Think about the music your parents played on the stereo when you were a very little kid, the tunes you made those first dopey, adorable bounces to. These were your first brushes with the world of music, and though you didn’t realize it at the time, your parents’ music—be it early rock or classical or anything in between—was playing a large part in your early development. Now this may not be news to parents in a big city like ours, which is teeming with programs that stress the developmental importance of music in young children. Still, if you talk about it to Deanna deCampos—or, better yet, experience one of her music classes with your child—chances are you’ll feel like you’re discovering the transformative power of music all over again.
As the director of Eastside Westside Music Together, now in its 21st year, deCampos oversees one of the longest-running and most beloved early music programs in the city. Warm and serene and a lot of fun, she’s like your favorite teacher and your favorite aunt in one—which seems just right for the joyful anyone-can-enjoy-this spirit of her classes.
“Music Together is really based on the understanding that all children are musical and that we all have the same ability to learn to sing and to move as accurately as we do to walk and talk,” says deCampos, who holds classes on several locations on the East and West sides of Manhattan.
With a primary focus on nurturing the natural talents of birth through 4-year-olds, Music Together takes an approach that deCampos describes as an active “making” process as opposed to a passive “listening” one. Each semester, age-divided and mixed-age classes focus on one of the program’s nine non-sequential song collections—meaning families can begin at any time with any collection without worrying about order—that introduce budding musicians to different rhythms, tones, and sounds from different cultures. To make the experience as engaging as possible, live musicians play everything from guitar and bass to keyboards and percussion throughout the lessons.
The effect goes way beyond the traditional classroom play-along set-up. “We’re not teaching them formally,” says deCampos. “It’s more like music immersion, kind of like how we learn a language.” And, like learning a language, it requires regular exposure—which is one of the qualities, according to deCampos, that sets the ESWS Music Together franchise apart from other early music programs. The key is parental (or caregiver) involvement, both in and out of the classroom. “We want [parents] to understand how they can support it and that their making music is really vital to their child’s experience in the class; so we’re always kind of lovingly nurturing and nudging them to participate,” she says. “Once they’re hooked, they’ll also sing the songs together and have more fun at home.”
Still, for all its popularity, deCampos is as surprised as anyone that ESWS Music Together has been able to hold onto their real estate through the many storms that the city has weathered over the years. “We’ve survived economic downturns, 9/11, and all kinds of exoduses from the city,” she says. The secret of the program’s longevity? The devotion of families who love its “down-home” and “solid” vibe, as deCampos describes it.
“We had one family in the spring who had been with us for 27 semesters, through three kids. That’s the kind of program we are. When you decide to be with us, and you stick with us, it feels like family,” she says. “We’re facilitating this group music-making environment that feels really special. That’s why they come back. And they remember that experience when they’re older, it means a lot.”
When ESWS Music Together first opened almost 21 years ago on the West Side, it was only the third Music Together franchise in the country. Its popularity helped spur a movement—these days there are hundreds of franchises around the country and the world. That said, deCampos insists that for its overall growth, the program has not forgotten its roots. “It’s still very heart-centered,” she says.
DeCampos herself came to the program after years as an actress in musical theater. When she became a mom, she knew she wanted to transition from acting to teaching music. For most of her time at Music Together, she had a partner-in-crime, another joyful music-loving soul named Sally Woodson, who passed away in March. Woodson was a legendarily popular teacher to generations of city parents and kids, and her loss is still felt every day by deCampos and other long-time staff members. “[Sally] had this joy about her in the way she loved turning people into music makers. I think her gift was that it was always through love,” deCampos says.
In addition to partnering for almost two decades on ESWS Music Together, a few years ago deCampos and Woodson–along with Terri Gabriel and Liana Stampur–launched a charity-minded music program called ArtStrides, which provides music classes for at-risk families and training to teachers who can’t afford it. To pass on Woodson’s legacy of generosity and passion for sharing music with families, a grant called Sally’s Light has been created that will, through ArtStrides, award $2,000 annually to Music Together families from across the country who are going through hard times and would not otherwise be able to participate in the programs.
As difficult as its been without Woodson around, deCampos has been carrying on, managing the program, teaching classes herself, and moving forward with a few plans that she and Woodson had been cultivating for a while. Among these projects, deCampos is especially excited about a Big Kids program for 5- to 7-year-olds, which she says will bridge the gap between early childhood music and formal lessons. The idea is to keep kids’ ears and minds attuned to music at an age where they might not yet be able to sit still and focus enough to learn an instrument but can still gain a lot of developmental benefits from being musical.
If you think about it, most children would certainly want to continue making music together until they’re ready to make music separately. And what better place than a familiar program in which the “together” part is as important as the “music” part? At Eastside Westside Music Together, the classrooms are not only places of learning but also havens of fun and joy.
“So many of the philosophies and the methods that we use in the classroom are based on sound parenting skills,” says deCampos. “It’s a place where you can kind of let the outside world stay out there, and you can create a protective, safe, fun, rich environment for your kids.”