For toddlers, playing music isn’t just another form of entertainment and noise-making, but a crucial cornerstone of their formative education.
Emile, my two-year-old son, is a punk rocker. Oh, he doesn’t actually care much for punk—he’s more into Miike Snow, the Muppets soundtrack and classical “ballerina music”—and he doesn’t sport an adorable mohawk. But lately he’s taken to rocking out on his “meowsic” keyboard cat, bashing away at the plastic instrument while singing into its insanely distorted microphone like he was recording a DIY seven-inch. Kid even does encores.
It’s amazing, but not astounding. After all, he’s been “playing” music since he could sit up, whether it was plinking an iPad piano or keeping time on his wood ‘n’ rubber drum kit while crooning “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead!” He sings to himself for upwards of an hour after we put him to bed every night—my wife and I huddle by the monitor like we’re listening to an old-time radio concert—and even does mash-ups or invents his own lyrics. (I’m pretty sure “The Wheels on the Bus” doesn’t originally contain the line “the tigers on the bus go roar, roar, roar!” and I doubt “We’re going to the library and we’re gonna have fun” is a real song.)
E happily sat and gleefully clapped through a two-hour “Weird” Al Yankovic concert at Massey Hall back when he was only 18-month-old and he sussed out how to operate the CD player around the same age. He loves Yo Gabba Gabba on TV, but is just as stoked to hear the CD compilations, which he calls “Happy Music,” in honour of the Salteens’ YGG contribution “I’m So Happy I Can Dance.” Speaking of which, he danced before he could even stand, bobbing away for the very first time to the minimal techno bassline of Robyn’s “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do.” (I melted with pride.)
Being a music journalist by trade, I figured it was genetic, but the more research I’ve done, the more I realize E is not alone. Music seems to define toddlers with an intensity only matched by screaming tweens and mopey teens.
“Music is not taught, it’s caught,” explains Jodi Proznick, an award-winning jazz musician, music teacher, and a friend from elementary school. (We were in the musical of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince together back in grade five.)
She suggests group music lessons over formal private ones until about seven-years-old. “At that point, the child can choose an instrument that they love and then, hopefully, it becomes a self-motivated process. In the meantime, I’m sure you are singing all the time, listening to live and recorded music, dancing, sharing your favourite songs with him and talking about what you hear.”
Jodi herself started piano lessons at age three—not coincidentally, her dad was a high-school music teacher—but stopped around age seven because she was missing the social aspect. (She plays stand-up bass now in numerous outfits and her own group, the Jodi Proznick Quartet, was nominated for a Juno in 2008, the same year she took home bassist of the year, with her Quartet landing acoustic group of the year and album of the year, at the National Jazz Awards.)
Jodi recommends ukelele, djembe drum, and resonator bars (“they are perfect for little hands”), as well as traditional piano.
“As a teacher, I am not really interested in developing child musicians as much I am interested in developing musical people—people who are comfortable with their voice and comfortable in their bodies. It can happen through music when the environment feels safe and wonderful. It doesn’t always happen but, when it does, it can change lives.”
For those folks who feel like the arts should take a backseat to more traditional academics, Jodi points out that the former helps develop the latter. “In my opinion, you cannot find a better brain activity for a child than music,” she says, adding that psychologists, neuroscientists and child development experts have demonstrated that music “helps the brain cells make the connections needed for virtually every kind of intelligence.” That would include spoken language, reading comprehension and the “spatial-temporal and reasoning skills” underlying math, science, and engineering. Not to mention gross and fine motor skills as well as good ol’ pure unadulterated joy.
There are few things in the world that give Emile as much obvious pleasure as singing “Puff the Magic Dragon” or the 1970s Spider-Man theme with us. Honestly, you haven’t lived till you’ve heard a grinning two-year-old squeal-sing “Spins a web, any size / Catches thieves, just like flies / Look out, here comes the Spider-Maaaaaaan!”