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Music Education Research Vol. 7, No. 2, July 2005, pp. 185! 209 /

Observable indicators of flow experience: a developmental perspective on musical engagement in young children from infancy to school age Lori A. Custodero* Columbia University, New York, USA

Flow experience is an optimal state determined by an individual’s perception of high skill and high challenge for a given task. In this study, young children’s flow experience is examined in four naturally occurring music learning environments: infants and two-year-olds in childcare settings, and school-age children in Suzuki violin and Dalcroze classes. Descriptive observations of challenge-seeking, challenge-monitoring, and social context indicators previously used in flow analyses in four- to five-year-old children provided evidence that these indicators also function beyond that age group with varying degrees of intensity and frequency. Key findings included an age-related increase in observed self-assignment, which was observed to decline in children of school age. Additional findings include the accessibility and responses to musical structure for infants and toddlers, the role of gesture in helping children focus, the salience of adult awareness and the changing roles of peers across development.

Introduction Music making is compelling because it invites our best efforts. Characterized by the possibilities engendered by invention and interpretation, such experiences are evident throughout childhood, when music engages in myriad ways. In infancy, mutual attunement is sustained as parent!child dyads communicate distinctive messages through melodic contour and rhythmic patterns (Stern, 2000). Later, young children use music to accompany their play by creating soundtracks to imaginative renderings of narratives, and demonstrate embodied engagement as they spontaneously move in response to music heard (Moorhead & Pond, 1978; Young, 1999; Littleton, 2002). Older children spend countless hours in the playground practicing musical games, teaching themselves and others how to play a riff or sing a chorus (Campbell, 1998; Marsh, 1995). Across age groups, musical engagement is *Music and Music Education, Box 139, Teachers College, Columbia University, 525 West 120th Street, New York, NY 10027, USA. Email: ISSN 1461-3808 (print)/ISSN 1469-9893 (online)/05/020185-25 # 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd DOI: 10.1080/14613800500169431


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initiated and maintained through skilled awareness of and responsiveness to opportunities for increased complexity implicit in musical materials. Such complexity informs an individual’s perception, and therefore their psychological state. An activity considered highly challenging, coupled with confidence in one’s abilities to meet that challenge, results in optimal experience, or ‘flow’ (e.g. Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, 1990, 1997). Several observational studies have investigated flow in preschool children’s music making (Custodero, 1998, 2002a, b, 2003; St. John, 2004; Sullivan, 2004); however the origins of observable flow indicators in children younger than three years, and their meaningfulness for early school-aged children, has not yet been explored. Given the permeating nature of musical engagement across a developmental spectrum, this study addresses how flow might be comparably experienced and how it might vary with the competencies of specific age groups. In the opening discussion of children’s music making, the contexts are childinitiated; children are aesthetic agents (DeNora, 2000), responding to environmental cues that facilitate musical expression. In the current investigation, the assumption of child-as-agent is examined in more formal learning environments, where instruction is more explicit. Using a previously adapted observational tool for documenting flow experience (Custodero, 1998, 1999), I look at four age-relevant, naturally occurring settings for music education: the infant and toddler rooms of a university childcare center, a school-based violin class, and an afterschool class specializing in movement. As a prelude to the study, I provide background regarding the relationship between flow and learning, trace the development of the measurement protocol and describe the participants, settings, research approach and protocol. A detailed description of the flow indicators follows, after which the results regarding their manifestation in each of four groups are presented, and summarized in a cross-case analysis. Music, flow and childhood experience The empirical study of flow experience began with adult and adolescent self-reports describing activity in everyday life (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984). Researchers found that when people were highly challenged and felt highly skilled for an activity in which they were participating, they were in a state of optimal enjoyment, where their ideas ‘flowed’ without obstacles, and their actions had interpretable consequences that directed further involvement in the task. Defined by this match between an individual’s perceived skill and challenge, such engagement creates an ideal learning situation, since in order to sustain flow, skills must improve to meet challenges. This dynamic interaction between skills and challenges is self-perpetuating: as an individual’s skill level improves through practice, challenges must become increasingly complex. The flow paradigm is particularly well suited to the study of artistic process, through which individuals are challenged to create form and meaning using skilled actions. The word ‘flow’ is used in numerous self-reports of composers throughout

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history to describe their creative rendering. In a letter to his sister, Mozart wrote ‘When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer. . . it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly’ (Mersmann, 1972, p. vii). Over a century later, Tchaikovsky’s correspondence reveals similar sentiment as he writes of ‘that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me [as] . . . a new idea awakens in me . . . The only music capable of moving and touching us is that which flows from the depths of a composer’s soul when he is stirred by inspiration’ (Barron et al., 1997, p. 181). Crossing boundaries of cultural and historical context, one can find similar examples in contemporary popular musicians. Rosanne Cash, singer-songwriter and painter, echoed this sense of fluidity and resulting joy. In an interview about her creative process, she offered: It’s a free flow of information and inspiration, it’s being in an altered state. It’s very satisfying. Everything else disappears. It’s like I’m part of a river, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t stop the current right then . . . It just feels so wonderful. (Boyd, 1992, p. 163)

Rock guitarist Vernon Reid concurs: Music is where I’ve experience that [enlightenment]. I’m in a flow, I’m in the zone, there’s a definite shift in my consciousness, without desire, without my ego, without me thinking, oh wow, I’m playing great. Just experiencing is as a flowing, living moment. Once you’ve experienced it, you always know there’s a place to go to. (Ehrlich, 1997, p. 240)

Such descriptions of musical engagement reflect the rewarding nature of pursuing clearly perceived artistic goals as well as an openness to possibilities that call for consequential action. Cobb (1977) refers to this trait as an ‘open systems perspective’ (p. 45), and attributes our ability to be creative in adulthood to the maintenance of our child-like ‘sense of wonder.’ (p. 27). The growth of an idea in the mind, ear and hands of a composer is paramount to the child’s way of being in the world: fluid, open to possibility, and responsive to perceived ecological influences (Custodero, 2005). Links between childhood experience and characteristics of flow in adult musicians are not surprising, given that Csikszentmihalyi (1993) has indicated children are in flow most of the time. Related connections to flow experience can also be found in models from child psychology. Studies of mastery motivation, for example, demonstrate children’s dispositions for engagement in appropriately challenging activities (Barrett et al., 1993; McCall, 1995); this self-perpetuating quest for satisfying activity in the service of competence can be observed in infancy. As children strive to keep skills and challenges balanced through mastering tasks, they draw upon social and material resources in their environment. In researching perception, Gibson (1977) noted that the environment presented certain affordances, ‘offerings and opportunities’ (p. 68) perceived by an individual as having potential to be experienced. As perceived affordances in an environment, space, objects and people invite interaction, thereby providing feedback necessary to facilitate further engagement. Music may be a privileged provider of affordances to very young


