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Music for little ears

A University of South Florida professor, who has received awards for her research on prenatal and neonatal response to music, teaches a music class for toddlers.

By Joel Poiley
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002

NEW TAMPA -- The group of babies and toddlers squealed with delight while banging drums and shaking tambourines.

Dancing in time with the jungle-like rhythms, they did not realize they were receiving their first music education class. Studies have proven music stimulates human intelligence.

Dr. Sheila Woodward has spent much of her 20-year teaching career augmenting this theory by exposing babies in the womb and newborns around the world to the sounds of music.

A professor in general music education at the University of South Florida, Woodward recently started working with children in New Tampa. This day her group of five babies -- ranging in age from 15 months to 3 years -- is putty in her hands, laughing, singing and dancing to music ranging from classical to jazz.

The music calms the children, Woodward says. It also introduces them to learning concepts of music such as tonal qualities, pitch changes and rhythm. The babies respond with smiling and cooing and recognize music from repeatedly hearing the same sounds.

"The movement, the dancing and jumping around, reinforces the beat," Woodward says. "This gets them away from the type of passive listening that they get from the TV, the radio, walking the mall, where the music is like wallpaper in the background. This focuses them and channels them into really listening. We are training their little minds to the basics of music."

To do that, Woodward meets with a group of New Tampa mothers and their eager toddlers once a week for about an hour. The music, songs and puppetry have an immediate effect on the babies bouncing up and down, mothers say. Several tots ask repeatedly when they will see Ms. Sheila again.

"I was a little skeptical the first time because I have boys and they tend to roughhouse," says Kristine Leuci of Richmond Place. "But they love it. Dominic (age 3) asks every day to go to music. He's not clinging as much, either, and this is helping him interact with other kids."

As the babies assimilate what they learn, the moms are encouraged to apply that learning to other areas, Woodward says.

"It's developing their cognitive skills," says Woodward, strumming a soothing tune as 2-year-old Renee Edwards happily picked at her guitar. "Physically manipulating the instruments transfers to other things. The socializing, the cooperating and focusing and concentrating, it's all good for their development."

Woodward, 43, also wants to start a program for expectant couples. She started the community-based programs to offset the decrease of public school funding for music programs. She thinks that's a mistake because research shows there is a correlation between kids learning music and getting good grades.

"What children gain through music is unique and cannot necessarily be achieved through other pursuits," says Woodward, who has earned awards for her research of prenatal and neonatal response to music. "In the same way people wouldn't want to cut sports because of the physical and social development they get from that, music is essential in enriching children's cultural and artistic life, helping them learn about themselves and develop self-growth."

Woodward, who has taught at USF for two years, says her research has shown music stimulation can begin before birth. Studies have shown an immediate effect on a fetus's heartbeat, and have indicated music memory and learning in the womb, Woodward said.

Beyond the research, Woodward says she derives great pleasure watching the tiny faces light up and the children start moving when they hear the sounds.

* * *

Dr. Sheila Woodward's music program for toddlers meets once a week and costs $50 for two months. For more information, call 866-3864.

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