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Kids discover music through play with Santa Rosa's Music Together program

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As Ginger Parish began to sing and play guitar one recent morning in Santa Rosa, she got an immediate audience reaction. One of her listeners stood and pranced in front of her, squealing with joy. Another crawled up on her lap and clamped his mouth on the neck of her guitar.

Parish never stopped smiling. She’s used to working with a very young audience. In fact, some of them are still teething.

Parish teaches classes for children from birth to age 7 and their parents in a program called Music Together, designed to introduce children to music as early in life as possible.

Her impromptu dancer this particular day was Adam James “A.J.” Felciano of Santa Rosa, 20 months old, who came to Ellington Hall for the first class with his grandparents, Frank and Cathy Valerga. “He’s quite a ham,” Frank Valerga said of his grandson. “He really likes music. Every time he hears it, he gets excited.”

Parish, 54, a folk singer who has long performed for fun, is now in her 15th year of teaching the internationally popular Music Together curriculum. She considers an atmosphere of gentle acceptance a key part of her approach to the classes.

Unlike conventional formal music lessons for older children, the Music Together sessions are set up to introduce music and simply let the kids become comfortable with singing and playing. Parents are coached to sing and play along.

“For children to think of themselves as music-makers, they need to have people in their lives making music,” Parish said, but parents needn’t feel pressure to become proficient musicians themselves. “It’s not about performance. It’s not meant to be threatening to the adults. Each class is a group environment situation that is so supportive.”

BABIES INCLUDED

Music Together isn’t the first program, or the only one, to recognize the value of introducing music to children early in life. More than 50 years ago, Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki established the Suzuki Method, which endorses the value of exposing children to music from birth and starting formal music training at age 3 or 4.

Parish makes a distinction between Music Together and other programs in that it includes babies and toddlers in all classes, and it conducts some classes specifically for babies and their parents, exposing them to, and involving them in, group singing and letting them play with simple instruments.

“Our approach begins at birth. No other traditional approach begins that way,” Parish said. “I think a Suzuki teacher would welcome kids from Music Together. We’re all about keeping children from hating later music lessons.”

Surrounded by a dozen small children and 14 parents and grandparents sitting cross-legged in a circle, Parish started with a simple rhythm created by slapping hands on knees. Later she passed out ball-shaped rattles, which one frisky kid immediately began knocking against a wall mirror.

Cheerfully singing her instructions, as she did throughout the class, Parish gave a melodious call-out to the adults. “That’s a great thing to direct a child away from!”

With teething toddlers in the classes, many of the rattles went straight from hand to mouth.

“Put them in the baskets when you’re done,” Parish said. “We have two, one for wet ones and one dry ones.”

The session included both classic folk tunes such as “The Crawdad Song” (“You get a line and I’ll get a pole”) and songs composed especially for Music Together. Sessions traditionally open with “Hello, Everyone, Hello” and close with “Goodbye, So Long, Farewell.”

CREATING BONDS

Music Together doesn’t aim to produce proficient musicians, although Parish predicts regular students should be able to sing in key and keep accurate rhythm by age 4. The primary goal is to create a musical bond between adult and child.

“Music is a language, and it’s learned by watching and listening to the people you love,” she explained. “You wouldn’t introduce English to children by handing them a CD, but that’s what happens with music.”

Music Together, based in Princeton, N.J., is offered in 2,500 locations in 41 countries. The curriculum, created in 1987 by founder and director Kenneth K. Guilmartin and music professor Dr. Lili Levinowitz, is based on the belief that all children are musical.

After training for the Music Together program, Parish brought the curriculum to Sonoma County and established Santa Rosa Area Music Together in 2000. During the current fall session, she and three other teachers — Tom McCurry, Ali Miller and Krystle Jeffers — are conducting 23 classes for 220 families at five locations in Santa Rosa, Windsor and Healdsburg.

A separate Music Together program headquartered in Sebastopol, West County Music Together, also holds classes in several other Sonoma County cities. Another Music Together program began in Cloverdale a year ago.

CD OF LULLABIES

In 2012, at the urging of parents in her classes, Parish released a CD of mostly original lullabies titled “Twilight Comes Tiptoeing,” which won the Silver Choice Honor Award from the Parents’ Choice Foundation.

A California resident since 1984, she traces her love of music back to her childhood in Youngstown, Ohio.

“I have performed informally at open mic nights, and I was in a few bands,” she said. “I don’t have a music degree. I am just a person whose family always sang with her. I have been a naturalist most of my adult life,” with a degree in natural history from UC Santa Cruz.

Her husband, Michael Gillogly, is manager of the Pepperwood Preserve ecological institute in Santa Rosa.

“As a folk singer, I took a job at a preschool, and I was doing preschool music once a week and just picking at my guitar and singing some songs. I didn’t know much about singing with small children, but I learned some,” Parish said.

“When I discovered Music Together, my son was 16 months old. After I had my teacher training, I took my son to classes at Music Together in Marin to see what it was like to be a mom in the room, and to learn from the director and teacher down there.”

It soon became a project for the whole family, she said. Her son attended Music Together for three years, with his mother as teacher and his father as the parent in the class.

Loren Gillogly is 16 now and studying music through the ArtQuest program at Santa Rosa High School.

SING-ALONG RECORDINGS

The Music Together curriculum includes sing-along music recordings, as well as nine different songbooks for parents to use at home, rotated through the program over a three-year period.

At a recent class, parents said that sharing music with their children is fun and has proven to be an effective parenting tool.

Kristin Trappe of Cotati, at class with her 10-month-old son, Hudson, said music works perfectly for tantrum prevention.

“He can be having a crazy fit, and the minute I start singing the goodbye song, it has a calming effect,” she said.

Maureen Tracy, who came from Cotati with her 9-month-old son, Joe, probably spoke for many of the parents when she quipped, “We do this to get out of the house.” But some parents don’t rule out the idea that they may be nurturing professional musicians.

Sonoma County guitarist and bandleader Steve Pile brought his small blond daughter Stella, 15 months old, who spent most of the session working the room, gazing soulfully into the eyes of each adult.

“We’re here just for fun, but I think she’s going to be a musician,” Pile said. “She’s been coming since she was 6 months old, and she really enjoys it.”

For more information on Ginger Parish and her Music Together classes, visit santarosamusictogether.com.

For information on West County Music Together: westcountymusictogether.com. For Cloverdale’s Music Together program: musictogethercloverdale.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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