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Music for education & wellbeing podcast [7] TRANSCRIPT: How can parents/carers involve children in pre-school music? Liv McClennan, community musician

AH: Hello. It’s Anita here, and welcome to this month’s podcast. In this episode I’m talking with Liv McClennan, who’s co-director of a public interest company called ‘Music for Wellbeing’, and she’s also a community musician. Now there’s a lot I know that you’d be interested to hear from Liv, but this episode is a little different than usual in that it’s particularly for parents of pre-school children and it’s prompted by a question from listener Stuart Biggs who asks: ‘I listened to the podcast this evening, and I have to say I found it very interesting’ – thank you very much Stuart – ‘I have a two year-old, nearly three, and I try to get music into his life as much as possible. I’m learning guitar and he has a ukelele that he twangs from time to time. But I’d be interested in knowing what we as parents can do at home on a personal level, as opposed to schools, at an early stage?’. And this is such a good question, so thank you Stuart, and a big welcome to Liv who’s going to answer Stuart’s question for us. It’s great to have you here Liv, so thanks for making the time to talk with me.


LMc: Thank you Anita. It’s great to be here. I’m very excited.


AH: Ah, that’s lovely. So to start off with, I know you’re involved in lots of really interesting work using music with lots of different groups of people. So can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?


LMc: Sure. As you mentioned, I’m a freelance community musician, and work with people basically from birth to near the end of life. I work with Early Years, as a trainer and practitioner of Early Years music, and as my daughter just comes out of the Early Years now, I’m getting interested in primary age music as well. I also work with community singing groups, Music for Health and Wellbeing, in particular dementia and more recently respiratory conditions. And I’m also a practitioner and trainer in circle dance and dementia, creative and reminiscence arts, and more recently inter-generational music as well. As you mentioned, I’m a co-director of Music for  Wellbeing, and I’m also a part-time doctoral student at Guildhall School of Music, and I’m researching inter-generational music making in care homes. So I’m kept busy, put it that way.


AH: Yeah, that’s really interesting, and I’d love to have you back on and talk to you about the inter-generational stuff and the care home work because that’s something that’s of interest to a lot of people, I know. I’m always interested to hear from people, how did you end up where you are today? So how would you summarise your route into this area of work, and why it’s important?


LMc: Sure. I started off as most musicians do, as a performer. I was an army musician for a while, and then I left to join the charity sector. But I really missed music on a day-to-day basis, and then found the Goldsmiths course. I was thinking, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll do music therapy and this seems like a good option’, but once being at Goldsmiths under Graham Dowdle and Phil Mullen …


AH: That was a music community course, is that right?


LMc: That’s right, yes. I just found my natural home. That course radically altered my thinking about music and my perception of music, what it is, and what it means to be musical as well. Also in terms of social justice, and access to inclusion in music making, and that music should be for everyone and not just those with the financial means to access it. So it really changed my life at that point, and just ignited a real passion and kind of a flame for community music that’s been burning ever since. I left there in 2010 and started working as a freelance musician, or community musician, especially with people with dementia. But also found Early Years as well and just absolutely loved it. Part of the whole thing was about finding my own voice within that. I didn’t sing much before going to Goldsmiths, and part of that course was learning about how to do that. Not actually singing, but how to access my singing voice in a physical and this kind of symbolic voice as well. Really gaining confidence as a person.


AH: Yes. I was going to say the voice is really important in Early Years isn’t it?


LMc: Exactly that. And then came after that the community singing and Early Years as well. Part of it was making a business decision as well. I play the cello and the highland bagpipes, but they’re not particularly useful instruments. 


AH: Right. I was going to ask you about that, because I think you’re the only musician I know who plays, or music educator I know, who plays the bagpipes so that’s really interesting.


LMc: The whole of Scotland’s going to be in uproar now! Yes, that is one of my instruments, but I just thought well now and again it’s great to bring them out in a workshop, but I can’t really do that all the time. So, voice was the most obvious answer. It’s portable, it’s cheap – you don’t have to lug around a load of kit – and it’s so flexible in so many different situations. So I worked a lot on that by getting confidence, with how I sound, and all of that combined really changed my perception of myself as a musician, and of other people and their musicality as well. And as you say, it’s so important with Early Years and communication in general.


