Rattle, tap, stomp and sing: Toddler programs craft music for the very young

Music Together
Megan V. Winslow / Los Altos Town Crier
The Music Together toddler classes in Los Altos load kids up with bells to jingle and tunes to try, while encouraging parents to play along. Teacher Drew Wanderman, center in blue, teaches families to bring singing into everyday life.

 Life is like a year-round summer season for very young children and their parents, who stitch together multiweek programs and one-off library events like so many college electives.

When it comes to toddlers, dance, music, nature or art must be taught with a strong allowance for chaos - but families still seek out a place to learn with their peers. Three local music programs build from early absorption and pandemonium to more sophisticated engagement with summer and year-round classes.

Building a language of music

If you tiptoe down the back pathway at Los Altos Lutheran Church on a typical morning, you may hear the bell-jingling, stick-tapping, drum-booming cacophony of a Music Together toddler class. The songs, chants and instrumental jam sessions teach participants to "speak music" from the time they are babies, using the building blocks of movement and rhythm.

Some of the stereotypes about toddler music ring true - songs are pitched high for young voices and ears, lyrics are often repetitive and animals feature heavily. Yet programs like Music Together emphasize sophisticated tonalities and meters that sound neither saccharine nor overly familiar. In addition to learning musical building blocks such as matching a beat and echoing a melody, toddler ears are ready to drink in musical modes in varying scales and hauntingly different time signatures.

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Sam Yuan, left, leads a posse of toddler dancers at a Music Together class in Los Altos. He graduated from watching to jamming over time.

"Most children’s music sounds similar, and it’s kind of obnoxious - not musically diverse," noted Drew Wanderman, who teaches Music Together in Los Altos on Wednesday mornings. "Most kids’ music is in major scales and 4:4 rhythm. Music Together purposely mixes it up - every collection will have at least one or two songs or chants in an unusual meter like 5 or 7."

By using songs with tonalities from Asian, Latin American or African musical traditions, Wanderman’s classes include the musical equivalent of multilingual language development.

"Those will become something they’re more accustomed to, and they won’t be surprised if they hear those rhythms later," she said.

"Understanding musical genres is a matter of exposure - if you don’t expose at a very young age, things sound foreign and less relatable at a later age," said Ronit Widmann-Levy, director of arts and culture at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

The JCC’s new Little Mozarts music program pairs the youngest learners with professional musicians and mixes adult music with preschooler percussion.

Nataliya Arditi/Special to the Town Crier
Hands-on experience with instruments and dramatic play bring pieces like “Peter and the Wolf” to life at the JCC.

"Little Mozarts was created to bring kids into the world of music," Widmann-Levy said, which includes not just exposing children to different instruments and letting them try them, but also letting the preschoolers "listen to big pieces while being encouraged to play with their imagination, and learn the storyline that a certain piece will lend itself to."

In preschool-aged music classes at Mountain View’s Community School of Music and Arts, wooden xylophones tuned to the pentatonic scale play no wrong notes as youngsters clong on them with a mallet’s soft head or tap them with the point of the stick.

"It’s not about playing specific notes until they’re 4 or 5," said Christina Stein, one of CSMA’s preschool music teachers.

When the students play along to African or American folk songs, Stein noted, it’s all about rhythm.

"That’s something a little kid can start to do right away, and you can see that they know they’re playing music and connecting with it," she said.

According to Wanderman, most people have "this unconscious musical feeling."

"I think it comes from childhood - if you’re exposed to many kinds of music as a child, you get that feeling," she said. "You can study music as a subject, but you have to be exposed to music as a kid to really feel it."

Although music educators interviewed for this article agreed that humans are born innately musical, they also uniformly identified one necessity for children who thrive in the world of music: parents willing to put themselves, and their own dubious sense of pitch, onstage.

Making music at home

Sharon Kenney/Special to the Town Crier
Music classes at CSMA progress preschoolers toward more formal theory gradually over time, while emphasizing hands-on fun, too.

"I think of myself as really being primarily a parent educator," Wanderman said of her toddler music classes, which require a parent partner with each child. "I’m only with them once a week - if this is all the music they get in their life, it’s not going to do a lot in 45 minutes. The whole point is to teach the parents to do music at home."

Some children start attending her class as babies not yet able to walk. Their primary job in class is to jiggle and wiggle along as parents perambulate the room, dancing like fools and singing even when they don’t really know the words.

"Sam went from sitting on my lap, being a passive recipient of all that was going on at 12 months, to walking around with the older kids, exploring the musical instruments," recalled Sylvia Yuan, who turns out each Wednesday morning with her youngest son. "I myself have been reminded by the class and Teacher Drew how music can be such a natural part and joy of daily life. And the program’s implementation of many tricks in adapting music to little kids - like repetitions, inserting the kids’ names into songs, making movements along with music and changes in music - has been educational."

