Colorful Puppets, Ukuleles Create Inviting Space for Songs and Learning
Photos by Stephanie S. Cordle
Robin Giebelhausen believes it’s never too early to start a child’s musical education—and that includes her own little ones in utero right now.
The assistant professor of music education is 30 weeks pregnant with twins. She is taking every opportunity to sing to her babies, whether that is around the house or in class with her students.
“I want everyone to feel that they have access to music and can play music however they want,” said Giebelhausen.
This fall, she is launching an early childhood music program in the School of Music, to allow caregivers to bring in kids from birth to 5 years old to the University of Maryland for classes.
“Little kids love to play, and through play we can create opportunities for musical growth. They are not yet shaped by the world, so there is so much room for growth,” she said.
She took Maryland Today on a tour through her whimsical office, full of kid-friendly instruments and stuffed animals, in The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
Giebelhausen started as a pianist and a singer, but wanted a more portable instrument for teaching. “I tried guitar but it never fit my body. I found younger students have that same problem. Somebody suggested I try ukuleles, and that same solution worked wonderfully for elementary school students.”
Her collection of ukuleles includes her first one—still her favorite today—which she dubs the “Fluke Uke” after the name of the company that created it. Its unique flat bottom means she can stand it up when she is done with it, and she likes that it is “super durable. It’s been kicked across the classroom and stays together! And it has a lovely sound, despite that.”
She also has a banjo-lele, an electric ukulele that lights up, a left-handed uke (“it is a good reminder to me about how difficult it is to switch hands and what it is to be a beginner”) and a 3D-printed uke made in collaboration with people in the Clark School. “Hopefully it will be a way in the future to get students quick access to an instrument,” she said.
“Sometimes, if I am trying to get a 2-year-old to sing for me, I ask ‘Can you sing for the puppet?’” said Giebelhausen. “We focus on a play and relationship-based music making experience.”
She often uses Muppet-like creatures Major Tonic and his buddy, Dominant Monster, to demonstrate musical ideas through goofy voices and songs. To teach kids about different tonalities, she uses another pair: Dolan, who only sings in major tonality and Larkin, who only sings in minor tonality. Part of the appeal of coming to UMD was the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Muppets inventor Jim Henson ’60, she said.
These colorful tubes you thump on your body or other surfaces are one of many unusual tools she uses to introduce kids to music. Each tube is tuned to a particular pitch, and kids can follow along with music or create their own patterns—and who doesn’t love getting permission to whack things?
“It’s an accessible way to understand harmonic implications and melodic concepts,” she said.
Memes and Oatmeal the shrimp
“Students tend to come and talk to me about some hard things they navigate, like the transition from being a kid to an adult. Having a meme or toy can provide levity and a way for students to broach more difficult topics,” Giebelhausen said.
That includes her wall of silly memes and Oatmeal, “my non-binary, rainbow-colored emotional support shrimp. They want to support you and be hugged,” she said.
She often passes Oatmeal and other toys around in class to get students of all ages—from weeks-old infants to doctoral students—moving and feeling the music.
“My class is going to make students a little uncomfortable at first, because I ask them to sit on the floor, move their bodies, and imagine traveling to the moon or on another adventure with me,” she said. “To understand music learning, experience comes first. For the young (and old), experience is most effective through play.”
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