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Watching moms get funky can get babies into the groove

by Danielle Demetriou

My baby is staring at me in shock. This may be something to do with the fact that I am hopping in a circle on one leg, shaking a ring of jingly bells in each hand and singing nonsensical sounds.

This is admittedly not normal behavior for me. But I have a good excuse for such a lapse in conduct: I am taking part in a particularly colorful parent-and-baby music class.

Babies are undoubtedly talented when it comes to anything noise-related — from stretching their vocal cords, through screaming, to enjoying the sound of bowls hitting the floor after hurling them from their high chairs.

And so music classes appear to be the perfect outlet for babies, in particular for those who — like my own 10-month old— love nothing more than making a racket.

The class I decide to sample is based on the Music Together program, a type of teaching that began 26 years ago in the United States and is based on the principle that every child is musical.

Key to the concept is parent participation, the idea being that the adults sing and dance in a fun playful fashion — and after their bemused children get over their initial shock, they imitate them.

Today, there are Music Together centers in 2,000 communities across the world, including 40 across Japan — my destination being the Ochiai Music Together Programme in Tokyo.

Making our way on a Thursday morning to the sunny studio in a quiet lane in Tokyo’s Mejiro district, I confess that I am feeling a little apprehensive about what might unfold.

This is not exclusively due to concerns related to my daughter Kiko— such as whether she will scream nonstop, require an ill-timed nappy change or hit other children over the head with musical instruments. Instead, my primary concern is triggered by those two dreaded words “parent participation” — conjuring awkward images of myself sheepishly impersonating trees in the wind or trying to remember the words to nursery rhymes.

I needn’t have worried. Fortunately the teacher Gillian Hudson Okuma is a pro when it comes to luring parents into doing silly things in the most natural and comfortable of fashions.

First, I join mothers and their babies, aged between 12 months and 2 years, sitting in a circle on a blanket on the floor of the studio, as Gillian reveals the ground rules: “All you have to do is copy me. That’s it. The children will copy you naturally. Don’t force your children to move in a certain way, they will do so eventually on their own.”

And then she launches into a series of sounds and songs — clapping her hands and hitting the ground to create a beat as she sings a welcome greeting to every child in the room. I struggle to keep up with her singing but find myself hitting the floor enthusiastically in time to the beat with a tentatively smiling Kiko.

Next — the music begins. A rich folk-like melody washes over the studio, bringing to mind “Fiddler on the Roof” in the process (I later learn it’s the kind of music played at Jewish weddings).

As we all stand up, the babies and children stop their perpetual moving for a magical moment — and proceed to gawp at their parents copying Gillian’s gentle twirls, shakes, shimmies, hops and jumps.

An angelic 1-year-old breaks into a smile as she attempts to imitate her mother, while an energetic 2-year-old boy charges excitedly around grownups. Kiko remains unusually still and continues to stare at me.

Eventually, I forget to feel silly as it seems the songs and the dances are designed to feel like a natural extension of how many parents would normally play with their kids.

Further highlights of the next 45 minutes range from rummaging through a brilliantly colorful pile of percussion equipment for some freestyle music-making to the “hippity happity hoppity” song which ties my tongue in knots.

A little more challenging is the Apache dance, involving lots of toe-tapping, foot stomping and hopping around in a circle on one leg — much to the delight of my daughter, who by this stage has thankfully stopped staring and is giggling loudly.

“This is not for professional singers but for normal people,” says the ever calm and smiling Gillian, who is surprisingly energetic despite being seven months pregnant.

“Anyone can sing and dance. We use music from around the world — calypso, Cuban, African — and it can have such a positive effect on babies and children.”

And judging by Kiko’s transformation from staring in confusion to laughing in delight as she rummaged through the pile of percussion stuff — it certainly worked for her.

There are more than 40 Music Together centers operating across Japan. Ochiai Music Together runs classes at three venues in Shinjuku-ku and Nakano-ku. Lessons cost from ¥20,000 for eight classes. For more information visit www.ochiaimusictogether.com or the main website www.musictogether.com. Gillian will be off this summer after having a baby but will resume teaching from the autumn.