Nature versus nurture is an age-old question. Can parents mold a Tiger Woods by starting early? Is musicality genetically inherited?
Michael Levine is a singer-songwriter, music producer and musician. He has taught music enrichment to 1- to 5-year-olds for 20 years. Levine co-founded The Learning Grove early music education with Eric Litwin. They have six albums of interactive songs and stories that help children develop musical skills, language skills, social-emotional skills from listening and singing along in classes.
Wife Bonnie, an attorney, sings and plays piano. Michael and Bonnie have a band Sunmoon Pie, focusing on alternative Jewish music and meditative chanting.
The Levines’ “pandemic pod family” is the Rosenthals from Ahavath Achim Synagogue. Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal plays guitar and drums and his teenage son Avram Eli is learning guitar, bass and drums. They created a pod-family band to play Chanukah and Havdalah lyrics to songs for Ariela Rosenthal’s Zoom bat mitzvah last month. The Levines’ son Emet, now 5, played drums on two of the seven songs.
Tune in to what educator Michael Levine shares about encouraging talent and son Emet’s progress.
AJT: What is “too early” to start?
Michael: Like language, children develop proficiency in music with exposure. The more children hear a variety of music, especially in fun, loving, meaningful ways with parents, friends, the more their brains literally develop connections that give more refined recognition of musical facets.
When young, it’s less about hard work, and more about joyous exposure. I just naturally sing and tap to beats all the time. When Emet was a baby, I would often tap his body to the music while holding him. Young children can feel rhythms better than they can hear them, so bouncing, tapping, rocking is more understood than just hearing beats.
Emet played his first real paying gig at age 3 at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta.
AJT: Why drums? They seem hard to transport.
Michael: Drums are great for children because tapping is easier than playing chords and melodies, and one can practice anywhere by tapping your knees (or anything around) to work out rhythms and stay in tempo. It’s also easier to identify the main drum kit instruments (like bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat) when listening to music. Since Emet was able to learn how each drum part sounded at an early age, he could recognize them in songs, and learn beats by listening, while imagining playing.
True, drums are less portable than guitars, etc. I got Emet a small First Act drum kit for $10 on the Nextdoor app then added other drum kit parts. That kit was super easy to transport compared to a full-sized adult kit. For his fifth birthday, we got him a Mendini full drum kit, still child-sized, just a little bigger than his First Act kit.
AJT: How much do you practice?
Emet: We listen to music on car rides, watch YouTube videos of drummers, and make up silly songs.
Michael: We jam in the home recording studio two to three times a week. Practice is only a small part.
AJT: Can Emet cross over to other instruments?
Michael: Many of the skills learned from drums can transfer to piano, guitar. Emet also plays ukulele; he can strum complex strumming patterns easily, based on his drum experience. He is still learning chords and notes on uke. He can improvise on piano very well and his rhythms are impressive. He is gradually getting better at chords and melodies.
AJT: How do you use Facebook during the pandemic?
Michael: We’ve made several livestreaming and pre-recorded videos for kids and families online.
Since I am the music teacher at Ahava Early Learning Center, where Emet goes to pre-K, once the pandemic hit, we started leading music classes online from my recording studio. We made them public so anyone could enjoy them on YouTube channel Little Drummer Emet.
AJT: Where do you see yourself as a grown up?
Emet: Musician, fireman, teacher, police and music teacher.