Alphons Joseph’s ‘music pre-school’ prepares young children for formal education in music

It’s a rainy Saturday morning at Pathadipalam and music director Alphons Joseph has just stepped into a small room on the first floor of his school, Cross Roads Academy of Music and Technology. Waiting for him are a bunch of excited three, four and five-year-olds, all ready to start their hour-long class. Their friends, ‘Beethoven Bear’ and ‘Mozart Mouse’, are off to a forest today and they’re going along too, singing an action song lead by Alphons. In the forest they meet a note named ‘D’. “D in the middle of two black keys!” they chorus, “Followed by E, F and G!” This is ‘music preschool’ in full flow.

Traditionally, children are accepted into music schools only after age six for by then their fine motor movements are developed enough to manage instruments. “But it is possible to impart basic music concepts such as scale, melody, rhythm and music theory much before that,” says Alphons. ‘Music preschool’ was a phenomenon he encountered in Los Angeles while on a US tour with Rexband. For instance, little children, not yet in Class 1, had learnt the difference between high and low notes, loud and soft notes, by associating them with various portions of a room. He observed that sound, touch and spatial movements, which are the basic principles of preschool education, could be applied to teach music to toddlers too.

“Music education has always been my passion,” says Alphons. As a playback singer for A.R. Rahman, and music director for films such as Big B and Elektra, Alphons was invited to judge the Amrita TV Superstar series where he also doubled up as coach for singers like Job Kurian and Mridula Warrier. But Alphons discovered the preschool tutor in him when he began teaching his kindergartener daughter music. “I tried explaining simple concepts to her like I would for adults, but she kept running away. That’s when I noticed the kind of worksheets she was bringing back home from LKG. I used something similar to teach her music, and she listened!” With the Alfred Music Preschool syllabus as a broad guide, Alphons began charting his own methods and teaching aids for Cross Roads’ preschool program that is now a few months old, and the response, he says, has been overwhelming.

“Music preschool is to prepare children for formal learning, so that when they begin regular classes they don’t feel like they’re in an unfamiliar world,” explains Alphons. Each class opens with an action song that children learn over time, a period of story-telling or worksheet colouring and then a rhythm skills section. “Once children are comfortable with the songs, they grasp the basics of solfege (pitch and scale) through that; the worksheets convey simple music theory and they learn primary beat patterns by clapping or keeping time with drumsticks to the songs they know.” While the class doesn’t actively teach an instrument, Alphons says, each child’s liking and potential for melody instruments, drums, or vocals, come quickly to the fore.

Under his banner Crossroads Music India, Alphons hopes to soon publish official preschool music books, besides train preschool teachers with an inclination for music, as well as tie up with existing regular preschools to introduce music wings there. “My dream is to someday reach children even before they turn three, who will come with their parents to class. It’s scientifically proven that the music a pregnant mother listens to influences her baby, so why not extend that idea to after babies are born too?”

For the immediate future, Alphons is looking at developing a similar preschool syllabus for Carnatic music as well. “Regardless of age, Carnatic music is taught the same way to everyone and I think that’s one of the reasons why many children drop out of Indian classical music these days,” he says. Thrissur-based Carnatic musician Murali has already begun penning children’s poetry through which Carnatic kritis can be introduced, and Alphons plans to build on these foundations.

Cross Roads’ itself was begun in 2013 as a school that taught children both Western and Indian streams of music since Alphons performed both, and believed children could be simultaneously proficient in the two worlds.

The school also specialises in music technology, which Alphons noticed was unfamiliar territory for young playback singers entering a technology-heavy film-music industry. The music preschool is just another effort, he says, “to change as times change”.