Mixed-Age Classes Promote Family-Style Learning

Mixed-Age ClassMusic Together’s mixed-age class structure enables parents to bring all of their children to one activity, but it also creates a stimulating learning environment.

In families, children naturally play with, learn from and care for those who are older and younger than they are. But as the average size of the American family decreases and children live further away from cousins of varying ages, they spend more time with peers their own age.

Attending mixed-age activities, like Music Together classes, provides opportunities for observation and interaction with children of all ages. A two-year-old may mimic a five-year-old who is marching around the room. A three-year-old may shake a tambourine to entertain a baby or help him bang on a drum.

Older children in Music Together classes develop empathy and awareness of others. They naturally assume the roles of leader and mentor, setting a good example for younger children. Children who are shy with their peers may flourish in a mixed-age class when younger children look up to them.

Younger children imitate the older children and develop more complex behaviors earlier than they might if they spent all their time with children of the same age.

Lastly in a mixed-age classroom, caregivers have less opportunity to compare their child to others because of the wide variety of ages and developmental stages. Having such diversity in ages and abilities makes it clear that everyone does everything in their own way and time.

Music Together provides a natural, family-style environment for learning and experimenting without the pressure of competition or performance. Mixed-age classes are the perfect fit for that philosophy.


Notes from the Teachers: Meet Miss Julie

IMG_0500Miss Julie grew up in a musical family and taught middle school music before getting involved with Music Together. She teaches in Burr Ridge, Downers Grove, Glen Ellyn, and Lombard for Wee Heart Music and Tiny Toes Music. Continue reading to learn more about Miss Julie!  

Please tell me about your musical background.

My grandparents and mom were all musical, and my mom sings with the Apollo Chorus of Chicago. I became a middle school music teacher, which I loved! I taught for seven years until my daughter was born, and in the process earned my master’s degree. Most middle and high schools require a lot of extra curricular time – choir, musical, etc. – and I didn’t feel like I could teach and be a new mom. It was hard to give up teaching – I didn’t realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in being a teacher and a music teacher.

How did you get involved with Music Together?

When my daughter was about four months old, I signed us up for the babies class. I wanted to get out of the house and do something with her. It was one of the only things for such a young infant. I was curious how early childhood music worked. I was also skeptical about taking a music class through the park district. I decided to go with it, and I’m really glad I did. In the first minute of the first class, I realized it was a legit program and that it would be fun to teach. Being a parent in class got me hooked.

How do you balance being a Music Together teacher and a Music Together parent?

I try not to bring my children to my class – it is too hard to wear both hats at the same time. Sometimes I will bring my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter with me. I take my son to classes when my daughter is in school, and sometimes I take them both to a class.

Recently, I took them to one of Miss Rhonda’s classes, and I got a new perspective, as it was our first class since my son became mobile. As a teacher, I respond to kids and adults, and in my teacher brain, I see what they do or don’t like. I realized that day that the parents aren’t looking at me, they are looking at their child. The teacher is thinking about how the class is going, but the parent is thinking about what his or her kid is doing.

DSC_0635Why would you recommend Music Together?

I think it provides a really special, memorable way to interact with your little one. It also gives young parents an opportunity to be with other parents of young children and lets their kids see them interacting with other adults.

Every child is musical – every child has an aptitude for music. For a few people, that is at the Mozart level, and for others, it’s as simple as keeping a beat and singing and feeling comfortable enough to enjoy music forever.

“Use what talents you possess. The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” Henry Van Dyke

What are some ways in which parents can incorporate music into their daily lives?

I turn on Pandora in my house, so we always have music on, and it brings up new music for us. One of our favorites is a station based on Elizabeth Mitchell. It’s folksy and soothing, kind of like Norah Jones. It plays a lot of songs we know from Music Together that are performed by other artists.

Having a handful of play-along instruments also helps. You can just take them out and start playing. When kids get older, sometimes they will “play music class.” Jump in on those opportunities to play with them.

Lastly, community events are great– free concerts and children’s events. I’m taking my daughter to my middle school’s musical. A school musical is a great first play for a toddler – they’re cheap and informal but still good exposure.

Play Today, Part 2 of 2: Play Your Child’s Way

In the first post of this series on play, I stressed the importance of play as essential to learning and the development of creativity. But those are not the only benefits of play for our children (and ourselves). Taking a look at HOW children play will also enlighten and inform our interactions with them as parents or teachers.

