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Features | Fall 2014
(photos courtesy of Stephen Michael Schwartz)

Music—the Universal Language

Music is the universal language that embraces children of all nationalities and cultures and encourages young children and their parents to melt away boundaries as children embark on a journey to discover their own inner musicians.

“The melody communicates one thing, the words another, and adding movement to a song provides the thread that binds it all together,” says Stephen Michael Schwartz, a children’s artist who has been sharing his gift of song and music with audiences for more than thirty years.

This gift has guided Stephen on a journey across the world where he finds environments may change, but parents, anywhere he travels, all want the same thing for their children. Music brings joy, laughter, and song into children’s hearts and they are able to get caught up in that music as they hear familiar notes or melodies. Stephen, best known as a member of the popular children’s group Parachute Express, is currently performing solo in more than sixty shows in thirty cities across China, utilizing children’s music to break down barriers.

Stephen encourages educators and performers of children’s music to sing with the children, not at them, and to guide the children to the music as well as to connect visually through familiar movements and actions. Music provides the opportunity for an artist to create a dialogue between children and parents of all different cultures through the song being sung or performed.

An example of this is one of Stephen’s best-loved songs, “When I Build My House,” in which he uses sequencing to provide children with the structure to follow along even though they may not know the lyrics or the language. Working forward and then backward with that sequencing provides a technique for memory and movement. “When I Build My House” also lends itself to movements that are familiar to children everywhere, such as “hammering nails,” “sawing the wood,” “laying the bricks,” and “painting the walls.”

Call-and-response songs also work very well in the international language of children’s music. Singing a verse and having children echo the verse back allows the children to interact with the singer and learn the song more effectively in a playful manner. For children who don’t speak the language, this technique is essential in teaching the words and meaning.

Stephen also recommends using syllables such as “la, la, la” in the lyrics of a song, which enables young children to sing along with ease.

Animal sounds are universal as well. The “mooing” of a cow, “quacking” of a duck, or “barking” of a dog, provide something familiar when learning a new song, and also facilitates children’s ability to join into the song when language is a barrier that needs to be overcome.

Although children may not fully understand the lyrics of a song, they are able to translate the sounds, to visually understand different movements, and to thus discover the amazing international language of music that speaks to them through rhythms, notes, and movements.

Stephen uses a simple recipe for reaching children musically “where they live,” no matter what their culture. The ingredients are: relatable themes, a playful presentation, communicating a sense of wonder, universal truths, humor, and love. An example of a relatable theme might be a song about the color yellow, such as Stephen’s “Wrap Me Up in Yellow”:

The sun comes up with a yellow glow,
Makes everything in the whole world grow.
Wrap me up, wrap me up, wrap me up
In yellow.

A song that communicates love might be Stephen’s song “Gotta Lotta Love,” about the love a child has for each member of his or her family.

That’s my father, there’s my mother,
Those are my sisters, I’m their brother.
That’s only part of my family tree;
Got a lot of love surrounding me.

Whether singing songs to children in America or in China, Stephen recognizes he is playing an essential role in children’s futures by exposing them to the wonder of music. Drawing inspiration from his childhood experiences of sitting around a campfire and singing along to the folk songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Stephen knows he is helping to plant a love of music in children and to make music a part of their everyday lives.

Now, after such a long career doing what he loves, Stephen also gets to experience the children he inspired years ago as parents who return to see him with their children and express gratitude for the impact he has had on their lives.

The importance of music as a universal language defies all boundaries and erases all borders. It has the power to connect each and every one of us. Without it, our world would be very different.

Stephen is the recipient of many awards, including but not limited to the National Parenting Award, the 2013 Mom’s Choice Award, and the 2013 Creative Child Magazine Award.