Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 10
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
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It’s New to Us by Jean Stratton

MAKING MUSIC: “I really like working with the teachers. There are 15 teachers here, and they have such creativity. Some are dancers, some musicians, and they all have Music Together teacher training.” Susan Van Sickle, Director of Music Together Princeton Lab School, is proud of the teachers’ contributions to the success of the school. Shown is a group of the Lab School teachers.

Children and Parents Make Music Together at Music Together Princeton Lab School

Music is many things to many people. It transports, it soothes, it enlivens, it entertains, it excites, it enchants. And the sooner, the better, believe the folks at Music Together Princeton Lab School.

“Music Together classes are based on the recognition that all children are musical. All children can learn to sing in tune, keep a beat, and participate with confidence in the music of our culture, provided that their early environment supports such learning. By emphasizing actual music experiences rather than concepts about music, Music Together introduces children to the pleasure of making music instead of passively receiving it from CDs or TV,” points out Music Together’s information statement.

An internationally-recognized early childhood music program for babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, kindergartners, and the adults who care for them, Music Together began in 1987, the inspiration of Kenneth K. Guilmartin. With co-creator of curriculum Lili Levinowitz, Mr. Guilmartin pioneered the concept of a research-based developmentally appropriate early childhood music curriculum that strongly emphasizes and facilitates adult participation.

The first Princeton classes were held in 1988 during a residency at Westminster Choir College. The school, then known as the Center for Music and Young Children, later moved to 217 Nassau Street, its location until its 1997 move to its current home at 66 Witherspoon Street.

International Program

“Music Together started in Princeton and has grown to be an international program,” says Music Together Princeton Lab School Director Susan Van Sickle. “Ken started training people, and now it’s across the U.S. in 48 states and in 28 countries around the world.”

Ms. Van Sickle has been involved in the program in several capacities for a number of years “I came to the area in 1990, and went to a class with my daughter. I knew the importance of music to early childhood. I had a degree in music, and was an elementary school teacher.”

She went to work as a teacher at Music Together, and then when she and her family moved to Illinois, she was instrumental in setting up a Music Together program there. Returning to Princeton in 2001, Ms. Van Sickle began teaching at the school again.

In addition to the Princeton Lab School, Music Together has locations in the area, including Plainsboro, West Windsor, Hamilton Square, East Brunswick, serving more than 500 families. Its headquarters are in Hopewell with offices, classes, teacher training, and production department that are located there.

“At the Lab School here in Princeton, we have pilot programs and try new things,” says Ms. Van Sickle, who became school director in 2007.

Central to the Music Together approach is the belief that young children learn best from the important role models of parents/caregivers, who are actively making music right alongside the children. “The parent is the best model for the young child, and even at a very young age, children can communicate with their favorite song,” points out Ms. Van Sickle.

Personal Joy

“My own personal joy is seeing the bonding of parent and child, seeing the child communicating with them, even if they can’t talk yet. Every time they hear a certain song or CD, they are able to recognize it and respond. As they get older, they even begin to make up their own mini verses and sing. The program celebrates the child at his or her own level.”

In addition, music is important beyond its sheer enjoyment, she notes. “Being musical stimulates other parts of the brain. This is a natural time for their development of music, just as for the development of language and motor skills. We believe we are born with the music part of the brain, and it is a natural time to develop that. We’re all born with the ability to sing and dance. In fact, children can sing before they can talk.”

Music learning supports all learning, according to Music Together. The Mixed Age class is for newborns through age five, and it follows the recommendations of child development researchers: grouping children of varied ages, which fosters natural family-style learning. Younger children enjoy watching and imitating older ones; older children learn by leading younger ones; and adults are happy because children in the family can go to the class together.

“Each child participates at his or her own level in singing, moving, chanting, listening, and exploring musical instruments,” says Ms. Van Sickle. “Any caregiver, parent, guardian, nanny, etc. can bring the child, and then they, too, participate.”

Mixed Age

In these especially popular mixed age classes, which are 45 minutes, the children and parents sing, chant, dance, and play instruments. Percussion instruments, drums, egg shakers, tambourines, and triangles are all used, and there is always time in class for instrument play along, reports Ms. Van Sickle. “Sometimes, a child chooses whatever instrument they want — it’s a chance for them to experiment and explore. Other times, everyone plays the same instrument.

“There are also certain rituals with every class. We have the same ‘hello’ song and the same’ good-by’ song every time. We use some public domain songs, such as ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ and others. Some songs are adapted, and some have been composed especially for us. All the song books have a variety of different musical and rhythmic tonalities.”

A class just for babies, eight months and younger, is also available. The music activities and materials are especially designed for parents who want to learn as much as possible about music development in infants.

“Big Kids” classes are offered for five to eight-year-olds. These 75-minute classes offer activities developmentally appropriate for this age group, and are more sophisticated, challenging, structured, and goal-oriented than those in the mixed age classes — but always a lot of fun. Xylophones, keyboard, and djembe-style drums are used in addition to the regular Music Together instruments.

Musical Roles

Families still play an important part in the class, although the adults and children may have different musical roles.

All classes, at whatever level, have at least six children and no more than 12, as well as their parents. There are basically 10 to 14 different activities.

In addition to classes at the Music Together Lab School and its other locations, there is a pre-school program. “This is different because it’s at a school with teachers, not parents,” explains Ms. Van Sickle. “There are CDs, which children take home, however, and parents have access to them. We are already operating in pre-schools in the area, including the Princeton Nursery School, the Dupree Center For Children at the Princeton Theological Seminary, and at pre-schools in Trenton. The way music can bring joy into their daily lives is so important, and it creates a closer bond between teachers and kids.”

Ms. Van Sickle is very proud of the Music Together program and what it has meant to children and parents. “I’m really happy I’ve been pretty much a part of it since its inception. I’m thrilled that a program, that is a developmentally-appropriate program with an understanding of child development like this, exists. And it can be the foundation of a life-long love of music.”

Music Together Princeton Lab School classes are held seven days a week, including evening classes. (609) 924-7801. Website:

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