When Robert Young was barely a year old, he could sing an entire octave. His tastes were diversified, ranging from "A Teddy Bear's Picnic" to "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." A prodigy? Not according to his mother.
"My whole philosophy is that music is not genetically passed on, it's the environment," says Barbara Young, who has become a pioneer in teaching music to toddlers in Britain, beginning when they are as young as two weeks old.
"A lot of people think babies can make only a few sounds, but he had an astonishing range of notes," she adds, showing a video of Robert as a small boy singing songs in almost perfect pitch. "My son could sing before he could talk.
"Giving the gift of music to all children is possible, but you have to start early."
A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music who plays the piano and the flute, Mrs. Young began teaching Robert, now 8, almost immediately after his birth. Her method was deceptively simple: She would sing the first part of a song to him leaving out a word or stanza, and he would eventually learn to sing it back.
Pretty soon, mother and child communicated verbally solely through the use of musical notes. "It's really good training," she says. "When a baby is born, their eyes are not very well developed, but they can hear beautifully. You should see their faces when you start singing to them."
Young points out that as children grow in a world that often includes two working parents, they lack the verbal attention that helps them develop into more-communicative and well-rounded adults.
The benefits of early music lessons are not only musical, she claims.
She now has three children of her own, all of whom sing and play instruments. But she says children who learn music from an early age also have better memory and concentration in school, longer attention spans, the ability to see patterns better in math, and utilize language skills better than their peers. And they learn music quickly and effortlessly, much as how small children acquire a second or third language.
When friends became interested in her methods and impressed by the effect they were having on her own children, Young decided to branch out. Today she teaches both infants and toddlers in rented rooms at a Methodist church in west London. Her classes go beyond parents' natural tendencies to expose their children to music by offering a structured environment. The classes also introduce more-complicated compositions.
This winter, Young's work won the Best Social Innovation in 1996 award presented by the British Institute for Social Invention, a coveted honor.
Classes for the infants primarily involve repetition of songs and nursery rhymes, with the parents (usually mothers, although a few fathers are involved) encouraged to provide physical rhythmic stimulation. Often the parent will tap the child's feet in tune with the music, and occasionally they will carry the child around the room and march or dance. Sometimes rag dolls and teddy bears are brought in as visual aids.
The older children (up to age 4) are taught to do more things independently, and actual speech is emphasized. The parents are also required to learn simple songs and melodies, which they are prompted to sing at home to accompany simple tasks.
" 'In the mouth it goes' - Mommy and Daddy are encouraged to sing along the scale every time Baby eats. Remember, after every nappy [diaper] change a little song, a little rhythm, a little something!" Young tells them. While some of the infants appear too sleepy or preoccupied to enjoy the lesson, most perk up when they hear Young play the piano or recorder, and they periodically break into peals of laughter when their parents sing to them as they perch in their laps.
Young says the majority of the parents are not interested in having their offspring develop into musical geniuses. For most, her classes provide an opportunity for their children to acquire simple verbal and listening skills, as well as a means for them to socialize with other parents.
"Alessandra actually was not making any sounds or anything, and I was a bit worried," says mother Dominique Tombazzi, who was attending a lesson with her seven-month-old daughter recently. "Since she has started the lessons, she has improved a lot. She really likes music. When she hears the piano, she starts to smile."
Mother Charlotte Berry says the class is simply good fun. "He loves it. He's really animated when he gets here," she says of nine-month-old James.
Susan Wood agrees. "He can sense the excitement in the room of the other kids all doing something together," she says of eight-month-old Fergus, who was chattering and laughing throughout the class. "It helps me learn how to get his attention. I sing him songs all day, and they always bring a smile to his face. It's brilliant."
Several years ago Young traveled to Jyvskyl, Finland, a country which has a tradition of early music training. There she picked up hints about baby massage, eye and ear focusing, and other methods that are largely absent in Britain.
Her dream now is to start her own institute in London, and she hopes someday to get a grant to realize her ideals. "We're not here to produce prodigies; that's not what we're about," she says modestly. "These are just hothouse classes, giving children the gift of the chance to enjoy music."