Skip to main content

Greenville & Hockessin Life

Building a musical foundation

Nov 17, 2016 11:16AM ● By J. Chambless

Instructor Jill Hannagan has a student repeat a rhythm during one of her classes.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Somewhere in the room full of eager toddlers surrounding Jill Hannagan, there may be a future composer or a superstar musician. Or maybe not. And that's fine. What Hannagan wants to do is instill a lifelong love of music, and the time to begin that process is when children are so open to all experiences.
Hannagan is the owner and sole instructor for the Hockessin Music School, a business that she began in 1985 as Kindermusik of Hockessin. She taught classes using that curriculum until 1994, when the rigid nature of the lessons, as well as her desire to teach a program rooted in research concerning music in early childhood, led her to switch to the Musikgarten curriculum and change the name of the school.
"This curriculum gives teachers credit for their education and their hunches. Musikgarten has lesson plans, but it's left up to me if I want to do an activity twice or three times, or skip one. I just like the integrity of the company," Hannagan said during a quick break between classes, which are held in the large lobby area of the Skyline United Methodist Church. 
She pays to use the space, which perfectly suits her needs. Until last May, she held classes at the Hockessin Montessori School. All she requires is a large, open room where she can dance, twirl, tap out rhythms and share music with students from infants through age 10. "I really wanted to be able to influence the musicality of children," she said of starting her business, "and that has to be done at these early ages."
Children pick out instruments to play along with a song.

 What the job mainly requires is endurance and boundless enthusiasm, judging by a recent session of two classes held at the church. Hannagan keeps everyone moving -- parents and children -- while deftly switching between songs and activities without a moment of down time. The students eagerly embrace each activity, patiently take turns, listen attentively and get big belly laughs out of seeing mom or dad dancing with them.
But the classes are not just about having fun. The listening and repeating, moving to rhythms, getting a chance to tap a drum in different ways, running back and forth with a billowing scarf, jumping in and out of hoops -- it all builds spatial awareness, listening skills, an appreciation for the building blocks of music, and a sense that music is fun, not drudgery.
"There was a study done a while ago that said out of every 10 people who take piano lessons, eight quit before the end of the first year," Hannagan said. "That's sad. That's not a matter of not liking music, it's a matter of, 'I don't like not being successful.'"
Making music is a uniquely human instinct, and mothers sing to their infants in every corner of the world. But as music fades from a child's life during the school years, society is losing touch with nursery rhymes, sing-song games, hopscotch, and the way that music used to be a building block of childhood.
"What used to happen spontaneously at home was storytelling, and singing songs together, riding in the car and singing, going to church and singing, that is not necessarily a part of every child's life any longer," Hannagan said. "Kids now are sitting in front of a TV instead of being interactive. Society is changing. Kids can't go out and play by themselves any longer. Instead, it's all organized activities.

Students tap out a descending scale during class.

 "Kids now have to sit up straight in their desks, and nobody's giving them a chance to develop these physical impulses that are so necessary. ... For anybody to learn, there needs to be three things -- the information itself, a sensorial experience, and an emotional connection," Hannagan said. "Listening to Mozart on your CD player is not the same experience as having your mother hold you and sing to you." "Music in schools is fading away, and there's less free time, with more time spent on academics," she continued. "But research shows that this age is a time for kids to develop their bodies. That's why we do lots of stopping and starting, and that running game we did  teaches motor skills, to run without running into each other. Those are the exact skills that are going to keep these kids from getting in each other's space when they're 8 or 9 years old. 
Hannagan is a skilled pianist, was a piano major at the University of Delaware, and worked as a band director at St. Mark's High School. "All I ever wanted to be was a high-school band director," she said. "I was sitting in the football stadium at the end of the season after I'd done it three years, and thought, 'OK, this is what I've wanted to do since I was 10 years old, and I've done it. Now what am I going to do?'"
Shifting gears completely, she sold life insurance for three years. After having her first son in 1984, she took a job teaching and doing music for students in grades K through 8 at St. Catherine of Sienna in Wilmington, ran her own piano studio, and began investigating early childhood music education.
 "I found out I loved it," she said. "It was where I needed to be. It takes a lot of energy, but it's very gratifying. You see children who are going to grow up knowing that music is something to celebrate with other people, as opposed to something that brings you lots of angst and requires to spend hours and hours in a practice room, by yourself.
"When I was teaching school, I'd go into the faculty room and teachers would be saying, 'I don't know what's wrong with these kids today. They don't listen.' Well, nobody was teaching them how to listen," Hannagan said.
During her recent class for 3- and 4-year-olds, Hannagan gathered the children around her and played sounds on her iPad -- a woodpecker, a buzzing bee, and more. Then she had the children tap out a rhythm on a drum to imitate the bird sounds -- louder for nearby sounds, softer for sounds farther away. It's a building block for fingering techniques on many instruments, but it's also just fun. "Listening," Hannagan said, "is a much different thing than just hearing. If we just talk louder than them, or talk over them, we're not going to train them to actively listen."
As she works with parents who are striving to give their children an academic head start, Hannagan said she wants to convince all of them to keep children involved in music in some way. "Music is uniquely human. Because of that, I think that everybody needs to be given a chance to succeed in music, in whatever form they want," she said. "Early childhood music education is important. It isn't something you do for a few months and then try something else. You should keep your child in music education, and later, if they want to stop, they will have a foundation set. 
"If you ask 30 people how many of them took piano lessons as a child, just about every hand is going to go up," she said. "And if you ask how many of them quit and wish they hadn't, just about every hand will stay up. You quit because you're not successful right away. But if you have the right experience where you're making music with your friends and family, and later you learn to play those songs on the piano, for instance, can you imagine how gratifying that will be? All children deserve to have this foundation established -- in addition to science and math."
Gathering the children on the carpet for a session of tapping out a descending scale on wooden resonator bars, Hannagan patiently made sure that every child had two turns, tapping out the sequence as she sang a descending melody.
"The kids trust me. They know they're going to get two turns," she said. "They know that when I get out just one drum, I'm going to give everybody a turn with that drum. The children are very comfortable in this environment, and because of that, they're not concerned about just themselves. They can think about, and care for, other people. I'm modeling respect for them. That's what I wish parents could understand -- we're setting a foundation for life. Even if they don't play an instrument later on, they will still get joy out of music, and they will be better people for having had the experience."
Hannagan has worked with hundreds of children over the years, and now the moms who are bringing their own toddlers were her former students. "One of my students is a music teacher now, and I think she was a teacher of the year in her district at one point. She got her start with me," she said, smiling. 
As the mother of two sons, now 32 and 29, and a grandmother of an 11-month-old, Hannagan is happy to see a love of music cross generations in her students. "It's a privilege for me to see this keep growing," she said.
For information about classes, visit

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Greenville & Hockessin Life's free newsletter to catch every headline