Supporting Music in the Home

Sheila Johns spoke at PCWS on Wednesday, February 15th on supporting music at home. Sheila is the music teacher for the grades and a music therapist also. The talk started with a discussion of the role of music in childhood; the notes below are our attempt to capture the talk.

The decline in the relationship of people to real music is alarming, since children come into this world endowed with music. I teach at WWS also, and ask the same question in every 11th grade class: how important is music to your life? I’ve been doing this for years, and without exception, every hand goes up. How many academic subjects do you suppose high school students would say has a direct relationship to their lives? Yet as adults, our experience of music calcifies mostly to consumption (instead of production).

Pythagoras used the phrase ‘the music of the spheres’ and there is plenty to support the idea that music does have a relationship to planetary and astral movements. Music also has a strong healing power; in modern life we see this in both positive and negative aspects. (much modern music contributes to alienation of the self)

Steiner said, “Musical experience is the experience of the whole human being.” One fundamental problem of our time is the narrowing of the aural space. Think back 100 years – people didn’t have the sounds of traffic in their ears, dishwashers, mechanical sounds filling the space, so-called music piped in stores and elevators everywhere.

Be mindful that as adults we have mechanisms to filter those sounds out; children don’t. Be mindful of the stimuli they are exposed to. Our eyes have lids. If we want to keep out some unwanted image, we can close our eyes. What about unwanted sounds? Our ears have no lids to shut.

Steiner also thought of the child as one large sense organ. In that regard, think of nourishing all your child’s senses. We often thinking of nourishment in terms of food, but children, especially under the age of seven, are affected by sound through their whole body. Are we nourishing their spirits, their musical senses? There is a difference between hearing and listening. Listening gives meaning to what we hear. Sheila gave the example of a second grader in her class some years ago who appeared to be hearing her, but asked her to repeat the instructions. Gently, Sheila asked her, “Did you not hear me, dear?” The child responded, “Of course I heard you, I just wasn’t listening.”

If the aural space is too crowded, what does the child shut down, since we don’t have ear lids?

Silence is nourishing. Noise pulls us out of our bodies, silence allows children to self-integrate. How does one’s own voice arise, if there is no silence? Listening is also a fundamental human capacity. Think of neighbors, coworkers, spouses, nations who can’t listen to each other properly. The process of creating comes out of inner listening.

How to make time and space for a child to experience silence?

Be mindful of our own talking. Sheila gave the example of seeing a mother in a grocery store with a young child sitting up in the cart. The mother, frequently, will chit-chat with the infant through the entire store, discussing menus, whether to buy asparagus or artichokes, etc. By incessantly filling the sounding space with our own voices, we prevent our children from experiencing the silence which is so important in their development.

Make organic, acoustic sounds available. When was the last time you heard a bird singing? In one of her pregnancies, Sheila spent seven months in a hospital, surrounded by the quiet hush of hospital sounds. On Mother’s Day, one staffer went to great lengths to get her outside, even on a gurney. Sheila recounted how, when the doors opened and she went outside for the first time in so long, she was greeted by a riot of sound: birds, squirrels, leaves. How often do we allow for silence to be filled by nature?

Expose your children to live musical sounds, instrumental or vocal. Who is it that should be singing? You. Us. Everyone of us. Don’t worry about ability, don’t worry about how long it’s been since you did any singing or whether you can hold a tune. Your voice is a gift to your child.

Sheila gave the example of a friend of hers who told a story to her children every night at bedtime. At one point she found a marvelous tape of stories that she thought quite good. She began turning on the tape player for her children every night so they could hear these stories, which the mother thought to be far superior to her own. The fourth night, as she turned on the tape player, her son began to cry. “Why?” the mother asked. “Don’t you like the stories?” The child confirmed that the stories were good, but said, “That thing doesn’t have a lap.”

It is a gift of you to sing to and with your children, and connects them to another part of their heritage. Steiner wrote, “Song is the earthly means of recalling pre-earthly existence.” Our song connects them to the spirituality of the other realm from which they have come.

When can you sing? On long drives in the car, at bedtime, and while doing chores. Tone bridges this world and the next.

How do we sing? Sheila played two songs, and participants observed the differences. One, sounded very staccato, straight up and down, orderly. The second had bigger intervals, sounded more irregular and a bit dreamy. Sheila built on those observations by indicating that for the youngest children, we try to avoid beat or rhythm. In children’s own spontaneous songs the music follows the words – they sing what they say.

Suggestions for starting to sing: pick one tone, one note, and sing the whole song at that tone. Try to choose a tone that isn’t your normal speaking voice; children use a much higher voice for singing than they do for speaking. Sheila played several intervals for the group; children are comfortable with a fifth, the interval found at the beginning of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. It has a mood of balance, equanimity. If you are comfortable with a single tone, try adding this interval occasionally.

Sheila closed with a verse said by Washington Waldorf’s fourth grade class as they begin and end their music class ;

Music speaks what cannot be expressed
Soothes the mind and gives it a rest
Heals the heart and makes it whole
Flows from heaven to the soul