Teaching Music in Preschools

While living in California some years ago, I taught music in private preschools, kindergartens and early elementary schools in the San Fernando Valley. I’d like to give you a picture of the conditions I encountered in some of these preschools. When these children arrived at preschool many of them had not had enough sleep and certainly didn’t want to be torn away from the parent who dropped them off.

Some had not eaten, some had eaten too much, too late the night before. If they had sweets before going to bed – which most of them had, as treats to make up for lack of attention from the parents – the effects of the sugar was still with them in the morning. In some cases this caused what would be considered a “hangover” in adults.

When they arrived at preschool, the teachers quite often had had the same kind of a night and morning with their own families. They would not be in a good mood, to put it one way. Some of the classes were quite large – up to twenty-five kids with one teacher in some schools. Others did not have so many. Some of the children would actually be sick and had no business being at school and cried incessantly. This crying would have the effect of causing many of the other children to cry in sympathy. This was one thing that was quite obvious – the effect that each of the children and the teachers had on each other. Just one child’s crying could influence the atmosphere of the whole school. This was surprising to me.

By mid-morning the teachers had calmed most of this down and the children were given their snacks. For some this was the first food since the night before – a period, in some cases, that could be as long as 15 hours. This was for children not much older than babies who, just a short time before, the parents had been so careful to feed every four hours.

One thing that would really upset everyone was change. Perhaps the preschool was in a stage of physically remodeling the rooms. Maybe they were changing some of the classes around, splitting them up and putting some children with different teachers in different rooms. This would upset both the children and the teachers. In the case of physical remodeling they would have to get used to a new environment. If they were to change classes around they would have to adjust to each other and get to know each other. Having a teacher leave and be replaced by another was devastating to some children.

The behavior of these young children sometimes seemed very much like adults behave at times. They had special friends and groups would gang up on other children. Sometimes two children just couldn’t stand to be near each other. Once in a while you’d see a little boy and girl in the position of lovers. You’d see many children off in corners playing with themselves. I was constantly shocked by the things I experienced.

In many ways these children were like little animals in the wilderness. On the other hand there were good days – very rare but good days – when the children could be so sweet and innocent it would make you cry. For instance, at times they would mob me and knock me over and send my guitar flying across the room. All of this just to be able to hug and kiss me.

The emotion instigating this action was a positive emotion but caused a mob action that could have been disastrous, especially for my guitar. This reaction happened more often than not because, as one teacher told me, I was the bright spot in the week for a good many of the kids. As soon as I left that day they would start asking when “Miss Norma” was coming again and this kept up all week until the next time I got there.

They loved the music and the marching and clapping games we played. This music had such a good effect on them. It made them all feel better, it gave them a chance to express their feelings in an accepted way. It also allowed them use their imagination. We’d take trips to many places just sitting on the floor in the preschool room. We could transform that room into a wonderland of a circus, or a trip to the zoo or a ride up a mountain or to a farm. It served a purpose that no television show could ever serve because the children experienced it all within themselves. They felt the emotions, the joy, the love for an animal, the excitement of a bike ride, the wonder of birds.

One song that all children of all ages in all schools loved without fail was one I did called “Baby Bird.” They started out curled up in a fetal position on the floor. As the song climbed up the scale they brought their head up and as the shell cracked open they rose up on their knees. Then they opened their eyes and slowly got up and stretched their wings (arms). As we reached the top note of the scale they tried to fly and jumped in the air landing in a heap on the floor laughing their heads off. I couldn’t explain why this song had such an effect on them and neither could the teachers, but even the older children experienced something special from it.

I was teaching in one of the preschools during the worst day of the rioting after the Rodney King beating. All the parents were called and those who were able came to get their children and take them home. The children whose parents couldn’t be reached or couldn’t get away to get them, were all gathered into one room of the school. The blinds were closed, the doors locked. All the teachers were there also, including some who shouldn’t have been because they were hysterical and upsetting the children. To keep the children calm I sat in the middle of the room and sang with the kids and teachers while the rioting went on a few blocks from the school.

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