On Compulsory Singing

learning by going

My son is fifteen months old, and for the last six months has been attending a weekly music class. Initially, I wasn’t able to go with him and my wife because of a work-related conflict, but since the summer, all three of us have gone each week. It’s the sort of music class that is prevalent in the US these days---it’s for students aged five and under, and the music is cheery, non-denominational yet diverse, folky stuff. The teacher of our class is a woman a little bit older than I am who is preternaturally cheery and, frankly, charming. There are several rules at music class, however. One is that once class has started, there should be no talking, only singing. This feels incredibly odd when you need to communicate to your co-parent “where is his sippy cup?” or “do you have the tissues?” When banal sentiments are conveyed in song, it inherently makes the singer simultaneously seem and feel ludicrous. I try to pretend that I’m just a character in a new musical about thirty-something parents (penned by Sondheim, of course), and that talking would only jolt the imaginary audience watching my exploits out of the moment.

The second rule of import is that we aren’t allowed to help our children make any of the gestures or do any of the choreographed movements. That’s impeding on their own rate of learning and stifling their inherent creativity. I totally get this! It makes sense---have you ever seen a grown woman try to make a toddler mimic having hands full of bumblebees? It’s farcical. Nonetheless, the need to conform is strong, and I often remind myself not to “help” my son do the motions of songs. Even when I see other kids doing the motions just right, I try to chill out and be cool. It makes me feel like I am one step away from Toddlers and Tiaras.

I am very much not fond of singing in public. I save my singing for the car or when I am alone in the house (What’s my favorite song to belt alone? Thanks for asking, it’s “Stay” by Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories). I was in the chorus in middle school but quit in sixth grade. I went to church camp for years in the summer and never, ever was enthusiastic about all of the singing (trust me, if you have never been to church camp---I’m pretty sure it is 80% singing). At the school where I teach, there are occasional moments of compulsory group singing, and I just fade into myself.

But then I started going to music class. Parents and loved ones of the children are encouraged to sing. Given that this is a rare setting where I am a student and not the teacher in the room, I found myself to be an incredibly compliant student. You want me to sing? About being sad that there’s no more pie? No problem. I am going to when in Rome the heck out of this opportunity. I want my son to try new things! So, I sing. And I make motions. And I leap and sway and use rhythm instruments and sometimes even twirl a scarf. And, truth be told, I love it.