How can you incorporate music into your classroom and what does that do for your students? What can it do for you? In today’s episode, you’ll hear from Mary Anderson, founder of My Music Starts Here and the creator and host of Songs and Stories on Virginia PBS. She offers insights into how sharing music with children creates a lasting impact in and out of the classroom.
In this episode, you'll learn about how music affects communication and literacy, what’s happening in children's lives and brains when someone is singing and sharing music with them, and how teachers can share music by using their own bodies or things they have in their classrooms.
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Monica: Hello, beautiful people, and welcome to Teaching with CLASS podcast. Today is the third episode of season four. The magic of this podcast is that you can take specific strategies back to your classrooms that you can practice with your children immediately.
I am your host, Monica Pujol-Nassif, and today we're going to be speaking about a fascinating topic. As teachers, we have all been there. So as everything we do with CLASS, how can we do this intentionally? We're going to be talking about music. How can we, with music, build connections, build relationships, build brains of children? Also how can music help heal not to get burned out?
We have with us Mary Anderson. I just met her. It’s fascinating talking with her. I could speak with her forever. She is the founder of My Music Starts Here. She's also the creator and host of Songs and Stories on Virginia PBS. Welcome, Mary. Thank you so much for being here with us. Tell us a little more about you.
Mary: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so happy to be here and speaking with you, Monica. I was a classroom music teacher for almost 15 years with preschool students all the way to fifth grade. Then I was a curriculum designer and instructional coach and had a winding road to get here.
When I stepped out of the classroom, I really wanted to dive into the research around what I was seeing every day with my students. I was seeing music open them up. I was seeing music as a pathway to connect with them, and to maybe just tap into another side of them, but also as a pathway for their learning, their connection with me, with their connection with other fellow students, and I really wanted to know what's happening.
When I stepped away from the classroom, I dove into the research, and really focused my attention on what happens at this intersection of early childhood brain development, and what is going on in our brains when we interact with music. That's where I lasered in and was just astounded at what I found, and got really, really excited and wanted everyone else to know.
I also wanted all teachers, especially our early childhood teachers, to be empowered with this knowledge but also empowered and supported in making it happen in their classroom. That's what led me to found My Music Starts Here, which is our early childhood classroom music program. It’s to integrate high-quality music learning into a child's classroom. Not just once a week for 30 minutes, but into their everyday interactions with their teachers. Then also my husband and I partnered and we have created and hosted a television show for PBS.
Those are two parts of our mission. It's the same mission, sharing high-quality music with children. We say our classroom program reaches children in their classrooms, and our PBS show reaches them in their living rooms, with their adults, with their families. But sharing music with children and that high-quality music, and also surrounded with love and joy. This positive, loving attitude for children that they are musicians and music is a part of their life and how to bring that out.
Monica: Thank you, Mary. Let's talk about the impact of music, in the interactions in the classroom, teachers with children, children with children. But because your mission also taps into music at home, feel free to speak also about the impact of music in households with a family, please.
Mary: Absolutely. This is the bare bones; we can go into lots more detail. But when we share music with a child, it's a love language. We don't sing out of anger or frustration. When we sing, we are opening ourselves up to a child, and the child will feel that.
A lot of teachers will give me feedback of, "Ah, I don't like my singing voice, or I'm not comfortable doing this." I’m actually like, "That's actually when it’s really good because you're really having to lean into your own vulnerability. You're trying something new. When we do that, we're opening ourselves up. The child will feel that. They won't hear the quality of your voice."
Sure, when we get into the nitty-gritty, we want you singing in the range that the child is comfortable singing in so that they can sing with you. That's maybe on another show of these specifics, but for right now focusing on it's not about the exact perfection and quality of your voice. It's that you're sharing love with them. You're saying I love you. I trust you when you sing with them. When you invite them to move with you and dance with you and be silly and joyous with you, that is this pathway for connection and for love.
I have seen it over and over and over again, when you have a child who might be nonverbal, or a child who is very nervous, or we know we can't control all of the parts of their environment. So when they come into our classrooms, there might be a lot going on. When we sing with them, we are saying you're safe. You are loved. I'm glad you're here, and you're inviting them to open themselves up and to be a part of something larger than themselves. What better gift can we give our children?
Monica: Music is a love language. I love it. The world, she's speaking on class, right? This is emotional support all the way. In the brain of, okay, this is a good place, this is a good person, I'm safe, I'm ready to learn.