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children, since responsivity to musical sound and structure is observable before birth (Lecanuet, 1996). Neo-Piagetians such as Duckworth (1996) have focused on children’s problemfinding behaviors, as children seek personally relevant engagement with a task that holds their interest, provides immediate feedback, and is malleable to their actionsas-solutions. Children’s inherent drive to learn about the world through first accessing and then transforming phenomena in their environment has been linked to Piaget’s (1962) equilibration process by Feldman (1994). One might interpret this ‘transformational imperative’ (p. 95) as a flow sustaining strategy, especially in the context of creative musical experience. Musical materials*rhythmic and melodic gestures and patterns experienced through singing, moving and playing musical instruments*provide affordances that invite perceptively infinite transformation. These psychological tools for development*mastery motivation, the accessing of affordances, problem solving, and the drive to transform the given*support the belief regarding children as active agents in their own learning. Acknowledging the child as agent also means acknowledging the child as an individual with unique physiological makeup and sets of experiences through which such developmental strategies are filtered. Engagement and development are thereby interactive: developmental changes influence the character of engagement, and the social and cultural condition in which engagement occurs can likewise influence individual development (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). The work presented here is grounded in this assumption of agency as well as the association between the flow experience, challenge!skill dynamic and musical learning. Engagement is sustained through factors that include complexity of action (Ruff & Rothbart, 1996); in the current study, it is the child’s ability to add complexity that is the focus. Since the addition of complexity requires increased skill, it follows that systematically observing the qualities of such engagement would reveal children’s strategies for skill development, or learning. A corresponding assumption runs contrary to conventional interpretations of development, especially musical development, in which young children are perceived in a state of becoming , moving toward adult musical expertise. Through its focus on immediate experience, the flow model allows researchers to examine how young children are, without preconceptions of where they should be. Becoming is determined by the individual: through engaging with and transforming materials in the environment children contribute to their own growth. /




Observing flow experience in childhood musical contexts Qualities of adults’ musical engagement have been systematically studied using selfreporting methods and interviews; these investigations have contributed to our understanding of how people make meaning from their interactions with music in social contexts (e.g., DeNora, 2000; Gabrielsson & Lindstrom, 2000). Sloboda, O’Neill and Ivaldi (2001) studied musical engagement in everyday life using

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conventional flow methodology. Subjects carried pagers that were randomly activated several times a day over several days; when paged, participants filled out a form that detailed their experience at that moment. Such strategies are successful in capturing moments of experience in the daily lives of adolescents and adults, but are less useful when considering the experience of very young children in a singular setting. A methodological conundrum is implicit in the subjective nature of written and verbal self-reporting and how that might be validly depicted in a research design involving persons who communicate their thoughts and feelings primarily through their behavior. The challenge is to clearly identify ways in which pre-verbal children ‘speak’ to researchers, providing information about subjective phenomena. In an attempt to authentically examine children’s musical experience, observational strategies for the current study were drawn from studies of music making in settings where children, rather than the researcher, defined the musical task. Research on children’s musical play has demonstrated children’s focused attention over long periods of time, as well as their purposeful and thoughtful music making (Moorhead & Pond, 1978; Littleton, 1998, 2002; Custodero, 1996, 2002a; Young, 2003). Ethnographic investigations have likewise shown critical negotiation and inventiveness by young participants in a variety of settings. The content and function of musical games on the playground (e.g., Marsh, 1995) and communal practices during everyday activity (e.g., Blacking, 1995) provide examples of this tradition in which researchers seek to maintain openness to participants’ perspectives and learning strategies in naturally occurring settings. These methods have revealed that young children are attracted to, and intentionally and actively engage with, musical materials. To address children’s inventive, self-initiated strategies in music instructional contexts, an observational protocol was developed for use with young children aged four to five. Flow was measured with the researcher-developed Flow Indicators in Musical Activities (FIMA) coding form (Custodero, 1998), which included nine affective and eight behavioral indicators and was modeled after the Experience Sampling Form (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988) used for adult selfreports. Reliability was confirmed through inter-rater agreement; validity was determined through matched high levels of challenge and skill for specific activities, child interviews that supported observational findings, and statistical outcomes comparable to conventional flow research (Custodero, 1998, 2000). Findings from a longitudinal investigation indicated that children’s flow-seeking and monitoring strategies were consistent over time (Custodero, 2003). Method Research approach In order to more fully understand developmental implications of the flow indicators, a grounded theory approach was undertaken in which sampling was based on


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exploring a range of age groups in naturally occurring music settings (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Because previous studies had looked at the indicators in preschoolaged children from age three to five, the data collected for this study focused on extending the range in both directions to include infants, toddlers and early schoolaged children. Music sessions for each of these age groups were videotaped and reviewed for the appearance and character of flow indicators. Four instructional settings were chosen in an urban region of the Northeastern USA; settings were all naturally occurring contexts where musical instruction was an established routine; all were considered exemplars and served as teacher training centers. Each of the settings represented age-typical music educational environments: Instruction was more play-oriented with the younger children and more expertise-oriented with the school-aged children. Serving as individual cases, each group is detailed below, followed by a description of procedures for data collection. Results are presented for each case by flow indicator categories, and conclude with cross-case analyses, which also include the original flow study with preschoolers (Custodero, 1998, 2000) as a point of comparison. With these five groups*the four cases presented here and the preschool-aged group from the previous study*a summary can be provided in the form of a developmental trajectory for each of the indicators, meant to serve as genesis for further inquiry. For the infant and toddler groups, I served in dual roles of teacher and researcher. Because of the exploratory nature of this study, it was important to have this informed view. Glesne (1999) writes /


