Keith MacDonald's daughter, Samara, had not yet celebrated her first birthday when she was enrolled in her first music class. She couldn't walk or talk, but she recognized rhythms after her first few sessions with Music Together in the Keys, said MacDonald, who has been taking Samara to the class for more than two years.
"Initially she was very intent on just watching what was happening in the class, but she wasn't really participating," he said. "But then, just as the instructors predicted, it was amazing to see her respond to and recognize the songs from class when we played them on the CD at home."
Music Together is an early-childhood music program for newborns to 4-year-olds that focuses on the belief that all children are born musical, and that musical influences during the key period of early development in babies and toddlers contribute to their mental development.
Libby Curtis, a longtime Key West mother and former professional musician, launched the program about three years ago, but emphasized that it is not designed to create musicians and performers, but rather to cultivate music lovers and "open up a realm in the child's development that could otherwise be left untouched."
"Music is such an advantage if it's started early," she said, adding that Key West parents for years asked her how they could expose their child to music if they themselves were not musically inclined.
Curtis and her husband are both trained musicians who regularly made music with their children, two of whom went on to become performers and songwriters.
"Parents of babies always knew music was important, but if they weren't musical, they didn't know how to expose their kids to it," Curtis said.
While music was always prevalent in her home, Curtis would suggest that other parents simply expose their children to all types of music, from classical and jazz to rock and reggae.
"But when I discovered the Music Together program, it was like a light went off because it was everything I didn't know to say, and that is that every human is born musical."
The program was created in 1987 in New Jersey by Lili Levinowitz, who has a doctorate in early childhood music education and teaches at Rowan University in Glassboro, and Ken Guilmartin, a composer and founder of the Center for Music and Young Children in Princeton. Their combined research has shown that musical education and exposure contributes to cognitive and vocal development as well as movement, rhythm and motor skill development. Music Together programs exist throughout the world, Curtis said.
"If you lived in New York, you'd have 10 different Music Together programs meeting throughout the city, but all doing the same curriculum, singing the same songs and making the same music," Curtis said.
She acknowledged that marketing the program is difficult because parents tend to wait until their child can at least walk or talk before they spend money on a music program.
"But I've had babies in here as young as 2 weeks old," she said.
Curtis had been bringing her toddler -- while pregnant with her second child who later joined the program -- to the 45-minute weekly sessions that are held in a colorful room inside the rectory of St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Duval Street. Parents choose between Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday morning sessions.
The curriculum teaches parents to move in rhythm with their infants while tapping out a gentle rhythm on their bellies. Toddlers sing songs and play instruments during the class, which always opens with the same "Hello, Everybody" song and ends with the "Goodbye Song" that the kids start to recognize immediately.
The $165 tuition includes 10 sessions, a family songbook and two CDs of the songs the kids hear in class.
"We want parents to learn to make music with their children, not just listen to it," Curtis said. "So if a mother is in a kitchen making dinner, the child can be on the floor banging out a tune with a wooden spoon and a pot. And the mom joins in by tapping a knife on the countertop. Everyone is musical, and this is so important for children's development."
She added that "everyone starts out a little skeptical about the program's value at such a young age, but the developmental benefits are scientifically proven."
MacDonald is one parent who is convinced of the program's value.
"As we stayed in the program on Saturday mornings, she became more and more involved, and now she knows the songs better than I do when we play the CD in the car," he said. "I've seen a huge change in all the kids in our group, and the instructors are great at giving kids their own space, instead of an institutional type of thinking that everyone has to be doing the same thing at the same time."
Samara, who turned 3 on March 11, and her dad will attend the spring session that starts this week. MacDonald and his wife bought some of the same instruments -- bells, chimes and rhythm sticks -- that are used in the class.
"At least once a week, Samara runs up to me with an instrument and we end up marching around the house making music," he said.