Wednesday, July 30, 2014

It's All About the Beat: Rhythm for Toddlers and Preschoolers

Move your nappy ! by YLegrand, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licenseimage by  Yohann Legrand

A favorite milestone of many parents is when their baby starts to dance. Just take a look at Instagram's #toddlerdance for evidence and a good laugh. I remember all the attention Gummy used to get when we'd go to outdoor concerts. "Who taught him those moves?" people would ask. "Well, it wasn't me," I'd say and look in my husband's direction. I liked to pretend our son got his moves from his dad (mostly because imagining my husband dancing like that made me snicker), but really, neither of us danced anything like our energetic toddler. I secretly hoped his dancing was a sign of musical genius, or at least an indication that my son was learning something from me. But as it turns out, all babies are wired to dance.

Yes, a fun piece of research from the University of York clear back in 2010 found that we humans are born to respond to music, and rhythm specifically, it seems. My favorite observation from the research was this: "Strikingly, the more the infants were moving in time with the beat, the more they smiled."

But babies don't move naturally in time with the beat. They seem driven to, but it takes coordination, experience, and practice. That is what the preschool years of developing rhythm are all about.

Just as they differ developmentally, toddlers and preschoolers have a huge range of abilities when it comes to anything musical. They also differ in their ability to follow directions. Because of this, most experts recommend musical play for this age group. Here are some guiding principles for musical play with your children.

Steady Beat. At this age, don't worry about teaching specific rhythms. Preschoolers really just need a sense of steady beat. Young children respond most accurately to quick tempos, around 120-130 beats per minute. Tempo refers to the speed of the beat. Here is an online metronome if you'd like to know how fast that is. You want your child to be able to keep a beat at all tempos, but you can use this as a starting point. Also, if you sense your child disengaging quickly from music, try turning up the beat (tempo, not volume).

Movement through time and space. In order to move to a steady beat, children need to develop a sense of the energy required to move through a certain space within a given time. Whether they are moving their whole bodies or using a stick to hit a drum, this applies.

Cause & Effect. Toddlers are pretty much exploring this idea 24/7. It relates to the principle above, but is especially useful to guiding activities with percussion instruments or other play props. Preschoolers will need to experiment with the cause and effect of sound, energy in motion, and social responses to music.

Playing with Xylophones by donnierayjones, on Flickr
imageCreative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by  Donnie Ray Jones
And now some ideas for application:

Moving to music
  •  Listen and keep a beat somewhere on your body. This could include bouncing up and down, patting your knees (with both hands moving together), or swaying from side to side.
  •  Play freeze dance. When the music goes off, everyone stop. It's a listening exercise!
  • Dance to music with instructions. Use music where the choreography is sung in the lyrics (like the "Hokey Pokey" and "If You're Happy and You Know It"). This gives kids more practice with active listening, even if they aren't right on beat.
  • Listen to music and count beats with or without numbers. How do you count without numbers? Use random words or movements. If you can tell that the beats of a song are organized into groups of four (we call the organization of beats meter), invent four simple movements to keep track of the four beats or use one big movement for all four beats. You might touch your head, shoulders, knees, and toes over and over in the first case. An example of the second idea would be tracing a big circle with your arm for a period of four beats, then starting again for the next set of four beats.
Instruments and Props
  • Play music or sing while giving children a chance to find the beat on a percussion instrument such as shakers, bells, rhythm sticks, or a tambourine.
  • Use instruments in place of hand claps and stomping to "If You're Happy and You Know It", "Bingo", and similar songs.
  • Dance to music with scarves. As they watch the scarves move through the air, children can gain a sense of the time and energy between beats, especially at slower tempos.
  • Pass or roll a ball from person to person following a beat. This will probably be above their level, but still fun as they try to coordinate their movements, the ball, and the pulse of the music.
  • Read rhyming books with a very defined pulse.
  • Read rhythmically and accent important words with your voice.
  • Read and add an instrument to certain words or to the refrain. For example, if you're reading Al Perkin's Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb,  every time you come to the "dum ditty dum" refrain, play it on an instrument. Another idea is to tell the story of the three little pigs and tap the rhythm to "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down" or "not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin."
  • Read with a super fast beat. Read with a super slow beat. Let your kids choose which one you do.
  • Introduce symbolic music notation by playing instruments to coincide with illustrations. For example, as you read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" tap one time for the day the caterpillar eats one apple, two times for the two pears, etc. This works really well with counting books that depict a certain number of items or animals for each number.
  • Most of the reading ideas apply here too, but everything is done without visual cues. This is an important part of coordinating memory with the processes of doing. Have a favorite poem or rhyme? Have your preschooler memorize it and add creative sounds.
  • Add a rhythmic transition for an activity you regularly do. Anything will work. You might say in rhythm while clapping, "It's time to eat, so let's keep a beat". Follow this up by clapping your hands to a steady beat all the way to the sink where you will wash for dinner.
Circle Songs
  • Songs like "Ring Around the Rosie", chants like "Motorboat", and games like "The Farmer in the Dell" require a lot of coordination for toddlers, but continue to be favorites. As they get older, they learn to walk on the beat in unison with other participants.

