Musings - music, children, education, and life

How to be a scientist
By Kathleen O'Dea on June 19, 2014


If you’re a baby or a toddler, here’s what it looks like to be a scientist:

You explore everything. If it fits in your mouth, you taste it – and you don’t just taste it, you feel every part of it with your tongue. If you can hold it, you shake it, bang it, drop it. Will it make a sound? What’s in it? Can you take it apart? You study cause and effect, and consequences. If you drop it, will it fall down every time? If you've ever seen a floating balloon or a soap bubble, you might have reason to doubt that everything falls. You may have to drop your toy off the edge of the high chair many times, just to do a complete study.

Some of the questions you study are social in nature. What happens if I pull that baby’s hair? If I cry, will someone help me? If I say da-da-da, or ma-ma-ma, they get excited. What happens if I do it again?

I like to think of these early experiments as an intense study of empirical physics (or in the last examples, empirical social research). This experience-based study is necessary for your child to easily learn academic subjects later in life. More importantly, this early exploration can also help feel your child feel at ease in new environments and new situations throughout his or her life. 

You can support your child's budding scientific curiosity in some very simple ways.  The good news is that many of these ideas can actually simplify your own life by reducing the need to be your child's teacher and/or entertainment director.  


  • Give your child time to explore on his or her own terms. You don't need to be on call to entertain your child at every moment, and you don't need to schedule every moment of their day. You can relax and take care of your own needs, knowing your child will find fascination in their own open-ended exploration. 

  • Create an environment that's safe for your child to explore. If your baby is just starting to crawl or walk, take time to go through your house at your baby's level, and look for anything that is unsafe for your baby - and also everything that is unsafe from your baby's curious hands. If you've done this well, you won't have to worry about protecting your baby from your house or your house from your baby. An environment that says "play with me" is much better for your child's developing brain than an environment that says "no, don't touch'.

  • Give your child toys and activities that allow your child to be curious at a deep, non-verbal level. Your child's deepest need is not to be entertained, but to understand. Babies and toddlers especially need to experience the subtleties of taste, texture, sound, weight, and momentum with their own bodies in order to understand them. Often electronic toys reduce the quality of interaction to simply pressing a button or swiping a screen, and for young children this is antithetical to their need for connection with the physical world. On the other hand, simple toys like blocks or drums give your child open-ended tools for exploration. You can make an indoor sandbox filled with cornmeal, grains or pasta for an inexpensive and safe alternative to sand. Or fill a shallow basin with water for hours of fascination. (Stay close and supervise water play for safety!)

  • In our Music Together® classes, we recommend that parents participate directly rather than holding their child's hands and directing their child's movement. When you participate directly, you model what musical play looks like, and you also give your child a chance to practice mastery in his or her own way. The road to mastery may include dropping, banging, mouthing or waving a mallet or a shaker egg. Remember, they're not doing it wrong, they're using their bodies and the instruments to learn about the world. 


I love working with small children. I love seeing their intense connection with the world around them, where everything is worthy of exuberant study. I hope that while you support your child's exploration, you also allow yourself to be inspired by it. We all have moments where we explore empirical physics, and often these moments give us our greatest joy. However, you may not call it physics when you do it. You might just call it – tennis. (Or golf, or dance, or yoga, or...) What's your field of study?


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Congratulations on your graduation (5/31/14)
Prosopagnosia (1/2/14)


Congratulations on your graduation!
By Kathleen O'Dea on May 31, 2014


This is the time of year when we celebrate graduations. So I want to recognize and celebrate your own recent graduation. Congratulations!

Not a graduate? I beg to differ. We are all graduates, not once but multiple times in the course of our lives, and each one is a cause for celebration.Your first graduation was your birth, and it is still celebrated yearly with the Happy Birthday song. Your child's birth was another major graduation in your life as well as your child's. Suddenly you've become totally responsible for another person's life, and you experience joy, despair, and deep fatigue in levels unknown in your previous life. You may miss your previous stage of your life at times, but at the same time you're committed to this new adventure. Congratulations!

