Interview with Julie by a University of Canterbury Student Studying to Become a Primary School Teacher

In your years of teaching musical play, what are some examples of the most noticeable impacts it has had on children?

Julie has seen children take their first steps to a supported song. There are often children who have been really shy and don’t like to interact, often sitting back and watching. Then at a certain point they start to come in and join the other children. A lot of children, including babies, sing their first words, before they speak. For example, with one of her recent classes with babies, they were babbling, then one baby started singing “Up, up, up, up, up” everybody waited, and then she sang “Down, down, down, down, down.” The whole musical sequence in the memory is there. It’s not the words, it’s the musicality that helps them.

How does musical play affect children’s confidence?

There is no pressure to join in. Children can just watch and they know that they can join in when they are ready. Because they have time to watch and take it all in, children’s responses can be incredibly musical and confident. They find their own ways of practising the songs, often in the car or at home to build their confidence. Through this, children are supporting their own play through song. Through the circle in the classes, they don’t have to just be watching one person and children are never put on the spot. There is a whole group dynamic and music community. Not only do children gain the confidence, parents do too. Julie has seen this especially in parents from another culture when they pick up the songs and gain confidence to join in as parents. There is a group confidence as everybody forms a bond and a sense of belonging. Parents have described feeling totally nurtured and valued as parents through the classes through this joint celebration of each other’s children.

How does musical play improve the whole family’s dynamics?

The musical play is relationship-based, which matters because relationship-based musical play gives everyone the confidence to join in musically. It can be used in the classroom too, by bringing every child together in the moment, for example everyone clapping in time. Julie recalls a class she taught in a high-school who weren’t succeeding academically, and she noticed that none of them could really keep a steady beat. So she began getting them to do clapping games to music like Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’. The day they all managed to stamp and clap in time they were so proud, and everybody loved the group dynamic and working together. This works the same way with families, bringing them closer.

How does singing instructions, e.g. “It’s time to put the drums away” improve children’s behaviour and listening skills?

The sequencing and repetition builds memory of what’s happening moment by moment. They can watch, listen and anticipate. You can see it when the children come up to help put instruments away. It empowers them. By singing most things in the class, it creates a seamless musical structure and every child in the class knows what’s coming next because it’s all done musically. This means they know when to get up and help put objects away, giving both the children and their parents a sense of pride because the children are responding. From a research perspective, music is the child’s first language. They respond to the musicality of language more than they do to spoken language. When children are in the womb, they are tracking the musicality of the mother’s vocalizations. They can track that musical contour, and music chunks the melodic contours of language in a meaningful, predictable way. Children often switch off when instructions are just spoken in a flat tone. Julie has found that in early childhood centres and primary schools, children find listening hard because there are so many sounds happening at once. Music provides that rhythm, pitch and musical form, with a clear beginning, middle and end.  Musical form is the key aspect in getting people to anticipate instructions or structure.

How does musical play improve co-ordination?

Steady beat underpins what’s happening in the moment. A lot of the children at the Champion Centre, particularly those with Down syndrome, struggle with co-ordination due to low muscle tone. Julie looks at the speed that the child is able to work with, and uses a song in which she adjusts the speed to match the child’s capabilities.

The child responds to the rhythmic pattern of the song to walk along, then stop. Julie worked with a child that was unable to walk because of his low muscle tone.  She worked with the physiotherapist and the child’s mother was holding his hand. She then sang “Up, up, up, up, up..” and the child got up moving in time to the instructional song. He slowly started walking when Julie sang a slow, supportive walking song. When it got to the “stop” he couldn’t go any further. The physiotherapist stated that she believed if the child didn’t have that music support, it might have taken him another month to get to the point of walking, as the song supported him, helping him to anticipate when to take each step, and when to stop at the end of the musical phrase. The physiotherapist then started using singing with all children she worked with. This works because steady beat, rhythmic patterning and singing activate children’s brains. Musical patterning helps the brain to do things that it has never been able to do before because there is a structure and the brain is interested in rhythmic patterns.  Rhythm stirs the body, and pitch stirs the brain, so pitch and rhythm coming together helps brain-body connection (Levitin, D. 2006).

Music helps children’s coordination because it activates the brain and causes brain-body connections. The music helps to bring about fluid, rhythmic movement, which is very important. With music, you can keep practising without it becoming boring because it is so diverse. You can whisper, sing up high, sing down low, or you can chant.

How does engaging in musical play improve language learning – for children who have English as a first language as well as a second language?

Words don’t have to be used in music. Mime, babbling, body percussion, clapping games, echoing, and music expression can all be used and understood across cultures. Music is a language and it can bridge across any culture. It doesn’t matter if you can’t speak the same language as another person, you can communicate musically, and it brings in humour, emotional connection and expression. It is universal and is part of our humanity. Julie has experienced this when travelling to various countries and working with children and young adults. The essence of Julie’s whole philosophy is that musical play is relationship based, a language of the emotions, is inter-generational, nurturing everybody in the group, whether they are students, teachers, parents, grandparents, children or babies.