Social Rhythm
  • When your toddler plays something on a percussion instrument, play the same thing back.
  • After your toddler plays a pattern, play it back and add to it. 
  • Dance to your toddler's beat.
  • Have a musical conversation. Take turns playing patterns. Don't worry if it's not in time. It's about the creative and social experience.
These are just a few ideas to get you started. You'll know what activities will work best with your children, so get creative and enjoy making your own.

In case you were curious, this is how Gummy dances. I have about a million videos like this, but this one from last December is my favorite.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Baby's Got Rhythm: Developing Your Infant's Sense of Beat

Tiny, and Mom by makelessnoise, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  image by  makelessnoise 

The mother-baby connection involves rhythm in so many ways. We start with hearing our mother's heart beat in utero, followed by an instinct for rhythmic sucking, and continuing in all the ways a mother comforts her child: bouncing, rocking, patting, swinging, dancing, etc. In their first few months, babies develop regular breathing, a sense for the rhythm of speech, and soon follow with coordinating motion to a beat when music is played. By the time my boys were four months old, they kicked one leg in a steady pulse to propel their bouncer. Doorway jumpers provided rhythmic play for my oldest, and the instinct to move to music seems inherent in every toddler I know.

How is it possible then, that something so innate seems lost in older children and adults? In most cases, I don't think this rhythmic sense is lost, but that it lacks internalization of the beat in a way that coordinates with movement. Some researchers believe the neural pathways for learning music are set within the first two years of life. As parents and teachers we can strengthen these pathways in a variety of ways.  Here are some guidelines and activities to help you develop your child's sense of rhythm through the first 12-18 months.

Rhythmic Comfort. Comfort your baby in all the ways I mentioned before: bouncing, rocking, patting, swinging, and dancing with your baby. You will be doing this anyway, so add "practiced developing baby's sense of rhythm" to your done list each day. It's always nice to have extra things on that list.

Bouncing, Tapping, and Clapping Rhymes. Bouncing rhymes are great for developing rhythm and language. Before baby has good head control, carefully bounce her laying across your lap, or on her back with your arms supporting her head. When she is 3-4 months old and has good head control, she can sit up on your lap. You may be familiar with some bouncing rhymes. Here is one of my favorites from childhood:

Trot little horsey
Trot to town
Trot little horsey

Don't fall down.