When you're talking, I don't think about anything. But as a teacher in the classroom, my children loved my songs. They are my only fans. I would only sing in front of my children, and they love it. They did not care about my voice or my beat or anything like that. So I do hear young teachers out there, if you feel that way, you know that your children love hearing your voice.
Mary: I want to say too, oh, gosh, I can't do this. You know what? Start in your car by yourself. Just start singing when you're by yourself. Then maybe in a couple of days, close your classroom door so you don't feel like someone walking down the hall is going to drop by and somehow judge you which my gosh, that would be terrible if they did. But you know if that helps you to feel more secure in doing it, do whatever it takes because it's worth it.
Your children deserve that connection, and you deserve that connection with them. It's helping you to feel good as well. Whatever you need to do to practice, or to get where it's more comfortable for you, do it because it's worth it.
Monica: Excellent tip. In the car, nobody's here. You're just driving and you're singing. I do that, too, because nobody hears me.
Mary: You got it.
Monica: In a preliminary conversation, we touched on the science of this. This is what gives all of this content credibility, all the research behind what's happening in the life of a child when we sing with them. Can you tell us a little bit about that, please?
Mary: I would love to. This is where I just love to nerd out. When I was reading this research at this intersection point. Early childhood brain development and what happens in our brains, when we engage with music. I truly was just blown away. I started to organize the research into different groupings.
The first one is just the general brain development of our children, and how music is almost like it's training the brain of what's important to keep and to hold on to. We know that between ages three and seven, children's brains are going through a pruning stage, where it's saying, okay, wow, I have had this rapid growth for the first three years. But now I need to decide what's actually important and what do I need to hold on to.
I see music as this almost like a weightlifting exercise for the brain, because it's strengthening the parts of the brain that they need for all of this future learning that they're going to be doing. It's strengthening the parts of their brain that they need for communication skills, for literacy skills, for problem solving skills, all of those types of skills, but also their social and emotional development, which I love leaning into.
That's always been so, so, so important for our young, little learners in the classroom, but especially in this post COVID era. I feel like we're seeing some new challenges in the classroom because children who were born during the pandemic are now in our preschools, and it looks a little bit different. We need to be armed with ways to build their social and emotional development skills, and music can do that. It can help them to feel safe. It also helps them to be more empathic, so they have empathy towards each other. They can communicate with each other.
But we have to qualify it a little bit. It's not all music, right? That's something else I'd love to talk about, is we have to look critically. We have to be willing to look at how we're using music and ask is this really accomplishing what I'd like it to? Because the full power of music is incredible. But we've got to maybe move away from music for entertainment, music for a specific task, and start using music in a way that really does all of the things that I'm talking about.
Monica: Let's rewind from that point. What is the purpose of using music? That's the first thing we have to become intentional about as teachers with children in the classroom. Once you have that clear, then you know how to approach it. I want to dissect how you say it, so that the teachers can take this with them. How is it that music helps the children develop communication? How is it that they can communicate through music?
You've already explained a little bit about social and emotional development, but can we start with communication? How does music impact the brain in a way that children can actually communicate?
Mary: When we share fingerplays, when we share rhyming songs, when we share any kind of music that's associated with a movement, whether it's steady beat or movement that's associated with the words that they're singing or saying, that is building. It's overlapping neurons. It’s more of a sciency term, but let's just say the area of their brain, because that makes the most sense for me.
But that's using the same part of their brain that they will use to communicate. That's not a far leap because when we're sharing a fingerplay, that is telling a story in sequence in order. It's using rhyming words and maybe expanding their vocabulary just a little bit, possibly counting. They're using their hands to show the counting or they're using their body to show what's happening in the story. All of that is what they need to build this vocabulary so the communication is easier.
One of the other things it's doing is it's focusing or it's strengthening their auditory working memory. The way that this makes sense to me is that it means that when they're hearing things, it's going in and sticking, instead of what we say like, it went in one ear and out the other. This stops that.
It's strengthening their auditory working memory so that as we're talking, as we're building their vocabulary, and we're having these positive interactions with them, but when we're doing fingerplays, and when we're singing songs, and we're singing songs over and over and over again—you never sing a song once and be like, they didn't like it. Moving on. Oh, my gosh, no way. You have to give them that ownership piece—then it's going in and it's sticking. It's like when they then go to communicate, they have this full toolbox to pull vocabulary and expression from.