As your child grows, each stage is a new graduation for both of you. He starts to walk, and suddenly you've lost your baby but you're the parent of a toddler. She starts preschool, and you both have to learn how to separate, to learn that you can have happy lives apart and still come together as a family. This knowledge becomes crucial as your child moves further and further into the world. It seems that our job as parents is to become increasingly unneeded as our children master the skills they need to become independent. Every milestone your child passes is a milestone you experience in your own life as well, and each is a cause for bittersweet celebration. The flip side of this bittersweet feeling is the joy you feel when you know your child can make his or her own way successfully in the world, and the deep love that comes from a lifetime of guiding, supporting, cheerleading, hand-holding, and letting go of this person whose life is still so intertwined with yours. You don't stop graduating as your child grows. The celebrations become deeper.

So whether your child has recently mastered sleeping through the night or finishing his or her homework, congratulations to both of you! Congratulations for all the ways you've grown as you parent your growing child. Not all of this journey has been fun, but the rewards are incredible. Your child is the hope of the future. You are the hope of the future. We are all the hope of the future.


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Prosopagnosia (1/2/14)


By Kathleen O'Dea on January 02, 2014

I struggle with recognizing people, and putting names and faces together. I've been like this as far as I can remember, and until recently I thought it was because I wasn't paying attention. It turns out I really have been paying attention, more so than most people, but I have a facial recognition handicap. There's actually a term for this, and it's a surprisingly widespread condition. The term is prosopagnosia, also known as faceblindness.

Practically speaking, for me it works like this: I eat at a restaurant and the server introduces herself. I make a mental note, "long blond hair, glasses, tall, kinda thin." I'm all set. If I need more water, I know who to look for. This works really well for me, until I discover that there are two servers working that evening who both have long blond hair and glasses, who are tall and kinda thin. Then I'm in trouble. Because I can't easily remember my server's actual face, I can't tell which one is which. I can either be embarrassed by talking to the wrong person, or stay thirsty until the right tall-kinda-thin server asks if I'd like a refill.

Once I discovered prosopagnosia, I became fascinated and read more about it. There is a part of the brain that's specifically dedicated to processing faces. Some genetic conditions can affect development in this part of the brain. Other people have brain injuries such as a stroke which can impair functioning in this part of the brain. And for some people, a lack of stimulation to this part of the brain in infancy or early childhood prevents it from developing as it should. I suspect that's the case with me. In hindsight, I can recognize that I was profoundly nearsighted at an early age, and my nearsightedness wasn't diagnosed until I was 7. At the precise time when I needed to be looking at a lot of faces to develop my facial recognition skills, I couldn't actually see faces, just vague blurs. By the time I got my glasses, my visual processes were set.

What does this have to do with music?

We are all born with a set of aptitudes, or an innate ability to develop a particular skill. But aptitude only refers to an ability to develop a skill, not to whether the skill will actually develop. We can say that Mozart was born with a tremendous aptitude for music, but that doesn't mean he was born with musical skills. Because his aptitude was supported in his early childhood, it was able to blossom as it did. But if he had not had exposure to music as a child, that ability would never have developed, and he might have become an anonymous bricklayer instead of a musician for the ages. It was the musical exposure that helped his aptitude become expressed into an actual ability.

My experience with prosopagnosia helps me understand what this means. I was probably born with a normal aptitude for facial recognition, but my lack of early childhood exposure kept that aptitude from being expressed fully for the rest of my life. My early lack of exposure doesn't keep me from recognizing faces. It just makes it harder. I can still pick out faces of my husband and other people I love, with no trouble. But it takes a long time for a face to go into my visual memory, and in many social situations I'm shy and hesitant to engage because I'm afraid I'll make an embarrassing mistake.

Imagine if my lack of early stimulation was in music development, rather than facial recognition. If I didn't get music when I was young, I might still enjoy music as an adult. I'd probably recognize the songs I love, and I might be able to hum along with them. But I'd have a much harder time learning new songs, and a much harder time hearing the music in my head. I might be shy about singing in public, and I certainly wouldn't dance for fear of being labeled as having "two left feet". I might avoid musical situations because they make me feel uncomfortable.

This may sound familiar to you. This is where many adults land after a childhood with limited exposure to the experience of making and exploring music. Just listening to recorded music doesn't help children become more musical. It requires actually playing, experimenting, and witnessing other humans being musical. Unfortunately, in the United States, this is becoming an increasingly rare part of childhood, and more and more children grow up with stunted musical development. Their aptitude may have been just fine at birth - it just wasn't supported enough to develop into a lifelong musical ability.

