How little Victoria learnt to sing (and speak) with Adele

June O'Sullivan, Earlyarts Board Member and CEO of London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), shares an experience of a young girls musicality and what we can learn professionally from a rendition of Adele's, 'Someone Like You'.

I popped in to see a friend over the Easter weekend and she invited me to watch two year old Victoria giving a rendition of Adele's, 'Someone Like You' on YouTube. We watched this little girl sing out multi syllable words with great nuance and intonation as she mimicked Adele with aplomb.

Some of us are shocked by this, throw hands up in despair because of our modern habit of treating children as little fashion items as we applause and encourage inappropriate adult and indeed sexualised behaviour all in the name of fun and ooh isn't she cute! We worry why so many children will know the words of the songs from Adele, Rihanna and the winner of the X factor but not the nursery rhymes that will help them achieve super communication skills.

But then I think of Bruner and his book The Culture of Education (1996) and his thoughts about the importance of using the benefits of contemporary culture. Music is part of the fabric of life. How each of us encounters it and participates differs but it all has a profound influence on our musical identity. Contemporary musical childhoods are lived in dynamic and changing cultural contexts with multiple musical traditions.

Little Victoria is like many children under two, strapped into the back of the car and listening to her Mum singing along to the radio or to the words of her favourite song. Rarely, do we actually listen to the words. What we hear is the musicality of the sounds and the way a word rolls off your tongue. Little Victoria has been introduced to lovely multi syllable words like Bittersweet and Remember at two years old. It took me another 15 years to have the same joyful experience when I discovered the silver-tongued Clifford T Ward (1944 -2001). Singing along to him I learned two of my now all time favourite words nonchalant and wherewithal (you will also find him on YouTube).

So what else did I learn from listening to Victoria sing? Well, clearly from the video clip, her parents were influential. They had the kind of empathetic relationship that fed her interest. That's good because parent support is one of the most critical factors in children taking up musical instruments and continuing their musical interest into adulthood.

What else did I learn? Well she enjoyed the experience because when she finished singing she asked if she could to do it again. It's a favourite word and Makaton sign in the baby rooms at LEYF. 'Again!', 'More!', sing out the children when they have been delighted by something. Finding children's interests from the youngest of age is the key to success. They respond well and get excited about learning. When adults support small children you can see them become more confident happy and secure. Trevarthen (2008) in his studies of babies found that infants under one year who have no language still communicate powerfully and constructively with receptive adults.

Victoria's Mum understood her daughter's interest in singing, she set up the opportunity for her to sing and we can only guess that she will encourage this a bit more. If Victoria was attending the nursery, I would hope that the staff relished her interest in music and played different music at different times during the day. By that I mean introduce her to jazz, folk, Froebel's songs from 1843, nursery rhymes, Mozart, world music and whatever is of interest to staff and children. I am not suggesting having Magic FM playing in the background. However, what staff need to understand is with musicality come opportunities to learn new words.

Some years ago I researched the features of good staff working with the smallest children. I found that they needed to be:

  • Happy and friendly
  • Playful
  • Explorers and communicators
  • Imaginative and creative
  • Interested in the children
  • Curious about our environment
  • In touch with ourselves
  • Willing to take a risk

I think Victoria and her family would thrive in a nursery with staff like this.

Finally, this this little video clip shows that staff only look through a small window of the child's life. To make it more of a real two way track we need to talk regularly to parents and build a mutual learning bridge from home to nursery and back again. We must be much more willing to help extend the child's interests at home and not dismiss them as less or inappropriate. After all it's our shared interests that are the more powerful drivers for embedding learning.

June O'Sullivan is the CEO of LEYF