April Mendiola is a hometown girl. Having grown up and attended local schools, Mendiola is excited to be heading up the new music program, Whole Steps, at South Pasadena Arts and Music Academy, so close to where it all began for her. Mendiola has been a musician her whole life and began singing in musicals at her high school which led to her choosing to become a voice major at Cal State Fullerton, a school renowned for its music and drama programs. She calls it a leap of faith because up until that point, she had mostly focused on playing instruments. Once on the voice track, she picked up choral music education and says, “I was super into it and ended up getting my credential there. It was exciting and great preparation – I left that program to be a teacher and educate. So I was lucky.” Very soon after that, she knew she wanted to achieve mastery of her voice in order to be a better voice teacher so she got a Master’s in vocal performance from Cal State Long Beach.
Mendiola spent some years teaching public high school and then COVID hit and she says, “everything just came to a screeching halt, all the momentum I had kind of disappeared. It was devastating and brought me to a lot of career decisions which ultimately brought me here where I am now working with little ones.” Mendiola currently teaches SPAMA’s “Little Stars”, the 5-6 year olds in group classes, the young voices choir, the adult choir, as well as teaching voice and piano. “It just brings everything I love together in one place and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
“We have been so fortunate to have found April – she is just a gift!” says SPAMA owner and director Rebecca Ward. “I’ve been able to see her interact and work with the children, she’s a vocal specialist with expert training and experience with working with very young children and she shares my passion and enthusiasm for what we can do for really young children. I can’t wait to see everything this program becomes. When you get her talking about early childhood education, she just comes alive. I’m so grateful for her and her expertise and we’re just delighted to have her head up this program”
That program is called “Whole Steps” and is the brainchild of Ward. It’s a brand new program for SPAMA for very young children starting at six months and going up through pre-school age that will involve parents and caregivers attending classes with the children to begin their exploration of music. Ward tells us, “during the first five years of a child’s life, they are sponges for music – for creating and forming a strong musical foundation. Much in the same way children absorb language easily at a young age, they do the same with music, and that means pitch and rhythm and integrating those things into every fiber of their being. What we want to do for the community in South Pasadena is create a program that nurtures and builds that foundation – that takes those skills and makes them integral to the child so they are set up for life-long music learning and music enjoyment.”
With parents in the classroom, they will be learning along with their child which is why this program starts as early as six months old. “While students are in class with their parent/caregiver, we want them to experience the communal learning of making music together and give them the tools to take that home with them – to create musical games while you’re riding in the car or before bedtime that incorporate rhythm, pitch, body percussion, movement and all of the things that lay down a strong musical foundation,” says Ward.
After brainstorming a while, the name “Whole Steps” came to them and Ward says, “it felt like such a good fit – we talk about half steps and whole steps in music – it’s a pre-existing musical term that identifies the amount of space within an interval and we use whole steps and half steps to measure the space in between musical intervals – but we also liked the idea that this is step by step learning and holistic – that we’re bringing in the whole family. That communal sharing of music and taking it home and integrating it into many facets of your life. So taking those “whole steps” in those early years for children really seemed like a natural fit namewise and we got really excited when we landed on it!”
Ward began sharing her vision for Whole Steps with Mendiola and they were off to the races! “My philosophy just aligned really well to her vision,” says Mendiola. “I was 100% on board because I love early childhood. There’s something about the little ones that is so powerful and so exciting to experience and witness. So, now we’ve been strategizing about the age groups and collaborating to bring it to fruition which is really exciting.”
She goes on to explain, “It’s kind of an all encompassing experience of music and movement that will also educate the parent as to how they can implement these musical experiences at home. They will explore rhythm, they might play with scarves – what is the reaction of their body moving as they’re holding the scarf or holding a weighted beanbag? As much as it is a musical experience, it’s also working with their development, their cognitive and motor skills. It’s what early childhood music theorists call “acculturation” – so it’s the baby getting exposed and responding in their own way to what they’re being exposed to, and it will be unique to each child. After the acculturation stage, they develop into the imitation stage and that’s where they start imitating the sounds. Every child is going to kind of move to that stage in their own pace but they’ll have all of these opportunities, whether it’s rhythm, movement, dancing, holding a shaker or a drum in their hand – all of these sensory triggers. And of course singing!”
The parents will likely be involved in the classes until at least three years old. “It does so much for brain development – just hearing something, recognizing it and then doing it.” Mediola says it’s not about creating rock stars or professional musicians necessarily. “I’m hoping to inspire that creativity and curiosity for the little ones. It’s a beautiful opportunity to expose them to something that could hopefully inspire creativity in the future, not to mention it’s just going to help their overall growth and development in their brain and their cognitive skills, their motor skills, how they respond to sounds and triggers in the real world. And as they get older, hopefully, they continue and then strengthen and develop those skills. So I’m hoping that this is an opportunity for us to experience the music together.”
She smiles and adds, “in a way I’m kind of joining their little family time – it’s special to think of it that way. It’s exciting – so many possibilities.”
For more information and to sign up for Whole Steps, enroll at ArtsAndMusicAcademy.com or call (626) 808-4031. Classes begin in January.