As participation increases, marginality decreases, and you begin to experience what others see, think, and feel. This can be absolutely worthwhile for yourself and research participants; no amount of advantageous marginality can sense of things that participation offers. The most fruitful strategy is a judicious combination of participation and observation, as dictated by what you hope to understand, your theoretical stance, and your research others [sic]. (p. 64)

In the original study, I served in the same capacity. The demonstrated musical behaviors of these very young children, however, are qualitatively different than the four- to five-year-olds in previous studies using the flow indicators. Therefore, it was important to have more direct experience with and of the participants than was necessary with the older children, whose behaviors were more closely related to the previous participants, and for whom two teaching conditions were chosen to better inform the possible variability in manifestations of the flow indicators. The videotaping protocol allowed me to take on a more objective role in the subsequent analyses; the addition of multiple coders contributed to the interpretive validity. Participants and settings Group 1 included four female and four male infants ranging in age from seven to 23 months (Mean [M] "14.25, Standard Deviation [SD] "5.75). They were enrolled in a university laboratory childcare facility, where there were four caregivers. /


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Children participated in regular weekly music sessions with the researcher and an assistant. The sequence of activities during these sessions was determined by the children: the teacher-researcher entered the room with a bag of familiar musical objects*scarves, plastic microphones, small musical instruments, books to sing, and recordings, each representing a specific song or repertoire of activities. The children freely chose with which materials they wanted to engage, and would initiate playing, moving or singing. Caregivers actively participated in the 30!40 minute sessions. Written reports on children’s music making outside the sessions were collected twice in the two-month period from both parents and caregivers. Group 2 included seven female and three male toddlers ranging in age from 25 to 34 months (M"30.2, SD "2.57). They were in the same facility as Group 1, in their own room with four caregivers. Caregivers and children were from multiethnic backgrounds; children each had one parent who was employed by the university. The structure of the weekly 40-minute class was slightly more guided than in the Infant Room: I entered with a plan, loosely based on themes that were of immediate interest to the children, such as trains, and responded to the musical cues of the moment, which oftentimes led to partial or complete abandonment of the plan in favor of a better idea posited by the children themselves. This strategy was common to all my teaching and was not altered for the purposes of the study. Group 3 included three female and three male kindergarten children aged five to six years from an inner-city public school violin program. Children were chosen for the program by lottery; they were dismissed from their regular classes twice weekly to attend group violin lessons in the basement cafeteria of their large public school. The teacher was an internationally known string teacher with a prescribed, techniquebased approach: children stood in formation for most of the sessions, activities involved physical orientation to the violin. The setting was chosen for this distinctive teaching environment and the class, for its beginner status. Children were from either African-American or Hispanic backgrounds. There was a new assistant present, who participated minimally in the teaching. There were no parent reports collected; informal interviews with the teacher provided general information about participants and pedagogical philosophy. Group 4 included two female and three male children aged six to eight years enrolled in an afterschool program. The instructor was a certified Dalcroze teacher whose approach featured creative movement and singing; classes were held at a reputable and prestigious community music school. The setting offered an alternative curriculum and teaching style to that of Group 3: children were either moving around the large room to the teacher’s piano playing or sitting in a circle on the floor singing scale patterns and clapping rhythms. Children were from AfricanAmerican and western European descent; like Group 3, they were new to this music education environment. This setting also involved a teaching assistant who participated fully with the children while the teacher was at the piano. As in Group 3, there were no parent reports collected and general information about the children /




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as well as pedagogical beliefs and practices were gleaned from informal interviews with the teacher. Procedures For Groups 1 and 2, sessions were videotaped as part of our work in the center. Four sessions during a two-month period (February!March, 2000) were randomly chosen for analysis. During the same time period, two 45-minute classes were videotaped for both Group 3 and Group 4. Videotapes were reviewed using a micro-analytic approach to identify and describe the flow indicators detailed above. As in previous observational flow research, the unit of analysis was the episode, defined as a complete musical activity (or event) experienced by an individual child. Multiple children were coded for each event, based on their clearly observable behavior for the complete activity. Therefore, the number of episodes varied between groups; the school-age groups were engaged in longer activities and so had fewer episodes than the two groups of younger children. In order to more completely capture the qualities of the indicators for these age groups, data were descriptively rather than numerically coded. Indicators that were distinctly observable were listed for each episode, with a description of the specific activity and definitive characteristics of the behavior. Repeated viewings were necessary to identify events, and to satisfactorily assess and interpret children’s behaviors. The researcher coded all the data; three assistants, each having specialized experiences with one of the age groups and/or contexts, coded data relative to their expertise, working independently at first and then collectively in order to address any discrepancies in interpretation. In this grounded theory approach, the experiences of the researcher, who served as teacher in the two early years groups, and the backgrounds of the additional coders, were sensitizing influences that promoted informed interpretation of the data (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Reports from parents, teachers and caregivers served as additional evidence to corroborate or call into question our initial analysis of the phenomena. The overarching inquiry in the present study addresses the meaningfulness of the flow indicators for children of different ages, specifically the behavioral indicators, since those were developed by the author and are less familiar than indicators in the affective domain. They are described below, and linked to bodies of literature that support the applicability for childhood experiences with music. Behavioral indicators of flow experience Definitions and examples of flow indicators used in this study are presented in Table 1. They are divided into three categories: Challenge Seeking Indicators, emanating from the child and removed from direct adult intervention; Challenge Monitoring Indicators, directly related to material presented by another person in the environment, usually an adult; and Social Context Indicators, or awareness of adults and peers.