There are a million variations on this, and they are fun for babies starting around four months old. They can sit up in your lap to bounce and drop down between your knees on the last line. Sometimes I delay the drop when I know they are expecting it just to get a bigger laugh.  Here's another one I remember:

To market, to market
To buy a fat pig
Home again, home again

To market, to market
To buy a fat hog
Home again, home again

Dr. John Feierabend, a leading expert in children's music and movement development, collected rhymes like these through interviews. He found that 100 years ago families had a vast repertoire of rhymes and games meant to be played with a baby on your lap. Most of these have been lost over time, and our generation remembers only a few. His fascinating curriculum based on this discovery can be read about here. I highly recommend the read.

me and Mom by Carla216, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic Licenseimage by  Carla216 
So, what are the rhymes that have survived? How about "This Little Piggy Went to Market"? Or "Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man"? Dr. Feierabend discusses and gives examples of more rhymes meant for wiggling fingers and toes, tapping & clapping, and tickling the baby in this sampler of his full collection. Here is another great pdf collection from a Pierce County Library System. It includes rhymes in English, Spanish, Russian, and Korean. Some of the lap games from this article at Today's Parent were familiar to me also.

Sing to your baby. Sing simple songs. Sing songs you love. Sing lullabies. Sing even if you think you can't sing. Baby doesn't know the difference, but he needs needs to know that rhythm can be kept in the voice and in the body. As you sing, keep the rhythm as you sway, dance, or pat your little one.

Listen to music. A variety of rhythms is best. Dance while you listen. Dance with baby while you listen. Infants and toddlers can move more accurately to a quick beat than a slow one, so consider keeping it uptempo unless it's bedtime or naptime.

Play or sing to their beat. When baby is doing something rhythmic like bouncing himself in a chair or jumping in a doorway, sing or play a song (or chant a rhyme) to the beat they have set. If they stop moving, stop what you are doing until they continue. You could also do this while the baby is in a swing with a beat you set yourself.

As you do these activities with your baby, enjoy them! You'll have happy memories, and your child will develop not only a sense of rhythm, but language skills, and a stronger parent-child bond.

Do you have a favorite lap rhyme from childhood? Have more ideas on connecting babies with rhythm? I'd love to read them in the comments!

If you're interested in the science behind babies' perception of rhythm.  Here are some links:

Newborn infants detect the beat in music - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Pregnancy and Baby summary of the research

USA Today summary of the research


Friday, July 25, 2014

Finding the Right Music Teacher: The Questions You Really Need to Ask

Mark Applegate Teaching A Student. by EaglebrookSchool, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License image by  EaglebrookSchool

Find the right music teacher for your child, and you're on the road to developing a talent along with a lifelong love of music.  Find the wrong teacher, and you're not only looking at wasted time and money, but your child's perception that they aren't musical, an idea that falsely follows many into adulthood. So, before you schedule the lady two doors down or the cheapest teacher at the music store, consider these questions.

What are your goals?
  • Are you hoping your child will discover and pursue developing a talent?
  • Does your child have a gift for music along with an interest they are likely to pursue long-term?
  • Are you hoping to delve deeply into one style of music or to study many styles? 
  • Are you hoping to master sight reading? Understand theory? Learn the stylistic differences between compositional periods?
How motivated is your child?
  • Does your child have a strong interest in music lessons?
  • Do you need a teacher who will help to convince your child that lessons are worthwhile?
  • Does your child have time to practice?
  • Do you have time to help your child practice?
 Once you've answered these questions for yourself, you're prepared to interview teachers. You will want to discuss the questions above, along with the teacher-specific issues below.

How does the teacher motivate students?  This is huge!  So many students quit music lessons because they don't practice well, don't see improvement, and then become discouraged.  The reality is that most children will not stay motivated to practice on their own.  Sitting quietly and repeating a line of music over and over again is never popular with children. Learning to play an instrument is work, and most of us don't work without incentive. Other considerations:
  • Does the teacher involve parents in motivating students? Do they regularly communicate with parents regarding assignments and the progress?
  • Are performance opportunities available? (Nothing motivates like having to play in front of people.)
  • How do they measure progress?
  • Will there be several missed lessons while the teacher is out of town performing, lecturing, etc.? (Beginning students really need consistent weekly lessons to progress.)
Does the teacher teach students how to practice?  This plays directly into maintaining a student's motivation.  Knowing how to practice well is as important as devoting time to practice.  Teachers should be prepared to teach students how to manage practice time, increase concentration, and make practicing more fun.

