Oran Etkin: Music as Child’s Play

With his Timbalooloo program, the clarinetist is introducing jazz to very young children

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Oran Etkin (right) with buddies (photo: courtesy of Timbalooloo)

Lots of jazz artists and presenters like to talk about reaching a younger audience. But few go as far as clarinetist and saxophonist Oran Etkin, who regularly teaches and plays music to infants. Etkin created his Timbalooloo teaching method in order to reach potential music students before life, language, and thinking get in the way.

As he explained by phone from Turkey, where he was performing and recording new material, Timbalooloo isn’t about learning to play an instrument, but rather learning to speak the language of music intuitively. “[When] we teach a foreign language to older students,” he explains, “we teach all the rules of grammar, and maybe they study for several years, but then they go abroad and can’t speak fluently because they’re thinking about how to conjugate every verb. A little kid just learns how to speak fluently. They end up being able to conjugate every verb, but they don’t know what the word ‘conjugate’ means. If they have a thought, they just express it without thinking. We all know musicians who are like that—whatever comes to their mind, they play it. That’s what I hoped to do with kids.”

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After completing his M.A. at Manhattan School of Music, Etkin taught preschoolers part-time in NYC’s Tribeca neighborhood. “They said, “Do whatever you want,’” he recalls. “On those two days, I had 12 classes, so I started to bring in all the music I love, like Herbie Hancock and Tito Puente, thinking, ‘How can I present it to really little kids—three-year-olds, four-year-olds—and get them excited?’ I started telling stories about the musicians and I started thinking about what did I really want the kids to learn—those essential things that I wished my older students knew at that age. I started a real method around it. Having 12 classes a day, it’s just like practicing. I refined it and refined it to the point where the kids were talking about Herbie Hancock. And parents got interested in it, and they asked me to do more and more.”

Unlike the early music programs many of us experienced, which used the recorder, Timbalooloo has the glockenspiel as its bridge instrument. Every kid gets their own, but with a catch: The instrument starts as just one note “old.” They then add a second note, a third note, and the instrument grows up. “Each time they get a new note, they learn how to write that note on the page,” Etkin says. “And they learn a song. All the songs they learn are with a story. There’s a story about Duke Ellington and Princess Ella and Curious George Gershwin, who was curious about Duke’s music and goes to Duke’s castle and finds rhythm in the basement, and that’s how they end up doing ‘I Got Rhythm.’”

Besides the stories, there’s a strong visual element. “The way we get a two-year-old to understand pitch is through birds and cows. Birds fly up high, they’re small, and they make high sounds. Cows are big, live down low, and make low sounds. We have a game where one kid points up to the bird and the other kid plays the bird sound on the piano. And they point down to the cow and the other kid plays the cow sound. What they’re doing, even at the age of two, is responding to what they see and hear and playing the correct notes. Basically it’s the fundamentals of reading music.”

In Timbalooloo, instruments are turned into characters—like the Kenyan drum Ngoma, Clara Net, and her mother Big Momma Tuba—all of whom talk, with a lot of call and response. Etkin wants children to understand that they can make an instrument speak, and use it to express emotions and ideas. He’s working hard to put the play back in playing music.

Most remarkably, he’s even expanded the program to reach children as young as three months old. “You can see that they can tell the difference when harmony changes or something changes in the rhythm,” Etkin says. “They can’t speak yet, but they’re making sense of all the sounds they hear.” Because his method is based on non-verbal cues, it translates well to other languages and cultures. Etkin has been doing clinics and workshops around the world and finds little difference in the response: “Kids are kids everywhere. They laugh at the same points, they get teary-eyed at the same points. It’s amazing to see how kids react to things universally.”

After sending teaching artists into schools, community centers, and even homes for several years, Etkin recently took the plunge and now has a physical space in Soho where Timbalooloo classes are taught by himself and a staff, many of whom have been with the program since 2010. Ultimately, his goal isn’t to produce an army of musicians. “The idea is that they really understand the language of music. They speak it, they have fun with it, they understand that they can play with it and that it’s something that belongs with them. And when somebody else is expressing themselves, they can get excited about the nuances of that expression rather than just sitting back and saying, ‘Oh, that sounds nice.’” Maybe someday he could expand the program further—to include jazz critics.

You can learn more about Timbalooloo at timbalooloo.com.