AH: And that’s really interesting that you found your confidence vocally, because I suppose that’s what a lot of parents need to do when they start making music with their children. Because obviously they’re going to be using their voice, and I think for a lot of people it feels very vulnerable using your voice doesn’t it?


LMc: Absolutely. It’s a kind of way of being naked, almost. It’s frightening so you really make yourself vulnerable, so it’s a very bold and brave step to be able to do that. Yeah, to really feel confident in that, a lot of people come up to me, ‘Oh I can’t sing. I can’t do this.’, but actually when you listen to them, you tune in to what they’re doing with their children already they’re using their voice a lot in a musical way as well, so it’s just getting them to see that actually they can do it and often are already doing it, and really celebrating that. 


AH: So how did you actually get into Early Years music, and you’re actually an Early Years Trainer, so tell me a little bit about what that means.


LMc: So, after Goldsmiths I started working with an Early Years music company called ‘Boogie Mites’, and I still work with them now. And nearly 10 years later that’s where a lot of my training, both on the ground and internally, came from. So I deliver workshops and courses and training for them, and also more recently I’ve completed the certificate for music educators in early childhood as well. So yes, I started working for them, for Boogie Mites, and found it so much incredible fun that was freeing for me as well. You know, getting on the floor with kids who were pretending to be different animals, we’re using our voices, we’re exploring the world through music. And then we started working on Family Learning contracts for various councils. So that really made me realise that actually you can do as much work as you like with very young children but you don’t effect change unless you’re working with parents and children as a unit, with families, or parents and carers. So that’s when my interest in families work really started to kick off. Although it’s actually much harder I think to work with both parents, carers and children at the same time. It’s actually, I think you can have a longer lasting effect for everyone. And then obviously when I became a parent myself I really had real world experience of that whole thing so that gave me a different perspective on how music might be threaded through the day. The reality is you’re not going to sit at home and do a 30-minute workshop with your own child. Life doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to think very creatively, how can you thread-in the music through the day, how can you be musical and have a musical relationship without making it necessarily so formalised. So that’s where I am right now, I think.


AH: And I think actually that some of the people that follow me on Twitter and are musicians were really looking forward to this and sort of admitted that they don’t do as much music with their own children as they should. Even though they’re being paid and off doing work with other people’s children. So hopefully we’ll be able to share some tips and kind of encourage musicians to do more work with their young people. So it seems like an appropriate time to ask Suart’s question again. So Stuart’s question was around what parents and carers can do with their children at home before they reach school age? So what would you suggest? And obviously that spans quite a long time doesn’t it because right from when a baby is in the womb, and it can hear and respond to music – I think it’s from around 21 or 26 weeks or something – and then obviously you can start making music with your baby from the womb onwards.


LMc: Just to say, OK, I’m experienced, but I don’t hold all the answers. So I’m just  going to offer suggestions and starting points. People may take what they want, and they may agree or disagree with me, and that’s fine. There are so many ways of making music, and they’re all valid. So yes, from very young children or even, you know, in the womb. As a woman carrying a baby you can sing, you can move, you can dance in that way to your bump. Absolutely, and babies will experience all of that through their senses. And you know with very young babies after birth, and say just start tuning in to what they’re doing already. The vocalisations they make – see if you can copy them, and maybe start a dialogue, in that way just through sound through babbling, matching their pitch and their timing, and their dynamics – that means how loud or soft they are – and just being with them like that. And that might only be fleeting. It might be 30 seconds, it might be three minutes – who knows. But there’s no right or wrong to it.


AH: That’s a really simple thing isn’t it. And I think that adults are used to leading children aren’t they? Listening to a child’s noises and replicating them is really important for their self-confidence as well even when they’re really, really young.


