Leslie Kowalski's Kindermusik program helps young children start off on the right note.
By Jeff Berg
Leslie Kowalski has some little lambs. Lots of them.
Around 160 preschool kids are enrolled in her Musical Beginnings classes, which are part of the internationally known Kindermusik program.
"Banjo Bob" (Bob Burns) visits Kindermusik for the
Young Child (ages 5-7) class.
One of her reasons for wanting to teach (mostly) preschoolers about music is because she feels her generation has lost touch with things such as the old Mother Goose-type nursery rhymes, an idea that doesn't sit too well with her.
"Because of television, we have become a 'sitting on the porch' culture," Kowalski states emphatically.
The owner and lead teacher of the Las Cruces-based Musical Beginnings, Kowalski uses the Kindermusik curriculum for early childhood music development. The program is designed to help youngsters improve cognitive, social, physical, language and of course musical skills, among others.
The energetic and expressive Kowalski got involved in the program when she was in Houston, where she lived before relocating with her family to Las Cruces about 15 years ago. "I was teaching music in Houston, and wanted something that would focus on early childhood," says the mother of twin girls. "I wanted something that my girls could benefit from."
Prior to starting her program, Kowalski taught music in the public-school system for 14 years. She has a master's degree in music from the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Musical Beginnings has proven so successful for her that she is adding an extra day of classes, along with an added location for the classes, in mid-January.
"We will have a grand opening of the new location at the Sonoma Springs Presbyterian Church. It has been a couple of years in the planning," she says. Her current setting is at the University United Methodist Church, 2000 Locust. Musical Beginnings has a staff of three, two of whom are music educators holding day jobs with the Las Cruces Public Schools.
Kindermusik began in the 1960s, when a group of West German music teachers put together a program of music geared for young children. In the 1970s, due to its popularity, the courses were translated to English and brought to the US. Kindermusik has continued to catch on, and is now in 35 countries, with a million families being instructed by 5,000 or so licensed educators.
A typical Kindermusik class will find a teacher leading a group of parents and their children (none older than seven) through "joyful activities, using music and movement. Parents learn more about their child's unique developmental process, and the shared learning experience creates a unique bond as the child associates learning with fun, musical play," according to the Kindermusik Web site.
The work can continue in a family's home, as books, CDs and games are also available to enhance and further the learning experience.
"I can see firsthand the time that the family spends together," Kowalski says. "The parents are focusing more on where their child is (developmentally). There are not a lot of activities for parents with children of this age group. It helps them value the child at every level, and see that children are kinesthetic learners, and that each child has their own agenda.
"This is also a kind of 'no rule' kind of play," she adds. "Everything is so structured for kids now, and I feel that music helps pep things up.
Kowalski goes on to describe a recent foray into the "animal world," as she led a group of kids while crawling around on her hands and knees. When she noticed a parent with an arched eyebrow skeptically scrutinizing her teaching method, she told him, "I'll be the weirdo in class, and you do it at home!"
The kids can also receive beginning instruction on any number of instruments such as piano or recorder, which of course can also lead to a youngster furthering his or her musical talents.
"I recently saw the benefits of the program at an LCHS band concert," Kowalski says. "I saw a former student, who at the age of two years, 'got the rhythm right,' and who is now a freshman playing trombone in the LCHS band.
"It's cool to see how parents can value music and how music can value their children's lives through college."
The Kindermusik curriculum offers a number of programs, broken down into age groups, such as Kindermusik Village, which is set up for the youngest enrollees, from newborn to age 18 months. The other classes generally each cover the next two years of a child's development.
Two of the newest additions are Kindermusik Family Time, which is set up for families with several children, and an interesting new Sign and Sing class. That incorporates ASL (American Sign Language) and uses it to teach both hearing-impaired and non-hearing-impaired children.
"It uses songs to teach sign language," Kowalski explains. "It helps to bridge the communications gap."
At this time, there is no Spanish version of Kindermusik, but one is pending. One of the decisions being pondered is whether the children should use songs from Spanish-speaking cultures, and if those would be of benefit.
"There was a Spanish-language program before, but it didn't work out, and that is why they are reviewing it now," Kowalski says. "We get a lot of requests from parents who want their children to learn more than one language."
When not working with her Musical Beginnings program, Kowalski is involved in any number of other music-related activities. She is a past member of the Dona Ana Arts Council, and has started booking appearances in Las Cruces for various children's choirs. The next one to appear here will be the Phoenix Boys Choir, which will have a show in April. She enjoys performing, singing–she was a voice major during her college days–and playing Celtic music. Kowalski also "loves to go to concerts to pick out my babies"–-her past students, that is.
She also has guest musicians perform at the classes, such as "Banjo Bob" and his wife, who plays hammer dulcimer. Lonnie Klein and Greg Fant of the NMSU Pride Marching Band, which performs at NMSU athletic events, helped arranged a "petting zoo": The kids got to visit with the band and touch the instruments, and were allowed to carry the instrument that most interested them during a sort of practice march.
Ultimately, Leslie Kowalski's goal is to use Musical Beginnings to bring families closer through the use of music. Since Kindermusik strongly encourages parents to continue their little ones' music development at home, she feels that her program helps lead to stronger families and better bonding.
She says, "New parents may wonder, 'What do I do with this bundle?' You know right there in the nursery is where the parent-child bonding begins, through eye contact. A child looking at his or her mom or dad or another family member's face and hearing their voice are great bonding experiences."
By adding music, Kowalski feels that bonding can become deeper and more nurturing.
"We don't make music anymore," she says, "and I want people to feel good about making music in their homes again."
Leslie Kowalski's Musical Beginnings will be enrolling for spring 2007 classes beginning on Jan. 21. Call 525-2909 or check the Web site, www.musicalbeginnings.net.
Senior writer Jeff Berg makes his own kind of music in Las Cruces.
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