My eldest daughter, Boo, just started voice lessons with Mrs. A., who ten years ago (though it seems like only yesterday) led our mommy and me sing-and-play Kindermusik classes. My memories of those days are hazy, lost in a postpartum fog evolutionarily designed to make me forget the sleep deprivation, delivery recovery, and breastfeeding discomfort. I do clearly remember, though, the lifeline of sanity those classes supplied.
I’m still not sure if those classes were more for me or my daughter. While the other moms and I were ostensibly singing, playing, rolling, exercising, and rocking our babies, I think we adults were also developing in new ways. I learned that babies respond more to high voices than low, and that music could be used in household routines to clue babies in to when to wake up, when to play, when to wind down, and when to sleep. I learned more about my daughter’s laid-back personality as I watched her interact with other children.
I also there are learned more ways to rock a baby than I ever thought possible. There’s the traditional rock-a-bye baby-hold, with the baby horizontal on her back in your arms, just swaying. Yet I also learned to hold my daughter sitting upright and to rock her swaying left and right, or forward and back. I reluctantly tried holding her face down with two arms, swinging her back and forth as if she was an airplane. I enjoyed another version of baby airplane where I reclined on the floor and bent my knees, put my daughter face down on my bent legs and rocked her back and forth—provoking excited squeals from her and getting myself a good abdominal workout.
These parts of music class were essentially about developing kinesthetic awareness in both babies and moms. It helped the child’s vestibular system for balance and orientation. It helped the baby’s neurons make connections between the right and left hemispheres of their brains every time we moved their left hand to their right foot and vice versa. It helped develop both mom’s and baby’s emotional intelligence through bonding. And, as Boo grew older, it helped both of us develop intra-personal intelligence when my daughter started to really hear the music, listen to the words, and talk to me about what feelings those songs evoked.
I remember one time so vividly. Boo was three. She sighed as the chords of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” started to play in the car.
“Mommy, do we have to listen to the sad songs right now?” she asked.
“What do you mean, sad songs?”
“Well, after this one is the one about the birds over the rainbow.”
She was referring to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which did indeed come next on the CD my friend had compiled for me.
“Why do you think they’re sad?” I asked.
“Because the men sound like they want to cry.”
I thought about her answer and listened to the mens’ voices. Armstrong’s rasp did sound like it was holding back a sob. And though Kamakawiwo’ole’s voice was higher, it quavered. Yet the instruments and the lyrics made me disagree.
“You know, honey, I don’t know if those songs are sad. I think they’re more . . . hopeful.”
“Because of the words. The first man is singing about all the things he loves about the world—the trees, the flowers, babies, friends—and it makes him think that we live in a wonderful place. And the second man is singing about a lovely land where all our dreams come true.”
“But the men are sad, mommy, because they don’t have those things,” she said. “Just like I know that my grandpa is in Pennyslvania, but he’s not here right now, and I miss him very much, and it makes me sad when I want to be with him but he’s not here.”
My father-in-law had left us two weeks before, but this was the first time my daughter mentioned missing him. I’m sure her sadness had been there all along, but music gave her the inspiration and the opening to express those emotions.
“We’ll get to see him again soon when we make our visit in June,” I told her.
“But that’s a long time away, and I miss him now,” she replied.
“I know, honey. And what you’re hearing and feeling from these songs is a special kind of sadness. It’s called ‘longing.’ That means feeling sad because you want something that you know is out there but you can’t have right away.”
“I know ice cream is out there and you almost never let me have it, but I don’t feel sad like this,” she said.
“Well, that’s because you don’t love ice cream like you love your grandpa.”
“I guess so. I’ll have to call grandpa and tell him that I love him more than ice cream!” When we got home, we did just that.
This conversation with my child was the first of many that showed me music’s unwavering power to allow us to access and express our deepest feelings in the most profound ways. When Boo was three, it was a way to begin to emotionally process the concept of love and longing. Yet as I sat outside listening to her voice lesson, I realized music was now helping her process entirely different, and perhaps more complicated, pre-teen, intra-personal emotional realities that had less to do with family and more to do with her peers.
Boo walked in to her first lesson having decided to sing “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid. Mrs. A. decided right off that song was too simple for her, and wanted something a little more challenging. She asked if she’d ever heard the song “Brave” by Sara Bareills. Then they started singing it together, and Boo agreed that she would like to work on that song.
So the next week of voice lessons I sat on the couch and heard my normally quiet, shy, soft-spoken little girl belt out: “Say what you wanna say/ And let the words fall out/ Honestly, I wanna see you be brave/ With what you want to say/ And let the words fall out/ Honestly I wanna see you be brave . . .”