LMc: Absolutely. It’s really validating as well that someone’s kind of mirroring it back to you as a person. They’re acknowledging that’s what you’re making, and ‘Yes, I’m here with you’, and I think that really sows the seeds of empathy and bonding and all those lovely, kind of reciprocal things that we have in relationships as well. But it’s also, as a musician sometimes, I think doing those supposedly simple or fundamental things, are really quite hard. Because if you’re a performer you’re so used to being so technical, and really musical, and performing such complex music, that actually, just stripping it right back can be quite a challenge in itself. And then when I started off in community music I was trying to do things that were way too complex because that was my perception of music. And it took me a long time to really get back to the basics and the fundamentals of it. So I think that even people with musical experience might find that challenging to start with, or at least I did anyway. Also then being aware that children experience the world in many different ways, simultaneously. It’s a multi-sensory, multi-modal experience – so you can combine music with say movement at the same time, so nice rocking, if you wear them in slings or just hold them to your chest, some lovely humming, which can be very calming for young babies as well. And for you as a parent [laughs], especially when you’re surviving on such little sleep. I know I had to sing out my stress sometimes, when my daughter was about, well even now to be honest. But even now it’s a nice way to do that. 


AH: There’s science behind that as well isn’t there. Because apparently singing, and that’s in a sense why lullabies were created, that soothing, calming nature of music it’s actually scientifically proven that it induces the brain to produce delta-brainwaves associated with sleep. So there is science behind that definitely.


LMc: Yes. And there’s suggestions that when we sing and move and dance together, our levels of oxytocin increase as well, which is the hormone for the social bonding process and it helps to calm us as well. If you’re a breast-feeding mother, then it helps with lactation and that kind of things. So yes, I think all of that, there’s probably some kind of evolutionary reason for it. But I used to teach baby massage as well for a while, and there was a lot of songs and rhymes incorporated into that. So if you’re doing that kind of thing, even just ‘this little piggy went to market’, you know, those kinds of nursery rhymes on their toes. Combining it with touch, that’s a really nice way to calm and to experience music and rhymes with your child. Also I used it a little bit with routines. Probably not as much as I suggest to other people, if I’m honest, well, for different reasons, you know, but you could have the same song for nappy changing or when you go to sleep, or nap time, or feeding or food time, or changing, that kind of thing, changing clothes. The nap can help to set up a nice framework that gives audible cues for your baby that they know what’s coming next, and they’re OK, hopefully with it all. Just singing to them as well is quite a nice thing to do. It sounds really simple, but if you’re not used to either working or being with young children, because a lot of people become parents with no experience of young children, then these things don’t necessarily occur all the time. 


AH: No. And I love that idea of punctuating the day with certain types of music or certain songs that the baby can then become used to as part of the pattern. Because that’s reassuring for a baby isn’t it?


LMc: Absolutely. So it’s not just acres of time in front of them, or now I’m being called around to what’s this for, it’s actually putting it in a context. But also valuing your own music, and your own songs that you listen to. OK, not everything is going to be appropriate for young children, but I remember doing projects with people, with families, and kind of asking them what they listen to, and one of the biggest challenges was, ‘Oh yeah, we’re big fans of Eminem’. OK, how am I going to  incorporate this into a workshop? But I found one song that didn’t have any swearing, and luckily it was a ‘call and response’ song, so we incorporated that structure, that tune, and we all wrote our own words to that particular tune to sing to our children. So using your own starting point, and your own cultural frame of reference is also a great way. And why not? Just because they’re children doesn’t mean they have to stick to so-called ‘children’s songs’ or nursery rhymes. There’s a whole heap of music out there that’s important to listen to.


AH: That’s a great tip actually. Because I think a lot of parents think they have to do something special, or special music that’s for that age group, and you’re far more likely to integrate music into your day with your child if it’s the music you love. 