Monica: My gosh. I always put myself in the shoes of the teacher because I'm not in the classroom, but I am a teacher. Thinking that through music, that repetition is so important to retain that tone and the rhythm. The children are acquiring all of that for days and days. There’s going to be a moment that they can actually use that new word in context, because in that song, there was some context. I love it. I hope you enjoy this just as much as I am.
You're talking about the stories of music, the repetition, and the sequencing. Can you connect that to literacy and different aspects to literacy?
Mary: Absolutely. As I was just saying, with finger plays especially or folk songs that are telling a story, it's not just words repeated over and over and over again. It's telling a story that's compelling that the children want to know. What's happening in this story? And then they want to retell it. That is just building all of these components that they need for early literacy skills.
But one of the biggest bodies of research that truly just blew me away—I was in the classroom for such a long time. I have several degrees in music education, and I really did not know this until I stepped out and read it for myself, and then was just blown away—is around steady beat and literacy skills. Steady beat is giving children the opportunity to listen to music, whether it's recorded, whether you're singing it, whether you're playing on a drum or another instrument, and keeping the beat to that music.
I tell teachers all the time, just put on some music that's appropriate, and have them pat their laps to the steady beat. That's all you need to do. Of course, you can get fancier with it, and all kinds of ways to keep them engaged and that thing. But keeping a steady beat supports children being able to read.
If you think about breaking down what it takes for a child to keep the steady beat, first they have to identify the steady beat in the music. They have to feel that. Then they have to have the physical coordination to make their body land on what they're hearing and what they're feeling.
All of that skillset is in the same area of the brain that overlaps neurons we talked about before. It's all the same part of their brain that when they go to read, which is decoding, looking at symbols, and knowing what sounds they make and making their mouth do it. It's all in there, it's all the same. I tell teachers, when you are keeping a steady beat, you are preparing those little learners to read. That's how important it is.
There are so many longitudinal studies with cohorts of kids. When they're given the ability or the opportunity to keep a steady beat even just three times a week—we're not even talking every day. Of course, I say everyday, everyday all the time—their reading scores are higher in third grade than other peers that were given those opportunities. That's how powerful it is. It's easy to do. It's fun and it's playful. It is the rare child that if you were to start playing a drum, that they would immediately react and want to be a part of it.
Music is part of what makes us human. We are genetically made to react to beat and to react to a human voice singing. That's part of our DNA. As teachers, we can tap into that power and engage our students. They think they're playing and they're bonding with you. You can know, well, all this awesome stuff is happening, but I got news for you a little kiddo. I’m also building your brain for everything that you need to do within the next few years.
Monica: Oh my gosh, this is beautiful. Just one more thing because the teachers might be thinking what can I use to do the beat? You said tap on the lap. They can use their own body. What else can they use that they have in the classroom that is right there?
Mary: In the My Music Starts Here program, we always start on our laps because we want all children to be able to do it. But we also model using rhythm sticks. We also model using egg shakers. I love egg shakers, because they are the perfect size for little hands. They're too big to put in their mouths. They also give kinesthetic feedback.
When the child is shaking the egg shaker, they're feeling that it hit their hand because of the beads on the inside. But it's not overstimulating like a jingle bell or something which is really loud. If not everyone is exactly on the steady beat with an egg shaker, it doesn't matter. It just all sounds soothing. It gives this groove that everybody can be a part of. I love egg shakers for that reason.
Certainly I would start maybe about older threes. Certainly by the time they’re four, they can manage rhythm sticks. But I really recommend getting the short, fat rhythm sticks. Maybe they're about 6–8 inches long and thick. We don't want long and skinny, because they're just not physically able to control the sticks that are that long.
They either get out of control and the whole learning outcome that you are going for with those rhythm sticks is lost, because they can't hit it on the beat, they're too long. They might accidentally hit themselves or hit someone else, which we super don't want. If you are going to introduce rhythm sticks, I highly recommend getting the short and fat ones.
Monica: Look at all the ideas that I have right there. We do have those materials in the classroom, so as teachers let's just use them to make music. When you're talking about the egg shakers, I thought using recyclable materials to create maybe a tennis ball that you currently have. You put something inside like sand or rice and then you tape it. Then you have a shaker.
Mary: Yes, I have visited teachers. Oh my gosh, whenever I go into a classroom, I always come out with a better idea than I could have ever thought of. So many teachers, especially in the spring, they'll be doing these bigger units on how we recycle? How can we find materials in our homes that we could reuse or repurpose?