How have the teacher's musical experiences influenced their teaching philosophy?  This discussion gives you a chance to ask about education, performing, and teaching experience. What makes this teacher want to teach? You want a teacher whose philosophy matches your goals, and who continues to give real thought to teaching methods. Their teaching philosophy should also indicate the way they prioritize teaching.  Is performing the most important thing?  Do they want to see students become musically literate ASAP?  Do they believe teaching theory is important? What about music history?  Do they firmly believe in the value of classical music? At what point do they introduce other genres?

How does the teacher select music for study?  Do they teach a specific method? Some teachers specialize in a specific method, while others are more eclectic in their approach.  Teaching consistently from a single method book might raise red flags that the teacher uses a one-size-fits-all approach to his/her students, or that the teacher doesn't pursue their own professional development through exploring new methods.

What are the teacher's expectations and how are they expressed?  Do they ask for a specific amount of practice time, or are they more interested in the completion of assignments?  What are the consequences of failing to meet expectations? How high are the standards set for their students?  Do they write specific instructions on how to practice in a notebook or do they just circle the page of the piece to practice?

Does the teacher have a written studio policy?  This should cover such topics as fees, makeup lessons, holidays, music purchases, and other logistics.  No written policy can result in strained relationships when expectations are not clearly expressed and met. Ask for a copy of the policy, and review it with the teacher.

There are many ways to pick a teacher. Some people are impressed by resumes, professional affiliations, and teachers who charge high rates.  These are often, but not always indications of a good teacher. Remember, you want to find the teacher who is right for you, so be honest and open in your discussion.  You probably have more options than you realize.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Outer Monologues

People always talk about inner monologues, but I'm convinced toddlers have outer monologues.

This morning my two-year-old wanted to go outside.  He was looking for his shoes.

As he ran around searching, I could hear him saying something like,
"Hurry up!
Not go fast enough!
Take too long!"
As you might guess, these words were uttered with a pretty bossy authoritative tone. Um... I wonder where he got that.

Hearing my son give this little self-lecture, made me cringe and examine my own lectures.  Anyone who has a toddler knows it's impossible to live life at their pace.  They're quick to do the dangerous and destructive, and slow to follow directions. I can't regret trying to hurry him along sometimes, but hearing him repeat my words made me think a lot about the way I talk to him and consequently, how he talks to himself.

I started thinking about the influences on my own internal voice. I'm pretty sure my mother is my cautious shoulder angel, while the voice that encourages my own drumbeat is the amalgamation of my father and Disney princesses. (I'm sure he'd be thrilled to know he's being grouped with such wise characters:) Then there is my husband, my brothers, self-help books and goals I have set to purposefully change the ways I think. Teachers, authors, and religious/spiritual practices have had a major influence as well, and I do believe that our thoughts are often placed by God when we are looking for direction. I'm gonna go ahead and give hormones and amount of sleep a good chunk of credit here too.

Obviously, when it comes to our children, we can't influence all of these things but we can lay a foundation for healthy inner narrative. Here are some ideas and goals I came up with.

1. Watch your criticism to compliment ratio. I heard somewhere that it takes seven compliments for a person to recover from the negative feelings left by a single criticism.  Harvard Business Review puts the number at 5.6 here, at least for adults in business leadership teams.

2. Model problem solving out loud.  Often times the first thing we do when we've caught our own  mistake is to roll our eyes and berate ourselves.  Instead, cue little ears in by talking yourself through your thoughts. "Oh no, Mommy left the tickets to the movie at home. Do we have time to run back and get them?  Maybe if I call daddy he can bring them by on the way to his meeting.  I think I'll call him to see if he's still home.  Then I'll know the best thing to do."  Notice there is no mention of how the mommy is ALWAYS leaving things behind or losing things. She's not forgetful or stupid. She's capable. She can solve problems. Since she can solve problems, her kids can too.