LMc: Exactly. If it’s meaningful for you, for your context and your family. Absolutely. Otherwise it’s like an add-on, something I should be doing, what ‘they’ expect me to do. Whereas, actually what you’re doing already is probably really good and really great quality, and you really value you and your music as well. I’m also a big fan of homemade props and instruments as well. I mentioned earlier, a lot of my work is around social justice and access and inclusion to people who don’t have the financial means. So, something that really attracted me to Boogie Mites was the fact they used a lot of homemade props and instruments from that perspective, and also from a kind of eco-friendly perspective. So things like, you know, making shakers, rice in a bottle and shaking it, is great. Wooden spoons on to your saucepans, or even just  using your own environment you can find things that make a sound. You know, even banging on a cushion, can make some kind of drum noise, is great, and I really encourage parents to do that. Just thinking of things creatively about the environment that you’re in as well. 


AH: And I suppose it doesn’t always have to be what you might term as ‘music’. It could be just a rhythm or could just be a melody, it doesn’t have to be both, it doesn’t have to be complicated really does it?


LMc: Not at all. And that’s still elements of music. And just having that musical dialogue, as you were with your voice, you can extend that to, like you say, rhythms or encouraging your children to explore sounds, and be in sounds. And work out what they like and how they can manipulate the world around them. You know, all these great, important skills that can be learned through music. 


AH: And I suppose if you’re not using a particular song, then there are no mistakes are there, for the baby, or for you. So that enables creativity from you both, and that doesn’t need to be difficult does it? You don’t need to sort of think, ‘Oh, I’m going to become a songwriter or something’. It could actually be something very, very natural as you said at the very start about kind of responding to babies’ noises or toddlers’ noises. 


LMc: Exactly. And a lot of my more recent work has been trying to do that. Kind of musical play, very much influenced by the tutors on the Certificate for Music Educators. The kind of caught not taught approach. Just seeing what’s there, and being in that, and being alongside someone and just allowing yourself to play with your child musically and enjoying that, in the moment. And like I said earlier, it might last 30 seconds, or not even that long. It might last much longer, but you don’t have to get through a series of repertoire or anything like that. Or worry about so-called ‘mistakes’, because there’s nothing, it’s very improvisatory in nature. I found that quite freeing myself, and that’s really had an impact on my other work as well with older people and people with dementia. So it’s a great way to explore music. 


AH: I think that’s an amazing tip. It’s almost like telling people to do what comes naturally which we often ignore don’t we?


LMc: Yes! Because we’re so schooled and educated in music. I think sometimes when we make music as a product or a commodity, then that’s kind of what we try to reproduce. Whereas if we just see it as a way of being and communicating, then it can take on a whole different meaning – if that makes any sense at all!


AH: Yeah, absolutely. That’s the bottom line isn’t it of community music, of enabling that creativity and going back to the beginning of what music was, and its function for us as a people and a society. 


LMc: Absolutely. That’s not to say that I don’t use particular songs, or resources or anything like that – of course I do – and you’ve got to do what’s right for you in that moment and that can mean different things at different times of the day, days of the week, or how old your child is as well. But other things, yes, I’ve mentioned props as well, scarves, that kind of thing for ‘peek-a-boo’ games, hiding objects, hiding different parts of the body. You know just using them to vocalise, throwing it up in the air, ‘whee’. All of these things that we don’t necessarily think of as musical initially, but actually it is when you think about it. It’s pitch, timbre, which feeds into melody, and all that kind of thing. And moving on to slightly older children, maybe three or four year-olds, then I suppose their ability to change, and again the same kind of approach really works with starting where they are and tuning in to them and their vocalisations, you know. But also, this could be an opportunity to encourage them to pitch-match if you want to think about music in a more formalised sense. I’m quite a fan of the Kodaly approach in terms of getting children to tune in to, and pitch-matching and being able to sing songs if that was something that was interesting to you. And again that’s only a suggestion. It might not be interesting to people at all. But the ‘so me’ songs, [sings] ‘Da-da da-da’, those really simple ones are really nice to do with children in terms of their singing capabilities as well. But, you know, you can do all sorts of games with them. ‘Call and response’, clapping or singing games, or they’ve got a natural walking pace and you could sing-a-long to that, or matching where they are, their tempo, and their pulse. So they can experience what it feels like to, you know, walk in time or to a piece of music. They can start to internalise more kind of formal music approaches as well. Also, in reading books, incorporating sounds, and different songs at different points. That’s what I have done with my own child, I promise I’ve done that, I also do it in workshops. [Laughs]


AH: That’s a nice idea isn’t it.


