Artscape: Rock-a-Baby Brings Live Music To Infants And Toddlers

Nov 26, 2014

Singer Kate Jones shows children how to play a tone drum at a Rock-a-Baby class in Providence
Credit Elisabeth Harrison

It’s Thanksgiving, and for many families, that means time to jump in the car and visit with relatives. If your drive is a long one, you might put on some music to entertain the kids along the way. Almost all children naturally love music.

For this month’s Rhode Island Artscape, Rhode Island Public Radio's Elisabeth Harrison visited a music class for tiny babies and toddlers, with a little something for adults too.

At the start of a Rock-a-Baby class in Providence, parents and a few grandparents sit in semicircle with wiggling three- and four-year-olds on their laps, and a few infants asleep in their carriers.

A trio of musicians fills the room with music.  Vocalist Kate Jones kneels down next to Mia, a 10-month-old in bright pink tights and polka dot shirt.

“First little rock-a-baby’s name is Mia, hello Mia,” Jones sings.

Mia looks on wide-eyed as Jones moves around the semicircle greeting each child with a touch on the hand or a smile, and a wave.

Benny Tilchen plays guitar while Rock-a-Baby founder Marc Trachtenberg plays keyboard and sings backup vocals.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison

Behind Jones, Benny Tilchen sings along and plays the guitar. With big black hair and a scraggly beard, he’s not exactly what you picture when you think of children’s music. Tilchen looks more rock ‘n roll than Raffi, but he says kids are a great gig.

“kids are a much better audience than grownups in general,” said Tilchen. “They are not judgmental and they are not afraid to have a good time. They’re very uninhibited once they get over their shyness.”

Tilchen is right. The kids do not stay seated for long. They’re up dancing and running around within minutes. Even kids too young to walk get in on the action.

A little boy in a brown sweatshirt bops up and down on wobbly legs to a cover of the 1950’s rock song “Get a Job.” When he falls down, he picks himself right up keeps bopping away.

Puppets and dancing are also part of a typical Rock-a-Baby class.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison

Rock-a-Baby is the brain child of Marc Trachtenberg, who you can hear in the background singing and playing the keyboard. He created the class in New York, when he was thinking about starting a family. He says he wanted to create an experience that kids and adults could enjoy together.

“We knew that there were going to be grownups bringing their kids to the class, and I wanted to make sure that the grownups weren’t falling asleep at the back of the room,” Trachtenberg explained. “So I aimed to create kind of a unique musical moment.”

A moment that would bridge the gap between music kids like and music adults enjoy too.

To do that, Trachtenberg wrote original songs that appeal to kids but also have what he calls a rock edge. He mixes in genres that can range from Beethoven to Bob Marley.  

The idea is to introduce children basic concepts like rhythm, melody and harmony, give them a chance to play and dance and try out musical instruments.

Benny Tilchin and Kate Jones tell a story in song.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison

At the Jewish Community Center in Providence, vocalist Kate Jones sits on the floor surrounded by a gaggle of excited toddlers. She holds up a drum, which has an almost 2-year-old so excited, he can hardly contain himself.

“What do you think it is Gabriel?” Jones asks.

“It’s a drum!” He squeals in reply.

Today’s instrument is a tone drum, a small wooden drum that makes three distinct sounds. While Jones gives everyone a chance to play the drum, Trachtenberg and Tilchen have some fun with a cover of the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night.”

Jill Goula, the parent of two kids in the class, says part of what she likes about Rock-a-Baby is that it introduces her children to new vocabulary. Goula was trained as a school psychologist.

“I really did this for language development, and that’s really exceeded my expectations, but I’m also hoping they’ll become more interested in music and using more creative skills,” said Goula.

She may be on to something. While research doesn’t exactly show that music makes you smarter, it does suggest it can engage many different parts of the brain, including areas involved with language development.

Credit Elisabeth Harrison

“We know there’s a part of the brain called wernikes region, brocas region and these are the ones that mainly process language,” explained University of Rhode Island Assistant Professor of Music Audrey Cardany, who specializes in early music education.

“And when we are singing songs and listening to music those areas are also engaged, as well as the motor cortex, interestingly enough. So it’s really fascinating how connected it is.”

Cardanay says singing to children can also help them learn to read emotion on the face, which is an important part of understanding language. And of course, music is fun.

Rock-a-Baby founder Marc Trachtenberg calls it elemental.

“Music is a part of us, and I don’t think enough people are talking about that,” said Trachtenberg. “It’s just there in us ready to ignite, and I just think it’s really cool for a zero-year-old to watch three good musicians jam and do their thing and be able to be a part of that.”

As the Rock-a-Baby class draws to a close parent Kristin Barrios watches her almost 2-year-old Gabriel pile blue and pink balls into a big rubber tub. This was their first time at Rock-a-Baby, but she plans to come back.

“Oh, he loves it. This is definitely something that he’s going to enjoy,” said Barrios.

Rock-a-Baby has been expanding from its roots in New York to several locations in Rhode Island and now Massachusetts. Parents say they like the social aspect of the classes, and the music is catchy. And if you can hook your kids on music that you enjoy too, so much the better.