Music and Your Child: One Mom's Experience
(Copyright 2003 by Jeanie Flowers. This article was originally posted in the
March 2003 online newsletter of The Preemie Place, with the title of "Helping Children to Develop an Interest in Music."
The Preemie Place is a Website Dedicated to premature babies and their caregivers. For more information, please see
Picture: Rachel Flowers at the piano in her first recital.
When I learned at the age of 34 that I was pregnant, it was the happiest time of my life. Dan and I had been married for 15 years, and very early in our marriage I had been told that I would not be able to have children. This pregnancy came as a complete surprise. However, things didn't turn out as perfect and rosy as I might have hoped. It was a difficult pregnancy, and in spite of all our precautions, my precious baby was born at 25 weeks gestation.
Rachel, our miracle child, weighed in at one pound five ounces, and she spent the first three months of her life at Children's Hospital in San Diego, California. She had her ups and downs, as can be expected for a 25 week preemie, but as she neared her actual due date, she was finally growing strong enough that we were preparing to bring her home.
Then, another bombshell hit. Literally days before she was to be discharged, our baby was diagnosed with ROP, Retinopathy of Prematurity. Rachel was immediately transferred to UCSD Medical Center, where she underwent numerous eye surgeries in the attempt to save at least some degree of her sight. In spite of aggressive treatment, and the heroic efforts of Rachel's doctors, she lost her sight and is now totally blind. But I believe that God never takes anything away without putting something else in its place, perhaps even something better. That is what I believe happened with my daughter, my miracle baby, Rachel. She is musically gifted, and I believe that gift is from God. I also believe that there are things that her father and I did that helped to encourage her musical growth, and I would like to share some of those ideas with you so that you can encourage your children too!
During the time Rachel was in the hospital (nearly four months total), we were able to interact with her in only very limited ways, but she always responded to music. One of the things we discovered that worked really well for Rachel as a tiny infant was a tape of very soothing music set to the sound of a heartbeat and water sounds -designed to emulate the sounds heard in the womb. My husband and I and the nurses would play this tape for Rachel when she needed to be calmed. Believe it or not, the music was so effective that it usually prevented them from having to give her morphine. We found the tape in a baby store, so it should be easy to find something like it.
Later, when I was able to hold Rachel, I found that singing quietly and even humming was very effective in calming her. We seemed to really bond through music.
I quickly realized that I didn't know any of the usual children's songs, so I would sing Rachel the songs I did know, but I would often change the words. It may sound funny, but put your child's name into the songs you sing. For years, Rachel thought the words to the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah were, "Rachel baby, Rachel baby..." We found that that particular phrase worked with a lot of tunes - "Angel Baby," for example. When that phrase didn't fit, Rachel acquired a nickname that she will probably want to kill us for when she reaches her teens - Rachel-Pie. (Like sweetie-pie, cutie-pie...) This worked very well for songs like "In the Mood," (Rachel-Pie, oh boy, she is my baby. Rachel-Pie, oh joy, my little lady. Rachel-Pie, oh boy, she is my baby. There ain't no baby like my Rachel-Pie, yeah.) So just get silly. Find what works, and take it from there. Your baby will love it, and even when he is a little older, he'll get a kick out of it. Now Rachel laughs when we put her name into the songs. She knows it's a joke and she loves it.
Make up songs. They don't have to be elaborate. In fact I would suggest the simpler the better. Steal tunes from songs you already know. We have a song about the joys of broccoli soup that is sung to the tune of the Addams Family theme song. "Broccoli soup - knock knock [knock on the table], broccoli soup - knock knock, broccoli soup, broccoli soup, broccoli soup - knock knock. It's creamy and it's yummy, it feels good in your tummy, it tastes so good and nummy, it's brocco-locco-li." Rachel likes the second verse even better. "It's tasty and delicious, much better than raw fishes, it's scrump-de-lump-de-icious, it's brocco-locco-li." Complete silliness! And it got her to eat broccoli soup! And for more quiet moments, the song "From a Distance" became, "Little Rachel, she is the sweetest girl, she is the sweetest girl I know..." There are all kinds of copy-change opportunities out there, and your forays into songwriting don't have to be masterpieces. Just have fun with it, and so will your child.
