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A New Frontier in Early Childhood Programming

By Thomas Cabaniss

In recent years, neuroscience has taught us a great deal about how a young child’s mind develops. The brain possesses nearly all of its neurons at the time of birth, doubles in size during the first year of life, and reaches 80% of its adult capacity by age three. As a result of this incredible growth, children are capable of sophisticated forms of listening and performing from moments after birth, and their minds continue to expand through verbal and musical interactions with parents and family members. Yet there are few cultural institutions in the United States that provide programming open to the youngest children and their families.

Recognizing the important role music plays in early childhood development and the lives of young families, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute (WMI) has been a hub of early childhood programming for nearly a decade. Since 2011, its Lullaby Project has paired pregnant women and new mothers and fathers with professional artists to write and sing personal lullabies for their babies, supporting maternal health, aiding childhood development, and strengthening the bond between parent and child.

Expanding on the work that takes place in the Lullaby Project, WMI has created a new series of immersive musical experiences for children ages 0–2 and their caregivers, including OTOYOTOY! and NOOMA, which premiered in the Hall’s Resnick Education Wing in 2017 and 2019, respectively.

At the beginning of OTOYOTOY! and NOOMA, the audience enters an empty space outlined by a circular pool of light, and children are invited to join adult performers in the center. Children are not asked to sit quietly, but rather to take part in the action by playing with props and making sounds, whether it’s babbling, laughing, or even crying. Throughout the 25-minute experience, performers interact with children on the spot, providing a rich sensory experience that facilitates improvisation. Works like OTOYOTOY! and NOOMA are incomplete without young audience members’ unique responses, which vary widely from performance to performance.

A dynamic team of inspired artists came together to create these experiences. Librettist and opera-maker Zoe Palmer developed the theatrical stories for both OTOYOTOY! and NOOMA. “In these works we can explore both the intimacy of connection with one child, and access larger, universal human experiences and emotions through play in the multisensory worlds we create.” A contributing composer to both works, Saskia Lane notes that “it’s important that nothing be dumbed down. Children can comprehend complex music from birth and follow narrative from infancy, so it’s wonderful to get to apply one’s artistic standards to meet the needs of the tiniest people in the room.”

Singer-songwriter Emily Eagen composed music for NOOMA and performed the work at Carnegie Hall. “We have a lot of romantic love songs and operas. We don’t have a lot of love songs that are about the parent-child relationship and about the relationship of a person to a community, which is what the songs in NOOMA are all about.” In working on OTOYOTOY! and NOOMA, the artists were inspired by a growing number of international organizations engaging in early childhood work, including the “rumpus operas” of London’s Spitalfields Music and the dance-based operas of Norway’s Dybwikdans.

Carnegie Hall hopes to inspire more cultural institutions in this country to work with this important and often overlooked age group. Shortly after its premiere, NOOMA—which was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the San Francisco Opera, and the Minnesota Opera—was performed at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Saint Paul, Minnesota. By popular demand, NOOMA and OTOYOTOY! both return to Carnegie Hall during the 2019–2020 season for 10 free performances each in October and April, respectively. Also this season, a new pilot program offers free music classes for new parents in collaboration with select New York City community centers, providing accessible ways for families to incorporate music learning into young children’s lives.

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