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Table 1. Definitions and examples of flow indicators in young children

Flow Indicator


Infant Examples*

School-Aged Child Examples

Challenge Seeking Indicators Self-assignment Purposeful activity initiated by the child, rather than by the adult. Self-Correction Error acknowledgement and adjustment to conform to established ‘rules’ for an activity in the absence of physical or verbal instruction from adult Gesture Quality of movement very focused and controlled, often exaggerated but with no extraneous motion

Child raises a scarf above his head to initiate the ‘Peek-a-boo’ game Child begins pulling down the scarf during ‘Peek-aboo’ before the musical cue, then stops and waits for the musical cue

Child fingers a scale on the violin while waiting for others to get tuned Child adjusts fingering while playing the violin with no external cue

Child pulls the scarf off his head at the end of ‘Peek-aboo’ using both hands in a single, energetic swoop

With straight posture, child slowly and carefully places fingers on the fingerboard one at a time Child readies the feet and legs to prepare to demonstrate the sequence of steps for establishing correct violin playing posture Child creates novel rhythmic movement to substitute for a preestablished pattern Child continues to play /sing piece after teacher said it was over

Challenge Monitoring Indicators Anticipation

Verbal or physical attempts to guess or show ‘what comes next’ during the presented activity

Child stands up and runs immediately before the ‘run away’ musical cue when singing ‘Bell Horses’


Making the presented material more challenging by transforming it in some way Continuing to engage with the presented material after the teacher has finished

Child uses different colored scarves each time ‘Peek-a-boo’ is initiated


When the class sees a picture of a horse, child breaks into singing ‘Bell Horses’ and is joined by rest of class (Toddlers)

Social Context Indicators Awareness of Adults and Peers

Any observable interactions that involve prolonged gaze, head turning, or physical movement toward another person. Attempts to engage another person physically or verbally are especially noteworthy.

Note : *Except as otherwise indicated.

As class sings the ‘5 Little Ducks’ song, child walks around the room, making eye contact with each adult and sharing her ‘quacking’ fingers with those who respond to her invitation

Child changes his movement to the music to match that of his peer


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Challenge Seeking Indicators Supported by theories of mastery motivation and the perception of affordances that leads to action, these behaviors suggest children are compelled toward engagement in activities that foster continued skill development. The three challenge seeking behaviors below were originally combined as a composite called ‘Perceived Challenge’ in the pre-school study (Custodero, 1998, 2000); they are treated individually due to the need for increased specificity in considering developmental trajectories. Activities that generate these behaviors are characterized by an absence of adult intervention; when present, it is invited rather than asserted. Self-assignment. Defined as ‘Purposeful activity that is initiated by the child, rather than by the adult’, this indicator reflects the autotelic, or self-rewarding, aesthetic of optimally challenging activity. Self-assignment is associated with a sense of potential control, a descriptor of flow experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997), and the corresponding perception of self-as-agent. In the context of instruction, self-assignment happens most often in the spaces between planned activities, unless the pedagogical approach leaves such spaces for students to initiate within the activity (Custodero, 2002b). Environmental context supports self-assignment: Children initiate their own musical experiences due to accessible resources for enacting meaningful activity. Self-correction. Defined as ‘Error acknowledgement and adjustment to conform to established ‘‘rules’’ for an activity in the absence of physical or verbal instruction from adult’, this flow indicator reflects two additional conditions for flow, the reception of immediate feedback and the perception of clear goals (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). When children understand the underlying structural foundation of music, and when the feedback is immediate and multi-sensory, involving visual, tactile, and aural cues, they can adjust actions to accommodate new understanding. Musical organization, accessible to very young children (Trehub, 2001), provides a framework in which they can predict and interpret outcomes; self-correction provides evidence of comprehended structure through behavior adapted to conform to that structure. In this way, self-correction is a form of self-regulation, a crucial aspect of children’s development (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Deliberate gesture . Defined as ‘quality of movement which is very focused and controlled, often exaggerated but with no extraneous motion’, this physical manifestation of directed energy reflects the concentrated intensity usually associated with flow experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Developmental studies have revealed evidence for a relationship between motor activity and both cognition and communication in young children (e.g., Goldin-Meadow, 2000; Zajonc & Markus, 1984). In the musical domain, the relationship between gesture and musical interpretation has been explored in examinations of adult musical performance, demonstrating idiosyncratic style and function (Davidson, 2001). Children’s musical gestures are likewise functional: by deliberately playing piano keys one at a time, or

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pulling scarves over their heads, children can act as agents in their own learning, providing a means to the sensory feedback necessary to define the challenge implicit in their engagement in tasks. Challenge-Monitoring Indicators The desire to maintain the flow state poses a problem: ‘How can this activity be made more complex?’ The three categories of challenge-monitoring behaviors presented here are observable strategies children used to elevate (or sometimes lower) their challenge levels when the musical activity has been presented by a skilled other, in this line of study, an adult, in order to sustain or create optimal experience. Anticipation. Defined as ‘Verbal or physical attempts to guess or show ‘‘what comes next’’ during the presented activity’, this indicator signifies the absorbed involvement of flow experience. By immersing themselves in the activity, children may anticipate another’s words, gestures, or sounds with abandonment of self-consciousness. Anticipation has its roots in the parent!infant attunement described in the opening of this article, and also appears in descriptions of ensemble playing by musicians such as Michael Tree, violist of the Guarneri Quartet. In speaking of his relationship with the 2nd violinist, John Dalley, he offered: ‘I’d rather not play quartets at all rather than nail everything down in advance. There’s rubato in every note; I have to try to climb into John’s psyche . . . I can anticipate*knowing him [as I do]’ (Guarneri String Quartet & Blum, 1986, p. 6). Parent!infant attunement and chamber music are examples that involve other people. Indeed, Anticipation is different from the Challenge Seeking indicators inasmuch as it requires a performance partner, whose ensuing actions are imaginable, yet in order to maintain the optimum challenge, also include potential for surprise. Anticipation is related to flow as both a behavioral response to clear goal perception and a manifestation of the merging of action and awareness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Studies of children’s early sensitivity to musical structure (e.g., Krumhansl & Jusczyk, 1990) suggest we may be predisposed to anticipation and the resultant flow experience. /

Expansion. Defined as ‘Making the presented material more challenging by transforming it in some way’, expansion is where the creative impulse is most recognizable, reflecting the realization of possibility in music materials. Resonating with constructivist thinking in general, and more specifically, Feldman’s (1994) transformational imperative, children’s expansions of songs and rhythmic patterns provide information about their musical skill and [conceptual] understanding. When expanding, people move from technically based replication to the artistry of interpretive performance or creative composition. Improvisation, which is linked to goal- and potential control-related flow descriptors, represents expansion in the moment of performance. A manifestation of self-assignment, factor analyses grouped