How is musical play useful for children with stutters or conditions like autism?

Music helps with stutters and speech because of its structure, and the repetition. It helps enormously with autism because with autism, the brain is in a constant state of high alert, particularly from the lower brain perspective (the limbic system) so the brain can’t filter out sensory information. Music slows the system down and helps the child’s heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. Once the lower brain becomes calmed and regulated, learning can take place. An example of this that Julie has experienced was with a child who found it difficult to concentrate and slow down. As she sung, she got him on a rocking horse with his Mother slowly rocking him to the music, using pauses to activate his brain, and he stayed sitting the whole time. He’s now starting to babble. It helps children with conditions like autism to feel the person’s throat who is singing, and use things like trampolines and rocking horses along with music because it provides that steady beat, and in the process, it’s regulating.

How does musical play affect babies and their learning abilities later on in life?

It’s not just about the baby, but the baby and parent relationship. Musical play brings the baby and parent into synchrony. It empowers the parent, and nurtures them and their baby, bringing them together in the moment. It’s relationship based learning, helping them to swing together with a common rhythm. Musical play helps form an emotional connection between parent and baby and gives parents confidence with their babies and how they handle them. An example of this is the reassurance that they can enjoy a bit of rough and tumble, which is used through dances in musical play.

What are some health benefits (physical and mental) for children engaging in musical play?

Music causes the brain to release endorphins which promote wellbeing. These are dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, which bring about a real sense of wellbeing. Oxytocin is very important between parent and baby because it brings emotional connection. It occurs most often in music, because of its effect on the brain. When a parent is dancing with their baby, they are both feeling good, so they stimulate each other.

Do children find it difficult to transition from musical play into school, where there is less music as well as less spontaneity? Or does musical play aid them in the transition?

Music can be used as a tool by teachers to get students used to school and comfortable. One of the mothers whose son tended to have frequent meltdowns at home, loved music. When he started school, the teacher wasn’t using music in any way, and he couldn’t cope. Julie got the teacher to chant the class roll, and do clapping or jumping games when she could see the child was about to get upset. All children responded and this particular child started to take the lead, so the teacher would get him up the front to lead a jumping song, and then he’d be able to do another 20 minute chunk of learning well. It gave him the opportunity to teach the whole class. It helped the teacher too, because all the children were looking forward to the singing and dancing, and were listening and concentrating better.

How have you seen children demonstrate better understanding of mathematics through learning numbers and their correlation with pitch? E.g, 1,2,3,4,5…..5,4,3,2,1. Does number learning improve through using pitch?

Musical play and mathematics compliment each other because music is a mathematical language. You can work out whole mathematical patterns with pitch. Julie uses pitch so that children can anticipate through the notes. It’s going up a five note scale of C Major to G, and back down to C. Julie will often sing on the fifth note which arouses and keeps the brain very interested. It has been tested with babies and they can anticipate this change in pitch and bringing it back to the home note. It’s a whole musical language which starts long before birth. This helps with mathematics in general, because you can do a whole lot of things through scale like counting up and down and times tables. When learning through song, practising the song means it gets into your memory, and it’s much easier to remember. Counting forwards and backwards using pitch is building music memory. I have experienced this when learning my mihi as I struggled to remember it unaided, but I found that putting it into a song helped me to remember it and its structure.

What are your thoughts around the amount of music and musical play that schools include in their curriculum?

At University, music used to be compulsory in primary and early childhood education. Now there is no music in early childhood education at University, so teachers don’t know what to do when it comes to music. It’s not that music isn’t important, it’s just that as a cost-cutting exercise, music and the arts have been dropped to a huge extent. What many people don’t realise is that music is vital for energy levels and emotional connection, and it can support a whole class of children. Teachers really value music for their whole class dynamic.

How has musical play helped children through traumatic experiences like the earthquakes and Covid-19?

A baby was very anxious because his mother experienced very traumatic events during the earthquakes while she was pregnant with him.The mother has parented musically with him and her other children. She doesn’t know how she would have managed without the music, because music was the only thing that calmed him and helped him to sleep. When he got in a really upset state, she used deep pressure touch by holding him and rocking him, and singing to him. Music is hugely important for the lower brain. If the lower brain is calm and regulated, then a child can learn. If it is not calm, they can’t learn, and continue to escalate into a state of high arousal.

So starting classes in schools with a song before teaching is very effective in setting children up to learn and concentrate. It can be used as a tool when children’s energy levels are rising or falling. Music is an opportunity for teachers to learn from students and for students to learn from teachers.