One of the coolest things was toilet paper rolls. They wrapped the top and wrapped the bottom. You can do anything, paper or tissue paper or Kleenex even. Then they filled it with beans or rice. The children decorated the toilet paper rolls and all the things, and they were so proud of them. And they make a wonderful sound.
I wouldn't do that with toddlers because they just want to deconstruct it, take out the beans, and put it right in their mouth. But with fours and fives they are ready for it. They take such pride in making their own instrument.
Monica: This is so fascinating. I almost want to go back to the classroom and try some of these strategies. You did touch on social emotional skills because especially the emotional skills of connection and okay, I feel happy, I feel that you are the person I can trust. Would you use your strategy to build social skills with one another? The sharing music or singing together or dancing together that come from doing music in the classroom?
Mary: What I always recommend for classrooms is whole group music making. It's wonderful. If you have a music center or you have boxes of little instruments that the children can explore when they're going through their stations or their centers, or whatever it is, that's wonderful. But that's not tapping into the full power of music. The full power of music is released when we're creating music together.
This is where I will see a classroom of children come together. The science behind that is when we sing together, when we laugh together, when we're all being a little bit vulnerable maybe, and doing a silly movement song where we're flapping our wings and we're shaking our tails and we're stopping or whatever it is, all of these hormones are being released into the air and into our bodies that are connecting us. We're sharing an experience and emotional experience together. We're being vulnerable together.
That is when this magic happens. It’s not rational for us to expect every child in my classroom is going to be friends with every other child. That's not life. But we can learn to be okay, yeah, you're not my favorite person but I do love being in this community with you. I do feel connected and I feel safe with you. But maybe I don't want to spend every minute of my recess time with you, and that is fine.
We have to empower our children and ourselves to be a part of a community. When we create music as a whole group, that's what happens. If you think about it, when we participate in music together, we are becoming a part of something that we couldn't recreate on our own. To me, that's one of these pieces that makes music stand apart from other disciplines because we have each other to create it.
Sure, we can sing in the car (like we talked about) on our own, and we can sing when we're by ourselves. That's awesome. But the benefits ramp up when we share that moment and share that magic together.
I think one of the most powerful tools we have as teachers for this social and emotional development, and giving children these opportunities to bond with each other and bond with us, and for us to bond with them, is whole group music making, singing songs. Sing songs in your morning, circle time, but don't sing at your children, sing with them. Give them the song over and over and over again until they've mastered it. It's theirs and they own it. Then you're singing together. That's when they feel connected, and that they truly belong. You'll feel it, too. It's not just for the kiddos.
Monica: You say that last piece, when they're having this connection, and they're laughing with each other and looking at each other’s faces, they are releasing that oxytocin. That was making music a love language, because oxytocin is the hormone of love.
Mary: It is, absolutely.
Monica: To start wrapping up, please touch on that last piece of the teachers. All these are wonderful things that we know children enjoy, is play. They are developing their brain and their hearts and those connections and those relationships and literacy. How does music help our teachers out there?
Mary: This is something I am really focused on right now. I'm starting to write about it. I'm giving presentations on it because we're burned out. We are tired. As a group of teachers and educators and administrators, we are tired.
I feel like when we hear this term, ‘self care,’ sometimes that might be interpreted as okay, I'll push through my work day. I'll get through it. And when I get home, that's when I'll take care of myself. That's when I'll do the things that nourish me and make me feel better.
What I want us to start thinking about is oh, man, wouldn't it be nice if we didn't feel like we had to push through our school day? Wouldn't it be nice if we really were relaxed and happy during our school day with our children? Because our children will feel that.
If we can tap into the power of music throughout the school day for our children, of course but also for ourselves. I want teachers to be looking for ways to incorporate the music that they love as long as it's appropriate for children.
Think about your favorite song or think about just a genre type of music that you love. Sit with that for a minute and hear it in your head. If it's really your favorite, if you start to smile, and you might start to groove a little bit and when that happens, your whole body gets on board. All of these feel-good hormones are starting to be released. If we're sharing music in a classroom with children that we love, it's a way of taking care of yourself.
Also we just talked about making music in a community. Even if our community is three and four years old, it's still releasing those hormones because we're playing. We’re expressing that love language and all of those hormones are being released. It’s self-care for us to be sharing this joyful music-making in our classroom.
Monica: Fascinating. Every word you shared with us is so exciting. I hope our teachers are getting so much out of this and can't wait to go and dance with the children.
