Dance, Sing and Play

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Rhythm sticks turn into musical instruments with Mrs. D (middle). Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Johanna Dakopolos, known by her students as Mrs. D, leads a popular children's music program. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Instruments sit neatly stacked before class starts. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Vienna Mott uses a rhythm stick during class. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Vienna Mott and Elijah Warren play with drums during class. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Vienna Mott hugs her grandparents, Pat and Ed Davis. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Musical instruments adorn a wall in Mrs. D's classroom space. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Mrs. D leads parents and kids in a parachute song. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Mrs. D's pitch pipe and list of songs for the day's session. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Hunter Wolski hits the strings on Mrs. D's guitar. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Instruments fill baskets in Mrs. D's classroom. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

From left: Isaac, Ashley and Elijah Warren make sound effects for a song with Mrs. D. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Hazel Schumacher and her mother, Donna, smile between songs. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Mrs. D leads the class in a guitar circle. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Hazel Schumacher and her mother, Donna, get some cuddle time. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Corryn Horsey and her mother, Trina, play with sounds. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Trina Horsey and her daughter, Margot, get directions for the parachute song from Mrs. D. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Corryn Horsey gets lifted by her mother, Trina, while her sister, Margot, looks on. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Mrs. D (with guitar) leads the class in a song. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

Samuel Ulven and his mother, Whitney, get some cuddle time as Mrs. D's class winds down. Photo by Nicole McDavid.

You have to go to Mrs. D’s music class. Try mentioning you’re interested in a children’s music program in Salem, and you’re likely to hear some variation on that theme. She’s got this “way” with kids. She’s amazing. One mom told me how her daughter carried Mrs. D’s holiday card around the house all day, just so she could look at her.

You won’t find much online about Mrs. D — otherwise known as Johanna Dakopolos. I’ve come to learn that her “Little Music School” fills itself through virtually 100 percent word-of-mouth recommendations. And she’s always full.

If you ask the adults who take their children to Mrs. D, many of them say they appreciate her family-centric methods. But more than that, they rave about Mrs. D — her personality, her approach to music, her talent at connecting with kids.

“Mrs. D has an innate ability to translate a child’s slight sound or movement into a musical expression while tuning in the parents so they can recognize these small little miracles of learning,” says Trina Horsey, who attends with her two daughters: Corryn, 3, and Margot, 15 months.

Not Your Typical Music Class

The best way to understand Mrs. D’s approach and aura (it seems there’s no other word for it) is to participate in her class. So I arrive at her West Salem home on a frosty December morning to join in the last class of a 10-week session.

Natural light streams in through an entire wall of windows in Mrs. D’s classroom space. Mirrors line the back of the room, and a beautifully carved pump organ — an heirloom from her Aunt Teckla in Nebraska — occupies the opposite wall. A meticulously organized collection of baskets and bins holding her collection of instruments fill the room’s closets and cupboards.

I’m early, but Mrs. D, 56, greets me like an old friend, and instructs me to wait by the door while she tidies up. She grabs a vacuum and practically dances her way around that room. I get the sense that this is just how she is. She lives music.

Mrs. D has an innate ability to translate a child’s slight sound or movement into a musical expression while tuning in the parents so they can recognize these small little miracles of learning.

I stow my wet boots and coat in a pristine little cubby, and sit down to watch as she greets every arriving family member and child as though each is her favorite person in the universe — like she’s been looking forward to this all week. All of Mrs. D’s classes are mixed ages, from birth to 5 years old. In any one class, there might be a baby, a toddler, a grandmother, a grandfather, a mom, a dad, a sister and a brother.

I take a seat on the carpet, and eventually I’m part of a circle — and we remain that way for the bulk of the class. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t what unfolded. For starters, nearly half the class has occurred before I realize I haven’t heard a CD player or even an instrument. It’s nothing but the sound of Mrs. D and her students. This is no accident. “I try to use a prop only three times. … The rest of the time, it’s just our voice and our body; we’re the music-makers,” Mrs. D. explains. There is singing, sure, but also a great deal of laughter and silliness.

