At the Toronto Institute for the Enjoyment of Music, toddlers as young as two can get a head start on their rock-star aspirations.
It’s generally accepted that, of any age group, teenagers have the strongest personal relationship with music. But perhaps this circumstance is rooted in the fact that grown-ups can clearly remember defining themselves through music as teens, while retaining no memories of being babies or toddlers—a stage of life when music may play an even more intense role.
My three-year-old son Emile, has been absolutely obsessed with music since, basically, birth. As an infant, the opening notes of Miike Snow’s “Silvia” could instantly end any crying jag and, long before he could walk, he was gleefully bouncing to Robyn in his jolly jumper. His first experience with technology was playing iPad piano and his most used and best-loved presents have been his “meowsic” keyboard cat, his Plan Toys wooden drum kit and, most recently, the pineapple-shaped diamond-head ukulele his grandparents gave him for his birthday last fall. (My folks live out on the west coast, so they often jam together via Skype.)
Emile also sings all the time, whether he’s riding on my shoulders, building Lego, or putting himself to sleep—and not just children’s classics like “Baby Beluga” or the “Spider-Man” theme, either. He often makes up his own impressively advanced lyrics while strumming along on his uke. (“Your heart feels bad / Skeletons are hard / Bees come back / Everyone goes dark / Then Halloween comes / And Chanukah and Christmastime / Then everyone goes bright / And ghosts don’t come.”) And honestly, I couldn’t even begin to count the number of “Gangnam Style” dance parties he’s demanded the past few months, though he’s almost as interested in classical music as electro-pop and the indie-leaning Yo Gabba Gabba! soundtracks.
One of the most important parts of parenthood is noticing what your kid is into and then giving them more of that. I finally decided E was old enough to go beyond play and get some proper musical instruction, so last weekend we took the streetcar over to the perfectly named Toronto Institute for the Enjoyment of Music (TIFEM) at 821 Queen St. W. near Trinity Bellwoods.
The music school has been around for about three years, though I was only familiar with it because my day-job website sponsored some Canadian Music Week showcases there back in 2011. While most of their students can, y’know, write their own names, TIFEM does offer a drop-in class three times a week for two- to five-year-olds.
When we arrived for the 11 a.m. Saturday class (the others are 11 a.m. Tuesdays and 4 p.m. Thursdays), there were already a few kids milling about. Another’s mom popped inside after her son eyed the guitars through the picture window and they wound up staying.
The music teacher was Francois Mulder, whose effortless way with little kids was honed from his own upbringing (his twin brother and sister were born when he was in grade seven) as well as volunteering at pre-schools. Despite the kids being a pretty wide age range, Mulder was an expert wrangler.
“At that young age, with their attention spans, sometimes it’s a little hard,” Mulder admitted after the class. “But as soon as something is active, then you can keep everyone’s attention. So if you’re able to get all the theoretical stuff into a physically active lesson, then you’re able to get the two- to five-years-olds in the same class.”
Indeed, in this class, Mulder taught the different instrument families—percussion, brass, woodwinds, and strings—by having the kids run around the room to where those instruments were set up. Then he let them play music, focussing on ukulele and, later, various percussion instruments, and taught them concepts like forte and piano.
“It’s an introduction to music, so it’s a nice relaxed atmosphere and not so focussed on one instrument,” Mulder says. “That keeps them open and gives the parents a chance to see what the kid gravitates towards.”
Mulder says every class has a theme, and he often uses YouTube to add a visual component while showing clips of, say, a tribe in Africa or Bulgarian choral singing. “A lot of the times, we look at what kind of music kids sing in different countries or how the instruments are different. And we look at musical styles—classical, rock, pop, instrumental, vocal, electronic, old music like [Ella] Fitzgerald and ‘Mack the Knife’ to present-day music like The Lumineers or David Guetta.”
Emile, who had personally picked out a button-up dress shirt for the special occasion, was a bit shy at first, as he is in most new social situations. But within a few minutes, he was positively beaming with excitement—that is, when not looking deadly serious because he was concentrating so hard on playing music.
He’s only three, so the class was more about giving him something more structured and informative than our usual “grab an instrument and march in a pretend-circus-parade” routine. For Emile to really learn how to play his uke, he’s going to eventually need some private lessons where all the focus is on him rather than ensuring everyone stays entertained. But the group class certainly succeeded in its titular goal of imparting an enjoyment of music.
“It’s about fostering that love,” Mulder agreed, after doling out stickers for a job well done. “Then they’ll be like, ‘This music thing that I love so much, I want to know how to do it, how to read it, how to play it, how to feel it.’”