“Shake your maracas, shake your maracas …. “
The sound of percussion, accompanied by shrieking toddlers, echoed down 68th Street at 9:30 a.m. on a recent summer morning. Two blocks uptown from Lincoln Center and Juilliard’s chain-smoking pianists, three-inch shoes were scattered in a stroller-parking area outside the Early Ear. Founded by Dr. Ilya Lehman and his son Michael, Early Ear has shepherded about 15,000 progeny-oops … prodigies-through its music program for the very young since the first of three studios opened in 1992. Based on a more sophisticated program set up by Dr. Lehman in the Soviet Union in 1979, which was designed to teach perfect relative and harmonic pitch and have children accompanying themselves on the piano in any key by age 10, the U.S. version begins indoctrinating children at 4 months.
The classes, whose registration form asks “What is your child’s current nap time?”, are energy-packed, nonstop noise-fests utilizing every percussion instrument imaginable, including a pair of conga drums taller than nearly all of the students. When teacher Kamala Sankaram, a coloratura soprano who plays sitar and accordion and is working on her doctorate in clinical psychology, handed out wood blocks and mallets to the 2- and 3-year-olds during one Wednesday’s 12:15 p.m. class, the noise level rapidly crescendoed. (One may be forgiven for wondering if the whole point of plunging these children into the world of music is completely moot because every last person in the room will be deaf by the time the class is over.) Mercifully, no activity in the hyper-structured class ever lasts more than five minutes.
Leslie Mendelson’s class of 4- to 12-month-olds was much quieter, because when the wood blocks were passed out, two of seven children had their mallets in their mouths at any given time. The rest had a tendency to miss the instrument altogether. Xylophones were also dismantled and tasted by the class’s participants; the teacher asked the children’s (required) chaperones “Wet or dry?” while collecting instruments.
Ms. Mendelson, who sings, plays piano and guitar, and is currently recording an album while performing around the city (she really goes to town on “I Won’t Grow Up”), teaches all age groups in the Early Ear program. She is pragmatic about the benefit of music classes for kids who have just learned to sit up on their own. “If you wanna sing, that’s fine-if not, you’re 2, you just pooped in your diaper,” she said.
Sadie Imam, mommy to 10-month-old Kaden, said that although neither she nor her husband play an instrument, “we want Kaden to be musical.” Ms. Imam, who lives on the Upper West Side, admitted that many parents tote their infants to these classes because those with a baby at home “just want to get out.”
Classes can be quite a spectacle, what with babies rolling on the floor and toddlers and their attractive teachers jumping around the room. The large street-facing windows often attract gawkers, most of whom are cute old ladies and parents with strollers in tow. “Sometimes,” Ms. Mendelson noted, “there are these sketchy men that stop.”
Dr. Lehman, who has a Ph.D. in music from the Moscow Conservatory, explained his get-’em-while-they’re-young theory. The program’s first goal, he said, is to “open the world of music” for children as early as possible. A 4-month-old baby’s brain is “clear,” he said, and the child’s natural curiosity about new things can be capitalized on to create a desire for music, evoking “positive emotion” in a “stimulating environment.” While classes at the Early Ear begin at 4 months, mothers are encouraged to bring even younger babies to class with siblings who are already enrolled, and Dr. Lehman said he notices a difference in children whose mothers attended classes while pregnant.
Ultimately, the objective of the classes is to prepare children for private instruction by age 5, at which point Dr. Lehman insists they are “absolutely ready.” He noted that by age 3, they already have strong preferences for particular instruments. Ms. Mendelson agreed: “The funniest is when a kid says, ‘I want to play accordion-or tuba.'” Her reaction: “O.K., have fun.”
By age 3, said Dr. Lehman, the kids are “adults” who can play musical games, differentiate between the timbres of instruments and evaluate their peers. Their musical skills continue to develop from 4 to 5, when the program ends, and they are given more experience with instruments.
Dr. Lehman is anxious to patent his system and rants passionately about imitators.
“The most important point, that kids love you,” he said, and the Early Ear teachers seem to inspire oodles of affection. Accompanist Seiko Akita, a jazz pianist who plays at the Early Ear about 30 hours a week, has an ardent admirer in a tot named David, a flirt who clambers into her lap every chance he gets and throws his smudgy arms around her neck.
At Early Ear, pianists must be university-trained and able to sight-read, play by ear and transpose on the spot. Teachers must sing well and in tune, and by the end of training with Dr. Lehman-which he says can take over a year-they must be capable of “illustrating” at least 15 different instruments, including flute, oboe, saxophone, tuba, French horn, trumpet, accordion and harmonica. In other words, they can play “simple short songs or melodies” from memory on all 15 in front of a class.
Teachers aren’t the only performers. Around age 2, children are placed in front of the class to sing or play percussion instruments as “soloists.” Dr. Lehman said that this improves self-esteem and that it doesn’t matter if the performance is out of tune.
“For us, it is important that the child loves to participate,” he said. “No one criticizes the child; we compliment him. He is already a soloist, a person, an individual.”
“I bought a moving necklace at one of those little stores on West 27th Street,” my friend Edna said. “Tiny motors make the necklace crawl around your chest. It’s like a large, circular millipede, painted blue. I find its motion soothing.”
Edna thinks the store is called “Petey’s” (between Broadway and Sixth Avenue).