Incorporate movement into your musical time. Just dancing around with your baby is great fun for both of you! Make your musical moments happy and joyful.
As much as you are able, give your child different kinds of instruments to play with and tell him what they are called. This is something that is still difficult with Rachel, because she is interested in orchestral instruments, and we don't have easy access to them. For a long time, I'm certain she thought all those sounds just came out of a keyboard. But every opportunity we can find, we have her touch the actual instrument and, when possible, let her try to get a sound out of it, or feel it while someone else is playing it. Also, take your children to hear live music of different types performed. I remember the first time Rachel had the opportunity to hear real bagpipes. She was simply beside herself. She had heard them on tape, but hearing the real thing just brought it to life for her. Coffee houses are great for introducing your child to the live music experience. The atmosphere is relaxed, the volume tends to be lower, and you can let baby sleep in the stroller when he gets pooped out. (And you can enjoy a nice cup of java!)
If you play a musical instrument yourself, even a little bit, don't be afraid to give your child his first music lessons. Don't worry about being formal, just make it a part of your play together. I am by no means a piano teacher, but I gave Rachel her first piano lesson when she was two years old. All I really wanted to do was stop her from banging on the keys of my ancient piano. I took her by the hand and walked her through the song "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." In Rachel's case, that was all it took to get her interested, and by the end of the day she was playing the song all by herself. It was love at first sight, and I have videotape of this tiny person playing Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart at three years old. Obviously, she is a special case, but if I hadn't taken that little step, who knows when we would have discovered her gift?
Some of the first songs Rachel played were pieces written by her father or I, and we had a blast jamming together. Don't be surprised if your child gets excited about playing music with mom and dad, maybe even banging a toy drum or xylophone while you play a tune on the guitar or the piano or the autoharp or whatever. Make it family time-music is so much more fun when it is a communal experience. Playing music together is a great way to learn about cooperation and working (and playing) with others as well.
As far as music to buy for your child, there is a lot out there. Rachel's piano teacher informed us that he and his wife had declared their home a "No Barney Zone!" While I am not so fond of that purple dinosaur either, Rachel loves her tapes of Barney songs. Disney can be good, Raffi is great fun, and the Wee Sing tapes are always a hit. Rachel enjoys "Sounds like Fun" by Barbara Milne; the fun tunes include songs about numbers, the alphabet and manners.
When your child gets bored with kid stuff, don't be afraid to get him something more sophisticated. As a matter of fact, you will probably find your children like the same music you do. Just look for a variety of musical types. Right now, Rachel's personal CD collection includes (among other things) Mexican conjunto music, Indonesian gamelan, and western swing, along with her classical collection, which is extensive. Don't sell your children short. There is a whole world of music out there. Your kids will let you know what they like. Rachel cried the first time she heard opera, but now she loves it!
These are just some things that happened to work for us. Take what you can use, and leave the rest. Remember that children learn by playing, and playing with music is a wonderful way to spend quality time together.
About the author: Jeanie Flowers is a published songwriter and recording artist.
She holds an A.S. in Applied Design/Media with an emphasis in Film, an A.A.
in music, a bachelor's degree in Music Composition, and is currently writing
her thesis to complete her master's in Ethnomusicology. Her musical performance
experiences range from fronting country rock bands to leading worship at her
local church, where she also served for two years as assistant music director.
Jeanie currently resides in San Bernardino, California, with her husband Daniel
and their two children, Rachel and Vaughan, both former preemies. Presently,
Jeanie spends most of her time driving Rachel, who at this writing in 2003 is
nine years old and training to become a concert pianist, arranger, and composer,
to her various music lessons, and caring for Vaughan, now age two, who she fears
will grow up to become a rock and roll drummer.
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