3. Speak positively of other people. Especially yourself and his/her other parent. Your children know where they came from, and if daddy is stupid, they will think they must be too. When you're in front of the mirror, don't talk about how you're too big in all the wrong places and too small everywhere else. You're their mom and you just look like a mom to them. They are less likely to empathize with you, and more likely to learn how to criticize themselves.

4. Never tell embarrassing stories about your child while they are present.  Little kids can be especially sensitive to this, and with their limited experience, they may not realize that their mistakes are cute, just that they were wrong.

5. Teach through questions more than commands. No one likes to be told what they should do, even if the one doing the telling is ourselves. Instead of explaining to a child what they should have done, ask what they think they could have done instead. They will usually come to a better solution either by themselves or with minimal prompting.

Rainbow of Books (Explore #86). by mind on fire, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licenseimage by  mind on fire

6. Encourage good books and movies.  Books and movies let us into the thoughts of others. Characters can provide good or bad models for children. Parents can help by knowing the content of books and movies and by discussing the narrative of the author or the inner narrative of the characters.

7. Encourage journaling.  Reading our own thoughts gives us a chance to self-regulate. When I reread some of my journals as a kid, I realized just how embarrassingly dramatic I felt about certain situations. I like to think I made the appropriate adjustments.

8. Teach positive conflict resolution among siblings.  Siblings are often the people your children interact with most other than you. Bullying within families can do a lot of damage. I have very little experience as a referee for sibling disputes, but when my boys are older, I am going to do everything I can to teach positive communication skills.  When children feel they aren't being heard, they are more likely to dwell on negative interactions.

I'm sure there are a million more things that could be added to this list. What would you add? I think the overall idea is that we keep our interactions positive and our criticism limited and constructive. In fact, the best questions to ask before we criticize may be:

Is it necessary? 
Is it helpful?

As my son gets older, I will have fewer opportunities to direct his inner voice.  Until then, I'm going to seize those chances while using his outer monologue as my guide.

Right now he is in the other room alone playing with his blocks.  I just heard him exclaim, "Good job, little buddy!"

I think he's going to be ok.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Original Song: Why Can't We Get it Together?

I wrote this song about five years ago when I was single and trying to make sense of dating.  A few months later I met my husband. When he came to my apartment for the first time and saw my guitar, he asked me to play something. This was pretty much the only thing I could play. I'm not sure how I got through it without being totally embarrassed by the lyrics. It's a pretty forward song.

Ok. It's your turn.  I would love to hear your original songs!  Feel free to leave a link in the comments with the story of your song.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Of all the things we love to do, our favorite is the zoo!

Call us zoo people. We have spent more time at Smithsonian's National Zoo than any other D.C. attraction.  We started going when Gummy was about 18 months old, and we saw amazing things like lions jumping and playing as if they were kittens. Really, really big kittens. But Gummy, he was more interested in the rocks and the fencing.


The next phase of zoo attendance involved Gummy running around and fighting us for control of the stroller. Finally, now that he is two-and-a-half, he's slightly more interested in the animals.

 One great thing about this zoo is that it's free. Sorta. Parking costs $22. It goes to a good cause, but if your cause-supporting funds are going elsewhere, the zoo is easily accessible by the metro's red line.  Personally, we don't park or take the metro. There is free two-hour street parking in the neighborhoods nearby. Spots are limited, but we have always been lucky enough to find a place, and two hours is about all we want to do with our boys anyway.  On weekends, there is no time limit for parking in the residential areas around the zoo, and there seem to be more spaces available.

One of our favorite things to do at the zoo is to photograph the animals. The zoo actually has its own photography club, which I would totally join during a season of my life that doesn't involve tiny humans 24/7.

I promise you, the zoo is great, but it's a million times better if you have a zoom lens. 

How else would you appreciate the texture of an elephant's skin?

Or the evil look in the eye of the king flamingo as he sits on his throne?

