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Small Musicians, Big Futures: SFCM's Early Childhood Program Grows

The Early Childhood program added 16 new students in the 2023-2024 academic year.

December 6, 2023 by Alex Heigl

SFCM is focused on educating musicians of all ages, and nowhere is that more apparent than in its thriving Early Childhood and Pre-College programs.

"SFCM is committed to ensuring that young students can receive a strong musical foundation that will set them up for success on their musical journeys," says Justin Sun, Associate Dean and Executive Director of Pre-College and Continuing Education. Curriculum for the Early Childhood program—which added 16 students in the 2023-2024 academic year—consists of weekly private lessons, Dalcroze Eurhythmics classes, monthly instrumental group classes, and parent education sessions.

Students in SFCM's Pre-College program.

Students in SFCM's Pre-College program.

For Cliff and Christina Shih, whose daughters Chloe and Claire are studying violin in Early Childhood and piano in Pre-College, respectively, that both daughters would end up at SFCM seemed like a matter of course—and simplified their Saturdays. "One of us would be taking Claire to her program on Saturdays, and Chloe would miss her or say 'I want to go to SFCM,' and Claire mentioned that she'd seen children her sister's age at the school while she was there on Saturdays."

Christina and Clifford Shih with their daughters (L-R) Claire and Chloe.

Christina and Clifford Shih with their daughters (L-R) Claire and Chloe.

"So now we can take both of them on Saturdays," Christina laughs. "I really like the structure. She gets her private lessons, but the groups let her see the other kids and help her be influenced by them. Like, she knows she needs to practice, because they do. So she gets to grow up in that environment with her friends and classmates working at it as well."

Pre-College student Chloe Shih.

Corina Santos, Claire's private violin teacher, emphasizes the importance of community within music education. "The social aspect of music was very important to me growing up and part of the responsibility I feel to teach my students what it's like to be a good musician. That involves how you relate to the other people in your community, how you show up for your peers, how you treat them, how you behave in an ensemble setting. Helping them engage in respect for their peers and their enthusiasm to be around other people who share that enthusiasm, is a really a big privilege that I have, to introduce that to them."

A group class with the entire program has been upgraded to once a month, from once a semester previously. "Having that mix of personalities across a pretty big age range makes group class even more interesting," Santos adds. "We don't even necessarily have to be playing our violins all the time to be having an educational musical experience that really impacts the kids."

A Pre-College piano student at SFCM.

Cliff Shih hopes his daughters can learn more than just notes from the experience: "I believe in practice, and discipline, and I want the kids to have that kind of challenge because I believe that in doing so, they would be successful in my job, no matter what." 

Corina Santos

Corina Santos

Beyond community, early childhood programs can foster a sense of drive in young musicians who might not be seeing it elsewhere. "Claire was 9 or 10 when she entered the program," Christina said, "and before, because there weren't very many kids at her level at her school, she didn't really know where to go, like what her next steps should be. But after attending SFCM and seeing her classmates and her professors perform, now she says things like, 'Oh, that's my next piece. I want to play that type of thing.'"

"It's a time in a child's life where so many developmental changes are happening," Santos says. "For a lot of them, they're also just getting more used to physically being in their bodies, and music is a way to help them be more connected with their physicality. But it's also important for kids that young to be able to feel they have an identity that's just beyond, 'I like dinosaurs,' or 'My favorite color is orange'—now they can say, 'I play the violin' or 'I play the piano.'"

"In the spring, my students went in a little small group and taught part of a song to another student who hadn't learned it before," Santos said. "To see them take ownership of it, 'We know this song, and we can teach it to somebody else;' you're never, ever too young to feel that sense of mastery of something. Instilling that in my students is something that I take a lot of joy in and I hope that they can just take that and run with it." 

A performance from SFCM's Early Childhood students.

At least two of them have continued to run with it, and returned to SFCM to give it back. Lara Downes, a Pre-College alum, chose SFCM to help her stage and record a reimagined Rhapsody in Blue for the piece's 100th anniversary this year that will be released on SFCM's partner label PENTATONE, while another Pre-College alum, Vinay Parameswaran, will be guest-conducting the school's Orchestra in December. 

Learn more about SFCM's Early Childhood and Pre-College programs.