds, it seems, do I master this art.

My own childhood was fifty years ago. Our culture, and the delivery and function of music, have changed radically since then. The words of Woody Guthrie, author of “This Land Is Your Land,” that warmed my heart and guided my generation have largely faded from public conciousness. Children growing up today know neither his name nor his songs.  I was aghast in a recent summer camp music circle when no one recognized “This Land Is Your Land” when I began to sing and play it on guitar.

But more critical than children not knowing this particular song or that—after all, times are a’changing always, and every style goes in and out of vogue—the very expectations about singing and making music have shifted.

In our day, song was deceptively simple. We needed only a musical leader, and a willing chorus. But now, we have bands on YouTube, iPods, and iPads. Music is instantly available and slickly produced. Such delivery encourages passive consumption rather than active participation. For all I know, this polished music at our fingertips may even discourage young children from enjoying their own attempts to sing recognizable tunes, alone or in a group.

Yet, I didn’t grow up in the 1800s. We had phonographs and television. Is there really such a difference between those devices and the iPad? In fact, there is. Digital data on mobile devices can be interrupted easily. When I heard phonograph records as a child, I heard the entire song—generally, the entire side of an album. It would not have occurred to me to lift the needle from the disk at an arbitrary point. Tapping a button on a screen is far simpler for children. Now I see babies who are still in high chairs, flip exuberantly through iPad images when they’re out in restaurants. These small devices slip in everywhere. A phonograph player or television set implies more authority and complexity than such a handheld device.

This lack of authority is underscored when teachers withdraw to their own digital universe during my sessions. How many times have I entered a classroom with my guitar only to have the staff regard it as their own break, a time to check email or social media? Alternately, some teachers have started making videos of my classroom performance. While such attention is flattering, it’s also distracting to the children, and it doesn’t help me bring the room to order.

What is the solution? I must meet the new world “half-way.” I ask classroom teachers to put aside their phones and join the music, because the room is more focused when they do. Music is ceremony, and ceremony doesn’t happen when those in charge are not paying attention.  I, on the other hand, try to learn new songs from television or popular media so I can find common ground with the children. The classroom then becomes a place to unite past and present, recorded and live music, endless playlists and specific focus, a new way to sit around the campfire.

Leah Wells is a musician and educator in New York City. Her movement activity book, Games That Sing, was published in 2011 by Heritage Music Press. In 2012, she was the winter web feature of Education Canada, discussing “the politically correct preschool and its discontents.” In 2014 she founded Heliotot (see ) with her sister, publisher Naomi Rosenblatt. Her How Do You Do Music series introduces musical notation in a fun and whimsical way. The Restless Room series addresses children’s attention span in groups. In January 2016, her memoir, On Another Note: Making Music at Head Start was published by Heliotrope Books. (see ) Leah teaches stringed instruments to students of all ages and plays in local bluegrass and folk ensembles.