Or the kind face of this gentle bear?


He's an empathetic creature, you know. He knows what it's like to be stuck up a tree.

How about the sad eyes of this cuttle fish as he realizes he's a fish that looks like an elephant?

 Or this snacking beaver?

Or this CRAZED beaver?

 This is not a beaver. This is a prairie dog.

And this is my little prairie dog. Actually this is a fun part of the prairie dog exhibit. Tunnels!

This bird is so white!

 And this is another beautiful bird.

This is a deadly bird.

It is also my favorite. 
We heard a zookeeper give a presentation about the cassowary. It is such a fascinating animal!

This ape looks a little bored if you ask me.

 Ah hah! Two of my favorite primates.

Double stroller. This is a legit dad.


During our last visit, we stumbled upon the coolest exhibit tucked behind the farm animals:


This monkey wandered freely above our heads.

 The arapaima is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world reaching lengths of 6-10 feet. It's fossil record dates it to the Jurassic period.


 These frogs are too cool!

Did you know that 42% of the world's frog species are in danger of exctinction during our lifetime? They are rapidly dying off from a fungus-induced skin disease.

Check out the bejeweled newt.

My little scientist. 

If we have time after the zoo, we love to grab lunch at Byblos Deli across the street. I order the gyro and baklava, and Chris orders the chicken shawarma. So good!

Monday, July 21, 2014

About This Blog

Hi, I'm Olivia. I'm a firm believer that music makes family life easier and happier.  Wait, easier? Yes!  If you're a mom of young kids, like me, you've probably already found yourself having dance parties to the Pandora toddler channel, making up songs to get your kids to do things, and singing to keep them from screaming while you're stuck in traffic. But there's more, and you don't have to have had years of music lessons to turn your kids into musical people and access music as a teaching tool for everything from good behavior to math.

As with any language, researchers have found that the first two years of a child's life are the most important to their musical development. That's why we'll discuss ways children internalize a sense of rhythm, learn melody, and create music. We'll learn how to play about 100 kids songs using just three chords on the guitar. We'll talk about song writing. It's so much easier than you'd think, and it is so fun when your kids start singing songs you wrote! We'll have original song link-up parties, and discover the best way to find a music teacher for your child. Every once in a while I'll give you a glimpse of D.C. (where I live) and bring up parenting issues.

I'm excited to connect with you! So please, leave a comment or email me at You can also follow my Facebook page. Let me know what you'd like to learn about.

That's the blog. If you want to know more about me, keep reading.

I grew up in northern Idaho as the oldest child of a musical family. My dad always played in a classic rock cover band, and I would occasionally join them for a performance at a fair or local rock show. He believed that if there were plenty of musical instruments around, his kids would learn to play them... or maybe that's just how he justified his 13 guitars. Whatever the motivation, my three younger brothers and I all learned to play. My mom made sure I had piano lessons, and I ventured into musical theater and jazz vocals, performing with the local theater and community band.

I graduated with a music education degree in 2011, focusing mainly on classical piano, choral conducting, and elementary music. During this time I also met my husband Chris who was in law school.  We got married and stayed in Idaho while I finished student teaching. Then we moved to D.C. for his summer externship. What was supposed to be a three month stay, has now been three years, as he finished law school here and started his career.  We now have two little boys, Gummy (not his real name) who is 2 1/2, and Remy (also a nickname) who was born earlier this year.

Coming to D.C. was not an easy change for me, but I loved the challenge. I had deep roots in Idaho, and no clue about city life, but it was exciting to come here. I love all the things D.C. has to offer: the history, the culture, the people from around the world. People here value music lessons, and I have had the opportunity to teach amazing children. I've also had more opportunities to teach than I could possibly take. I love teaching music!

I also love being a mother! I am ridiculously enamored with my boys, and I hope I don't ruin them with the way I constantly tell them how handsome they are. Being a mother is certainly an adventure, and it takes more energy than I have most days. Isn't that always the way with the best things in life?

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