We’ve been attending the Smart Start 12-24month classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music, which I chose because I like how the conservatory actively does research in the neuroscience of early music education. (More on that later.)
The 45-minute sessions are generally structured like this: free play, bouncing and tickling rhymes, walk/stop/run songs, instruments, listening to a short performance by the teacher, songs with scarves or puppets, and a goodbye song. Compared with the free circle times we’ve been going to at our neighbourhood drop-in centres, the music classes:
- have small, consistent classes with a narrow age range and the same teacher: This is one of the benefits of a registered program. A- seems to warm up faster in a small group with familiar faces, and she’s gotten to the point of feeling comfortable walking around with me during the movement section. A narrow age range also makes it easier for the teacher to pick developmentally appropriate activities.
- are longer: Circle time is generally fifteen minutes long, compared to about 35 minutes of music time (excluding the 10-minute free play to help the kids settle into the side).
- repeat songs more within each session: We might sing the same song more than five times in class, while circle time usually does the same song once or twice before moving on. (The drop-ins might do a song three times, if it’s a popular song with varying lyrics like See the Sleeping Bunnies.)
- have more planned variety over time: Because it’s a registered program, sessions can build on previous ones to cover topics systematically. Repetition within sessions and across sessions allows the introduction of uncommon songs.
- expose kids to good instruments: Small classes and good funding mean that every kid can try the same instrument, and they can go through different instruments over time.
- expose kids to professional performances: The kids can watch the teacher perform on various instruments at a level much higher than I can do at home or that I’ve heard at circle time. There’s a baby grand piano in the room, and the teacher plays that and other instruments as well.
- lead into other classes: There’s a clear path for life-long learning.
It’s awesome watching A- learn. She’s beginning to anticipate the phrases in the bouncing rhymes, although she’s still pretty blasé about tickling rhymes. She walks around with me during the segment where everyone walks around in a circle. She picks up the pace a little when the tempo shifts. She sways and bounces to rhythms. She imitates how we play jingle bells, drums, rhythm sticks, and shakers. She sits down and stands up at the appropriate times in Ring Around the Rosies.
I’m learning a lot, too. I’ve picked up a couple of new folk songs and rhymes. It’s a good opportunity to observe and learn a little about the ideas behind early music education, and it’s great to be able to ask questions. The textbook that the teacher recommended (Move, Sing, Listen, Play) will help me reinforce the ideas when we’re at home. I like the classes, and I’ve signed up for more next month and the fall term.
I’m not here to push A- to be some kind of musical prodigy. I’d like us to have fun with music – to nurture our musicality. I’d like her to grow up knowing that music isn’t just something you listen to, but something that you can enjoy creating. Not just something you play, but something you can play with. Since the best way of doing that would be for her to “catch” that kind of enjoyment from me, I’m happy to take advantage of group classes where kids need to be accompanied by grown-ups. At this age, the classes are probably more for us anyway. Independent classes start at three years old, so I may as well make the most of our shared music education opportunities.
We learned a bit about the ideas behind the Smart Start program when we went to the conservatory’s open house last weekend. Dr. Sean Hutchins (a neuroscientist, the RCM director of research) talked about how the Smart Start program focuses on developing attention, memory, perception, and cognitive flexibility, and shared some results from their neuroscience lab that showed significant improvements in musical ability and related areas such as literacy and numeracy. I asked him how his research influenced how he helped his kids with their music education. He told me about the value of starting early, and how music and movement are inextricably linked for young kids. I also asked him if the lab had developed any observation tools that parents could use to keep track of their kids’ musical development over time, outside the lab. (I’m a data geek, after all!) The lab has a short questionnaire for parents, but he didn’t have an inventory or scale that I might be able to use to document A-‘s growth. Ah well, I’ll just have to read textbooks on music education and take qualitative notes. The RCM Science blog and Resources page might be good starting points for more information. He also recommended Dr. Laurel Trainor’s work, as she does a lot of research with infants and toddlers.
Anyway, the drop-ins are great for adding more music and socialisation to everyday life, so we’ll keep going to those ones too. Music classes seem to be a good use of our resources. I’m glad we get to do both!