Our music classes won't really make your child smarter and more musically gifted - although it certainly looks that way! But what they will do is help your child's natural aptitude blossom fully into a lifelong musical ability. Your child's gifts are already there in abundance. Our job - as teachers and as parents - is to help your child unpackage his or her gifts and learn how to use them. Once we can do that, your child will be able to access his or her full musical measure for the rest of his or her life. That's a true gift!

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We talked about you
By Kathleen O'Dea on December 22, 2013

Recently our Heartland Music Together staff gathered together for a holiday meal and celebration. And while we were together, we talked about you. This is not a surprise, because we talk about you all the time when we’re together, whether we mention you by name or not.

We talk about you because we love you, and because we love you, we can’t help sharing stories about you and all of our HMT families when we’re together. We compare notes on the children who started with one teacher and are now with a different teacher. We celebrate those graduates we know who are now playing piano or guitar, and we remember what they were like as babies. We talk about the amazing moms, dads, and other adults who make each class into a community. Our Heartland staff get-togethers are filled with joy and laughter, and it’s because you are there with us in spirit, even if you’re not seated at the table.

It’s a funny thing. The Music Together curriculum is designed to help you keep the music going all through the week. We want the classes to become a part of your life, even when you’re not in class. But as successful as the program may be in that direction, it works just as well in the other direction. We may spend only 45 minutes with you and your child once a week, but you’re a part of our lives all the time too.

As teachers, we can measure our work in the 45-minute span it takes to get from the Hello Song to the Goodbye Song. But that’s just the smallest piece of what we do. What we do, what we truly do, is love you and your children through the vehicle of music. And we give you the tools so you can love your child the same way. How lucky we all are that we get to share this experience together! 

I wish you and your family a happy, music-filled, and heart-filled new year. Thanks for the great year you gave to us!

Miriam Klein, Director


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Making music when you're not in class (2/21/13)
Why American Idol is not ideal (2/10/13)
Your child won't go off to college and still... (1/26/13)



Making music when you're not in class
By Kathleen O'Dea on February 21, 2013

Music classes are great for children. And if you go to the right program (hint, hint) they can be equally fun for adults too. But sometimes life is too complex to add in even one more scheduled activity. And even if you do attend a music class, the real fun lies in bringing the music home. Whether you’ve been in a music class or not, here are some ideas for creating a music circle in your own home.


 ·        A music circle is more fun when you share it with others too. Schedule your circle time when you can gather the whole family around. Bring in grandparents to join the fun. Incorporate music into annual family gatherings like Thanksgiving. (Bonus: singing bypasses some of the difficult conversations that come up when families get together.) Some families also enjoy getting together with friends for a musical play date. This can be as informal as sitting and singing together, or as fancy as recreating a regular music class in your own living room.

·         You can still have a music circle if you don’t have friends or family nearby. You can always round out your circle with your dog or cat. Many children love making a music circle with their stuffed animals or other “lovies,” and this also helps to reinforce their skills. Bonus: there’s nothing more lovely than watching your child teach songs to their teddy bear!


If you’ve been enrolled in a music class, you may already have a music repertoire. If you haven’t, or you’re looking for new music, here are additional low-budget resources. 

·         Create a Music Together station on your Pandora account. This will bring up a mix of beloved children’s songs from Music Together, as well as a host of high-quality songs from other family-friendly artists. If you hear an artist you and your child especially love, you can find more of their music on iTunes or Amazon 

·         Did you know you can check out CDs from your local library? This is a great way to experiment with new music without making an investment up front.

·         Sing songs you remember from your childhood. Are there songs you remember your parents or grandparents singing to you when you were young? These songs are heirlooms, and worth passing down to your children.



You don’t need instruments to make music, but it’s fun to extend the music-making with new ways to make sounds. Some options for extending your sound-making possibilities:

·         You can buy instruments online. Good websites for instruments include,, and 

·         You already have instruments in your house! Your pantry and kitchen cabinets are full of things that can be shaken, banged, tapped, etc. If you’d like more ideas for making your own instruments, try, or Google “musical instruments for children.” (Bonus: some of these are as much fun to make together as they are to play afterwards!)

·         Your body is an instrument! You can make amazing music with just your body and your voice. Clap your hands, stomp your feet, bang your chest, pop your lips…  If you need more inspiration, check out videos by musical master Bobby McFerrin – or take cues from your baby or toddler.



