Bringing Joy to the Classroom Through Music

July 20, 2011

Today’s guest blogger is Ronnie Ragen, the Community Outreach Director of the Trenton Community Music School. Ronni coordinates Music for the Very Young, the early childhood music, movement and literacy program created by TCMS in partnership with the Trenton Public Schools.

Trenton Community Music School family party

A family music party at the Trenton Community Music School. It’s so nice when moms visit for music making. (photo: Michael Mancuso for the Trenton Times)

By Ronnie Ragen
Community Outreach Director
Trenton Community Music School

In 1999, as a result of the ground-breaking Abbott V. Burke state Supreme Court ruling, standards based, pre-K classes became available for all three and four-year olds in New Jersey’s poorest, urban school districts.  Anxious that high quality music education be part of the newly-forming classes in Trenton, the Trenton Community Music School created Music for the Very Young (MVY) in 2000.  From a tiny pilot project with four classes, we currently work with about forty classes each year, and have had the privilege of making music with over 2500 of our community’s families over the years.

What happens when 3 and 4-year olds engage in high quality music-making activities?  Let’s visit a preschool classroom where the children are squirming with anticipation for their weekly MVY class.

We join the circle sitting on the floor – 15 children, 2 preschool teachers and the MVY music specialist. “Hello everybody, so glad to see you…”  Each child sings his or her own name, owning that moment, taking turns.  They sing hello to the class pet, to the letters hanging from their ceiling.  If they’ve just taken a field trip to the zoo, perhaps they’ll identify themselves as an animal they saw, instead of their names. “Hello, I’m a zebra!” Good for giggles, and some admiring nods from their teacher, delighted with the opportunity to hear what they remember.

From the start, the MVY lesson connects to the classroom and the children’s world.


Ronnie Ragen jams with some MVY friends

For the next half hour, we experience a variety of multi-cultural songs through musical and movement activities: chants that rhyme and emphasize rhythmic patterns, songs, in duple and triple meter (as well as unusual mixed meters) that have the children and adults dancing and singing.  The children make up new verses to songs, then suggest ways to change the movement, sharing the leadership, and ownership of the class. They move within one song from V-E-R-Y- S-L-O-W to speedy fast and back again, or across the full dynamic range of whisper soft to very loud (but never screaming!) and back again.  Each of these experiences provides the children with not only the opportunity to practice fundamental elements of music, but also to learn impulse control, which is a very important goal of pre-K teachers!

Add instrument play with drums and castanets, and dancing with chiffon scarves, and the children are engaged in both large and small motor activities.  Sometimes it’s hard not to get the drum you had your heart set on, or the red scarf, but “There will be a next time” is also part of the lesson being learned.

The class winds down with a lullaby.  After getting the children all riled up, it’s only fair to bring them back to a quiet place.  But, before we sing the Good-Bye song, the children plead to perform their “Metamorphosis” chant. They scrunch up their scarves, to serve as cocoons, which are gradually unfurled to fly as butterflies.  The musical activity is helping to teach the science lesson, as the MVY teacher and the classroom teacher planned.

Dancing with dyna-bands

Kids and grown ups dancing together with dyna-bands

When developing MVY, the directors of the Trenton Community Music School investigated many early childhood music programs.  We chose to use the internationally-recognized Music Together® curriculum so that we would have high quality CDs and songbooks to leave in the classroom between weekly music classes.   Preschool teachers find the materials that they receive along with the CDs to be very useful classroom tools that they regularly fit into their literacy lessons.  Equally important, each child receives a copy of the CD and songbook for his or her very own to help create the link between home and school that is so crucial to the children’s success. We look forward to the point in the semester when parents begin to “complain” that their children won’t let them listen to any other music!  Each semester the children’s families are invited to Family Music Parties to share the music making fun with the children and teachers.

In the early days of MVY, a surprised classroom teacher noted, “This program isn’t just about music. It’s about how children learn.” Her words ring in my ears whenever I visit an MVY classroom and witness what it means to “educate the whole child.”

musical explorer with Trenton Community Music School

What can you see through music? This explorer wants to know. (photo: Michael Mancuso for the Trenton Times)

It’s always hard to leave after an MVY class.  The joy of the experience is palpable, and hangs in the air beyond the Good-Bye song.  As we face the staggering challenge of creating successful schools for inner-city children, I don’t think we can overstate the importance of joy in their classrooms.  Now, if only I could get Governor Christie to visit an MVY class!

Next week: a pre-K classroom teacher talks about how MVY transformed her teaching and her classroom.