I also teach group piano to college music majors, and I have done so for over ten years. As a part of that course, students are required to figure out tunes by ear. I often choose very familiar tunes such as “Happy Birthday” for them to plunk out the melody without ever looking at the sheet music. This should not be a difficult task for music majors whose ears have supposedly been trained from an early age, but it has been exceedingly difficult for so many of them. I have had many music majors, who have come into the class completely unfamiliar with how the tunes go. Tunes that we traditionally think of as American canon such as “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain”, or “This Land is Your Land”, or “Battle Hymn of the Republic” are honestly foreign to them. Students come in to the class claiming that they have never heard these songs and have no idea where to begin. Of course, I sing them and tell them to go listen repeatedly to recordings, but this reveals one important thing to me and that is that their parents never exposed them to this music, or if they did, they did not sing it with them. I have also talked with many piano teachers who have said that recently their beginning students could not pick out simple tunes a note at a time, like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” because they simply do not know them.
My mother sang almost constantly to me and with me when I was a child. I was lucky to grow up in a generation when there were no portable DVD players in the back of the station wagon on long road trips, or even trips to the store, to keep me entertained, that was my parents’ job. When we weren’t singing songs together we were playing the alphabet game or the license plate game, always interacting with each other. She was a wonderful model for me as a young developing musician. She didn’t always get the tune or the notes exactly right (and as I got older, I am sure there was way too much eye-rolling and correcting on my part) she wasn’t a professional musician, but there was always joy when she made the music and shared it with me and my sister. We sang so many songs so often that I have a wide repertoire of children’s songs still at my command, at the forefront of my memory.
Now, after my years of training as a music educator, I realize just how critical that parent model is in the development of a child’s musical abilities. I sing to and with my own children, even when they do roll their eyes. My oldest son sings in a top children’s chorus in the area with a beautiful soprano voice. My youngest child’s favorite song to sing right now is from Frozen, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know all of the Music Together songs we sing all of the time in the car, at home, and any place else. I don’t get to sing with them sometimes on busy days but we always sing prayers at night, even spoken prayers are turned into sung ones using familiar folk tunes like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star replaced with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.
Don’t blame public school or preschool music teachers for not teaching what the parents should be. I’ve been there too. The music teachers in the schools see the children for maybe 30-40 minutes a week and in that time they are expected to teach music for the winter program and the spring musical about D.A.R.E. or character education and the school theme song, plus they are supposed to be teaching them something about reading and writing music at the same time. Many music teachers do try to teach familiar folk songs to students, but because they see them for such a short period of time, the songs barely make an impact on even the most conscientious students. Parents and caregivers are the ones who supposedly spend the most time with their children and so if young children are going to become music makers, they need a parental model of a music maker.
I have a private piano student whose mother took him to Music Together and sang with him when he was younger and he is one of my students with the most developed ear. He can pick up patterns so quickly and learn complicated pieces at a very young age. He had a strong foundation and it has helped him succeed in his next musical steps.
Even if you, as a caregiver, feel insecure with your own vocal abilities, sing for and with your child. Sing along with your favorite mp3’s. Sing a lullaby. Sing off-key. Sing the wrong words or make up your own. They won’t care, as long as you are giving them attention, being silly with them, calming them down. Music is a language, and children learn language from their primary caregivers first. If they don’t see you being active music makers, they in turn will most likely not become active music makers. We as a society need more active music makers, not just passive consumers. Without the music makers, who will write the next Disney film score?