Last evening Mark and I hired a babysitter, bundled up, and walked to dinner. We went to a new tapas restaurant about a mile away, a tiny little place that's proved very popular in our relatively-restaurant-starved neighborhood. The tables were packed close together and we were seated almost shoulder-to-shoulder.
At first it was a little disconcerting to be able to overhear the people at the next table so well (especially since the four women six inches to our right were engaged in a vigorous, head-nodding discussion of one of their number's experience with artificial insemination), but I ordered another glass of sangria and eventually managed to ignore them, especially when the plates of food started to arrive. After the table six inches to our left cleared out, the next thing I heard was a "Hello!" The couple who had just arrived included someone I recognized well: the instructor-owner of the preschool music class that I've been going to with one or another of my children for nine years. And her husband, who teaches piano in the same studio space, but whom I'd never met.
Well, you can't exactly ignore something like that, so we wound up having a nice conversation about kids, and babysitters, and teenagers who are old enough to stay home and manage their own siblings for a couple of hours, and homeschooling, and South Minneapolis, and small businesses, and hiking trips, and the piquillos de atún. Mark and I left before they did, and I reflected as we walked back on why I'd stuck with this particular music-and-movement class for so long.
I signed up for it in the first place because neither Mark nor I is the kind of person who spontaneously creates an environment rich in music. Mark can't noodle around on the piano (especially since we don't own one); I have a guitar but I don't think to pick it up and play it very much; neither of us are the sort who's always wandering around singing or humming.
Now, I don't, actually, subscribe to the idea that extensive formal music training, beyond the basics, is a necessary part of every child's education. I studied an instrument (entirely by choice) as a teenager; I had fun with it, and I acquired an appreciation for the amount of effort that goes into learning to play an instrument well. To my mind, that kind of effort is best applied because someone wants to do it, not imposed as a requirement from outside.
But back when I was first starting out as a parent, I fervently believed that early music experiences were important for brain development, that if I could only give my children at least a little regular exposure I might be helping them if they ever chose to take on serious musical training in the future, and I might encourage them to have fun with music and rhythm. Because I felt Mark and I were kind of deficient in the music-experience-generating department, I thought a weekly music class might fill the bill. So when my firstborn was three and my secondborn was new, I signed us up.
It turned out that not only did the class provide what I hoped for musically, but the pedagogy was absolutely exactly in line with my new-parent, idealistic convictions of how one should teach small children.
I remember those days. I was on the "Continuum Concept" email list. I was all about respecting children as human beings deserving of my full attention, but not idolizing them as the center of my universe; about living my own life and folding them into it. I was all about giving children real tools to do real work, and modeling, rather than demanding, the behavior I wanted them to develop, and trusting that my little people were inherently social beings who naturally wanted to be like the adults around them. I taught my eighteen-month-old to cut up vegetables safely with a real knife, the handle shortened and the tip blunted especially for him, in Mark's workshop; that worked very well. I gave him hammers and tacks and a little hand drill for making holes, and a child-sized shopping basket for when we went to the grocery store. I used to take walks with that first little guy in parks, trying to get where we were going by walking ahead and discreetly peer back to see if he was catching up with me, because the books said that if parents only made it clear that we expected the children to stay with us, then they would. (That one never worked, at least with my oldest. I always had to give up and go fetch him.) I bought discounted Montessori materials -- yes indeedy, I own a Pink Tower, though mine isn't pink -- and made some of my own. I lamented the lack of a network of extended-family relationships among people who shared my value system, and set about trying to create one with some other like-minded families.
So when I settled into that first music class, I was thrilled to discover that the instructor -- the same woman we had dinner with last night -- talked to children as if they were people. She spoke in an engaging voice, musically and with rhythm but never "sing-song." She instructed the parents to avoid grasping the children's hands to demonstrate playing this shaker or that tambourine; the children were to be free to observe the adults having fun and making music. She led the parents leading the children. She clearly trusted that if the adults smiled and sang, moved with the music, echoed rhythms, clapped on cue, paused for beats of silence -- that the children would pick up on it and follow their parents' cues. She didn't interrupt class with lengthy explanations, but incorporated instruction -- always aimed at giving the parents the tools to share music with their child -- into the singing and rhythm of the songs, so there were never any breaks in the music longer than a child's attention span. Sometimes we would arrive to class to find technical notes -- definitions of musical terms, suggesting we listen for a particular instrument in a particular song -- on the chalkboard, but she never wasted class time on it.
Oh, and I should add that the music CDs are full of good music -- lots of folk music, a little blues, world music, spoken-word stuff. It's not dumbed-down kid-music, it's real music chosen because it has wide human appeal. Some of the singers are children, but they're children who sing on key. I listen to it by choice in the car sometimes.
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I've stuck with this class for nine years because it's a sort of good habit. The habit was born out of my young-mother, still-unjaded, trying-hard-to-do-everything-exactly-right zeal. As the years have gone by, a lot of that has faded -- my energy is spread over more children, more education, more planning and organization to keep it all going smoothly. It isn't that I reject the ideas I had when I was a first-time mother, or that I have tried them and found them impractical. It's more that new things keep coming along and have to be incorporated, and the more time that goes by the more I see how those ideas must fit into a whole picture of a healthy life. I also see that I don't have to work hard all the time to MAKE my life unfold according to the way I think it should. I mostly have to live the life I have, according to my values. If I remember those values, and don't give up on them, it all flows more naturally than I thought it would when I first started.
But sometimes in our zeal we MAKE ourselves create a habit that turns out to be sustaining. I doubt I would have shelled out the cash for the music class (it isn't cheap) if I hadn't had this intense sense that I needed to fix a deficiency, and if I hadn't seen how well it clicked with other things I felt intensely at the time. It's an intensity I don't really have anymore. And yet, as we went there week after week (and as I wrote checks quarter after quarter) the music class melted into the background of our lives and became part of What We Do and Who We Are. And it is one of the things that keeps me anchored in the way that --- deep down --- I still believe is the way I want to teach my young children, if I can. It keeps me modeling what I want to see.
Another thing, of course, is that network of like-minded families I mentioned. A decade later, with eleven children among us, we're all still working together to create an extended family for our kids. If it weren't for early zeal, I'd never have done the work to make it happen. Now that all that passionate intensity has faded into something a little tired and comfortable, easier -- now I can see the fruits. It keeps me connected. I can see what's really important slowly emerging, set in relief against the background that's worn away by the little abrasions of everyday life.