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Posted on Mon, Aug 17, 2009 : 5:16 a.m.

Expert advice: Local music educator Gari Stein puts her philosophy into a book

By Leah DuMouchel

“When all else fails, sing a song and dance along! It really works!” 

That’s local music educator Gari Stein’s motto, and this late in the summer — when it’s hopelessly hot, we ran out of fun ideas about child entertainment weeks ago, and school can’t start soon enough — “all else” seems to fail plenty often. But Stein, who has spent the last 16 years helping “mommy, daddy, granny, nanny, teachers (and) librarians too” connect with children through musical play, comes to the rescue of all of us with her new book, “The More We Get Together: Nurturing Relationships through Music, Play, Books and Art.”

Technically, it’s her debut book, but it’s jammed to overflowing with the material she’s long been known for teaching. A simple music program she created for day-care centers while she worked as a caterer mushroomed almost immediately, taking over her life until it included classes, workshops, curriculum development, staff training, interactive concerts, CDs and DVDs. Clearly, she’d hit a nerve. 

What was it about her program that people were so hungry for? First of all, she said, “day cares were starving for people to come in and give them an hour of relief, really. But beyond that, music is so powerful it speaks to everyone, regardless of development. It doesn't cost anything. Everyone can do it. And I've seen it just transform groups of people - children, adults, the gamut. I think it was the music itself, rather than just me.”

Many of the particular aches that she sees soothed by music come from what she calls our “hurry-up, dot-com” world. When it comes to a child’s development, she firmly believes that “relationships are the key, and music and art and reading really nurture that. I think if we took a day off, off of our TVs and screens and phones, it would really be good for the kids. The media are telling us all these things that kids ‘need,’ but really they need the same things kids have always needed": time to play, room to move, new things to explore, loving support and a joyful example.

But don’t feel compelled to take her word for it — she’s kept up on the research for you, and the first part of the book is loaded with citations of interesting studies examining everything from the development of hearing in utero to the neural connections between music, language and math to the heritage lost as fewer of us teach our kids the Mother Goose rhymes. The material is capable of veering off into dullsville if left alone, but Stein’s warm enthusiasm and obvious delight in sharing the subject matter make it sparkle and take us right with her.

What does she see when music works its magic? “Sometimes I see silence. This is often a big issue with the parents, because they worry about that and say things like, ‘She sings at home but not here.’ But I say, 'That's where the learning happens.’ Silence lets us hear in our heads what we've already physically heard. I do see (the children’s) faces light up. I hear children singing songs to themselves when they're getting dressed or putting on their shoes.”

That part, she went on, is “not just for the children, but for the adults. Parents tell me they now use music at the dinner table, at the changing table, in the car...” And this is where Stein’s talents become truly remarkable. It’s one thing to give kids — whom she says are hard-wired for singing and dancing anyway - enough room, instruments and time to explore music at their own pace, but it’s quite another to train fully grown parents and teachers to do the same thing.

First of all, any gathering of children seems plenty loud and kinetic enough to most adults long before anyone begins encouraging them to whoop it up and wiggle around. It’s a rare grownup who doesn’t get at least a slight case of the willies at the thought of a three-foot-tall mob, but Stein is one of them — and she assures us that we can be, too, with a little advice on crowd control. 

“I set the pace and keep it going. Sometimes (in other settings), age-inappropriate music is used for young children; a lot of is it is too loud or busy. I avoid that. And if I see something isn't working, I stop. I don't confine them - if I'm in a room full of toddlers and they're sitting, I'm nervous. If they're wandering, I let them. If they want to stand on their heads, I don't care, as long as they're not disruptive. And sometimes it does get a little out of control, but I blow my train whistle and get them stretching again. Sometimes it's mass chaos, but it works.

“And you must have no fear. I tell these teachers, 'Do not be afraid. You can do it - and you must.’"

But even after you’ve conquered your fear of being outnumbered by slightly unruly small fry, there’s still the small matter of, you know, singing and dancing in front of people. And acting like you like it — which, says Stein, is the first and maybe only requirement. “I don't have a great voice and I'm not a musician, but it doesn't matter. It's just your enthusiasm and joy. I think a lot of us have lost that joy (because) we’re busy paying the bills. But I don't think you have to be a child to make music. It's for everyone.”

She does, however, strongly suspect that you might have to be a little musical to teach children. “A lot of preschool teachers aren't comfortable with music. But children are born wired for it, so I tell them as politely as possible that if they can't find some way to make it work, they're in the wrong business.” These blunt words delivered in Stein’s gentle cadence strike a quick incongruous note, but it becomes immediately clear as she goes on that few teachers leave her care without having found a way to do just that. They tell her time and again that all they needed was to see that they could do it.

But back to those children lounging on your couch, complaining about the heat and maddeningly not required in any academic halls yet: the last half of the book is for them. Or rather, for you, since it’s loaded with page after page of activities: songs, stretches, fingerplays, dances, games, art, creative movement, party ideas, book and CD suggestions and of course, a chapter on the beloved lullaby. Stein promises that it works.

 “It's magical. I can see children come in the door, just crabby and not having a good time, and then their mood just changes. It's the same for me, too - I’m not a morning person, but I get into these morning classes and the music just changes me. Magic is a good word. There's a lot of it there.”

“The More We Get Together” is available at Nicola's Books, Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room, Lexi's Toybox and the Little Folks Music web site. You can meet Gari Stein at the Kerrytown Bookfest between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Sept. 13 or at the Crazy Wisdom Family Sing-Along at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 10. If you've got tots, join her "Music and Motion" library events: at Ann Arbor District Library on Nov. 13, and at Ypsilanti District Library on Nov. 16.


Laura Meisler

Mon, Aug 17, 2009 : 7:41 a.m.

I'm excited to check out Gari's book; my daughter has been in Gari's classes since she was six months old and we've definitely seen the positive difference made by Gari's loving instruction.