One thing you won’t find in Mrs. D’s class are adults looking on as the children participate. She tells me, “Making it a relational experience makes all the difference. Children have a biological drive to emulate the person they trust. I can’t teach the children (without the adults) because they aren’t bonded to me. If the parent is participating, the child’s defense mechanisms go down, and they’re able to watch me but with a new lens. It’s safer.”

Mrs. D hopes the parental participation doesn’t end when class is over. She wants the parents to “have enough fun with it that they’ll go home and reinforce it some more.”

Who is Mrs. D?

Mrs. D became an underground Salem children’s music legend by accident. She was interested in sending her own two children to Buttercup Hill preschool in South Salem but told the school’s director, Gloria Rice, she couldn’t afford the tuition. “What can you do?” Rice asked. Dakopolos responded: “Well, I know about 300 children’s songs and I’m a decent guitarist and I love to sing.”

Rice only needed to observe Dakopolos with the children once before she knew she was witnessing something special. “After school that day,” Dakopolos tells me, “she said, ‘Johanna. There are people who have Ph.Ds in early childhood education who can’t do what you’re doing. You’re a natural. … You really need to dedicate yourself to this.’”

If the parent is participating, the child’s defense mechanisms go down, and they’re able to watch me but with a new lens.

Dakopolos taught music at Buttercup Hill from 1991 to 1998 before she was ready to move on. “I wanted the parents,” she explains. Dakopolos’s passion project — and practically her raison d’être — is to make music a family habit. Music, song and dance shouldn’t be reserved for a weekly song session, she says, so the parents need to be on board. “I want to transform the family.”

The daughter of an educator and a “social dance” pioneer, it seems Dakopolos was destined for this type of work, although she didn’t realize it initially. She grew up in Seattle in what she calls a “musically and movement-enriched house.”

She speaks almost reverently of her father, a high school principal who devoted himself to opening schools and to public education in general. Her mother’s side of the family was all about music and movement — many of them held advanced degrees in recreation. Her mother, who taught physical education at the University of Washington, wrote a textbook on recreational dance that became a must-read for PE teachers. “The playful side of me is my mom,” Dakopolos says.

And though she doesn’t consider herself a performer, Dakopolos must have inherited some musical genes from her grandmother, a “musical prodigy” who studied in Vienna as a girl before touring the U.S. as a concert pianist.

When Dakopolos attended Whitman College in Washington, she didn’t study music or education, but singing remained part of her daily life. Her marriage to her husband brought her to Salem in 1982, and in 1985 she enrolled at Portland State University for a master’s degree in social work.

But a high-risk pregnancy and the birth of her first child, followed closely by her second, interrupted her schooling. “The next thing I knew, I was a mom and singing all the time,” she says. Fast-forward a few short years of singing to her children, and her career in music began.

Music Together

Mrs. D’s focus on both the adults and the children is part of what led her to use a curriculum from Music Together, an early childhood music and movement program that follows its own songbook and philosophy.

First offered to the public in 1987, the research-based program was built on the notion that parents should be involved in their children’s music education. It’s also designed to be developmentally appropriate and to combat many children’s lack of music exposure — and to get them learning much more than just “Happy Birthday” and the ABC song.

That explains why I’d heard none of the songs Mrs. D used in the class I attended. No “Wheels on the Bus” or “Old McDonald.” Instead, we moved through catchy (but unfamiliar) rhythms and playful folk songs.

Mrs. D opened her “Little Music School” in 1999, and initially used her own material. “Before I taught Music Together, I designed and taught my own curriculum, (which followed) the preschool model of kids of the same age together in a class,” Mrs. D says. “Families were frustrated because they had two kids of different ages. And then I had families with kids who had special needs. So instead of celebrating what their kids were doing, (parents) were feeling the tendency to compare.”

When Mrs. D’s sister — the parent of a special-needs child — told her about Music Together, she knew she’d found the right fit. She switched to the new curriculum in 2004.

The curriculum’s potential as therapy for special-needs children worked for Amber Petty’s 5-year-old daughter, Tessa, who has Down syndrome. Petty met Mrs. D when she was pregnant with Tessa, and today she attends with both Tessa and her 2-year-old son, Jack.