To help us understand our children and how they play, we see that various (non-linear) stages of play have been identified. A few examples of these stages include: Onlooker, Independent, Parallel, and Cooperative. Be an observer of your own child and other children around them. Are they watching from the sidelines, not directly engaged? Are they focused solely on their own activity, seemingly unaware of their surroundings? Are they playing separately, but in close proximity to others and seem aware, or may imitate others’ actions? Are they engaging with others and organizing their play around assigned roles? If we’re paying attention, all this happens in the course of a Music Together class. That is one of the beautiful aspects of the Mixed-Age or Family model.


All the various stages are represented in any given week—just look around! None of these stages is right or wrong for any given child at any time. Remember, stages of play are not necessarily linear or progressive. Children will step in and out of these stages based on their level of comfort in the environment and their personality or temperament.

You may notice your teacher keeps on singing and being silly even though your child is just staring at her and not joining in. Because we know this child is an “Onlooker,” we can relax and know that she is doing her own kind of play. And because we know that when a child plays, she learns, we can relax and know that she’s doing her own kind of learning. At home, just follow your teacher’s example. Sing a song, be silly and let your child join you with her own play, in her own way—even if it looks to you like she’s not playing at all.

Types of play include Sensorimotor/Physical, Practice, Symbolic/Dramatic, Social, Constructive, and Games with Rules. Again, in a Music Together class, these are all represented at some point—on purpose! We explore our senses, repeat and practice new skills, use our imaginations, interact with others, create, and organize ourselves (think galloping in,or passing eggs around a circle). Some children will engage more freely with certain types of play than others. If they don’t choose to engage, it doesn’t mean they “don’t like music class.” The best environment for exploration is one in which there is no judgment or “performance” required. So, if your child doesn’t participate in class, watch them at home. See if they practice or engage in dramatic musical play at home or in the car. Please resist the urge to try to recreate those moments in class. Let’s just trust that each child will play and learn in a way that is best for them at the time. However, sharing stories of musical play at home with your teacher is encouraged! It’s a wonderful way to connect and affirm her work in the classroom.

So, musical play opens up all sorts of new possibilities for interaction with our children and our classroom community. Music has the ability to bypass language. We use songs without words intentionally in our classes to allow our pre-verbal children to process the song without taxing the language side of their brain! Musical play allows for cognitive development: experimentation and learning. Play improves emotional regulation. Adding music provides a powerful connection with others in addition to its amazing mood-balancing power. When we play musically, we help our children regulate their own emotions. What’s more, our own grownup emotions have room to breathe when we actively engage musically with our children. What a wonderful gift to give each other!

You’ve seen it—the child doesn’t want to let go of the instrument after the play along, but because we’re all singing “Bye-bye instruments…we’ll see you again next time…” the child learns an important lesson about transition; and begins, over time, to understand the act of letting go is rewarded by entry into the next activity. This lesson and many others are introduced to our children in a playful, fun, interactive environment where they are free to be themselves.

This week, watch your child at home. What stages of play do you observe them demonstrating? How can you connect with them through play? A simple game of musical peek-a-boo communicates love, reinforces cooperation and anticipation, encourages experimentation, and affirms the emotional connection you have with your child.

Play musically with your child today!

Play Today, Part 1 of 2

playWee Heart Music recently hosted a workshop for area Music Together teachers titled, “Music and Play…A Fresh Look.” As I was sitting in the workshop, I thought about how this information and research has shaped my thinking as a parent and a teacher over the years—I first heard this topic presented in 2012. I have decided to present some of these ideas to you in a two-part blog over the course of this winter session. I hope this information gives you a fresh perspective on play, too!

Sometimes as a busy mom, I forget to play. I have to consciously stop working and make time to play with my children. I fail at it sometimes, too. But having been a parent now for almost 12 years, and a Music Together teacher for 6, I have seen the benefits of play (and musical play) in my own and many other children. Why take time to play? Why is musical play important? Read on, and you’ll see how your musical play will pay off!

Play is fun! But it also is essential to a child’s development and learning. Play is often suggested to be a child’s “work.” Expert theorists on play include Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson and Lev Vygotsky. They all agree that the child uses play for self-teaching: the child PLAYS through situations very much like an adult THINKS through a situation. Play is the primary method young children use to learn and grow physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially and morally.