Learning how to bring music to life, fearlessly and frequently, might be the core lesson in Music Together. A young child’s symphony hall is the parental improvisation found in cars, kitchens and bathtimes.

"I go around the circle and have everyone sing a verse, I tell everyone to dance and I’m modeling changing the words - singing about what you see around you," Wanderman said. "Children love it when you incorporate singing into your daily life - how to get them into the car, to brush their teeth."

What starts with observation sinks in and flowers as a child chooses his or her own ways to tap, hum or dance along.

"It goes from copying and modeling to a sense of being really independent with these concepts," said Heather Paisar, CSMA’s music classes program coordinator.

Ina Johnson/Special to the Town Crier
At CSMA, world and folk music combines with classics to offer varied tonalities and engage imaginations.

Children as young as 18 months start in CSMA’s Little Musicians program, and finding their voice begins with seeing a trusted adult let loose and warble.

"For me, one of the really interesting things about these classes is to see how the parents interact, and see how they adapt to using their voice in a public setting - which is not always comfortable for them, but is awesome for the child to get used to using their voice in that capacity, without any fear or restraint," Paisar said.

Wanderman said most kids, when they start, are going to just want to watch.

"It’s a new environment, they don’t know what to expect here, and kids really need to absorb something before they can express it," she said. "Even when they’re running around and don’t look like they’re paying attention, they’re so aware of what is happening."

She has seen a student who quietly watched class after class, never feeling quite ready to join, ultimately go home and teach the entire class to stuffed animals, down to imitating his teacher’s mannerisms from individual songs. The point, she said, is that even those quieter kids have been given the chance, week after week, to find their own fit with the music through steady modeling and exposure.

"In cultures where people do a lot of singing and dancing for their own benefit - where it’s a big part of their life - children reach basic music competence much earlier than here," Wanderman said. "By 2 or 3, those children are singing a tune and can keep a beat. Around here, some people never get that. We all have that in us - but it doesn’t always have the opportunity to get expressed."

That doesn’t mean Silicon Valley denizens are doomed, merely that they may need to self-create some of the community context. Sing when nobody else is around, in the car or when reading nursery rhymes. Music Together sends parents home with books and CDs each session, to teach basics to those starting the process from scratch.

A musical progression

Nataliya Arditi/Special to the town Crier
In addition to music classes, the JCC offers family-friendly productions of classics like “Peter and the Wolf.”

As toddlers grow into a sense of their own voices and bodies, programs like those at CSMA and the JCC play with the musical potential of children working together.

"A lot of us walk in the world doing our own thing and not paying attention to the other," the JCC’s Widmann-Levy said. "Having kids play together encourages empathy. Maybe you’re not playing at the same time your friend is because you’re listening. You wait (until) a little after, or maybe you blend in with something softer, something you feel enhances. The other kid has to take what they are doing and add a layer of you, the other."

When an intimate little group of 4-year-olds plays together, watching to anticipate a next move and listening for changing sound, there’s a context, or a subtext, to the skills of musicianship that applies to larger life. The ability to focus on yourself and listen to others - and not feel as though you must choose between the two - applies to children who play music together, and those who just play together.

"Music creates new synapses in the brain, it creates a sense of well-being in the world and inspires kids to think freely. To immerse them in different disciplines as music guides them through it is an amazing tool," Widmann-Levy said. "It’s harder to teach an adult these techniques, but for kids, it’s very clear. A lot of times they’ll take that skill and be able to analyze other things, in very simple terms, and not arrive at the place where a lot of adults are."

At the JCC, students compose micro-pieces and perform for the class, analyze music for its speed or emotion and even paint what they’re hearing as part of the hands-on, whole-body analysis of making music.

At CSMA, Stein intersperses world and folk music explicitly written with an eye for children with iconic classical music that lends itself to story. Children can tiptoe around the room as a "king" sleeps at their center before the boom! that punctuates Haydn’s "Surprise Symphony," or use scarves and ribbons to float along with the aquarium in Camille Saint-Saens’ "Carnival of the Animals."

Young musicians who are too little to take lessons on a select instrument or study it "seriously" are the perfect age to hold those exact same instruments and make some serious noise. At both the JCC and CSMA, students are encouraged to pick up a bow and try a cello after seeing how it is played, and to experiment with other instruments as big as they are.

"I don’t know who’s more surprised, the child or the parent, when this little person can blow on the tuba and make a huge sound," Stein said.

For more information on Music Together, visit

For more information on CSMA, visit

For more information on music programs at the JCC, visit k

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