Let's close this beautiful episode with three takeaways, three or four or five takeaways that you know, that they can take tomorrow to be with the children. It's easy, it's right there for them.
Mary: Okay, so I obviously have millions but I'm going to try to limit myself to some true do-it-tomorrow kind of thoughts. The first one is more overarching. When I work with teachers, I always ask them, let's start with, what music do you already use, because I have never met an early childhood educator that doesn't use music in some way. Let's take a look at that.
I would encourage you to go through your day just like you always have. But now, when you choose to use music, just take a step back and ask yourself, how am I using this music and why? What is my desired outcome? Am I using it to help them with a specific task like cleanup songs? Am I using it as entertainment to let them play a little bit or wiggle or dance or whatever? Or am I using it to teach something? Am I using it to bond with them? Just ask yourself those questions about why I am using this.
Also, observe what happens to the children after the song. So much of the time I've been caught in this trap as well. It's a full moon, it's been raining for three days, and you're like, oh, they got to get their wiggles out, they're crawling up the walls. You put on something that's pretty stimulating and fast.
Then you think that okay, they've gotten their wiggles out. Now it's time to calm down. But that doesn't happen. What's just happened is you've just opened up their brain and poured a pixie stick in there. Now you're saying, okay, sit down and be still. Their brain has just received the message. It's time to wiggle and play, and it's overstimulating. So their nervous systems are like, what just happened?
So observe what happens after the song, after the recorded music. That will give you some pretty powerful insight of maybe this actually isn't the best thing to do. Or maybe it worked beautifully, so store that one away in your toolbox and use that one again. Take that step back, look at yourself a little critically of why am I using this and what was the outcome? Because that might guide you to some shifts and some changes you might want to make.
The other two things are do this tomorrow, do this to give your kids this wonderful musical opportunity, the first one is steady beat. Find ways to get your kiddos keeping the steady beat, patting their laps. Speaking finger play with rhythm is awesome. That is a power house. That's so, so, so good for their brains, so keep the steady beat.
Then the other one is a shout out to teachers who have listened to this and are thinking, this is great for people who like to sing or for people who are comfortable with singing. I will say to you, just try it. Just try it.
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and say, okay, I don't feel great about this, but I'm going to try it, children do not hear oh, wow, she's a terrible singer. Although they might tell you, because they're really honest. So be prepared for that. But it doesn't matter.
When we do that, it's going back to exactly how we opened up the conversation. You are sharing love. You are saying it's safe to take risks here. It's safe to try new things here, because look at me. I'm trying this. That's what they'll hear. That's what they'll feel. You're giving them permission to do it as well. You're forming this bond and this connection through this pathway of music. So I say try it. Just do it and see what happens.
Monica: Now that you said that last part, how can we incorporate different cultures into these experiences?
Mary: Oh my goodness, there's so much good stuff we could dive into. I'll give one suggestion. Look at your classroom of children, and maybe reach out to one of their adults in their lives to see if they might share some of the musical language, the musical culture from their household. What songs do they sing? What fingerplays do they know? If you have a more international feel in your classroom.
The grandparents I have found are a goldmine of musical resources, poems, fingerplays, songs, invite them in. If they don't feel comfortable coming in, sometimes I've had to ask them to just video themselves doing it, which they are like, oh, I don't know. But you say, oh, no, no, it's just for me, I just want to learn it so that I can share it with everybody. They'll feel more comfortable with that.
If you don't have an international mingling in your classroom, you need to go out and find those songs and those fingerplays from different cultures, so that you can give that gift to your students. You know? This sounds cliche and I hate it sometimes but it's so appropriate. Music is the universal language. Music does not have borders. We need to tap into that and share that with all of our children, which really also goes back to that empathy piece, and having empathy for someone who might talk differently than you. You can still sing songs and communicate and feel a part of a larger community together through music.
Monica: Bravo, love it. I can speak with you forever. I'm telling you.
Mary: I wanted to.
Monica: To close this episode, I want to thank you so much for coming in and for sharing your expertise, all these amazing tips that they can take back. I also want to thank my teachers, of course. You are the architects of the brain. Thank you for sharing your love and wisdom with your children of the world out there. We're going to see you in the next episode.
I hear you. Please know, beautiful teachers, that you can always ask questions on the CLASS learning community. If you have that magic that you want to share with others, please let us know. We will love to have you on board. Thank you, Mary. Thank you, everyone. We'll hear you next time.