‘Fake it till you make it’.
How do kindergarten staff in kindergartens with a music profile talk
about their musical identity?
Nora Bilalovic Kulset
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
University of Stavanger
Published in Proceedings of the 9th Conference of the European Network of Music Educators and
Researchers of Young Children (MERYC), 2019. Peer reviewed.
The aim of this study is to investigate the musical identity among adults working in
kindergartens with a music profile. The intention is to find aspects that might have transfer
value towards other kindergartens and not the least the ECEC-education system when it
comes to the music curriculum. The need for this study is based on a decrease in the
presence of music both in the ECEC-education and in kindergartens. We interviewed 8 staff
members in a well reputed music kindergarten in Norway and asked them about their
musical identity. Results indicate that separately they – in terms of kindergarten staff – hold a
quite average view on themselves as musically capable and thus have – as most
kindergarten staff in Norway – a rather negative musical identity. However, together as a
staff, their musical identity is quite the opposite. The adult companionship in the music
making in this kindergarten is astonishing comprehensive and marks a pronounced
distinction from the average kindergarten, where the refrain is that the adults are scared to
sing in front of each other.
According to a vast body of research, many kindergarten teachers feel a
lack of confidence when it comes to sing and make music in kindergartens’
everyday life (Ehrlin 2014, Ehrlin and Tivenius 2018, Ehrlin and Wallerstedt 2014,
Stunell 2010, Hallam et al. 2009, Kim and Kemple 2011, Kulset 2016). The ECEC
education system is offering music as a subject, but still there seems to be an
ongoing decrease in music’s place in kindergarten and the kindergarten
staff’s confidence within music making (Østrem 2009, p. 28). One might say
that their musical identity is negative.
Considering the many positive outcomes that grow from music making and
singing songs, such as language acquisition, empathy promotion and
friendship building (Kulset 2018, RabinowitchCross and Burnard 2013, Kirschner
and Tomasello 2010, Linnavalli et al. 2018), not to forget the emotional and
aesthetic pleasure of music as an art form, one should think that music and
singing songs would be an obvious part of everyday life in all kindergartens.
However, the studies mentioned above tell us that this is not the case.
We have tried to turn the situation around, not only by teaching music in the
kindergarten teacher education programme for almost twenty years but also
by travelling around Norway to give talks and workshops on music in
kindergartens. Yet, we observe that the situation remains somehow
unchanged. Indeed, music as a subject in the kindergarten teacher
education in Norway is minimised and even left out as a mandatory subject
named ‘music’. Instead, music is merged with the other aesthetic subjects
and given the name ‘Kunst, kultur og kreativitet’, ‘art, culture and creativity’.
While music as a subject is decreasingly visible in the kindergarten teacher
education, music making and singing songs are correspondingly less visible –
and audible – in the Norwegian kindergartens. Since we are unable to
change the curriculum for the kindergarten teacher education offhand, we
decided to have a closer look at some of the kindergartens that do make
music and sing songs on an everyday basis. Who are the adults working
there? What has made them ‘musically capable’ to such an extent? How do
they talk about their music making and how do they talk about themselves
as musical subjects? What is their musical identity, and how did they achieve
this identity? By asking these questions, maybe we could find a secret
ingredient to improve the kindergarten teacher education programme when
it comes to music.
We use the term musical identity as coined/defined by
MacdonaldHargreaves and Miell (2017), MacdonaldHargreaves and Miell
(2002), pointing towards how our view on ourselves as capable (or not
capable) musical subjects influences several aspects of our self-perception
and identity formation. Also Denora (2000) and Ruud (2013) argue that our
musical identity is a vital part of our self-biography. Would I describe myself as
a musical person? Am I someone who is able to join in when people are
singing together? Do I feel the beat in a song and let my body show that I
can feel that beat? Am I afraid to hit the wrong notes with my voice? Do I
feel musically uncapable because I don’t play an instrument? To hold a
positive musical identity means you consider yourself as a human being
capable of using your innate musicality in an everyday life situation with other
people. Opposite, to hold a negative musical identity refers to a feeling of
insufficiency and incapability when it comes to everyday music making,
often expressed by the presence of an overwhelming voice shame (Schei
and Schei 2017).