·         The best investment you can make in your child is your time and your love, and music is one way to share both. Every song you sing with your child is a way to say “I love you”. Know that your child is deeply listening, even if they’re not singing along. This time you spend with your child will be a part of them for the rest of their life.


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Why American Idol is not ideal (2/10/2013)
Your child won't go off to college and still... (1/23/2013)



Why American Idol is not ideal
By Kathleen O'Dea on February 10, 2013

I rarely watch American Idol, but when I do, it’s with some fascination. I’m fascinated by the range of singing skills in the early stages of the show, especially the unskilled singers; how is it that we can hear so clearly when they’re off pitch, but they can’t hear it themselves? I’m fascinated by the casual rudeness of the judges in eliminating singers. And I’m fascinated by the ritual plot lines: the contestant who surmounts poverty/ illness/ unemployment, the teary-eyed revelation that winning the competition would mean everything. If you’ve seen the show, all of these elements may sound familiar to you.

I recently attended a talent show put on by a local youth group.  I loved the show, even though it was frankly not up to the standards of an American Idol performance. There were some wavering pitches, and forgotten lyrics. The ukulele player lacked a music stand, so another kid knelt in front of her with the music held up over his head, and when she needed a page turn, she tapped him with her foot. It was a relaxed, informal, happy affair. 

Because I’ve been thinking about American Idol recently, part of me watched this talent show thinking about how the judges might score each singer. When I watched this way, I noticed the insecure singing and lack of polish. I also noticed that when I watched this way I felt like an unconnected outsider. Watching with judgment took me outside of the intimate space created by the connection between the kids and their audience.  I caught the details of each performance, but missed out on the heart.

Fortunately, I didn’t watch this way for long. It was much more fun to join in the party. We in the audience listened with rapt silence to some songs, hooted with appreciation to others, and called out encouragement when the singer forgot his lines. Each kid bounded happily off the stage after his or her presentation, and no one got booted from the show.

Afterwards, I understood why I’m so uncomfortable with American Idol. It’s not just that the judges are rude or that the format is clichéd. What bothers me most is that American Idol poisons our ability to appreciate local talent, ourselves included. American Idol and shows like it put us in judgment mode, where we compare each performance against a perfect ideal. Buying into this mindset puts us in a world where only a very few lucky people measure up.

Fortunately, we can choose not to live in that judgment mode. After all, it’s not that perfect performance that’s so important in most of our lives. What most of us crave is connection. That was the gift the kids on stage gave us with their singing, and the same gift we gave them with our unqualified appreciation. This is a gift I wish for all of us. I wish for – and work toward –a world where no singer is idolized and every voice is valued. That’s my American ideal. 


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Your child won't go off to college and still... (1/23/2013) 


Your child won't go off to college and still...
By Kathleen O'Dea on January 26, 2013

I'm a parent of a child who's striding into adulthood, eagerly awaiting the start of his college career. And I also spend a lot of time in the company of small children and their parents. I see a lot of parents who worry about their children's milestones. And I must confess that I too have been that parent - the parent who wonders if her child will ever walk, talk, graduate from diapers, eat solid food, complete homework assignments on time, or clean his room.

It’s a cliché that your child won’t go off to college still wearing diapers. The more important issue is what your child’s experience of childhood will be, on the way to mastering all these important milestones. When you relax and celebrate all the things your child can do, you give your child an experience of confidence, which can last the rest of your child’s life. However, if your focus is perpetually on the next step not yet achieved, your child may experience this as never quite measuring up. This is a much less secure feeling for a child, even if it originates out of your love and concern for your child.

All through my son’s childhood, whenever I pushed him to master a milestone before he was ready, we both were frustrated. When I relaxed and let go of expectations, he calmly and happily walked through whatever developmental door I had tried so hard to shove him through. And in the long run, it didn’t matter if he did it before or after his peers – he’s going off to college fully competent in all of the skills that matter.

If you’re the kind of person who can’t wait for your child to advance to the next step, my suggestion from my years of parenting is to relax. Enjoy the person your child is at this very moment. Savor the things your child can do now, without thinking ahead to what they’ll do next. This moment is pretty wonderful, whatever your child’s age. The future will come in good time, and you don’t have to push to make it come any faster. If you can do this, you’ll have less work, less worry – and more fun for both of you!