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expansion with both skill and challenge-seeking indicators in a related study of children’s music making (St. John, 2004). Extension. Defined in the classroom context as ‘Continuing to engage with the presented material after the teacher has finished’ this indicator provides evidence regarding retained interest. Observations involve common signals of attending, including visual attention directed on task-related objects or the action-based, purposeful performances of musical material. Verbal exclamations also communicate the desire to sustain activity. Like an audience demanding an encore, the child who extends a musical activity is attempting to continue the experience of enjoyment. Common to reports regarding flow is people’s subjective experience of time and the surprise realization of how many minutes or hours had passed while they were absorbed in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Similarly, through extending the activity, the child indicates that the rewards resulting from the musical content are still compelling*that there are still challenges to be met regarding skill development through clearly accessible affordances. /

Social Context Indicators: Awareness of Peers and Adults Music is both perceived and produced in a social milieu and it is the interpersonal context that provides meaning (Hargreaves & North, 1997). For the present study, the awareness of peers and adults were recorded separately, and defined as ‘Any observable interactions that involve prolonged gaze, head turning, or physical movement toward another person. Attempts to engage another person physically or verbally were especially noteworthy’. Findings from the original flow research with preschoolers showed strong influences of others, including clear differences between how children accessed the resources supplied by peers vs. adults. In a follow-up study the role of others in shaping perceptions of challenge has been shown to have strong implications over time (Custodero, 2003). Using a Vygotskian lens to interpret her investigation of flow in young children’s music classes, St. John (2004) found that the awareness of others was integral to the facilitation and maintenance of optimal experience. Given the association of these indicators with varied issues of both musical expertise and childhood, and because they can be traced directly to descriptors of experience drawn from conventional flow research, it is reasonable to consider them as meaningful ways to address the complexities of musical engagement in early childhood. The current investigation examined the relevance of flow indicators for music learning experiences of infants and toddlers, and early school-aged children, each representing populations for which the indicators had not previously been applied. Results are presented for each age group by flow indicators. For the Challenge-Seeking indicators, self-assignment and self-correction are paired; deliberate gesture reflected distinctive behavioral cues and was treated separately. Challenge-monitoring indicators*anticipation, extension and expansion*are pre/


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sented together, as are the adult and peer components of Social Context. These descriptions revealed patterns and hypotheses relative to previous flow research and developmental literature. Informed by the frequency, consistency and intensity of recorded observations, along with parent and caregiver reports, a summary of crosscase analyses is presented in the form of a developmental trajectory for each indicator; to give a more developmentally comprehensive overview, results from the original flow study of preschoolers are also included in the summary. Results Group 1: Infants 7!23 months Self-assignment and self-correction. In the infant group, observable self-assignment behaviors involved initiating activities with objects. Examples included putting the scarf over their own faces to initiate the ‘Peek-a-boo’ song, and requesting movement or singing activities by physically bringing books and CDs to the researcher. More subtle behaviors were also observed, such as a child’s touching a maraca to her toe, reflective of specific movement to a song familiar from previous weeks. Children over 12 months demonstrated these behaviors consistently. Younger infants would initiate through goal-directed gestures, like reaching for a maraca, and invitations for assistance, such as extending arms as a request to be picked up and held as a dance partner. They, too, initiated the ‘Peek-a-boo’ song with scarves. A plastic microphone also engendered self-assignment*children’s vocal exploration was observed two to three times each week for short periods, lasting a minimum of 30 seconds. Self-correction was observable in engagement with the accessible rule-based song, ‘Peek-a-boo.’ Consisting of four 4-beat phrases, the rule is to wait until the third phrase to ‘pull down the scarf’, followed by an exclamation, ‘Peek-a-boo!’ pitched higher with exaggerated descending contour. Several instances on the tape showed children starting to pull the scarf down prematurely, then stopping and waiting for the musical cue. Children also demonstrated self-correcting behaviors as they categorized instruments (bells and maracas) to be stored in separate containers. /

Deliberate gesture. ‘Peek-a-boo’ was characterized by a very controlled and deliberate quality of gesture. Simple hand motions were added to all the songs performed together*these provided an important means for pre-verbal children to participate and demonstrate their formal understanding. One example was the ‘Five Little Ducks’ song, which has a recurring phrase ‘Quack, quack, quack, quack’ represented with the thumb touching the four fingers, which are held together, to the rhythm of the words. Another chant, ‘Five Little Monkeys’, had four specific gestures representing four phrases; pointing the index finger and shaking it to the beat was performed in an especially deliberate way. The rhythmic quality of these activities generated the deliberateness; similar intentional, animated movement was witnessed in the playing of maracas and in varied and abundant responses to recorded music. /


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Anticipation, expansion and extension. The few instances of observed anticipation were related to songs for which children could demonstrate the structure, as described above. More common were expansions of the activities, most often incorporating exaggerated movement utilizing the whole body. Extensions of the presented materials took on two forms: behaviors occurring immediately after the activity’s completion, and a type of delayed imitation that occurred later within the music session. An example of immediate extension was increased vocalizing after listening and moving to a recording*this was quite common and was not limited to recordings of vocal music. Delayed imitation/extension usually involved an activity we had done together early in the session which was reprised by a child’s initiating behavior such as putting a scarf over his/her head or handing a book to the researcher to sing. /

Social context. Adult awareness was a salient feature of the infant music-making environment. Children used caregivers to provide security and approval for participation; however, there were individual differences in the degree to which these interactions were needed. One 17-month-old, who had the highest number of self-initiating behaviors, tended to look only occasionally to the adults for recognition of his participation. A 13-month-old needed consistent physical interaction with the caregivers to make meaningful his experience of ‘Peek-a-boo’: I am sitting in a circle with the infants and caregivers, holding a scarf. N. ‘asks me’ to put the scarf on him by toddling up to me and bowing his head. I gently place the sheer scarf over his head, watching to see if I have read his invitation correctly. He smiles, I begin singing the song, and he runs back to a caregiver and waits to have the scarf pulled from his head, giving her an affectionate hug.