!In Norway, we use the term 'kindergarten' for all pre-schools, crèches, or playgroup
activities led by educated kindergarten teachers alongside child care and youth-workers
and other care givers. Children start school at the age of 6.
The starting point for the study is our proposed theory that ‘understanding
offers a more sustainable foundation (for incorporating more music making in
kindergartens) than musical skills and knowledge of repertoire’. We believe
that your musical identity, how you regard yourself as a musical human
being, is detrimental to your capability and confidence in making music.
Thus, we wanted to investigate how adults in kindergartens with a music
profile talk about their musical identity.
We have individually interviewed eight staff members from one such
kindergarten with a music profile. They were not aware of the aim of this
study. We told them we just needed to hear a bit about everyday life in this
particular kindergarten while we were developing a larger action research
project that this study is a part of. In this way, we tried to minimise the
researcher effect which of course was present all the time they are a part of
a music kindergarten and they knew that we are music researchers.
(1) How did you feel when you started working in this kindergarten – how
did you experience your role in music making situations, as a music
(2) What kind of role do you think music plays in the kindergarten?
(3) What do you need know, or what kind of skills do you need to do music
in kindergarten? Is there something particular that is good to have or
that you think is necessary?
(4) How dependent are you on other adults, some key person, being
present in the kindergarten for you to be able to make music?
Results and discussion
Their hidden negative musical identity
First of all, we were astonished to find that most of the staff members
expressed a feeling of insufficiency when it comes to music making – even in
a music kindergarten. These informants are highly skilled in music making in
the kindergarten. Nevertheless, we find the same sort of statements among
the staff members when it comes to music making as in any other
kindergarten. Considering these staff members are the peak of music making
kindergarten worker, this gives rise to concerns. They are still bothered with
voice shame and culturally given views on musicality and their own (lack of)
capacity to make music. Once again, findings from previous studies are thus
Interestingly, respondents’ initial answers and statements seemingly displayed
a positive musical identity. In fact, on the question ‘What do you need to
know, or what kind of skills do you need to do music in kindergarten? Is there
something particular that is good to have or that you think is necessary?’,
most respondents answered that there is nothing you need, other than to just
A lot of people are concerned that they must be able to play an
instrument, have a musical background, be able to read music and such.
But for me it is not that you have to be able to do something specific,
rather that you have an understanding of the effect music has. Many
believe that they must be able to play an instrument to work here and be
with the kids. That we have such a classic background and can play all
instruments. Of course, it is very nice when someone can play an
instrument or five, but that’s not the most important. It's not the singing or
playing instruments, but just being in the music. With dance and
movement, feel the pulse. To be together in the group and have a joint
experience of something. And even though there are ten people there
and there may be ten different perceptions of what is going on, we
still…(showing with hands that they are together)
Their own perception of their musical identity is clearly a positive one. ‘We are
the kindergarten that do music, and we know that everyone can sing and
dance, and we do it!’ However, when further elaborating on the initial
answers, the presence of voice shame and a cultural given view on
musicality, and their own (lack of) capacity to make music, emerged. One
might say they have a hidden negative musical identity.
To play it by ear, as things happen in the everyday life, that’s easy and
fun. But if it turns into specific tasks - performing - then I get...then I
think…I'm not musical! I can't do this!
I know I don't always hit the right notes, but it doesn't matter to me. I think
the singing creates something anyway. I don’t feel happy with all things I
do musically, but it's not that I get annoyed about it afterwards. I do it
because I notice that it has an effect on both myself and those I am with.
It’s not always completely successful.
N: What do you mean by successful?
