Monday, June 21, 2010

Teaching with Song

When I was a kid I didn't have an alarm clock, I had a mother who knew Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Oh what a beautiful morning
Oh what a beautiful day!
I've got a wonderful feeling
Everything's going my way!

Yes, at the time it was highly irritating to be awoken in such fashion but it usually worked in getting me out of bed. In fact, Mom seemed to have a song to fit every occasion and I grew up hearing everything from Cole Porter to Ray Charles and it took years before I was able to sort them all out into their proper titles and origins.

My father, on the other hand, stuck to singing the Beatles (he was particularly fond of shocking Mom with singing loudly, "Why don't we do it in the road? No one will be watching us, WHYYYYY don't we do it in the road?") and other such bawdy ballads. We, of course, were ignorant of the subtleties of meaning and merely enjoyed seeing Mom squawk at him to mind his manners in front of the children but part of our initiation into the full Alaskan camping experience was to hear him singing "Queenie" while behind the wheel. Here's a sampling:

There's a burlesque the-atre where the gang likes to go
To see Queenie, the cutie of the bur-lesque show.
But the thrill of the evening is when out Queenie skips;
And the band plays the polka while she strips, strips, strips.
"Take it off! Take it off!" Rose a cry from the rear.
"Take it off! Take it off!" Was all you could hear.
But she's always a lady, even in pantomime;
And she stops . . . but only just in time!

It's an old 1942 Andrews Sisters' song but to me it was just a fun family tradition to sing it whenever we were heading out camping and the point of all this is that music, culturally speaking, is as important to our collective and individual consciousness as words and reading are.

No parent has any doubts as to the importance of reading to your children, of how it improves language and cognitive skills and encourages creativity but in many ways singing to your children is just as important. Studies show that singing to babies and toddlers before they can read improves their ability to recognize patterns in language, distinguish phonics, enjoy the beauty of language--even understand spacial relations. The tones and repetition are even thought to help nervous system development and all sorts of other helpful issues but besides all of the physiological, educational and psychological reasons to sing with your children, it's a huge way that you bond over a shared cultural experience.

I know that's a silly sentence but what I'm saying is that passing on songs to your children is no different than passing on stories or memories. That while they're learning about tone and language and singing they'll also be accumulating cultural information that helps them feel connected to you and to society.

Think about what music means in your own life. What song was played at your prom? ("Stairway to Heaven") When was the first time you heard a U2 song? ("Where the Streets Have No Names," played on the New Seward Highway coming home from a research project at the library) What songs were popular your freshman year of college? What song did they play at your wedding? What songs remind you of your spouse or past relationships?

Sing to your kids and teach them your favorite songs. Teach them some that are silly, some that are old-fashioned, some that they won't hear on the radio today. Just like kids should grow up knowing the fairy tales and Mother Goose and the alphabet they need to know "Ring Around a Rosy," "The Hokey Pokey," "Pop Goes the Weasel" and "I've Been Working on the Railroad." They should know show tunes and Beatles songs and even a few country classics here and there (though in moderation--always in moderation. It is still country music, after all, and must be administered carefully).

Introduce them to different kinds of music and sing to them when they can't run away--like in the car. When the kids were little I made a habit of keeping the radio off and using the time to sing together or (if I was really tired) I'd put in a CD that did the job for me so all I had to do was sing along. Sing before bedtime and sing to wake them up. Have songs for bath time and songs for bed time and if you don't know of any make some up. That's how such classics as "Mad Grizzly" developed in our house.

Every kid should be able to have their own songs like "Queenie" that make them smile and remember home.


And speaking of music appreciation . . . there are great concerts going on all summer long in Anchorage. Tuesdays at noon at the library are always great for some culture and I informed the children last week that we'd be going to the Taiko drum performance. They grumbled and did the "Do we have to?" thing (to which I said "Yes!") and it turns out that--who knew?--Taiko drums are actually really "sick." Spencer dragged his feet going in but was tapping by the time we left.

Tomorrow they're presenting a selection of operatic arias and we're going again though they're highly skeptical about the whole situation. They'll thank me eventually.

Sponsored by Polkadot Peacock for children's bedding.


Jennifer said...

The soundtrack of my childhood was mostly The Carpenter's Greatest Hits. And we all belted out Sing with all our heart.

In hindsight, some of that stuff is pretty depressing, but I have good family memories because of it. Thanks for the reminder.

Peruby said...

What cracked me up was when my daughter (years ago when she was about six or seven) belted out a song I used to sing to her in the car: "Chick-a-boom, chick-a-boom, don't you just love it?"

Lucy said...