These young children used the adults in their environment to actualize the emotional qualities of musical experience*while dancing in the caregivers’ arms they were blissfully content. Children also looked to the adults as models for imitation, especially with instrument playing and movement. Awareness of peers was less consistent. Infants seemed most aware during the most familiar games and songs, vicariously enjoying the experience of ‘Peek-a-boo’, for example. They were also aware of peers when vying for both researcher and caregiver attention, and when issues of object ownership came to the fore. /

Group 2: Toddlers 25!34 months Self-assignment and self-correction . Self-initiated musical experiences in the toddler group were affected by the increased language capacities and physical mastery of the children. They used objects to initiate their own musical behaviors, and would also verbally request specific adult-guided activities. Children were assertive in their initiating, and were involved in prolonged focused episodes. One 28-monthold sang into the toy microphone for over two minutes; the content material was a combination of improvised song and familiar religious chant, according to his

Musical engagement in young children


mother, who viewed the tape. Self-correction was expressed infrequently, occurring both verbally and behaviorally in movement representations of the rule-bound repertoire and categorizing of musical instruments. Deliberate gesture . Toddlers’ use of hand motions and purposeful playing of instruments was described as focused and involved. Their increased mobility allowed for demonstration of deliberate qualities in their whole body responses to musical games and recordings. One child had particularly animated, deliberate movements in direct response to both recorded and live music; she was the most prominently featured participant in caregiver reports. We are doing a circle game and J. takes ‘giant’ steps with a long gait and firmly placed foot each time, all the way around the circle as we sang. The last phrase of the song requires a tiptoe movement, which was equally deliberate and focused.

Anticipation, expansion and extension. Anticipation was consistently observable in children’s movement and singing behaviors. Examples included the ‘Bell Horses’ song that ends with children standing up and running around the room, then returning to a sitting position*toddlers responded at the beginning of the musical phrase that prompts the movement, rather than waiting until its completion. In another context, the presence of maracas provoked a child to anticipate a song by singing an excerpt. Expansions were frequently observable, and were defined by children’s using the presented material in new and unexpected ways. Examples included the addition of body movement to chants and songs, singing responses to repertoire previously only sung by adults, and integrating objects such as the microphone to heighten the experience. Extensions of the musical materials were apparent during the course of the session, for example, when children would say, ‘Let’s do it again’. These extensions were in immediate temporal proximity to the activity. Caregivers and parents reported additional extensions during the week: /

B. came into the toddler room at 1:00 today. All the kids were running in circles and squealing. B. saw them and started singing ‘Bell Horses.’ [E. took] two towers made of duplo bricks, put it on his face and said ‘peek-a-boo!’ then started humming the ‘Peek-a-boo’ song.

Social context. There were individual differences in the awareness of adults*some children preferred intimate, shared experiences with the caregivers, and some were more independent or preferred interactions with peers. In general, there was much peer awareness and modeling of both peers and adults. The free movement to recorded music generated the most social interaction. /

Group 3: Violin students 5!6 years Self-assignment and self-correction. Self-assignment in this context was most evident during the non-instructional period at the beginning of the class, while the teacher


L. A. Custodero

tuned individual violins. During the teacher-directed, technique-based lessons, selfassignment appeared as an immediate result of self-correction, which most often relied on awareness of others. In this intense group learning environment children seemed more responsive to the teacher’s work with fellow students than to direct interactions. Self-correction was always associated with observed focused involvement: As they are getting closer to REALLY playing the violin, J’s attention becomes very focused. He is actively engaged, answering teacher’s questions and clearly anticipating. During this newly energized time, he self-corrects, adjusting his ‘stop sign’ hand in preparation for playing.

Deliberate gesture. Deliberate gesture was especially evident in this group while engaged with their violins, although individuals were inconsistent in the degree to which they exhibited this characteristic. Differences were associated with focused attention; when children seemed distracted or dissociated from the task, the quality of their gestures was nonchalant and perfunctory. Anticipation, expansion and extension. There were few examples of children’s taking ownership of the musical material during the two lessons: the most frequent strategy observed was anticipation. Of the several instances recorded, all seemed related to past experiences with technical performance procedures such as placing the instrument in position. One example of expansion noted by all coders was when a student exaggerated a breathing exercise. No examples of extensions were observed. Social context. Adult awareness was perhaps the most consistent indicator observed; the teacher was the focus of attention. Interactions did not visibly facilitate flow directly, and often were associated with noticeable negative affect and inability to focus. Awareness of interactions between teacher and peers often led to selfcorrection*the indirect nature of the intervention seemed to allow individuals the opportunity to retain a sense of autonomy. Peer awareness was observed to be useful in providing necessary information regarding skill; thereby assisting in the monitoring of flow experience. /

Group 4: Dalcroze students 6!8 years Self-assignment and self-correction . Children in this group also demonstrated selfassignment while waiting for instruction to begin, most notably in the exploration of body movement, activity commensurate with the class content. Several instances of problem-finding behaviors were observed as children sought new melodic and rhythmic patterns beyond those delivered by the teacher. Self-correction was notably associated with peer awareness when experience was less than optimal, and was internally generated when children were focused and involved in the activity.

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Deliberate gesture . Deliberate gesture proved to be very prominent in this movement-oriented context and was most consistent in the most highly skilled participant. Inconsistencies within individuals were associated with variation in observed involvement and focus; concentration was most evident when gestures were deliberate. During singing activities, the quality of gesture was observably linked to skill level: children who were most proficient used deliberate gestures; children less proficient showed improvement when the quality of gesture was made more purposeful. Anticipation, expansion and extension. Anticipation was apparent when children raised their hands to answer questions and verbally hypothesized about what the teacher was writing. During movement activities, anticipation was evidenced as soon as metric skill was stabilized. Expansion, in this context encouraged by the teacher, was common; children regularly offered new movements to express musical ideas. A disposition toward this strategy was witnessed in one student who consistently expanded activities to keep himself sufficiently challenged. A. seems unchallenged at the beginning; his movements to the teachers’ triple meter piano pattern are not deliberate. Then he expands by grabbing and holding his foot from behind, as if to arrest the motion, on the long tone (following three short tones). D. imitates A. Having found a workable solution, A. anticipates movement to the next phrase.