I think of the quality of the singing or that I have not remembered the
lyrics or ... but ... the companionship created by the singing counts the
most. Nonetheless, I do self-judge myself a little, but less than I did before,
and I do not put it on myself that ‘I sang false or wrong’. It’s just...yes.
In my childhood I did not listen to classical music. It's something I've
discovered after I've started here. I wish I knew more about such things,
and somehow helped the little ones also be a part of it. After all, it is an
important thing to bring along, all the well-known classical music pieces.
K: What do you think is important about that?
Oh, it's really so important! It is our history, the whole world history, it is
important that we know about it. The children hear this music all the time,
just turn on the TV! But I wish they had known more about the songs, who
the composer is and so on. I'm not good at that.
The latter statement is from a staff member who sings all day long, and who is
what we would regard as an excellent role model in both communicative
musicality and everyday music making to anyone else in the staff. Still, she
talks about knowledge in western classical music history as an important
feature she doesn’t have, and that she should have had to truly be able to
offer these young children a meaningful musical environment. Where does
these attitudes come from? Is it us, the musicians and music knowers who let
these attitudes drizzle down on the ‘non-musicians’? According to
SlobodaDavidson and Howe (1999) , it is precisely our group, the ‘officially
musical ones’, who establish and reinforce such misconceptions of musicality
and of important musical knowledge.
There are so many students and parents staying with us who say: ‘But I
can't sing, I'm not musical!’ Then I reply: ‘No? What is it to be musical?’,
and then we start that discussion. And then they say: ‘But it's so easy for
you to say, because you just do it, it's so easy for you!’, and I just: ‘oh no,
you are so mistaken, it is NOT easy for me’. And we are very clear on that,
that it is scary. And then people get all: ‘What? It is? But it doesn't look like
that!’ and I just ‘fake it till you make it’. It's not just a piece of cake, that is
‘And we are very clear on that, that it is scary. Fake it till you make it’. These
are pretty harsh statements. Are they faking their positive musical identity that
make them also claim that everyone can sing, and that you don’t need to
know anything specific to make music? One of the staff members even told
us that she is so scared to sing in front of other adults that she often starts to
Moreover, several of the staff members talk about working alongside staff
members that are confident in their music making as challenging.
So, when you come to a new place and people are much better than
you, they play the guitar and they play instruments, then you immediately
feel like ‘oops’ ... When I was working in another kindergarten, no one was
neither singing nor playing. And here everyone is so incredibly skilled and
forward that you actually lose a bit of your … (makes an excusing face)
After all, you have all these musical talented people in this kindergarten
that play both guitars and drums and have really good singing voices
and all those things that make you feel like you are … well … like I don’t
know how to do these things.
So you just have to think that: my god you have to be able to contribute
with ... and there is no one who will think that … that I don’t know how to
do it … but it is more your own feeling that: ‘Gosh, you do it, you know this
one so well’.
We are currently looking into how the staff members breaks this ‘music
making ice’ and nonetheless make music together on such an extensive level
in spite of experiences like these.
The guitar players as positive musical pathfinders
To make the children sing along during circle time I feel it's very good to
have a guitar. It builds up so much more of that interaction than what we
can do with just a voice. So, it's not that ... you can contribute to very
much even if you don't have an instrument, but for me I feel it gives me a
push when someone is playing the guitar, it creates a better atmosphere.
In short: if there’s no guitar, it is much more difficult to sing and get the
children to join you. ‘It (the guitar) builds up so much more of that interaction
than what we can do with just a voice’. Let us stop for a moment and have a
short look at the guitar. We found that the guitar players – all male – hold
central key positions for the music making in the kindergarten to happen.
