Jewish Journal

Making Songs Stick

by Jason Lipeles

Posted on Apr. 2, 2009 at 1:06 pm

<i>Cantorial intern Mara Arenson keeping the beat with preschoolers at Kehillat Israel during a Passover-themed music session.</i> <br><small>Photo by Jason Lipeles</small><br />
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Cantorial intern Mara Arenson keeping the beat with preschoolers at Kehillat Israel during a Passover-themed music session.
Photo by Jason Lipeles

When Mara Elena Arenson rolled her plastic crate of matzah, horseradish, tambourines and rhythm sticks into the preschool classroom at the Reconstructionist synagogue Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds excitedly called out her name. They knew that the lesson would be interactive: They’d be able to sing, sway and play instruments to the music of her guitar. What they didn’t know is that Arenson, a cantorial student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles, uses the principles of the Suzuki rhythm method with the hope that these songs will stick with them for the rest of their lives.

Arenson, who started implementing her music program at Kehillat Israel last September, said, “Creating a lifelong connection with the Jewish culture through this program, that’s the main goal. No matter where they go in life, if they just remember one or two of the songs, or part of the melody ... that’s what we hope they walk away with.” 

Shinichi Suzuki developed the method now used by thousands of educators around the world in the 1940s to teach children as young as 2 to play the violin. The method, since adapted for other instruments, emphasizes constant repetition, encouragement from parents and peers, and the presentation of music in the context of songs rather than exercises. A violinist himself, Suzuki believed that, similar to learning their mother tongue, if properly trained, all children could learn to play an instrument. 

For Arenson, the goal goes beyond teaching music, to creating an emotional connection to Jewish holidays and prayers by implanting tunes that will become part of the kids’ lifelong Jewish subconscious.

Arenson integrated a number of principles of the Suzuki method in her 20-minute session with the preschool kids that morning, including repetition and rhythmic patterns. She chose one song to go through all of the steps of the Suzuki method. For the Passover class, she chose “Building Cities,” a song about how the Israelites had to work all day and all night to build Pharaoh’s cities. 

First, Arenson introduced a hammering hand motion and told the children to repeat the words and melody of the song. Next, they practiced saying the rhythmic pattern of the song together. In traditional Suzuki music training, teachers have children repeat rhythmic patterns to see if they are ready to start learning to play an instrument. Although Arenson is not preparing the kids to play violin, she believes that the exposure to music theory and rhythmic patterns at a young age will make it easier for them to pick up an instrument when they are older. 

Arenson held up a sign with the equivalents of the rhythmic pattern spelled out in quarter and eighth notes. She did not talk about the different values of the notes. Rather, she said that the goal of the visual, oral and tactile elements of the Suzuki method is that the children learn the values of the notes innately.

The kids used rhythm sticks to keep the beat and sing the words to the song that fit that beat. At the end, she let them loose to sing the song and bang their sticks together at any speed they like. “They get to play around with it. They get to create their own (rhythm) at the end. In a way, they feel like they own a part of that song,” she said. Arenson believes that this concept of ownership is important for curriculum at Jewish day schools, because “creating our own interpretation and connection with our music is what keeps our culture dynamic and alive.”

Michelle Morrow has two children: Rileigh, 7, who is in first grade and attended the preschool at K.I. before Arenson taught there; and Gavin, 4, who is attending the preschool now. She said that she sees a big difference in their experiences. “(Rileigh) has the songs but they didn’t resonate, they didn’t stick in the way they have with my son.” Now, Morrow said, “he teaches us the songs.”

Laura Diamond sees her 4-year-old son, Emett, internalizing songs about Jewish holidays. Most recently, she said that Emmett came home asking about Haman. “He’s talking about the stories of the holidays and not just in a way that you can tell he’s repeating a pat line,” she said; “It’s a 4-year-old’s language expressing what he’s getting about Purim.” To further solidify the words and melodies of the songs they learned in her 20-minute session, Arenson makes a CD each week that teachers can play during class.

Arenson also uses the Suzuki method to teach the rest of the Kehillat Israel community — from kindergartners to sixth graders — rhythmic patterns and melodies at weekly tefilah services. She said the rhythmic patterns get progressively more complex as the audience gets older. For the fourth to sixth graders, she taught them a complicated hand-clapping pattern from “Not By Might, Not By Power” by Debbie Friedman.

Arenson, who entertains nine preschool classes once a week and leads three weekly tefilah/music sessions for older children, has started to keep a stopwatch around her neck so that she stays on track. Similarly, during her music sessions, there is little downtime. “There’s no lull in this,” said Paul Hoffman, director of early childhood education at K.I., “From one song to the next, she’s got the children constantly engaged.”

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