Few instances of extensions were observed. Social context. Adult awareness was observed to be both flow facilitating and inhibiting. Engagement was supported by teacher’s musical cues; however, her verbal interjections seemed to disrupt focused involvement. One highly skilled child was keenly focused on the teacher for much of the class, apparently expecting to be sufficiently challenged. This same child seemed to have her flow experience interrupted when the teacher praised her movement: Prior to the teacher’s comment, movement was focused and internally generated, afterward, it was much more selfconscious. Well-intentioned tactile modeling by the teaching assistant was met with resistance*it was clear the intervention was not invited. Peer awareness was most noticeable when children who were exhibiting less skill looked to classmates for ideas. Because the teacher did not assume the role of model, children were highly imitative of one another. /

Cross-case summary: developmental trajectories for observable flow indicators The observable age-based variation in these indicators suggests young children use age-relevant strategies to engage with music. Drawing upon the results from both the current study and the original study of flow in preschoolers (Custodero, 1998, 1999), individual trajectories are proposed in Table 2. The limited sample size and


L. A. Custodero Table 2. Cross-case summary: hypothesized developmental trajectory for flow indicators

Flow Indicator Self-assignment Self-Correction Gesture Anticipation Expansion Extension Adult Awareness Peer Awareness

Developmental Trajectory Infants B/ToddlersB/Pre-School Infants B/ToddlersB/Pre-School Infants 0/Toddlers0/Pre-School (Infants) B/Toddlers0/Pre-School Infants B/ToddlersB/Pre-School Infants B/Toddlers0/Pre-School Infants 0/Toddlers0/Pre-School Infants B/ToddlersB/Pre-School

Aged !/School Aged B/School Aged 0/School Aged 0/School Aged 0/School Aged !/School Aged 0/School Aged B/School

Aged Aged Aged Aged Aged Aged Aged Aged

Note : Developmental Trajectory: B/ "/the indicator is becoming more observable;!/ "/tapering off of observable behavior; 0/ "/indicator is fully observable and maintained. Mean age: Infant "/ 14 months, Toddler "/2.5 years, Preschool "/5.2 years, School-Age "/6.3 years.

exploratory nature of the study prohibit generalization, and it should noted that these trajectories are offered as a point of departure for further inquiry, rather than as conclusions. Self-assignment was observable in a limited way in infants and toddlers and was most observable in the preschool group. It was less observable in school-aged children. Similarly, observations of Extension were strongest in the preschool group and decreased in school-age children. Anticipation, however, did not decrease in the school-aged groups; it was fully developed in the toddler group. The observations of expansions increased from the infant to the toddler groups and again to the preschool group, where it stabilized. Both Peer Awareness and Self-Correction continued to increase with age. Unlike Peer Awareness, Adult Awareness was fully observable and stabilized in the infant group, and continued to be a crucial aspect of the environment across groups. Deliberate gesture was similarly pervasive. Discussion Results of this exploratory study indicate that flow-related behaviors are observable in a variety of music instructional settings and that musical engagement is influenced by general developmental trends, environmental conditions, and individual temperament. Five key issues emerged as having the possibility for particular developmental consequence in the study of musical engagement: (a) the trajectory of observed selfassignment, (b) the importance of musical structure for infants and toddlers, (c) the role of gesture, (d) the character of musical transformations, and (e) the salience of adult awareness and changing roles of peers. These issues are meant to raise questions and generate further research. The trajectory of observed self-assignment seems to mirror the general tensions between independence and interdependence that define most musical performance and human development. This indicator showed an increase in frequency from infancy through the pre-school years that can be explained vis-a`-vis general trends,

Musical engagement in young children


including the development of self and its differentiation from others (e.g., Erikson, 1950; Stern, 1985). Both self-assignment and self-correction seemed to be increasingly observable through the preschool years; however, there was a decrease in self-initiated activity for the school-aged children. Dispositions toward perceived appropriate behavior in learning environments may have already been established by the schooling experience of these children, resulting in the waning of flow in the context of formal instruction (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993). As self-assignment gets replaced with the new goal of honoring the teacher’s assignment, self-correction becomes even more frequently demonstrated. These opposing directions are mutually supportive: As children become more responsive to expectations of others, they may be more cognizant of adapting their behavior to achieve those expectations, given they are clearly perceptible. Studies of children’s musical lives outside the classroom (e.g., Campbell, 1998) show evidence of much self-assignment, and conventional flow research has found adolescents’ extra-curricular activities are more flow producing than those considered academic (Larson, 2000). It is quite possible that the urge to initiate one’s own activity may go ‘underground,’ as Singer and Singer (1990) describe play in middle childhood, or occur in ‘third environments’, outside of school or home (Heath, 2001, p. 10). Research on relationships between learning inside and outside of classrooms might illuminate qualities that are either idiosyncratic or symbiotic. Musical structure acts as an affordance for the infants and toddlers in this study. The self-correction described in the ‘Peek-a-boo’ song involved anticipating the phrase structure of the musical game, yet, literature on general development indicates that the self-monitoring of complex sequences of action rarely occurs before the third year of life (Fogel, 2001). It may be that the perception of and attraction to musical structure enables children to demonstrate cognitive skill much earlier in life than had been previously indicated with non-music related tasks. Stern’s (2000) premise that infants live musically suggests a proclivity worthy of further exploration: ‘certain basic experiences of time and form that are common to our encounter with music are also common to an infant’s ordinary, daily socio-affective interactions’ (p. 21). Toddlers exhibited an abundance of self-assignment behaviors; in the analysis, however, self-correction seemed to be eclipsed by the compelling nature of anticipating the musical cues (see below), especially those associated with movement. With increased physical resources that are oftentimes newly discovered, two-year-old children may be more interested in a breadth of activities rather than in the focus on a single activity. It is also possible that the observers were more drawn to children’s anticipations than to their self-corrections, which tend to be more subtly demonstrated, or that the sedentary nature of young infants makes observations of selfcorrection easier to witness. Additionally, the within-session delayed participation observed in the infant group was not apparent in the toddler group, suggesting that a heightened perception of structured activity existed in these older children. A deliberate quality of gesture, representing a focused involvement in the musical task, was the most universally observable indicator of flow.1 The manipulation of musical instruments and the interpretation of sound through movement provided an


