There's a joyful noise often heard from a classroom off Bahama Lane -- where early childhood music classes feel more like a colorful play date than academic lessons.
Music Together in the Keys looks like fun and games, but the internationally acclaimed program teaches babies and toddlers -- and the adults who love them -- sophisticated musical concepts while wiring their brains for overall success.
Longtime Key Wester and musician Libby Curtis brought the program here in 2009. Music Together in the Keys earned an Emily Boyd Lowe Music Fund grant award in May.
"I raised my three children in Key West and was very aware of how little was available for infants and toddlers," Curtis said. "When I learned of the Music Together program, I became fired up to offer it in the Keys. I knew I'd found the most beautifully prepared curriculum and wanted all the infants and toddlers to have this opportunity."
This year, Curtis will debut Music Together's "Big Kids" classes, for 5- to 7-year-olds, to be held after school. Parent attendance is welcome but not required.
Curtis also provides free Music Together classes at Wesley House's Inez Martin Child Development Center and as an outreach program at Key West Health & Rehabilitation Center.
Learning through play
Tuesday morning in St. Paul's Rectory, babies watched from their mothers' laps as toddlers and adults waved colorful scarves, played maracas and other multicolored, "ruggerized" instruments, drummed the floor, marched and danced in time to the catchy Music Together songs.
Without knowing it, the children are learning the nuts and bolts of their culture's musical structure through play, which research shows is more effective than traditional, by-the-book lessons.
Some of the 2- and 3-year-olds then screamed with delight as a giant parachute was gently lofted in rhythm over their heads.
Though two of Curtis' sons now have careers in music, the program isn't meant to foster prodigies or create professional musicians.
Composer and musician Ken Guilmartin, who founded the original Music Together program with music professor Lili Levinowitz in 1987, notes it's about so much more.
"Nurturing a child's innate musicality as early as possible provides a foundation for later success in many areas," Guilmartin says on musictogether.com.
For optimum brain stimulation, children must actively participate in music and associated movement by age 7, recent research confirms.
"It's expanded his mind in so many other areas," said Lucy Simonton, mother of 3-year-old Ambrose, before Wednesday's class.
Simonton, who has lived in Key West for two years, has been bringing Ambrose to Music Together in the Keys classes since last fall.
The weekly classes are held in the historical rectory behind St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 404 Duval St., off Bahama Lane.
Hadyn Riley, 3, now bids farewell to people in three-part tonal patterns he learned in class, said mother Lisa Riley. Hadyn happily sang his goodbyes after Tuesday's class.
Pete Kammerer, father of 8-month-old Madelyn, says she responds to music more and more -- in and outside of class.
"She kicks and reacts to music at home much more than before Music Together classes, when she just passively heard it," he said.
Not just for kids
It's the philosophy of enjoying music that fosters the brain connections, and teaching caregivers how to repeat the experience outside class that reinforces it.
During the 45-minute classes, the toddlers may toddle, the babies may mouth the colorful (always sanitized) tambourines or bells, or they may simply stare at the dancing and singing adults like they're crazy.
It's all part of the process. Parent involvement is crucial to the learning process, for children instinctively listen for their caregiver's voice -- even if that parent has a voice only a child could love.
"Many parents may not realize that they are their child's most important music teachers -- even if they don't consider themselves musical. It is not important that caregivers sing or move perfectly; what matters is that they model the enjoyment of making music," Guilmartin explains.
Music Together endeavors to create "positive musical experiences" for children, which includes hands-on learning.
"We introduce children to the pleasures of actively making music, which is critical for their music development," Guilmartin said. "Children cannot learn about music by simply listening to it. The true power is in 'doing the music.'"
More than that, music binds families and supports culture -- as it's been doing since caveman times.
Curtis also credits her employees for making Music Together in the Keys successful.
"Of course it takes good teachers, and I've been absolutely blessed to have great teachers who are also passionate about offering this fun-filled program to families," she said.
Sondra Esquinaldo, a fifth-generation Conch, has been teaching the course since 2005; Molly Miles, who has a bachelor's in family and child welfare from Kaplan University, started teaching Music Together classes in 2011. Miles, no relation to Citizen Business Editor Mandy Miles, has lived in Key West four years.
Stacy Rodriguez, a former Citizen editor, also recently joined the ranks.
The registered teachers successfully completed a rigorous three-day training.
Early education specialists Guilmartin and Levinowitz developed the Music Together program in the '80s. It's now taught in more than 2,000 communities in 40 countries.
It pioneered the concept of a research-based early childhood music curriculum that emphasizes adult participation, according to its website.
The program's millions of fans include celebrities: Chris Rock, Billy Joel, Amy Poehler, James Cameron, Cyndi Lauper, Billy Baldwin, Chynna Phillips and Brooke Burke, among others, have enrolled their own children in Music Together classes over the years.
Visit www.musictogetherinthekeys.com for more information.