Once upon a time I scoffed at parents who took their babies to music classes. ‘Hothousing idiots,’ I thought. ‘Why would you try to force a baby to learn music when they can barely move their hands?’
And then I discovered the tedium of spending all day, every day, at home with a baby, and I eagerly signed baby A up for Wiggleworms as soon as she turned six months. Wiggleworms is the under-3s offering from the Old Town School of Folk Music, which is a huge Chicago institution: over 2,000 children a week attend the classes in centres all over the place. You can do straight Wiggleworms, Wiggleworms in French or Spanish, sibling Wiggleworms – hell, you can go all in and sign yourself up, as a parent, to learn the Wiggleworms songs on a guitar or ukulele.
How we love it, baby A and I. The Evanston class happens in a church hall, which is profoundly reassuring to good old atheist me, since as far as I recall every childhood activity I ever did took place in a church hall (often accompanied with those nasty green mugs of orange squash). Parents are firmly told to leave their strollers outside the building, which again is somehow reassuring, as if we are being told to get a grip and realise that no-one is remotely interested in stealing our expensive baby accessories. We go inside with the other mothers and babies, sit down on the floor, the teacher gets out his guitar, and we begin.
We begin each week with the song ‘Hello and How are You?’, and this has proved to be the only downside to the whole experience: I cannot get this song out of my head. At all. You follow the link at your own risk.
Class progresses to a series of songs I thought I knew, but which have subtly different words over here – Ring a Ring o’Roses culminates in ‘Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down’ instead of ‘Atishoo’; The Wheels on the Bus has the bus going ‘all round the town’ instead of ‘all day long’ (in a possible reflection of inferior US public transport provision’) and If You’re Happy and You Know It ‘then your face will surely show it’ rather than ‘and you really want to show it’ – in a possible reflection of the greater facial mobility American babies are encouraged to develop instead of the British stiff upper lip.
Our instructor, this past 8 weeks, has been a lovely guy with a dry sense of humour and a vast array of props to entertain the babies with, from whistles and xylophones that he plays, hand-puppets that interact with them, and shakers, tambourines and scarves for baby A to suck. I mean shake. No, I actually did mean suck. Baby A has created a lot of extra cleaning work for the poor teacher, but he’s pretty relaxed about letting the babies do their thing, whether it’s trying to play his guitar, crawling across the room, pulling each other’s hair or retreating to their mothers’ laps for cuddles.
And we always finish in a sea of bubbles – pictured above – which are a huge baby class phenomenon that I had never come across before.
One thing I like about Wiggleworms is the modesty of the claims it makes. Their website talks about parents and babies ‘enjoying music together’ and ‘the fun of making music’, and, at its most extravagant, about developing ‘a lifelong love for making music’.
Because this is not the only baby music class out there. There are Musikgarten and Kindermusik: huge national franchises. Kindermusik promises ‘a rich variety of activities promotes music and language development, symbolic thinking, coordination, and social interaction’. Musikgarten asserts that ‘music touches all spheres of child development; language and literacy development, pattern recognition skills – the basis for mathematical learning, as well as social and emotional growth.’ It goes on to threaten: ‘your child isn’t too young to start learning the Musikgarten way. In fact, Musikgarten has music classes for babies, music classes for toddlers and a variety of music classes for preschoolers. Wouldn’t you want your child to have the Musikgarten advantage?’ Gymboree and Music Together have hundreds of franchises across the country too.
But the joy of Wiggleworms is that it encompasses proper folk in all its politically-incorrect glory. ‘I love my rooster, my rooster loves me’ and ‘When I first came to this land’, with accompanying hand-movements and a bit of wife-bashing (verbal only) help the whole thing feel more organic than the experience we had at a trial Gymboree class at the Old Orchard shopping centre, where hand sanitizer pumps abound, the whole room is covered in bright washable plastic, and Gymbo the puppet is for sale at the front desk on your way out.
But I must revise the hand-movements to Itsy Bitsy Spider before the next round of classes: I am starting to show baby A up.