John and I met as missionaries on the Eastern Navajo Reservation in New Mexico where I served as music teacher in 1994. We moved east to be near family before starting our family. While working as the primary caregiver for our new daughter, I volunteered in different ministries with our local parish and taught music and movement classes for a local program. In the spring of 2003, after a difficult pregnancy, including several spells of bedrest, I was at a crossroads. My 3-year-old daughter was begging to return to the “music classes where you’re the teacher, Mommy”. Our parish had no ministry for young mothers and I knew someone had to step up and try to create something.
On the way home from noon-time Mass, I was mentally beating myself up for not continuing with the enriching and engaging music classes my daughter loved so much. But I knew that I only had so much time and energy. Then I heard that voice: the voice in my head that isn’t my own. The one regular people like me hear sometimes, but saints hear often. “It’s good,” the voice said, “but it’s just not good enough.” I knew what was meant. Helping my child to grow musically was good. Devoting my time and energy to teaching a lovely program was good. But music was meant for more. My daughter needed more from music than great music education. God made music and He made her for more than that.
A vision of a music class that included songs of Christian faith, songs from our Catholic heritage and the faithful history of our country along with the fun music, the world music and all the elements of a research-based music curriculum filled my thoughts. I imagined meeting other young moms at the Church and seeing my daughter play, sing and dance with the same children we’d see at Sunday Mass. I imagined mothers praying together and children singing songs praising God. I saw a program that reinforced the seasons of the Liturgical Year and celebrated the true meaning of Christmas and Easter. That night, I retreated to the basement “office” and wrote it all down while sharing it with my husband. “This could be amazing!” But, producing a program of the caliber I envisioned was a major undertaking and so I put the plan in a binder and put it on a shelf.
Two years and another baby later, I had requests from two groups of Catholic moms for a class utilizing my experience as a certified music and movement teacher. So, I began to put my plan from years ago in motion. I wasn’t sure how children so little would respond to prayer time in a class, but music as prayer was something I wanted to give my children. The little ones did not enjoy the attention being removed from them. They did not want to “calm down” from the fun. Some moms spent the whole prayer correcting their children.
Then, at one class, I said, “OK, the kids are going to be kids. They aren’t going to like it when we turn our attention to God instead of them. Let’s just let them be kids and ignore their attempts to get attention and just pray together. That example will do more for them than any correction.” We knelt and prayed together. The next week we did the same and the third week, when I announced that we would sing our prayer, a 3-year-old girl walked over to the statue of the Blessed Mother, knelt, and folded her hands. The other children followed. We sang and prayed and smiled.
After another week, the children started singing along at prayer time. The community of mothers became more connected, more of a community than they had been before the music classes started. The power of prayer combined with the power of music transformed the children, the families and the groups. The Holy Spirit answered every prayer we sang and brought all of us closer to God.
Watching a one-year-old pat her chest and tummy to make the Sign of the Cross with us, I’d ask “Does she do that at home?” and a surprised mother would answer, “I don’t know. I never thought to pray with her before.” Hearing about parents and grandparents reconnecting to their faith through our CDs and mothers explaining that their child now settles down for bedtime prayer because they are using the music confirmed our decision to continue. Meanwhile, the Lord blessed us with another child.
By February of 2009, the curriculum was ready. Our CDs were up to our standards and I completed a home version, so families could achieve the benefits at home. We were ready to spread Making Music Praying Twice and the blessings that we’ve experienced with it.
This was bigger and more important than I had imagined. I talked to John and we prayed and decided to move forward in developing a full program for parishes. With the support and blessing of our pastor, Fr. Glen Comandini, we started a program at our parish in Basking Ridge. It was more work and investment and sweat and tears than we expected, but each time we asked for confirmation, the Lord led us forward.
I had taught music and movement classes before, but something else was happening in these classes. Parents and children were connecting so deeply and making friendships like I never saw in the secular classes I taught. Mothers shared the loss of family members and family illness and crisis and we prayed together. New babies came and joined us and came out of the womb and into the world, knowing our music. Children were praying with us each class and parents were witnessing a spiritual awareness awakening in their children. Statements like, “This is only class I take with the children that feels like a community.” or “Our CD is the only chance I get in a day to pray with my children or sometimes pray at all.” are the reminders I need to remember how important it was to develop a faith-inclusive music education program.
Our program relies heavily on the research of brain growth in young children. Repeatedly, the research shows that the first few years of a child’s life are the most formative and the greatest opportunity for aptitude education. We see the same growth happening in new families. After the birth of the first child, a family begins to establish patterns and traditions that will set them on a path. We want Church, faith, music, and playful and loving parent/child interaction to be the elements of this path – a path heading to Heaven, rather than earthly goals. We must capitalize on these first few years in the child, and in the family with more than information – with experiences. Experiences fill the memory in deeply, more lasting ways than information. Experiences give us memories we can hold on to. And experiences of music are some of the most powerful that exist.
We want to share this with every parish. We want to offer this to every family. We believe in the power and value of good music education. But beyond that, the power of music and the power of prayer can transform these growing children, will transform these growing families and will transform parishes and communities.