Amazingly, science has confirmed what musicians and music teachers have known for hundreds of years—that music and play are part of the recipe for creativity. Dr. Karl Paulnack spoke recently about the effect of music on the brain’s neuroplasticity, simply defined as the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. It goes without saying that neuroplasticity is a good thing—and we all want our brains to be “flexible” and developing.

He said there are four elements that have the most impact on neuroplasticity: MUSIC, PLAY, PHYSICAL ACTIVITY and NUMINOUS EXPERIENCES. To quote him directly, “Numinous experiences are those in which our sense of self is absorbed into something bigger than we are.”

Can I just pause to say—WOW! Yay for Music Together!! We use music, we play, we march and jump around, and we foster a classroom community! If you don’t take classes for your child, you may want to simply take them for yourself!

Dr. Paulnack goes on, “…music, exercise, play and being part of something greater than yourself—that’s the recipe for creative brains.”

Creative people know how to problem solve. They can think “outside the box” and are flexible thinkers. This alone may be reason enough to invest in a music class or music lessons for your older child.

Take some time over the course of the next week to PLAY with your child. Use MUSIC in your play, and you’ll double the impact on their developing brain (as well as your own!) One way to do this is simply by playing your new Bells music and repeating activities from class. Or, join a class by registering for one that still has availability!

As parents, we do lots of things for our children. We feed them, clothe them, care for them. Please don’t forget to play musically with your children too!

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old…we grow old because we stop playing.”—George Bernard Shaw

Giving Thanks

image 5 copyAs we close out our fall session of Music Together classes and prepare for Thanksgiving, we asked Music Together families to share why they are thankful for Music Together and what they love about it. We wish your families a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season and look forward to seeing you at our December Sing-a-Long and in the new year! Visit weeheartmusic.com for class info.

Why are you thankful for Music Together?

“I’m thankful for Music Together because of the learning that I’ve seen happen in our three girls. All three of them audiate together, they sing together, and they play together on a whole new level.” Maggie, three daughters – 1 year, 3 years, and 5 years

“Music Together has taught me so much about how small children interact and process music. I had no idea that at such a young age they can pick up on rhythm, harmony, and other musical concepts!” Melanie, 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son

“I am thankful for Music Together for bringing my daughter and I even closer. The bond that we are forming in and out of class with music transcends what I expected.” Nicole, infant daughter 

2014-01-17 11.02.54Why do you continue taking Music Together classes?

“My son loves it! He loves Miss Ann. He loves being here.” Lisa, 3-year-old son

“We started when our oldest was very young, and I remember thinking, how could it be interactive music at such a high level. I absolutely loved the high quality of the classes. We still do it because I want all three of our girls to get the same experience, but also to see how they interact with one another and encourage music within one another.” Maggie, three daughters – 1 year, 3 years, and 5 years

“So many reasons. Social interaction for me and my children! Somewhere for really little kids to let loose and learn through music, whether it be through singing, dancing, or playing with new and different instruments.” Melanie, 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son

What is your favorite Music Together memory?

“When I was first transitioning from classroom teacher to stay-at-home mom, several of us had a little lunch bunch after class. We would talk and share different things about being parents. I’ve met so many Music Together moms and dads and grandparents throughout the years that it’s been really fun.” Maggie, three daughters – 1 year, 3 years, and 5 years

2013-12-20 10.54.06“When my daughter was three months old, I brought her to class with her older brother. I was just happy I could bring her along and expected her to spend most of class in her car seat sleeping, not really being a part of it. The minute Miss Rhonda started singing, I truly saw her come alive! She became so alert and started bouncing to the music! She ended up loving the class just as much as her older brother. I was shocked at how engaged she was at such a young age!” Melanie, 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son

“One class, my little one went from eating the drumstick to tapping on the bongos. I could see her modeling my drumming, and it brought me such great joy seeing her grow and learn!” Nicole, infant daughter

Notes from the Teachers: The Best Job in the World

FullSizeRender4Written by Miss Michelle

Miss Michelle has been performing for most of her life. She started performing in musical theater at a young age and soon added voice and piano lessons. Today she sings for church services, weddings and funerals. When she and her husband, Joe, had their oldest daughter, Lily, they wanted to expose her to music early, and Music Together was a great fit. The family continued with Music Together until her younger daughter, Rory, aged out, and now Miss Michelle has “the best job in the world” as a Music Together teacher in Wheaton, Lombard, Geneva, and Carol Stream. Continue reading to learn more about Miss Michelle! 

