A short stroll from the Berlin State Opera lies a kindergarten like no other in the world. In 2005, Musikkindergarten Berlin set out with the vision to provide young children a preschool education through music – not with music classes tacked on but with music at the centre of its thinking.
It is the initiative of Daniel Baremboim, who besides being music director of Staatsoper Berlin happens to be a passionate advocate for music education. Notably, he also founded the Barenboim-Said Music Center, a music school for children of all ages in Ramallah, Palestine, and has said that music “can really be a school for life”.
His music kindergarten provides what it describes as “education through music, not musical education” for children from age three to six. What this means is that music serves as a focus of all its activity and that a fully rounded learning program is built around this in order to prepare the children for their later lives.
“The Musikkindergarten places special emphasis on conveying musical capability to children, in addition to providing them with a grounded, creative, holistic, varied, and aesthetically stimulating environment in their early years,” states its website.
“The children experience music in all its different aspects and in its unique capability as a transfer medium into all the other educational areas. In this context, the method, the aim, and the experimental ground is not only education in or with music, but through music.”
Musikkindergarten Berlin is staffed by educators who have specialist training in combining music into early childhood learning programs, and it enjoys a special relationship with the Staatsoper. This facilitates regular visits by musicians from the latter institution to come in and play to the kids, and engage them in a variety of participatory experiences. Teaching, explains the kindergarten, takes place “in a playful way to develop a feeling for rhythm, to learn the art of listening, and to develop motor skills through dance and creative movement”.
How it works in practice can be seen in a short video produced for Die Welt. This shows the children playing percussion and singing, Baremboim talking about the kindergarten’s founding philosophy (in German), and a number of very high profile musicians taking fun-filled sessions. They include Staatsoper principal cellist Andreas Greger (wearing a clownish red nose), composer-clarinettist Jörg Widmann, pianist Lang Lang, and composer Moritz Eggert who does some entertaining beat boxing.
Funds to purchase new instruments come from benefit concerts organised through the year by parents, friends and supporters.
There are now several music kindergartens in Germany besides this one pioneered by Baremboim. One directly modelled on it opened in Düsseldorf in 2009 in partnership with the Clara Schumann School of Music; and Australian conductor Simone Young was instrumental in helping establish another in Hamburg in 2010 while she was director of the Hamburg State Opera and Philharmoniker Hamburg.
In addition, there are many day care centres and preschools across Germany that place special importance on music, says music educationist Michael Dartsch. He explains this owes to a view in that country that values music highly in children’s lives: it is “considered potentially fruitful in combination with other areas of education, such as language, cognition, sense perception, body movements and emotions,” he writes.
The nearest equivalent we have in Australia is Perth’s Music Playground. Operated by the Conservatorium of Music, University of Western Australia, this is not a kindergarten or early learning centre as such but rather a series of weekly classes designed to give foundational musical experiences to young children aged 18 months up to 5 years. Taught by professional music educators, these classes offer “a fun-filled, challenging and supportive environment” and involve singing, movement and musical play using age-appropriate percussion instruments.
The Early Years Framework guidelines call for early childhood education to incorporate music, along with other expressive arts, as a means of allowing young children to respond through movement, to communicate thoughts and feelings, and to participate in story-telling. So all prescghools are obliged to pay more than passing attention to music.
There are in fact many early learning centres in this country in which music is a central platform for learning. The US company Kindermusik International, which offers a teaching program founded on German music pedagogy from the 1960s, has a number of programs running here. There are three licensed Kindermusik centres in NSW, three in Victoria and seven in SA. To gain accreditation, teachers participate in a combination of online and face-to-face training at Kindermusik University in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Begun in 1987 in Victoria, Hey dee ho is a large franchise business that has programs operating in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Perth, Gold Coast and Adelaide for infants through to children age 12.
Mini Maestros is another large network of music-focused early learning centres. Based on the Kodály methodology, it runs around 100 early learning centres in Victoria and one in WA. “The primary aim of Mini Maestros is to create self-reliant, confident and well-rounded learners who are familiar with the classroom experience and prepared for school. We use music and movement to achieve this objective,” says its website.
Sydney’s Kinder Beat, Bonkers Beat Music Kinder & Childcare Aspendale in Melbourne and Adelaide’s Musical Child are further providers in the early childhood sector that teach music as the main focus. There are undoubtedly many others.
What makes Musikkindergarten Berlin special though, is the conceptual level at which it operates, and the high calibre of its visiting musicians. There is scope to do so much more like this in Australia. The key is getting our opera companies and orchestras more involved at the early childhood level, and drawing on their expertise.