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Volume 7, Issue 76  |  September 23, 2022


Take Five: Meet Judy Woodson, South Coast Music Together instructor

By AMY SENK

Hello, everybody, so glad to see you! Generations of parents and children know the South Coast Music Together welcome song – if you ever took the class, you’re probably singing the tune in your head right now. Judy Woodson, the program’s director, estimates that she’s taught thousands of children over the past 20-plus years, and the classes are still going strong with pandemic restrictions. I caught up with her to learn more. 

Take Five Judy with guitar

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Photos courtesy of Judy Woodson

Judy Woodson, South Coast Music Together program director

Q: What exactly is Music Together? What is a class like, what are the goals and what kinds of children is it geared for? 

A: Founded in 1987, Music Together® is an international, research-based music and movement program for infants, toddlers and their adult caregivers, which began as an educational project at the Center for Music and Young Children in Princeton, New Jersey. Early childhood expert and composer Kenneth Guilmartin is the founder of Music Together and co-authored the program with Dr. Lili Levinowitz, one of this country’s leading researchers in early childhood music development. The program is based on the premise that all children are musical; that it is in fact as natural to be musical as it is to walk and to talk; that it is just as much of a birthright; and that all human beings have the same innate ability to learn music as they do to learn language and movement.

The vast majority of our classes are mixed age classes, designed for children from birth through 4 years of age and their adult caregivers. In normal circumstances, we sit on the floor in a circle, in a good-sized room to allow freedom of movement with a maximum of 12 children and their adult caregivers. Our teachers have excellent early childhood and music skills and lead our families in rhythmic chants, songs, small and large movement, dance and instrumental jam sessions. Each family receives one of our nine song collection’s songbook, a CD, a code to download the music and parent guide for all newcomers. Adults learn how to identify and interpret musical responses and to nurture their children’s musical development. Children who stay with our program over a period of time tend to develop what we call basic music competence, meaning the ability to sing in tune and to move with accurate rhythm. But there is so much more that goes on. Children develop their love of music through our program, and that happens naturally through them sensing their adult caregiver’s love and enjoyment of the music. You can teach anyone a skill, but it is the people we love who pass on the disposition to want to do something and then make it our own. For instance, my father loved music, and he passed that gift along to me. Another wonderful thing that happens in our classes is that the bonds between the adults and their children are strengthened through playful musical interaction. And likewise, the bond between families within each class are strengthened as each class forms its own little musical community. Music Together is designed for every child everywhere. All children are born musical. We are just bringing out something that is already there.

Take Five Judy with babies

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Woodson instructing babies and toddlers through the “magic” of music and rhythms

Q: How has the past year been with COVID, and are you having live classes? 

A: It has been one of the biggest challenges ever, striving to keep this wonderful program and business that I spent more than 20 years building, going over the last year. At first, I said I would never teach online, but I quickly changed my mind, not only when I saw it as the only way forward, but also felt strongly how much our work was needed to give families a lift through music, and to help them remain connected as a community. I also saw that it was actually possible to still give our families a live, playful musical learning experience online.

My staff and I had to quickly learn new skills, from working with cameras and microphones and how to work with Zoom, but also a new way of being good facilitators in an online format where families have to be mostly muted during class because the camera wants to follow the sound. We held online workshops with our colleagues and had free concerts for our families to boost morale. And yes, while some families are still preferring to remain taking class online, we are now teaching outdoor in-person socially distanced classes with smaller groups than our normal size classes in order to give everyone plenty of room to remain socially distanced. Teaching socially distanced classes as well as teaching online, while challenging, is making us better teachers, as we have learned to stretch our imagination and find more creative ways to joyfully connect our families with each other as a playful musical community while still being respectful of and following safety guidelines.

Q: What is the craziest or funniest memory you have from a Music Together class?

A: It wasn’t actually in a regular class per se, but rather in a courtroom. I had been called in for jury duty, and after hours of waiting and then filling out a form asking to be excused from jury duty, I was actually called back into the courtroom after most of the other potential jurors had gone home where the judge asked me questions. He said, “So you teach music to babies?” Kind of incredulously I explained that the learning process was much like when we learn to walk and talk. Nobody formally teaches us to walk and talk, but rather we learn to do so because from the time we are born we are immersed in the language of our culture, with everyone around us, especially those we love, who are our most important teachers, are walking and talking.

And I further explained that we just naturally absorb learning to walk and talk from being in that atmosphere. But the judge wanted more details. What kind of music did we do? He told me his son loved rap. So, I explained about our song collections and how we not only did melodic songs but also rhythmic chants, perhaps relatable as an early childhood type of rap, and then I actually led the judge and others who chose to join in – there were other court officials and many other folks in that courtroom – in a little chant with some rhythm patterns. In what I’m guessing would have normally been a pretty sober atmosphere – it was a much-publicized court case of a serious nature – people were smiling and laughing. The judge then wished me well in my work and excused me from jury duty.

Take Five Judy Festival

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At a previous Festival of Children in South Coast Plaza, Woodson shares her love of music

Q: What is your favorite song, and which is your favorite series of song collections?

A: Wow! I’m not sure I could choose a favorite song or a favorite collection as there are so many wonderful songs in our collections. And each time I teach a song collection, I challenge myself to find new layers to teaching each song and innovative ways to play with it. My teachers and I attend songs and skills workshops before every semester to hone our skills and to share ideas with our colleagues around the country to that end. And our song collections are being revamped too, so they have changed a bit over the years.

Our national organization has a special Music Together Song Advisory Board comprised of a rotating panel of ethnomusicologists, music historians, music educators and culture-bearers. Using historical, anthropological and musicological data, together with the current board members, they have designed a set of evaluation criteria to ensure that the music young children are exposed to will serve as their lifelong emotional containers. It is respectfully rendered and honors the past without celebrating the marginalization or denigration of others. The songs are designed to appeal to all types of families worldwide, regardless of national origin, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status; help children understand the music of their own culture, as well as the music of other cultures; break down barriers and bridges cultural experiences; expose children and their families to a broad palette of music, creating a strong foundation for future music-learning; and give children a lifelong facility for enjoying, learning and making music

Q: Why is music important to babies?

A: Because Music Learning Supports All Learning™. Music is a life skill. In fact, it is one of the most integrated life skills there is. We use our voices, our listening skills, motor skills, language skills, social and emotional development, and spatial reasoning just to name a few. Music is a way of “knowing.” Music supports the whole child. And it allows us to connect with each other, with our community and with our world. But, all that said and with all those wonderful benefits, music is such an important and integral part of our human experience. It takes us to a place beyond words, lifts us up out of ourselves and allows us to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. I believe I’m a joyful human being in part because I have had music as a part of my life from the time I was born. What a beautiful and lifelong gift to give our children and ourselves. 

Editor’s note: Judy Woodson’s Spring semester begins April 5th. Her outdoor socially distanced classes and via Zoom are also offered through the Newport Beach Recreation & Senior Services Department. For more information on South Coast Music Together and to register for classes, visit www.southcoastmusictogether.com.

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Amy Senk is a longtime resident of Corona del Mar and a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

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