Why did you start taking Music Together classes?

When I was still pregnant with my oldest, I began researching music programs, as I knew that was something I wanted to share with my children. I was so excited when I found Music Together! Wow! A research-based program that my entire family could attend. A mixed-age class – such a great concept! Not only did it encourage musical moments in our household, but it was a great way for me to join a community of parents with that similar interest. In fact, that is where I met a lot of my mom friends.

What motivated you to become a Music Together teacher?

I love this program! I have never been so passionate about a class as I am about this one. I would watch whomever was teaching the class and think to myself, boy, does she have the best job in the world. So I was both surprised and ecstatic when the opportunity came for me to become a teacher and share my love of music with others. I finally got to find out for myself what it is like to have the best job in the world!

image 2What is your favorite Music Together activity, song, or collections?

My favorite collection is Fiddle. My favorite activity would be the giant stretchy band and the gathering drums – so much fun! My favorite lullaby happens to be in this current collection, Bongos – “Sleepyhead.”

Please tell me about an experience, either as a Music Together student or teacher, that has helped you to relate to the families you teach.

I can relate to at least one or two parents in each class. From the parent whose child wanders around the entire class, to the one with a child who clings to them the whole time. I have been there, done it as a parent, so it is easy for me to put myself in their shoes.

Why would you recommend Music Together?

It truly teaches children to be musical. Children learn through fun and play. That is what this program offers. It also offers a wide variety of music that we as a culture are generally not exposed to. What an awesome experience to give your child!

What advice would you give to a parent who’s new to Music Together?

Children love the sound of your voice the most, so please sing and participate. Class is a judgment-free zone. Also, remember, making music together shouldn’t end in class. It should be continued at home as well.

Exposing Our Children to Music of the World

29-bongo-drums-705x380By Debra B. McCraw

My mom loves to tell the story of the first Bar Mitzvah I attended, which was essentially my first time in a temple. I must have been eight or nine years old. When the congregation began singing its first song, I joined right in. I had never spoken a word of Hebrew, I didn’t know what the words meant, and I hadn’t sung the songs before, but I sang proudly and followed along. I grew up attending Catholic mass and loved to sing there, so this was not much of a leap other than the new language.

Children have an affinity for languages, and when they are exposed to world music at an early age, they feel more comfortable and confident participating in song and dance. As we grow older and have fewer of these opportunities, we may shy away from trying. While adults may view songs in other languages as difficult to learn, children pick them up quite easily.

It may seem contradictory, but hearing and practicing other languages actually enhances one’s competency of his native tongue, so toddlers who are just beginning to speak can gain so much from learning songs from other lands.

In terms of social development, multicultural music gives children a glimpse into the wide world that surrounds them. They begin to understand diversity while also finding similarities in the songs that children across the globe sing and the dances they dance.

All of the Music Together collections include music from a variety of cultures, and the Bongos collection is no different.

Several songs this session are sung in different languages:

  • “Hotaru Koi” is a traditional Japanese folksong with a simple yet beautiful five-note melody. The Japanese word for firefly is “hotaru,” and this song’s name means “come over here, fireflies!”
  • “Li’l ‘Liza Jane/Funga Alafia” is a Nigerian welcoming song that says, “I welcome you with my voice, my head and my heart. I welcome you with peace.” The African drumming song gives children the opportunity to experiment with movement and instruments, as well as their voice.
  • “Palo, Palo” is a longtime favorite that may be familiar to some of you. The Caribbean dance song will get everyone on their feet!

Some English-language songs in the collection exhibit cultural diversity as well:

  • The Irish jig “Mountain Dew” includes what some might call “jibberish” – sounds that don’t necessarily make up words. When we use these sounds, we have the opportunity to really focus on the rhythm and the tune.
  • “Train Is A-Comin’” may be an American song, but the Gospel genre has many unique characteristics when compared to other American folk music. It’s not only how the music sounds, but what the song means that makes it stand out.

So as we kick off the new session, don’t be surprised if your child jumps right in and begins singing in Japanese, Yoruba (the language of Nigeria), Spanish, or jibberish. When she does, be sure to follow along!