LMc: And making up your own stories and songs as well. But in songs or poems, just leaving off the last words of lines so children can fill them in. They might fill them in with the so-called ‘correct one’ or they might fill them in with something else. And that’s great. It’s great for their creativity, their awareness of words and language and rhymes and all of that kind of thing. Music’s a really flexible tool, not just, you know, in terms of itself. You know, I also think teaching through music is a good thing to do. Not everyone will agree with me. There are so many approaches in and through music with young children. Whatever suits you I think is the best kind of approach as a parent.


AH: Yeah, definitely. Those are some brilliant tips. And so, you were talking about three to four year-olds, and I think that’s about the age when parents are probably starting to think about their child’s going to go to school, they hope they’d want to have maybe music lessons or engage in music at least quite actively at the start and then go on to have music lessons. Is there anything that you’d suggest parents do to prepare children for that, and maybe in terms of using some kinds of instruments and getting motor control and all those types of things going?


LMc: I like easy access instruments that are ready to make a sound, and quite a nice sound. So obviously the homemade props, the shakers, those kind of untuned percussion, but also tuned percussion, and this gets quite expensive now. So if that’s an issue, well I’ll go on to technology in a minute. But, tuned percussion such as glockenspiels, xylophones are quite nice. I do have a ukelele and children can strum that, and you can tune it to certain chords if you wanted to do that. You don’t have to keep it to its own tuning. And there are lots of one chord songs. I’ve just finished an inter-generational ukelele project, and you’d be surprised at the amount of songs we can do with just one chord. So that’s kind of a nice way forward and it gets them in the zone of holding an instrument, of manipulating it or controlling it and exploring it and creating their own musicality.


AH: How would you suggest that parents then work with that instrument and that young person? So up until now we’ve been sort of saying keep it very natural, very  instinctive and part of your day. But obviously if you’ve got instruments involved that’s going to seem like, ‘Right, this is a musical moment, and we are here in this moment with these instruments’. So are there any tips that you can give to parents who might be thinking, ‘Right, I’ve got the kit, but what on earth do I do now?’. 


LMc: With very young children I’d probably say just keep in that vein and explore. Because at three or four years-old there’s lots of time to learn instruments. And just be led by your child. Because when I think about my own child. She’s had a go on my cello, just for fun, not trying to push her into anything. But she’s not shown much interest in a year or two. She’s strummed the ukelele. But actually she just loves singing and dancing and putting on kinds of shows as it were, and being a director, she’s very directed. I just go with that. In terms of actual instruments, you know, you can, on YouTube, there are loads of examples of people playing lots of different instruments. Perhaps play them to your child and see if they’re drawn to anything. You could see if there are any free concerts or anything, and take them along to that. But I think in terms of very young children, just singing and Dalcroze movement type of exercises. You know, exploring. Having a musical body is probably going to stand them in better stead in the long run. So there’s no rush for technical skills on an instrument, would be my advice. 


AH: That’s great advice. I think that’s reassuring for parents as well. And I think with Stuart’s question, he was saying his child’s started playing the ukelele, but probably all he needs to do is rather than thinking he has to teach them something and encourage progress, he probably just needs to play with them, as in just play, not play music, but enjoy a fun time using the ukelele. I think that somebody, who’s a community musician who’s name escapes me, tells a story of teachers being horrified because a young boy just wanted to undo the ukelele strings. Pull them apart, put his hand in the ukelele, but once he’d done that he was then prepared to actually play the ukelele. So he had to do the exploring first, because that’s just the way he worked. He was an investigator. And being open to all sorts of things that your child will do I suppose is the other thing isn’t it?


