Aspiring music teachers strike a chord with babies and toddlers

Almost every Thursday throughout the fall 2021 semester, three Radford University senior music education majors visited the Radford Early Learning Center to make happy music for babies and toddlers. From left are Nichole Wright, Matthew Rhoten, Farrah Boothe and Jennifer McDonel, Ph.D., an associate professor of music and director of music education at Radford University. Also pictured at far right is an infant caregiver at RELC.

Charlotte begins to bounce when she sees her music teachers walk by the classroom.

Her class is still a couple of hours away, and the teachers are on their way down the hallway to work first with another group of young students. But Charlotte, who is not yet a year old, is eager to bounce and jiggle along with the distinct sounds of the egg shakers, the scarves, the bean bags, the stretchy bands and anything else her teachers can use to compose a rhythm.

“She’ll make eye contact with us, and she does this,” Nichole Wright said, mimicking Charlotte’s bounding excitement when she sees her weekly musical guests pass by in the hallway. “She’s ready every single time, and it’s adorable.”

Wright, a senior from Bristol, Virginia, is one of three Radford University senior music education majors who make the short trip along Tyler Avenue each Thursday to the Radford Early Learning Center (RELC). There, they make happy music for two baby classes and a toddler class.

“We call it music play,” said Jennifer McDonel, Ph.D., an associate professor of music and director of music education at Radford University. “Our students playfully interact with the babies and the toddlers musically and provide a rich musical environment and respond to whatever utterances the children give to them.”

As juniors a year ago, Wright, Farrah Boothe and Matthew Rhoten were enrolled in McDonel’s early childhood music course in the fall semester. Students in that class typically visit the RELC on Fridays to teach preschool music to children. However, the COVID-19 global health pandemic forced McDonel’s students to conduct the sessions virtually.

It wasn’t ideal. “It was an adventure,” Wright said of the virtual visits.

“Getting their attention was difficult, especially over Zoom,” added Boothe, a senior from Henry, Virginia.

Some of the difficulty was alleviated when the university’s chapter of the Mu Phi Epsilon International Professional Music Fraternity held a fundraiser to purchase and donate props — scarves, shakers and such — to the RELC so the children there could play along with the Radford students over Zoom.

“That was a huge help,” Boothe said, but she and her fellow students had a desire to do more.

The following spring, Boothe, Wright and Rhoten, a senior from Big Stone Gap, Virginia, discussed their virtual teaching experiences, its challenges and how much they would love to be able to do it again, in person.

“The three of us were talking one day and said we’d really like to do an independent study so we could keep teaching at RELC,” explained Wright, sitting with Boothe on a couch in McDonel’s office. [Rhoten was out performing with a jazz band on the Bonnie Plaza.]  “We talked about it and came up with the idea of doing a special topics course instead. We built the course from the ground up and wrote our own syllabus with Dr. McDonel.”

Building a special topics course that focused on infant and toddler music guidance required a tremendous amount of work from the trio of students. The preparation included creating lesson plans and “a list of songs and chants of different tonalities and meters,” McDonel explained. For Wright, Boothe and Rhoten, all of whom have musical backgrounds and aspire to be music teachers in the pre-K-through-12 spectrum, the experience of creating curricula proved to be tremendously valuable.

And the theories they are learning in the classroom are coming to life each time they visit the children at RELC.

“They are seeing the stages of development in infants and toddlers very clearly,” McDonel said. “So, what they actually see out there at the Radford Early Learning Center really reinforces the book knowledge that they learn in class.

“I feel the actual curriculum, and going out to guide 3- and 4-year-olds, is a very rich experience for Farrah, Nichole and Matthew because they get to see theories in action, and that confirms what we are teaching them,” McDonel continued. “It's not just some pie in the sky; it's actually their boots on the ground and seeing what actually happens in kids’ music development.”

“And it's like, wow!” Wright chimed in.

A perfect example is Tinsley, an infant who didn’t respond right away to the music and sounds she was hearing when the Radford students visited. It was a challenge getting a response from her, but three weeks into the class, when Wright sang “sol-do” to Tinsley, the child responded with a “bom-bom” sound of her own. It wasn’t a mimic, which isn’t expected at her age, but a response. It was an unexpected but satisfying progression.

“I was like, ‘Oh my, it works, it really works,’” Wright said with excitement, referring to the methods she has learned in her music education courses.

McDonel’s students are seeing “it” work consistently and are witnessing the development stages of infants and toddlers each time they visit RELC.

“Getting to see their milestones is amazing,” Wright said. “We watched one child walk for the first time the other day, and then we also heard them sing for the first time. It’s so cool to be there for their milestones and see them develop into humans and see them develop as a musician. It’s just so fun!”

As the children develop, so too are Wright, Boothe and Rhoten. Through their experiences in music education courses and their hands-on experiences at the Radford Early Learning Center, they are blossoming into educators and preparing themselves to take on classrooms of their own next fall.

In many ways, they feel they are already there.

“We don’t have our licenses yet, but we are teachers, and their [children at RELC] musical development is in our hands,” Wright said. “I had a moment a few weeks ago when I looked at them [Farrah and Matthew] and said, ‘Y’all, we ARE teachers.

“We’re teaching now.’”

Dec 6, 2021
Chad Osborne