Sometimes child's play is anything but.
At least that's how I feel sometimes when I'm unable to get songs from childhood to pass from my lips while attending Music Together classes with my daughter.
For the past couple of years in Frankfurt, I've been flubbing lyrics about Tiny Tim, the little frog who ate all the soap in the bathtub and burped last night from a bubble in his throat. Or, I've tried in vain to think of the melody to accompany the Caribbean rhythms of a little ditty about the donkey Tingalayo, who eats with a knife and fork.
With my four-year-old daughter growing up in a completely German environment, I'm always slightly irked by the attention our strange linguistic duet draws in stores or on the playground. I'm talking American English with a Texas twang; she speaks German with the occasional Hessian accent. Hence my interest in taking the Music Together in English. But what I've discovered is a lot more than a music class in my native language.
For instance, I get an hour of prime time with my girl every Wednesday. We sing. We dance. We act goofy. I am reminded of childhood songs that I might not otherwise come across here in Germany. And I feel my daughter is building a solid musical foundation in a no-pressure environment.
So, it was no surprise when our teacher Simone Schobert told me that the Music Together curriculum is spreading quickly across Germany. The programme is now available in Berlin, Hannover, Munich, Heidelberg, Frankfurt and nearby Bad Soden.
The people behind the concept based in Princeton, New Jersey, but they've built a worldwide network of affiliated centres. Music Together records the songs and lullabies – some originally-composed and some traditional – used each semester and it also trains and certifies teachers.
Schobert has been interested in music since she was a child. She founded the Frankfurt centre after she was dissatisfied with the classes on offer when her two children were still small. Educated as a lawyer, she says Music Together classes may seem chaotic at first, but they're actually “organised” chaos.
Perhaps that is the best way to describe a group of about 10 children and the same number of adults who have gathered in a circle to swing, sway and sing together. Each mixed-age class always begins with the same greeting song, and each child is welcomed individually, drawing a smile across little faces.
Then come several unaccompanied rounds of music. The teacher signals the participants to repeat rhythm chants or songs in nonsense syllables, or vocables such as “Baaa ba bababa ba ba ba.” All the while, the group is somehow making music even though a few children are running around wildly, spinning in circles or dealing with minor bumps or bruises.
Schobert emphasises free play within the structure of the class, as well as an individual interpretation of making music. “It's really important to make music together, not to go to a class and get entertained by the teacher,” she says, adding that some children learn kinaesthetically – that is, through movement.
After a few songs into the class, Schobert distributes an instrument or prop. It may be kazoos, egg-shakers or small, plastic stick horses that emit farm-animal sounds. Occasionally, the group is introduced to exotic instruments, such as a didgeridoo or ocean drum that makes listeners want to lie back and relax.
Given all the sheer fun of this class, and what I have learned about the theories behind it, I'm not surprised Music Together is gaining in popularity in Germany, particularly with Germans eager to introduce their children to English.
But Schobert stresses to parents that the class is not a language class. It's about music, and the introduction to English is a welcome by-product. In the same breath, she'll also repeat what many experts say: music is critical for early childhood development, particularly language development.
“Children store language sounds that help them learn how to read later,” Schobert says.
But for me, the class helps to sooth the dismay I feel when my daughter refuses to speak English with me. During our music classes together, we speak our own language. And at home it even becomes our own secret language, because Daddy doesn't necessarily know the words to the song we're singing.