Granted, she didn’t hit all the high notes, but there wasn’t an ounce of tremble in her voice. And when she came out of that music room she was beaming.
“I’m developing my head voice, mom! That’s the voice that’s going to let me sing that song the way I need to sing it.”
“And what way is that?”
I thought she was going to say “loudly.” But she didn’t.
She said, “Powerfully.”
“Why powerfully?” I asked.
“Because the song is about learning how to let your words be powerful. How not to let what other people say get you down. You know when she sings, ‘Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do/When they settle ‘neath your skin/ Kept on the inside and no sunlight/ Sometimes a shadow wins?’
“Well, yes . . .” I started to say before I was cut off.
“Yeah. Well I think that means that sometimes people say really mean things to you, and you let them become part of who you are, but because they’re negative they make you negative toward yourself and the darkness starts creeping into your heart. And that happens with people at school sometimes, mom. Kids will say nasty things and they may not even mean them. They may just be in a bad mood and it comes out. But when we hear that stuff it’s like it goes straight to our hearts and it hurts.”
“It’s always easier to believe bad things people say to or about us.”
“And the song says that, right? When she sings, ‘Everybody’s been there/ Everybody’s been stared down by the enemy/ Fallen for the fear and/ Done some disappearing,/ Bow down to the mighty/Don’t run, just stop holding your tongue.” It means we all feel like this sometimes, but we can’t disappear or run away or let these feelings silence our true voices.
“You’re really internalizing this song,” I said, but I was beaming on the inside.
“Well, it’s more like the song is helping me say what I already have inside. I have always been the quiet kid, and the song says, ‘And since your history of silence/ Won’t do you any good,/ Did you think it would?/ Let your words be anything but empty/ Why don’t you tell them the truth?’ It’s like, well, why be quiet about it and take it and make the bad feelings a part of you when you can just speak up and really say something that might help everyone get through difficult times.”
“So this isn’t just about standing up to people who are mean to you?” I asked, remembering my own experience with bullies when I was about her age. Emotional and physical self-defense should have been a required course in New York City public schools starting in Kindergarten. But my daughter wasn’t growing up where, or the way, I did.
“No. It’s not. It’s about being yourself and just telling it like it is, not letting other people’s ideas or opinions get inside your heart, but speaking out so your words and opinions might get inside theirs and change them. Didn’t your writer’s group friend say, sometimes, that people have to learn to “speak their truth?” That if it’s yours, no one can take it away from you, so you have to be strong enough to say it?”
“Is that what bravery is?” I asked. “Speaking your truth?”
“Absolutely.” Boo said. “It’s hard to overcome the fear of what others think of you or what they might say. But bravery starts by believing that you have something to contribute that’s worth hearing, that will help other people be kinder to each other and happier about themselves.”
At that point her sister chimed in something about cats, because that’s all Critter really wants to talk about nowadays, anyway. But I emerged from that car-time yet again stunned at how this music, with this particular teacher, was not just helping develop my daughter’s vocal chords but also helping her process thoughts and emotions that almost seem far too advanced for a pre-teen to grasp.
I remember when I was her age and I thought that every mean thing said, every dark glare, every snippy response, was meant to hurt me. I was so incredibly solipsistic and selfish, so it amazes me how my daughter already understands her peers are going through things that are sometimes influencing them to behave in ways that have nothing to do with her. Sometimes a classmate’s glare is just an unguarded moment when a frustrated child is staring off into space. Sometimes a mean-seeming phrase is just a misunderstanding. Sometimes a snippy response comes from a bad mood that has nothing to do with anyone in class. Bariells’ song, which to me is about standing up to bullies, is to her a song about being yourself in the face of negative comments and hoping that will influence others to do the same.
There is so much bullying going on in the world that we are, rightly so, making our children hyperaware of it. We are encouraging them to stand up for themselves and others. We are telling them not to tolerate another person being treated badly. We are making sure they know they do not have to cower in the face of physical or emotional abuse. Yet we also need to teach them compassion and empathy for each other—to recognize the difference between an abusive peer and one who is just having a bad day. Sometimes bravery means standing up for someone who is hurting. Sometimes it means standing up for yourself. Sometimes it means telling the truth even when the truth is scary. But sometimes it means not taking everything to heart; not letting every little thing penetrate your skin; fearlessly and unashamedly being who you are and letting that essence of self-respect carry you joyfully through your day no matter what others say or do–and in the process modeling the way for others to do the same.
My wish, then, is just like Bareills’. I want to see all of us be brave.