The alligator on the bus goes snap, snap, snap, said Slippery Rock University senior Rebecca deGraaf.
“It might seem silly, but to the child that makes sense. It's really important to validate what they're saying,” said deGraaf, of Cranberry Township.
“Through the alligator experience, it reminded me how important it is to help the child feel like they have something worth listening to and worth saying. Going along with it and making music out of it reminded me how much not only the child but the rest of kids appreciate it,” deGraaf said.
The 22-year-old music therapy major and flute player was one of the five college students who participated last fall in the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh's Music Maker program in collaboration with the university. The program seeks to enrich the lives of children and provide developmental support for them through music.
DeGraaf's interest in music from a young age led her to pursue it as a career. As a home-schooled student, she played the flute with the school district's band.
She started to learn about music therapy, playing music with children or adults, and using the music to work toward physical, mental and emotional growth.
Music therapy is a way to help different ages find a better quality of life through music, she said.
DeGraaf, along with another university student, led two Music Maker sessions at the museum. The two took different songs, such as popular nursery rhythms, to create a structured music-making environment for the children to explore different sounds through movement and playing ukuleles and different percussion instruments.
The initiative is part of the university's Early Childhood and Elementary Music Community Engagement program led by Cassandra Eisenreich, SRU assistant professor of music.
The purpose of the program is to provide free music experiences for the community and, in the process, help children develop essential motor skills, positive character traits, and an appreciation for music.
Within the program are five ongoing initiatives targeted toward early childhood through elementary students with the Butler County Children's Center, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, SRU/SGA Preschool, and Make Music Day, Eisenreich said.
Music is important to the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, said Joanna Kemp, who is the museum's arts and contacts coordinator.
Music Maker, a drop-in program meant to enrich the visitor's experience at the museum with live music and movement, is one of the different types of musical programming that works with artists to provide musical performances with professional musicians for youth performers, she said.
“One of most important things we can offer future educators is that real-world experience working with kids and specifically with our visitors,” Kemp said. “It's an opportunity for them to get real-world experience and visitors to engage in musical play and also be inspired to learn something new about an instrument they've never seen or enjoy music in that moment.”
After Eisenreich led the first session, she met with students to discuss ways to approach their own sessions.
Musical play is how children learn. It is a multisensory process, she said. Children develop fine and gross motor skills as they play the instruments, learn concepts such as high, low, long, fast, smooth and bumpy and explore sounds and develop their singing voice and language.
The college students were challenged to adapt their lessons to be developmentally appropriate for sessions with a range of children from babies to 6-year-olds, Eisenreich said.
Children also learn character development as they participate with a positive attitude through the joy music brings, she said.
Sometimes, it can feel a little nerve-racking to take the lead, deGraaf said.
“As soon as the music starts, for me, my fears dissipate and I become more present in the moment by focusing on the kids and the music I'm listening to or making myself,” deGraaf said.
She found a balance between structured and unstructured music making, she said.
In the first session, children played instruments to make music and different sounds in a more come-and-go, unstructured environment, she said.
For the second session, the college students alternated between singing songs, making different motions and playing along with the children to keep their attention, which, deGraaf said, made for a better experience because some children preferred singing while others focused their attention on the instruments.
Last year, deGraaf researched the impact of music on a child's development, she said.
“More and more parents are understanding the benefits of music and using that as a way to get more involved in their community,” she said.
Although the sessions were not part of her course work, they helped her learn how she can better bring music to different children, deGraaf said.
To deGraaf, music is a gift that is shared between two or more people, she said.
“No matter who those two people are, both are benefiting from each other, even if one is a couple of decades older or if one has more ability,” she said. “Music breaks down certain barriers — age, gender and functioning.
“It's important to me because it helps people to connect with one another, learn from each other and have fun with each other and to make memories in a way that is joyful and beautiful to listen, to see and be a part of that interaction with,” said deGraaf.