LMc: [Laughs] Yes, absolutely. Just seeing how things work can be quite important for some children. I don’t work like that, I’m not that interested. But other people might be, so just supporting that and looking into that is a really nice way of, you know, ‘This is how sound is made’, you know. Great, it’s a little science project as well. Again, you can get some children at age three who really want to learn the ukelele, or whatever they’re going to learn, or the ocarina or piano even. You get three or four year-old pianists. If that’s what they want to do and they’re leading you in that direction then great, go for it. This is never an absolute because all children are different. But, in the main, don’t worry about it and just play and just expose them to as much music as you can I think. But also a lot of parents and carers do have smart phones and you can get great apps that allow children to explore different sounds. So ThumbJam’s quite nice, and there are other, but the names escape me at the moment, kind of has a more robot-based thing where you can make lots of different sounds. I think it’s a Loops-type app.


AH: The one with the little people? 


LMc: I think so. Just things like that which are quite low cost. ThumbJam I think is under £10. Bloom, that’s another one that’s kind of more visual as well and you can just swipe across the screen. It’s kind of more atmospheric rather than specifically musical. But those are other things – again it depends on your stance on technology and young children. But there are options there as well. It doesn’t just have to be physical instruments. There are other ways that you can incorporate music and musical play into your everyday, as well. Especially if they’re getting a bit restless on the bus or whatever, sometimes that’s quite a nice thing to do for 10 minutes until we get off at our stop. And that doesn’t involve singing in front of other people in public either. 


AH: Is there any other equipment, or resources or books that you’d recommend for parents and carers?


LMc: Yeah. I’m a big fan of websites. There’s, so that’s Mama Lisa’s World, and that’s got loads of traditional children’s songs, games and rhymes from all around the world, so not just english-speaking worlds. I love that, and I use a lot of them in my work and with my daughter as well. There’s, so that was lots of little songs developed for families and by families. That came out of a project in Hoxton and that was initially, I think, funded through Sound Connections and they worked at the same time as I was trialling my first inter-generational project. So it’s nice to see a development of that. BoogieMites actually has just released their ‘At home’ series now, and I wrote the parent notes for them. And you can purchase those, they’re available from their website. There’s videos and notes and obviously the songs come with that. And then I love the play songs book as well, and I use that in my work. So yeah, that comes with a CD as well. As with all these things you can just take what you want. You don’t have to do whole songs. You can take snippets of songs, just get some ideas and try them out, and see what sits with you. I think it has to resonate with you first as a parent to then be meaningful in your interactions with your child.


AH: And I think the Royal Scottish National Orchestra produced a CD and a little booklet that went along with it called ‘A Star’, and I thought that was a really nice idea because it was for parents who have no musical experience at all. And I think they’re still available, or something’s available on their website. So it gave some very simple little lullabies and songs that you could use at particular times of the day, and just gave some little tips for how you might use them. 


Finally Liv, could you give us three practical pieces of advice that parents can take away if they’re starting to introduce music to their children? Or you might want to summarise what you’ve just said? 


LMc: So I have mentioned them already. The first one is that you don’t need lots of stuff. You know, don’t think ‘music = instruments = skills’. Actually just starting with you and your voice is more than enough. And the environment that you’re in and to believe in yourself I suppose is the first one. The second one is be led by your child I think. So watch for their cues, their invitations as well, and you know, don’t think you need to sing at them all the time. Make it into a dialogue, and really work with them, make it meaningful. The third piece is once you get going, to just enjoy it. Enjoy exploring a huge variety of different music from jazz, pop, classical, traditional, World music, or heavy metal if that’s your thing. I think everything is fine, and works, and if it’s meaningful for you, then it’s going to be meaningful for your family in some way. So just enjoy.


AH: Ah, that’s brilliant advice, and I think that’s going to reassure loads of parents, and including musician parents, who actually, probably have hang-ups about how much they should be doing with their children and what they should be doing. So that’s been really useful, and I hope that parents will benefit from this conversation, but also that it will be helpful for the regular listeners of this show to share with the parents they work with or want to connect with. So thank you ever so much Liv for your time, I really appreciate it.


LMc: Thank you very much for having me, it’s been great fun.


AH: Good. And if you want to read more about Liv and about Early Years music I will share some links in the show notes along with some resources etc.. Thank you very much for listening.

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