First, the applause in the room peters out. Then, almost before everyone can catch his breath, the class begins another song, as tiny voices mix with deeper, more robust intonations in a churchlike chorus. In midsong, one class member turns her back to the group and kneels down. It appears that a tiny hole in the thin blue carpet has caught her attention, and she feels obliged to put her finger into the hole to test its authenticity. Nobody seems to mind her dropping out of the performance--that is, until two large arms come soaring down to scoop her up and reposition her to face the small circle of singers. Undaunted, the little girl picks up where she left off.
"Humpty Dumpty had a big fall," she sings in unison with the rest. Well, actually, for some, the words come out sounding more like "Umpty Dunty," but they know the tune.
The students who gather on a Saturday morning in Peabody Preparatory's room 119 are quickly forgiven if their attention strays, and are regularly applauded just for trying. One of the major goals in this class is to just have fun.
Leading the positive reinforcement is one Vicki Downer, or "Miss Vicki" as she is known to this small group. Downer is an instructor and chair of Peabody's Early Childhood Department, a division of the school that offers music-related courses for newborns and their parents, and for children up to the age of 9.
The department's curriculum for newborns to 6-year-olds is called Musikgarten, and this particular Saturday-morning class is part of the Family Music program designed for newborns to 2-year-olds and their parents.
The goal of these sessions, Downer says, is for the children to acquire activities and skills they can then demonstrate within a family context, not just leave behind in class.
As part of the program, parents and toddlers attend once-a-week music sessions that last for a 30-minute period. What may not seem like a lot can be an exhaustive stretch of time. The classes are comprised of activity-based lessons focusing on family music making and the development of basic music concepts. Almost from the time everyone takes off his coat, the class begins a series of sing-alongs, performed either a cappella or accompanied by music that emanates from a modest black boombox that Downer keeps nearby on the floor.
The group forms a circle, alternating child and adult, and begins to sing following Downer's lead. Sometimes the children are given instruments, such as triangles, to play while they sing, while at other times the group might high-step to a polkalike song while waving multicolored scarves. Downer also sets aside moments to have one child at a time enter the middle of the group's circle and sing into a microphone she has attached to a small tape recorder.
One of the constants throughout the session is Downer's trained soprano voice, which magically blends the sounds of both parent and child.
Downer, who earned her master's degree in vocal performance from Peabody, has taught in the Early Childhood Department for 11 years. She radiates energy as she leads the class from song to song, and it's clear she thoroughly enjoys playing the master of ceremonies for these small groups. Downer said she derives her passion for teaching music from the young ones.
"I, personally, love the joy and enthusiasm of children. Their delight for life is contagious," says Downer, who also serves as a mentor to music teachers in the Baltimore City public school system through Peabody Prep's Music Teacher Mentoring Program (see related story, "Peabody gets grant to mentor music teachers in schools"). "I also love seeing the tender moments between parent and child."
Downer says the children are generally very enthusiastically engaged in each activity. From time to time children will drop out and roam the room, Downer says, but that is typical behavior for this age group.
"Sitting still is often difficult for kids, and a certain amount of roaming is certainly permitted, knowing that, yes, the kids will return more often than not for the next activity," Downer says. "That is why the class is so packed with activities. There is little time to stray, and if they do, there's always something else to capture their attention and encourage their active participation.
However, passive participation is also a valuable tool for young children, according to Downer.
"[Even] when a child is not participating in class, I often hear parents assuring me that their child is singing and dancing and having music time at home," she says. "This is a half-hour snippet of the child's life; if they are singing and dancing at home but not in class, totally fine with us."
Catonsville resident Karen Randazzo, who attends the Family Music program along with her son Will, says the two of them look forward to the musical playtime together, and she has noticed Will develop an enthusiasm for the sessions, especially the segments involving the scarves and triangles. This enthusiasm has translated into more musical activity at home, Randazzo says, such as Will finding common household items and turning them into drums.
The mother-and-son team also has its own musical sessions at home, playing along with a CD that includes music and lyrics used in class.
"Will has more awareness of music now," Randazzo says. "I also have learned a lot about how to bring music to children, so that it's not just what they hear but what they see, so they understand the physical side as well as the audio side of it. That is why, with them using the scarves and moving to the beat, you know they feel it, they see it, they hear it."
The spring session of Musikgarten begins Jan. 31, and registration ends Feb. 12 for classes that meet Monday, Wednesday, Thurs-day or Saturday. Classes convene for a 16-week period and are held at the Peabody campuses in downtown Baltimore and Towson, and in various locations in Howard County.
For more information about classes offered through the Early Childhood Department, call 410-659-8125, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the registration desk on the Peabody campus in downtown Baltimore.