Music to their Ears

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TLB Music teaches little ones much more than just singing along By Sarah Albert of New York Family When Katia Asthalter and Carina Zimmerman became good friends and housemates at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, they had one big thing in common: music. Both young women grew up with musical influences all around them; Asthalter took private voice lessons, was a choir performer, and studied opera; Zimmerman took private piano and violin lessons and played in orchestras, quartets and music competitions. Buoyed by their shared love of music and close friendship, the two knew that they would one day build something bigger than the sum of their parts. And so begins the story of TLB Music. Asthalter and Zimmerman liked the idea of combining their passions for early music education, so after moving to the city, they began hosting music classes at birthday parties, carrying their instruments and gear all over the city, and calling themselves Three Little Birds Music. Without a home base, the two were determined to bring their own brand of musical enjoyment and learning wherever it was needed. "It was exhausting, fun and solidified that it was what we wanted to do," Zimmerman remembers. Then they took the big leap, and in May 2009 opened TLB Music at their current home on East 78th Street. It has since become one of the most popular kiddie music havens on the Upper East Side (and beyond) for little ones 4 months to 6 years old. Once Asthalter and Zimmerman settled into their permanent space, they were able to fine-tune their unique partnership. At the helm of the front desk, Asthalter keeps the business running, chatting with parents on a regular basis, getting to know all of the TLB families, and making everyone feel welcome. "It's important for me that every mom who walks in here feels like she's the most important person who has walked through that door, because she is. She's here with her family to have an experience with us, and I want it to be the best and most fun she can possibly have," explains Asthalter. Inside the classroom, where children can often be found happily playing along to their favorite Robert Schumann piece, Zimmerman is busy as the creative force. She drafts each session's curriculum, writes lullaby verses and trains new teachers on the 20 instruments used in class-including violin, cello, electric guitar, banjo, clarinet, saxophone and piano. It's a collaboration that works so flawlessly and productively that TLB works a new overriding theme into every single class each semester. Past semesters have featured themes such as "Colors with Cosmo" (an exploration of new colors through famous paintings and music) and "Lost in the Library with Lola" (a literary journey in the classroom that introduced great children's books, including The Wizard of Oz, through music). This fall, the theme is "Noisy New York." "During the session, we'll be 'traveling' to a different location in NYC each week to meet a new genre of music, " Zimmerman says. So what's it like for a family to step inside TLB Music? After depositing their strollers in the indoor stroller parking lot, tots and caregivers can join a group in one of two classrooms. Most kids here know the drill. "Bye-bye shoes!" one child exclaims as he tosses his sneakers off and runs into the classroom ready with a smile. Amid mellow yellow walls, colorful baskets and instruments that line the room, colored circle mats are just waiting for people to take a seat. In front of the mats, rows of animal puppets are perfectly placed, waiting for little hands to bring them to life. The lively atmosphere serves to carry out a serious educational purpose: "The overarching mission is to provide a place for kids to learn about music and other things through creative play," Zimmerman says. "It's an environment where it feels like they're coming in to just have fun, dance, listen to music and engage in the music. And then when they leave, they've covered things like identifying colors, letters, different instruments and composers." Chances are, the children will also be leaving with something greater: "The goal for every child who joins our music program is to enhance his or her early development through musical play. Our music classes encourage motor, language, social and cognitive skills-all while the kids are having fun dancing, singing and playing instruments along to live music," Zimmerman elaborates. Infants gain increased gross motor skills and hand-eye coordination, and older kids learn how to identify instruments in an orchestra, as well as produce music in a variety of ways. Beyond the music classrooms, one special part of TLB is the Playroom downstairs. "It's something so basic but ? there were only a couple of [play] places on the Upper East Side, and for a lot of them you had to be a member," Zimmerman says. Fashioned in accordance with the rest of the TLB space-with sensitivity to those on the autism spectrum or with general sensory issues-the Playroom is thoughtfully designed in every way, from the textured walls that are pleasant to the touch to the non-fluorescent lights that are gentle on the eyes. There's a play kitchen, market area, train table, soft blocks, slides, mini cars, a dress-up station and more. But perhaps best of all, the space itself won't overwhelm your little one; the Playroom will only allow up to 15 kids at once. Back up in the TLB classrooms, kids, teachers, and, yes, parents too, are immersed in the music. In fact, parents are set to gain a great deal from class as well. Zimmerman explains that caregivers are vital to the classroom dynamic and the learning that continues at home. "What we work on is developing that relationship where the parent is actively helping; I always hope that they'll dust off the Beatles stuff after they've heard it in class. That's why I put songs in the curriculum that I hope will pick up the ear of the adults, so it's not just Old MacDonald." Class time ends with some bubble-popping fun, a stamp of the child's choosing and a sweet treat-but sweetest of all is the love for music that TLB Music seems so good at fostering in its students. In fact, by the time children of 5 or 6 have enjoyed all those TLB instruments and all that TLB music fun, they usually have a good hunch about which musical instruments they'd like to pursue in more depth with a tutor or at music school-a much better outcome than when parents simply impose their own favorite instruments on their kids. And it's this cultivation of knowledge and self-confidence that is the real music to so many parents' ears. For more information, visit

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