L. A. Custodero

important means for observing quality of gesture in all age groups. Older infants and toddlers were very deliberate in their rhythmic responses to live and recorded music, whereas for school-aged children, there were fewer opportunities during instruction to freely respond physically to music. Children’s use of gesture in this study provided evidence of cognition as it reflected formal structure, rhythm and pitch accuracy. Especially noteworthy was the similarity in hand to voice associations in the use of hand gesture by the infants and toddlers as a means to express song sequence and the elevated singing skill experienced by the children in the Group 4, who used deliberate hand gestures to assist singing in tune. Goldin-Meadow (2000) hypothesizes that gesture ‘has the potential to be involved in innately driven as well as non-innately driven learning*that is, to be a general mechanism of cognitive growth’ (p. 237). The challenge-monitoring behaviors of anticipation, expansion, and extension were highly influenced by both developmental and environmental factors. Anticipation was not consistently apparent in the infants; studies on early mother-child interactions indicate that waiting and responding, or ‘turn taking’, may be a more primary interaction style for infants, as their vocalizations tend to be reciprocally timed (e.g., Trevarthen, 1999) rather than interruptive. Parents model such interactions in their play with infants, including the peek-a-boo game (Bruner & Sherwood, 1976). An alternative explanation is that young infants have more subtle ways to demonstrate their anticipation than were observable in this investigation. Additionally, one longitudinal study found a positive association between infant visual anticipation and child IQ (Dougherty & Haith, 1997), suggesting intriguing possibilities for further research. Expansion was evident in movement responses of the infants and toddlers; Group 4 also exhibited expansion in their purposeful variations of movement activities, a finding related to the significance of gesture.2 For each group, these expansions seemed to indicate personal relevancy, as they were not universal either in style or substance*a finding supported in the original study. The dramatic differences between the two school-age groups in terms of these challenge-monitoring indicators highlight the pervasive role of environment. Extension followed what looks to be a linear developmental trajectory: for infants it often involved delayed imitation while still in the context of the music session; for toddlers and preschoolers, extensions occurred both immediately and removed from the instructional context. For the older children, extensions were not apparent in the class sessions and may have taken place in the form of practicing or in play, as suggested with self-assignment. Methodological questions still exist about the most effective way to code this indicator. In all groups, the social context played a salient role. The original preschool study found differences in the way children used adults and peers in their music learning environment, the developmental trajectory in the present investigation reveals differences in what drives the interaction between individuals and others. The awareness of peers seems malleable to development; the awareness of adults seems more aligned with temperament. Manifest in vicarious enjoyment, that is, demon/


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strated through mainly affective cues by infants, the awareness of peers changed in toddlers, when physical maturation allowed for more explicit peer modeling. This was observed in the preschool and school age groups as well. In an analysis of one preschool-aged dyad in a music education setting, peers were crucial in facilitating musical engagement for one another (St. John, 2003). Differences in the need for adult interaction reflect the existence of individual engagement strategies, a theory supported by problem solving literature in cognitive developmental psychology (Rogoff, 1990; Siegler, 1996). Longitudinal case studies of participants from the original study (Custodero, 2003) revealed that preschool music flow profiles, especially their interaction styles with adults, were predicative of music learning patterns seven years later. Looking forward Confirmatory studies are needed to test the theory generated in this exploration, as well as the general application of the flow indicators to additional contexts. Specific work is suggested around the disappearance of self-initiated activity in music instruction as children become more established within school culture. Associations between musical materials, gesture and the demonstration of social and cognitive skills indicate potential contributions to the future understanding of music making as a holistic experience, involving ways of knowing represented through physical engagement with the conceptual (Juntunen & Westerlund, 2001). In addition to these new directions for research, this study suggests new directions for music education practice involving the fundamental importance of perceived challenge as an antecedent to skill development, and the more specific applications of the flow indicators and their developmental implications. In seeking flow, both learners and teachers operate in a state of inquiry. Learners ask questions about how a given activity can be made more complex; teachers, in response to thoughtful observation, assess the pedagogical milieu and adjust their delivery and feedback to be responsive to demonstrations of the learner’s engagement with the musical task. Such inquiry must take place in the moment: Like jazz musicians, whose performances are dependent on following the head theme being transformed by fellow ensemble members in real time, teaching for flow demands a commitment to the immediate, requiring us to be fully present and engaged with learners and subject matter. Teaching for flow experience means teaching to the possible*being in a state of readiness for the ‘yet to be revealed’*where outcomes are not always predetermined but are interpreted from skills and conceptual understandings which result from engagement with relevant musical ideas. Task definition, and oftentimes, goals and objectives of the lesson, thus emerge vis-a`-vis the learners’ transformations of the material. This requires not only a commitment to the immediate, and a sense of inquiry about how the learner is defining the task, but also an openness to surprise supported by well-developed musicianship and pedagogical skills. /


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In summary, to consider flow experience as a framework for observing and analyzing musical engagement requires acknowledgement of music making as a compelling and rewarding activity, experienced and defined subjectively in the context of others. To consider flow experience from a developmental perspective requires honoring learners as agents of their own growth, operating within broad trends characterized by the use of particular engagement strategies. Pedagogical practices rooted in flow are reciprocal: teachers who support artistic autonomy by making available challenging musical materials and human resources will find themselves engaged in activity which can be infinitely complex and rewarding. Notes on contributor Lori Custodero is Assistant Professor of Music Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Over 20 years experience with young children, parents and teachers in a variety of musical settings has informed her research, which has focused on children from infancy through preadolescence, and adults as musicians, teachers and parents. With a primary emphasis on experience in context, her scholarly interests include musical challenge, engagement, and meaning in classrooms, playgrounds, and family settings. Her multi-disciplinary work is situated in the intersection of general childhood study and musical experiences, and in the mutuality of research and practice. She currently serves as immediate past chair for the International Society for Music Education’s Early Childhood Commission.

Notes 1. 2.

In case studies of observed flow in three adult beginning singers, deliberate gesture was the most frequently observable indicator in the voice lesson context (Matthews, 2003). In psychological literature, gesture refers specifically to hand movement; however, because of its extensive metaphorical use in music scholarship (Henrotte, 1992), license was taken in defining it with a broader interpretation involving the body as instrument of expression.

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