Peoria native Julie Westendorf-Walker has always been passionate about the performing arts. In her new venture, Music Together, she’s helping ignite musical sparks in the youngest central Illinois residents. “Music Together is a music and movement approach to early childhood music development for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarten children and their parents, teachers, and other primary caregivers. Originally offered to the public in 1987, it pioneered the concept of a research-based, developmentally appropriate, early childhood music curriculum that strongly emphasizes and facilitates adult involvement. The program encourages families to participate together in music education,” she said.
Westendorf-Walker attended Roosevelt Magnet School when it became the school for the performing arts and continued her musical education from there. “I was involved in many local musical theater productions from grade school on,” she said. “I was accepted to North Carolina School of the Arts as a sophomore in high school but decided I wasn’t ready to leave my parents. I attended Rollins College, where I was the first recipient of the Virginia Nelson Music Scholarship and earned a BA in music with an emphasis in vocal performance. I’ve been a vocalist at Northwoods Community Church for the past seven years and worked at the Peoria Symphony Orchestra and Peoria Academy before having my son, Weston.”
She said she always wanted to do something with music—and teaching was natural for her since she comes from a family of educators. “My parents just retired from District 150; my grandparents were teachers; and my sister, Joy, is a teacher in Ann Arbor, Mich.”
It was her sister who introduced her to the Music Together concept, she said. “I immediately looked into it and knew it was something I wanted to do. “I attended Music Together training in February and opened my center this summer. Music Together is a franchise in conjunction with the Center for Music and Young Children (CMYC) out of Princeton, N.J., where there’s ongoing research on music and the development of children. Music Together has been featured on Good Morning America and written about in Parents Magazine. Training is required of all center directors and teachers and is ongoing.”
There are Music Together Centers located all over the world, and Westendorf-Walker said she was excited about bringing it to the Peoria riverfront. “I knew as a new mom there was definitely a niche for it in Peoria. I wanted to do something with my new baby, and there just weren’t very many quality programs available for children birth through age five. I know how important early childhood music education is, and I knew this outstanding program was needed in Peoria.”
She said the program, which limits class size to 12, always offers new and different stimulation. “A family can be involved in Music Together for three years and never hear the same music twice. The program is broken down into three semesters: fall, winter, and spring, with an optional summer program that includes ‘the best of fall, winter, and spring.’ The music changes each semester. Each semester includes 10 weekly 45-minute classes, with a shorter summer session available. Every family also receives two professionally recorded CDs, a songbook, and a parents’ guide.”
As with any other skill, Westendorf-Walker said it’s only natural that kids learn musicality with and from their parents. “It’s just as appropriate for parents and caregivers to nurture their child’s music development as it is to support the development of other basic skills in a child’s life. Music Together is designed to help parents and caregivers provide this nurture, regardless of their own music background or ability.”
And the benefits of music at an early age are well known. “Music is the first and most important mode of communication experienced by infants,” she said. “Just as all children are born with the potential to learn to speak and understand their native language, all children are born with the potential to learn to ‘speak’ and understand their native music, provided their music development is nurtured.”
While moms typically attend daytime classes with their children, Westendorf-Walker said evening and weekend classes draw the whole family. “It’s so nice to see fathers involved. I also have several grandmothers who bring their grandchildren. If families have more than one child, they usually all attend. Research has shown children learn best in a mixed-age setting. The younger children learn from the older children, and the older ones usually take on a leadership role and develop self-confidence.”
She said several people new to Peoria—who had experienced Music Together in other parts of the U.S.—were pleased to discover the program here in Peoria. “They were very excited that they could continue with the program. Another person walked by the studio downtown and had read about Music Together in Parents Magazine but never dreamed Peoria would have a center.”
Westendorf-Walker receives constant feedback about how valuable the program is, such as from Amy Davis, a mom who just finished the summer semester and enrolled again for the fall. “I absolutely loved the class. I really didn’t realize how much my daughter loved music until we took Julie’s class. Her face just lights up and she starts to bounce and ‘sing’ to the music,” Davis said.
And while she loves being able to impact families’ lives in a positive way through music, Westendorf-Walker said the business side of things is a challenge. “I’d rather just sing and teach and have fun with the families. Bookkeeping and office work isn’t my strength or interest.”
She said future plans may include satellite sites and hiring staff, as well as continuing to enjoy watching a new generation of music lovers develop. “By being involved in Music Together, children have the opportunity to be emotionally healthier and more socially mature, as well as gain vocabulary and visual-motor development. But nothing surpasses the family time together that’s the strength of Music Together.”
Fall classes begin September 12 and run through November, with December Demonstration classes available. The winter semester begins in January, and pre-registration begins in October. Gift certificates are available for baby showers, birthdays, and holidays. For more information, call 370-4669 or visit www.musictogetherpeoria.com. AA!