The old joke in Shari Lewis's family was that she started learning piano so young, there was a booster seat on the piano bench.
"My mother was one of six music coordinators for the New York City Board of Education, and she plunked me down so early ... age 2," says Ms. Lewis.
But it wasn't until she was older that she "found music heaven" - in New York City's High School of Music and Art.
Today, Lewis is well known for many things pleasing to the ears, from children's entertainment to conducting symphony orchestras worldwide. She's won the Outstanding Children's Performer Emmy Award five years in a row for "Lamb Chop's Play-Along" on PBS.
Most recently, her endeavors have gone back to basics in music education.
Enter "The Charlie Horse Music Pizza," a national daily television program that debuts Monday on PBS (check local listings). The 20-episode series is designed to engage children ages 3 through 8 in the world of music. Another 20 episodes are slated for the fall.
The Music Pizza is a pizza parlor on the beach where local kids come to hang out. Lewis is joined by her sidekicks Charlie Horse, Lamb Chop, and Hush Puppy, and some new friends: Fingers (a raccoon), Take Out (a gymnastically inclined orangutan played by Chancz Perry), chef Cookie (Dom DeLuise), and Junior (Wezley Morris). Lewis's daughter, Mallory Tarcher, is the show's executive story editor and creative supervisor.
Each episode features a plot with original songs and a thread of solid music education. Lewis likens the program to the sitcom "Cheers" except that the pizza parlor serves up music to kids. "The kids who flock there love to make it and move to it and listen to it," Lewis says.
In one episode called "Wise Queen," children learn that there is no "best" in music. "You can love and listen to all kinds of music," Lewis explains during a phone interview. (However, she says, a steady diet of just rock, country, and rap doesn't make kids musically literate. Classical music is essential.) In another episode titled "My Dog Has Fleas," kids learn about stringed instruments - what loosening and tightening strings does.
"Children are unblocked; they like any kind of music as long as it is lively. And it's never too young to start," Lewis says.
She points out that recent studies, such as one by the University of California at Irvine, have shown that music lessons enhance children's learning. "My mother knew music mattered," Lewis says, "but she didn't know why." Music education not only stimulates children's ability to focus and learn, but it also helps them develop physical coordination and sets the stage for a life lesson: To be good at something takes steady work, but the better the effort the better the reward.
Similarly, kids find out that they can start out knowing "nothing," and if they stick to it, they will "get it," Lewis says. That I-can-do-it feeling is a strong and well-developed instinct in children who have participated in music.
Yet, she cautions, we are raising a generation of spectators, not doers, where kids watch sports instead of playing them and buy their music instead of making it. "Making music is very different than just listening," Lewis says.
Just as kids get turned on to basketball and shoot hoops for hours, we want to turn kids on to their musical potential, Lewis says. And parents need to respond joyously to their progress. "We're making music exciting," Lewis says, adding that ultimately a child's real desire to study music should be met with a good teacher.
Lewis predicts that other television shows will crop up featuring music education. "I consider that fabulous. PBS leads the rest to a higher ground."
As her mother used to say, "Wouldn't the woods be silent if only the best birds sang?"