Participants in a new community outreach program by the Westminster Conservatory benefit from PNC Foundation grant.

Participants in a new community outreach program by the Westminster Conservatory benefit from PNC Foundation grant.

Children are sponges, parents will tell you. They quickly absorb languages of any world tongue and easily adapt to technology that puzzles adults. Youngsters are also known to learn to play musical instruments at a pace that older learners simply cannot match. In most cases, they simply need the exposure and the opportunity to learn.

A new community outreach program by the Westminster Conservatory and sponsored by a grant from the PNC Foundation is acclimating children as young as 2 months – too young to even hold a recorder, let alone a note – to the fundamental elements of music, such as rhyming and rhythms, and forming the base for more advanced musical learning. The results have been extraordinarily positive.

LuAnn Longenecker, the head of the Early Childhood Outreach Program for the Conservatory since 1995, works with these infants, as well as children up to 5 years of age, at the Millhill Child and Family Development Corporation in Trenton and the YWCA Child Care Center at Valley Road School in Princeton. Once a week, Longenecker meets with different groups at the two Mercer County centers to teach them music at an age-appropriate level.

The classes feature structured, teacher-directed activity, but allow for a good deal of open-ended exploration by students, according to Longenecker. “We give them opportunities to create,” she said.

Longenecker said the preschoolers in the program – children 3 to 5 – “take it about as far as you can go” at their stage of development.

“We have an orchestra, using cues that a conductor would use,” she said. “They recognize the P for piano (soft) and the F for forte (loud)”

The orchestra isn’t composed of the traditional orchestral pieces, Longenecker said, but rather, small hand percussion instruments like wood blocks that allow the students to keep a steady beat to different types of music. Selections range from classical to jazz to electronic music. They also sing as a group.

“The first couple times, it was a matter of them feeling relaxed enough where anything they did was acceptable,” Longenecker explained.

Before long, Longenecker had her preschoolers listen to Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony and asked them to pay specific attention to the sounds of toys used in the movement. “There are whistles and triangles and other sounds they recognize in the music,” she explained. “It’s best to start in their world.”

Longenecker then asked them to walk around the classroom to find objects that could also make a sound. The idea: to make their own toy symphony. One student brought back a plastic pot and spoon, while another retrieved an abacus from the school’s math center.

When they returned, the students described the sounds their object makes, and they were divided into categories, such as scraping, or percussion. “We played our own toy music,” recalled Longenecker, who served as their conductor. “It was really so beautiful, I could’ve cried.”

The student populations at Millhill Center and the Valley Road School are both composed primarily of underserved children, mostly from Trenton. Both programs do an exemplary job providing child care to families unable to afford it otherwise, but lack the budget for music curricula. That’s where the Westminster Conservatory – a part of the Westminster Choir College of Rider University – enters the picture. The program, funded by a grant from the PNC Foundation, provides for 10 months of on-site instruction and 10 months of teacher-training on site, as well as equipment including small musical instruments, CDs, picture books and coloring books.

PNC Foundation makes funds available for nonprofit organizations that improve children’s school readiness by providing support in one of the following key areas: social and emotional development, teacher training and arts and culture, in the hope of achieving greater results in school readiness, which will yield stronger, smarter and healthier children, families and communities.

Longenecker plays a vital role in this development. A member of the Westminster faculty for 19 years, she holds a Level 1 certificate in Orff-Schulwerk, a child-centered approach to music education that uses very rudimentary forms of everyday activities in the purpose of music creation by music students.

For the younger segment of students – infants and toddlers – the program consists of more elemental training. “I think the most important thing is to speak to them,” said Longenecker, who explained that nursery rhymes being sung to them gets the tots accustomed to hearing the human voice and the vocal model.

“I also play instruments so they can see me, and once they are old enough to sit up, they will turn their heads toward the sound,” she said. “We also have a big drum on the floor. At this point, it’s really about immersing them in a musical environment.”

While the obvious purpose of the program is to instill music into the lives of the children at Millhill and Valley Road School, Longenecker says that the benefits to the students extend beyond rhythm and melody. “Music is so important, but at the Conservatory, parents count on things that are not primary,” she said, citing the teamwork and sharing of instruments that occurs. “Much of what the children do is based on their collaborative effort – pulling together to make something on our own.”

Gratitude extended from the children’s families lets Longenecker know how deep the program is reaching into the lives of the students. Last week, one of the pre-K teachers at Millhill passed along some thanks from one child’s grandmother. “She said the grandmother told her, ‘We’ve seen such a change in that child since October,’” Longenecker said of the student, who had previously been rather withdrawn. “Now, they say he’s been singing our songs at home – and this is just in eight weeks.”

Longenecker said that while hers is a labor of love, she knows it would be impossible without the support of those who combined to make the program a reality. “I can’t begin to express my appreciation to Carol Burden at Westminster, Doreen Blanc (director of Corporate and Foundation Relations for the University), who worked to obtain this grant, and the folks at the PNC Foundation,” she said. “I hope they all know that this impacts children in ways you can’t imagine.”