Helping children find their voice

Friday, June 21, 2002

During a rehearsal for an imminent production, director Janet Presson encourages some children to sing louder even though they're using microphones. If for some reason the microphones don't work during one of the performances, she says, shout.

There is one exception.

"Bobby, you don't have to shout. You can use your natural voice," she says to the 8-year-old boy who plays Spider-Man, the toy shop owner and one of the Curmudgeon Brothers in the production. Bobby Coffey has found his voice.

That is one of the goals of Kindermusik, a teaching method for ages 6 months through 5 years based on the belief that every child has musical ability. Kindermusik long ago was promoting the idea that developing a child's musical ability nurtures that child's other abilities, a concept that now has gained credence in academic circles.

Kindermusik is not so much concerned with mounting a flawless stage performance as with the process of encouraging children to discover and express their own abilities. They do this through exploring rhythm and movement and looking for their voices.

Sometimes the voices are elusive. "Boys want to sound like their dads, and they can't," Presson says.

Kindermusik combines elements of the teachings of Carl Orff and Sinichi Suzuki, two innovators developing means to educate children about music.

No child is considered too young to begin. "You can teach pregnant women," Presson says.

It looks a lot like Christmas this week at Mount Auburn Christian Church. A painted Christmas tree and train provide the set. On stage are an angel (Heather Deisher), a lion (Matthew Deisher) ballerinas (Kelly Kapp, Reagan Kapp and Rachel Coffey), and two little girls in mittens (Kristen Dippold and Sara Stewart) who have gotten themselves locked up in the toy store overnight on purpose.

Keyboards and Kindermusik Conservatory is presenting a little musical called "The Toy Shop Christmas." Presson says she chose the show not because she's impatient for the season to start but because of its message about giving.

The toys come alive, of course, and everyone goes looking for the meaning of Christmas.

Rachel Coffey, mother of Bobby and 5-year-old Rachel, says both of her children love to sing at home, but performing is something new for them. "Usually they don't like to be in front of people," she said.

Twelve-year-old Heather Deisher has been appearing in these shows most of her childhood. She has played a butterfly, Cinderella, a wicked stepmother. Preparing to enter Central Junior High School, she already knows she's going to try out for the musical teacher Mike Dumey mounts every spring.

"I like acting," she says.

Her brother, David, is "The Toy Shop" narrator.

Dr. Carol McDowell, an associate professor of music education at Southeast, is teaching two classes in Kindermusik this week at First Presbyterian Church. Sponsored by the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri, the morning class for ages 2 to 4 is following a program called "Creatures in My Backyard."

The older afternoon class is traveling in their imaginations to different countries. Thursday the students going to England included Will and Taylor Shivelbine, Luke Edwards and Winnie Smee. McDowell's helpers with the class are Ashley Cook, Evan Henry and Aimee Ha.

They used different percussion instruments and bells to provide sound effects as McDowell recited the nursery rhyme "Wee Willie Winkie."

"Why did he go into town?" Will Shivelbine wanted to know.

McDowell took a three-day training in Jacksonville, Fla., to qualify for teaching Kindermusik. "It's all about getting children to use their imagination," she says. Use of children's literature is integral to the program.

Kindermusik also helps them develop language and attention skills, she said.

She hopes to develop Kindermusik programs for local day cares and Head Start.

"Music at an early age is important, before they get to school and get turned off because it's not familiar to them," McDowell says.

"Kids today are given so much. It's important just to let them use their own imaginations to develop their own ideas."

Presson has been teaching Kindermusik for the past 15 years. Her son, Lucas, has been exposed to the teaching since he was 3. Now 16 and a catcher on the Cape Girardeau Junior American Legion team, he is accompanying the singers on piano.

Performing becomes second nature, Lucas says. "They get used to playing in front of people at recitals."

Added his mother, "Then it's no big deal to get up in front of 100 people or 1,000 people."

Some children have difficulty overcoming shyness. Presson employs a "puppet box" the children can use if they're too shy to sing themselves. "I say, 'Make your puppet sing,'" Presson says.

The most important thing is to keep everything about the process positive, says Presson, who formerly taught music at Southeast. "Then you see them blossom."

335-6611, extension 182

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