I LOVE this post!!!! And in all my life pretty much knowing what the Andrew Sisters sang, I had never heard Queenie before. I had to look it up on Youtube. What a hoot! I love it. I may have to do a post about the Sisters jut to get this song back in circulation. I have lots of childhood song memories but I gotta say...they're not like Queenie. :))

Suzi Dow said...

Don't remember the music played at prom but can recall a host of show tunes and a knapsack full of nonsense campfire songs. Mom was an aspiring singer who did backup vocal before we came along and had a wealth of song she could belt out at the drop of a hat. Wonder if she sang when we weren't in the room? Betcha, she leading, with perfect pitch, a lively production H.M.S. Pinafore right now. Thanks for the memories.

a Tonggu Momma said...

We sing all the time with our daughter. Maybe more than we should, since she often gasps in embarrassment and tries to sink through the floor when we do.

As a former pre-k and kindergarten teacher, I also find that favorite songs (with creative lyrics) can teach children school concepts that they may be struggling with, ala Schoolhouse Rock and Here Comes Science by They Might Be Giants. If you can't find a song already invented, twist the words to one of YOUR favorite songs to teach them. A favorite of the kids in my life? My dinosaur rendition of "We Will Rock You," which became "We Will Chomp You." Heh.

Amber M. said...

HA! I remember begging Grandpa to sing his old "naughty" songs and him rubbing his bald head and getting all flustered. I'm glad Uncle Mel is carrying on the tradition...:-)

Teresa Hirst said...

We must have had the same mother. I've heard that song many a morning from her.

Chris said...

My 7 year old hates when I sing and, I kid you not, would cry when I sang lullabies to her when she was a baby. I'm really not that bad of a singer. Really.

But she will sing whenever the mood strikes her. Plus we listen to a lot of music in our house, although we don't always agree on genres. (She is not a Zeppelin fan).

Alice Wills Gold said...

I LOVE THIS POST. Agreed wholeheartedly.

I personally feel so connected to my parents and grandparents when I teach my children to sing "On Moonlight Bay" while driving on trips.

Music is a great bonding tool. One of the greatest in my homes on both mine and my husband's sides.

I am cracking up at this exchange between your mom and dad.

Inkling said...

This post affirmed my attempts at mothering, and made me smile when remembering my own growing up years. My grandma always played polka to "help" me go to sleep when I'd visit her house, and she always sang a bunch songs to us even though she really couldn't sing. And my dad, who inherited her talent or lack thereof, would sing the good morning song when trying to wake up this non-morning person.

As a new mama, I found a certain lullaby by Dee Carston (I think that's her name) that my little boy would immediately respond to. He would be wailing, and the second I began singing it, he would quiet down. On car trips, it often got sung over and over and over and.... I made up a song with his whole name and the Biblical meaning it has for him that now has the ability to capture his attention when he's grumpy. It's fun to be able to sing for my little one. I don't think I have a good voice at all, but it's a sweet privilege to sing to him before he knows any better.

imadramamama said...

My kids already love Jackson 5 and can pick out a few Stevie Wonder songs. They know more show tunes than they know kids tunes, too!

Lisa @thebeadgirl said...

my dad ALWAYS woke me up with Oklahoma! and in fact i find myself doing it often!!

Musicals are super important all the time in our home...right now Mama Mia has preference!

thank you for bringing back a fabulous memory for me!


Steph said...

My grandma used to wake us up with "You Are My Sunshine" when she'd stay with us. Used to annoy me to death but now I look back and laugh.

My dad is very musical as are both of my grandmothers. When we were young my dad made a game out of playing his oldies and asking us "who sings this?" on trips. It entertained us for hours.

Eventually as we got older it became annoying but again I look back fondly on it. Now he does it with my kids as do I. Music is very important for sure!

daysease said...

I LOVE MGM musicals!! I have grown up with them myself, even if I am in my 30s. That particular song that you had sung to you by your mom, I know well, and sometimes I use it on my own kids. hahahah!! I have lots. Singing in the Rain, "Good mornin, Good mornin, it's great to stay up late. Good mornin, good mornin to YOU!!" I also tend to help my kids memorize memory verses by making songs out of them. Rhyming songs work well in memorizing so I do a lot of that, with a funky beat to boot. hahahah!!

Here is a funny memory of mine. My grandparents are off-the-boat Puerto Ricans, very spanglish. :-) I remember being maybe 7 or 8 and travelling with them, by myself, to New York City to visit family. They had on the radio, and on came Michael Jackson's "Beat it". They were so funny as they talked and their hands moved to the beat. They were not annoyed by it, rather amused and left it on. I love that memory. Whenever I hear the song, I just tear up and smile, as my grandparents are mentally failing. Sigh... Life is full of lots of things, so isn't it nice when we can make some wonderful memories. And how nice when those memories touch to our very souls, where music tends to reach the furthest?