Playing for Young Children
There are usually four PSO musicians who work at the Cyert Center for Early Education each year. We have a service exchange program that enables each musician to allocate up to eight visits per season. Each visit is supported, followed up, and reinforced by the teachers. The games, songs, and facts the children and I uncover during my visits are discussed and reiterated by their teachers. The visit is documented in writing as well as in photography. The photos are posted on the walls so they can be seen by the children and their parents. Twice a year the Center also brings the children to age-appropriate PSO concerts and rehearsals.
As with the other PSO musicians working at the Center, every year I visit the school four to eight times in consecutive weeks, so the older children recognize me from my work with them in previous years. I spend about 45 minutes with infants 6 months to one year old, 45 minutes with young toddlers age 1 to 2, and another 45 minutes with the older toddlers age 2 to 3. Each visit I learn more about what works and, more importantly, what is not effective. I find it very helpful to seek the input of the teachers and try to involve them in our activities.
The following material includes some of what I found most useful in working with children in this age group.
Questions To Ask Before You Play
What is/are the:
- 1. number of children
- 2. ages of the children (more than one age level represented?)
- 3. number of caregivers
- 4. length of the session
- 5. time of the session (AM, PM, after meal or before?)
- 6. existing music program (do the children sing, do they listen to recordings?)
- 7. favorite songs
- 8. dance program – do they dance regularly? do they do any movement exercises?
Before the first session, consider coming to observe the environment and be introduced to the children.
- 1. Begin by playing, not talking
- 2. Keep some distance
- 3. Let them become interested in you – they will invite you in
- 4. Play familiar music
- 5. Once “in,” continue with familiar songs for a while before adding any “new” piece
Do Not Be Afraid of Repetition! (But be prepared to switch gears when interest lags!)
Some indicators: increased noise, crying from more than one source, activity clearly away from your music. Remember that some children look at you when they are interested but others who are looking away may be listening just as intently. If you need to refocus their attention, try doing something physical (not necessarily with your instrument), such as peek-a-boo, jumping, kicking a ball or bean bag, doing “This Little Piggy” finger movements, etc.
Keep a Play List/Fake Book (loose leaf format) That You Can Easily Add To and Subtract From
The following is a very brief list of possible songs:
- 1. Old MacDonald
- 2. Wheels on the Bus
- 3. Twinkle
- 4. ABCs Song
- 5. Baa, Baa Black Sheep
- 6. Oh My Darling Clementine
- 7. Take Me Out To the Ballgame
- 8. I’ve Been Working on the Railroad
- 9. She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain
- 10. You Are My Sunshine
- 11. Itsy Bitsy Spider (with hand movements)
- 12. Frere Jacques
- 13. Row, Row, Row Your Boat
- 14. Yankee Doodle
- 15. Holiday Songs (carols, “dreydle” songs, etc.)
- 16. Patriotic Songs
- 17. Stars and Stripes (without lyrics)
- 18. Happy Birthday
- 1. Ode To Joy
- 2. Schubert Unfinished (First mvt., second theme)
- 3. Brahms First Symphony (Finale, main theme)
- 4. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (first theme)
- 5. Surprise Symphony (with “BOO” as the surprise – you can also use scarves to uncover your face at the moment of the “BOO”)
- 6. Bach Bouree No. I – C Major Cello Suite
Note: All the songs can be played and sung at the same time, or the musician can Introduce the songs instrumentally before the children join in.
Other Interactive Possibilities
(click images to enlarge)
Vocal Call and Response With Rhythm:
Call and Response With Pitch (and Rhythm):
Have the children repeat each bar after you – then sing it together. A pause allows them time to hear and focus on the pitches.)
Glissandi (with actual up and down movements to accompany the change in pitch):
“Pop Goes the Weasel” with children plucking the last note (C major – they can pluck the open A of the viola; G major – they can pluck the open E of the violin)
Dancing to Music:
- 1. Waltzes
- 2. Irish Washerwoman/Mexican Hat Dance/Fiddle Music (a la Orange Blossom Special)
- 3. Something that the 2 and 3 years olds have enjoyed is pretending to dance over a floor made of unbroken eggs (which, obviously, creates smooth and gentle movements), and then contrasting that with movements that break the eggs!!! They listen for clues in the music to let them know whether they must “protect” the eggs or whether they are allowed to smash them.
- 4. I also look for music to play that is unfamiliar to the children(as well as improvising when the children are moving). Be sure to include modal tunes and music in less common meters such as 5/4, 7/8, etc. (Cynthia Taggart was particularly helpful in this area.)
Think About the “Rhythm” of the Session
Work up to a fast pace, then you may pull back for a while to some quieter activities and then back to high energy. I usually end with a calming piece and then “our” goodbye song – something that will become familiar to the children and that they will associate with my visits.
Some Final Thoughts
- 1. Kids are interested in the technical aspects of instruments and accessories. Show them any mechanical items: horse hair coming off bow, mutes, wire music stand (assemble and disassemble it).
- 2. Remember to vary styles and sounds (strings – don’t forget to illustrate pizzicato, ponticello, etc.).
- 3. You can do many of the same things for all the age groups: just simplify or add layers.
- 4. Involve the kids – ask them to help you sing a song or decide when to stop a song. (They can practice their conducting while you are playing.) Ask them which style they prefer, etc.
- 5. Remember to get on their level physically. Standing up when they are sitting down is OK as long as you also sit with them part of the time.
- 6. Afterwards, ask the caregiver/teachers for feedback – let them know that you are interested in hearing from them.
- 7. Review for yourself what worked and what didn’t – what was comfortable, what was not, what do you need to do better, such as memorize a song, learn a new one, change keys (pieces centered on middle C and the D right above are usually good).
Associate Professor of Music Education
Michigan State University
Director of Music Therapy
University Hospitals, Cleveland Ohio