Radford Music Professor Jennifer McDonel Co-Develops Harmony & Heart Program
In September, Primrose Schools announced plans to implement “Harmony & Heart,” a new music and character development program developed in part by Jennifer McDonel, Ph.D., Radford University associate professor of music and director of music education. The program, integrated into Primrose Schools’ Balanced Learning Curriculum at the system’s 400 schools in 31 states, offers a unique approach to music and children’s literature, teaching important music skills while reinforcing critical social-emotional skills in a fun and engaging manner.
“We developed the program for children aged birth to 5 years based on the most recent research and a music learning theory about how young children learn music,” McDonel said. “We have seamlessly integrated Primrose’s character development for children’s social-emotional development, within the music we’ve written and with books the literature experts wrote.”
Through the program, children are guided playfully and musically with appropriate activities to acquire foundational music skills in six broad areas: participation, tonal development, rhythm development, movement, using props and instruments and describing/connecting. Children completing the program should be able to use their singing voices to sing and perform rhythmically in tune, in time and creatively with expression. Students should also be able to move their bodies expressively and creatively to music; perform rhythm instruments appropriately; and be able to describe, in their own words, music ideas and how music helps them express their feelings.
McDonel said that the books used in the program are written to enhance the character development portion of the curriculum by focusing on “QI Skills,” which are the skills deemed necessary for success in today’s rapidly changing world as outlined by Laura Jana in “The Toddler Brain.”
“Each unit of our music program has one or more of our original compositions written to complement the book series,” McDonel said.
McDonel developed the program in collaboration with Heather Kirby, a colleague and faculty member for the Gordon Institute for Music Learning, after being contacted by Gloria Julius, the chief academic officer for Primrose Schools. Julius told McDonel she had a strong interest in instituting a program that included music learning theory, based on cutting-edge research about the trajectory of how young children acquire music skills and understanding and, further, how to guide young children’s music development effectively through developmentally-appropriate music and movement activities.
“This was going to be a huge project,” McDonel recalled. “The timeline was projected to be 18 to 24 months. I was very interested, but I knew I could not take on a project of this magnitude by myself.”
Primrose Schools so strongly believes in the power of music education in early childhood that they are allocating 150 minutes of music instruction per week, which is 375 to 500 percent more time than typical elementary schools.”
As a professional musician with a recording studio in his home, Kirby’s husband, Bob Kirby, was the final partner to join the program development team. They began creating the program in November 2018.
There are two levels of the program: Wonder is a curriculum designed for children ages 6 weeks old through 2 years; Venture is designed for children ages 3 to 5 years. The curriculum is in 12 units for each level. Each unit is four weeks long, revolving around a certain character trait personified by a Primrose character. The program provides children with music time for 15 minutes twice per day.
“Primrose Schools so strongly believes in the power of music education in early childhood that they are allocating 150 minutes of music instruction per week,” McDonel said, “which is 375 to 500 percent more time than typical elementary schools, where music classes often are only once a week for 30 to 40 minutes.”
McDonel said that the program also has the side benefit of assisting classroom teachers who may not feel comfortable with their singing voices. Teachers familiarize themselves with the written lesson components ahead of time, but they experience the tunes and chants right along with the children through streamed audio lessons, recorded by McDonel and Kirby. This gives them more space to interact playfully with children through the music activities, rather than worry about singing the tunes correctly.
As McDonel and Kirby developed the program, they organized the collected songs into appropriate themes when possible, and then filled in gaps in the music literature by composing several original songs for each unit. They then began writing lesson components for each week of the unit and putting all other components together in the studio by audio-recording each lesson component. Bob Kirby then produced each 15-minute music class audio file and compiled them together within each unit.
In 2019, Primrose began piloting the Harmony & Heart lessons while McDonel and Kirby were writing the next units, but everything came to a halt in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
“Because of COVID-19, we were furloughed from March to August, just before we intended to finish up the program,” McDonel said. “But Primrose gave the green light to move forward in August, so we are now finishing the final units as they are rolling out the first finished unit this month.”
McDonel said that from the beginning, Radford University music department chair Timothy Channell, Ed.D., was very supportive of her work on the Heart & Harmony program, including approval of a trip in the fall of 2019 to the Primrose National Conference, where she and Kirby presented the curriculum.
“It has been two years of intense work,” McDonel said. “We are so incredibly excited imagining how many thousands of children’s lives will be impacted positively over the next 10 to 15 years by this music program and the research Primrose Schools will be doing to investigate the effects of this program on the children’s overall learning and kindergarten readiness. This truly is the greatest professional accomplishment of my life, and I am so proud to be a part of Primrose School’s mission in this way.”