“I started Tessa in Mrs. D’s music class when she was 9 months old. Mrs. D has this unique way of drawing all children with all abilities and ages into this magical, musical heaven. … I most enjoy watching all the children grow musically in their own special way.”

The fact that each child learns and participates differently is also central to Mrs. D’s class. You may see one child run around the middle of the circle while another stays firmly planted in the parent’s lap.

“The child is teaching himself or herself the music,” Mrs. D says. She recounts an oft-cited idea from psychologists that “a child’s work is to play.” “So if it looks like they’re playing, then I know they’re working. If it looks like they’re not, then I am very sure they are either focused on receiving (the music) or they’re on overload because it’s been stimulating enough.”

Building a Community

As it turns out, the parental participation can be the biggest hurdle to jump. As adults, we carry some serious musical baggage. “Some of the parents are going to get flashbacks from music education experiences — thinking they can’t sing in tune or wishing they had the words written out for them,” Dakopolos says. “There’s that initial apprehension. Is it going to be safe? Is it going to be fun?”

The adults in the class I observe don’t need anyone to convince them to participate. Throughout class, Mrs. D introduces new melodies and rhythms, adding and creating new lyrics on the fly. The parents jump right in, creating lyrics of their own that the whole class repeats. In one particularly enthusiastic segment, each child’s name is inserted right into the song. This, Mrs. D tells the adults, is critical. “The child gets to feel special, and sees their parent being creative.”

If it looks like they’re playing, then I know they’re working.

Later, Mrs. D tells me, “Adults don’t have to be good singers to make a difference.” Ed Davis, who, along with his wife, takes their 3-year-old granddaughter, Vienna Mott, to class, put it this way: “When you ask most older children or adults to sing, their response is too often, ‘No, I’m not very good.’ Johanna uses music and rhythms to remind us all how much fun it is to be silly and just ‘wiggle around.’”

I ask Mrs. D about the spontaneously creative part of the class, and she’s delighted to elaborate. “When parents sing and move and make up lyrics, they reinforce the sense of community. … It’s not for performance, it’s for sharing. … We’re not trying to impress anybody or entertain anybody.

“It’s not simply about getting kids to sing and move — it’s about creating a full-on music community. The kids are cueing off what the parents are doing … and by the end … the children are cueing off each other. It’s like we are a village — a culture.”

As I meet with Mrs. D several hours after observing her in action, I ask her about the song she sang and played on her guitar at the end of the class. It’s a slow folk song, and it’s been playing in my head all day. “Oh, yes,” she says. “‘Tumbalalaika.’” She disappears for a few moments, then returns to me, songbook in hand. She sings it again, eager to share music with yet another person.

The song is a perfect example of the kind of unexpected tune you’d hear in her class — beautiful and simple and unfamiliar. She’d saved it for the end of the session, when it was time to unwind. Children cuddled with the parents or grandparents while she sang the haunting melody.

“My lesson plan is almost like choreography,” she says. “It has a flow and it has a climax and it has places it builds and falls. There’s all this opportunity to come in and out and to be collective and individual, and to be big and to be small, and to be loud and to be quiet. Then, in all of that, the children get enough. What do they do with it? We’ll find out at home.”

Ultimately, Mrs. D wants children to have the experience she had growing up.  She tries to bring recreational music into children’s homes, where they can sing and dance and act silly with their family — whenever the mood strikes them. She believes it’s good for the brain, and good for the soul.

“(Music) is something that you can cultivate as a practice and habit of bouncing and skipping and singing and rocking and having harmony.  It does something for everybody — not just the child.”

Learn More

Ready to put on your dancing shoes and enroll a child in Mrs. D’s Little Music School? She can be reached at musictogethersalem@gmail.com or 503-581-4158 for more details.

Anne Lapour is a former career counselor, a freelance writer and a stay-at-home mom. After writing this article, she decided to attend Mrs. D’s class with her two daughters, which has resulted in several spontaneous dance parties in the living room. 

Nicole McDavid has many loves, photography and music being the top two. When not behind the camera, she works as a music therapist, and she is a trained Music Together teacher. She found it impossible not to sing along while taking pictures for this story.