Early Years Music in Sistema Scotland

by Jen Nicholson, Curriculum Leader Early Years, Sistema Scotland

“…there is no such thing as a baby. . . . A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship.”
~ Donald Winnicott, English paediatrician and psychoanalyst

Babies and caretakers.

Winnicott’s famous quote captures the importance of relationship to every individual. He expands to describe the dependency of children on their caregivers not only for basic needs, but also for emotional “holding.”

Relationship is at the heart of music teaching around the world. In Sistema Scotland, we begin this process in our Early Years settings, with Baby Noise for babies 0-2 years old, and the Nursery for preschool children 3-5 years old. Our Early Years team is comprised of about 20 musicians who work in a variety of locations within the community.

In creating our Early Years curriculum, we focused on the following principles basic to all the work of Sistema Scotland:

  • For our students, we aim to have musical life peak in adulthood. Therefore, progress needs to be slow and broad. To help children develop lifelong musical lives, we start as early as possible. But learning orchestral instruments does not begin early. Children start on stringed instruments at around age 7, and woodwind, brass, and percussion opportunities begin at around age 9.
  • Music is a full body experience. Musical experience does not happen at the end of a violinist’s fingertips. Although motor skills are of course important, music is experienced throughout the mind and body. So we also need to develop supporting skills: inner musical ear, coordination, dance, voice. We think of Paganini when teaching finger rhymes for the future fine motor skills needed. We think of Bach when doing simple dances to inform a child’s future understanding of form.
  • The most important element of content is the process used to deliver it. We use many games, rhymes, and other activities; some are generated in-house, while others are not exclusive to Sistema Scotland.

Baby Noise classes meet once a week and focus on the relationship between the children and their caregivers. Our primary goals for this age group are exposing the children to music, teaching the caregivers, and building community. Familiar songs and games help children to listen to and copy sounds, the building blocks for language. Movement games enhance physical development and coordination. Listening to music builds concentration and memory. The social aspect and routine of these classes help children to learn new skills such as choosing, taking turns, tidying up, and playing with others.  The classes also provide a relaxed atmosphere for caregivers to chat and have a cup of tea.

The Nursery classes also meet once a week. For this age group, our primary goals are musical experiences, ear training, and full body engagement. Through musical games, clapping, and singing, we introduce the children to ideas of rhythm and pitch and making music together. The emphasis is always on the ensemble, so the children learn to cooperate and support each other.

We try to be broad as possible with Early Years content. The end goal is to have a child as ready as possible for instrumental learning.

The author with Baby Noise students.

Most of the staff across all four Big Noise centers are required to lead Early Years sessions at some point while working with Sistema Scotland. This is both logistically necessary and strategically important. Teaching fundamental skills informs the teaching of more advanced instrumental playing. Teaching advanced instrumental playing, in turn, informs how musicians approach Early Years content.

New staff coming into Sistema Scotland receive training in Dalcroze, Kodály, and Orff within their first year of employment. Twice a year, all employees from the four centers meet up for shared time and training. Many of the Early Years sessions are co-delivered by more than one musician, which results in much cross-fertilization of ideas and materials. I enjoy seeing musicians taking one another’s ideas and developing them.

Our Early Years classes may look very different from one place to another. But they share a consistency of approach. And they are all grounded in the understanding that we are built on relationships. At the other end of our age spectrum are students who have been with us as long as ten years, since our beginning. Above all, we value the relationships we have created with those students and the ones they have created with each other. There is no such thing as a music leader alone; they are always in relationships with students and peers.

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