Knudsen et al. (2018) point to different musical pathfinders in kindergarten,
where the male guitar player is one of them. The guitar players in this
kindergarten, however, is different from the more normal character as
outlined by Knudsen et al. (2018) (who makes music with his guitar through
practicing his own guitar skills, often even on his own with no children
present). The guitar players in this kindergarten, on the other hand, function
both as supporters, initiative takers, motivators and role models. At the same
time, the guitar players all expressed a high awareness in not always take the
space and the lead with the guitar, but instead create a safe space where
anyone can join, even without the guitar:
Personally, it is important that I don’t always grab the guitar, but also give
the other adults a chance so they learn to feel safe in the music making,
such as singing without being accompanied by an instrument. The voice
is an instrument as well, I experience that all the time, you can just use
your voice, sing songs and do rhymes. It excites the children just as much.
There are always some adults that are more self-confident than others,
and if you observe de adults you can see that someone might want to do
something, but then they back out. Well, then we have to do something
about that. We simply have to make an opening, a space, we have to
The guitar players are in short creating a safe music making space for other
staff members. They function as musical pathfinders that spread a positive
musical identity in the group as a whole. ‘You can do it, I will help you do it’.
Most staff members also talk about the head of the kindergarten in that same
way: as someone who both inspires them and also in fact demand of them
to make use of whatever musical capital they may have.
I think there are many ways in which one might be ‘musical’. The head of
the kindergarten has a way of being in her music making that is very kind
and gentle, mild and inviting. It makes you feel confident in everything
you do. Everything is accepted – it makes you feel free to simply try. I think
Their joint positive musical identity
It would seem that the central key persons, the musical pathfinders, are able
to transfer their positive musical identity towards the entire staff. Individually,
the staff members in this music kindergarten do not talk very differently about
their musical identity or their musical skills than adults in other kindergartens
that struggle with music making. They too talk about shortcomings, voice
shame, and the wish for a supportive guitar to excite the children. What
would have happened to their extensive music making if they were working
in another kindergarten? They might not have made music in their everyday
life at all.
The game changer is the word ‘we’ – the most used word in the interviews. It
is together they achieve the positive musical identity that makes each one of
them capable of using their innate musicality. It is together they become a
music kindergarten where everyone sings, dances and plays all day long. The
adult companionship in the music making is astonishingly comprehensive and
marks a pronounced distinction from the average kindergarten, where the
refrain is that the adults are scared to sing in front of each other. A vast body
of research on the social benefits of singing together supports why doing it
together is the key (see f.ex. Kreutz 2014, PearceLaunay and Dunbar 2015,
Grape et al. 2002).
What kind of skills are needed? These findings represent a significant insight
into how important adult companionship is for music making in
kindergarten. This again points towards how fruitless it might be to solely focus
on repertoire knowledge and other musical skills during the ECEC education,
as long as the adult companionship is missing. This brings us back to our
theory that ‘understanding offers a more sustainable foundation (for
incorporating more music making in kindergartens) than musical skills and
knowledge of repertoire’. It is not the musical skills or knowledge of repertoire
that make the musical pathfinders in this kindergarten able to include the rest
of the staff in this joint positive musical identity. Rather, it is their understanding
of what music might be to human beings, their understanding of human
musicality as something everyone possesses. Moreover, it is their ability to
invite the rest of the staff onboard and by this creating the joint positive
musical identity that neutralises their individual negative (or culturally normal)
Therefore, we hypothesise that by offering kindergarten teacher students
theoretical knowledge on ‘why music’, their music making will strengthen. In
this way, they will acquire both an attitude towards why music is important to
human beings, and a language for ‘why music’ that stretches beyond the
culturally given view on musicality as something only a few possess. In
contrast, will learning new songs change their misconceptions of ‘musicality’?
Or will it simply add to the account ‘fake it till you make it’?
Thus, theoretical knowledge may create an attitude towards music making
and musicality that encourage kindergarten teachers to make use of their
innate musicality. The consequence may be that we need to reconsider the
present music curriculum for the kindergarten teacher education and find an
appropriate balance between the development of practical skills and
theoretical insight in the few music lessons that are offered. Moreover, it is
also important to be critical of what kind of theoretical insight the students
are presented to, as the purpose of the theory is to support and build each
student’s own musical confidence. And most important of all, these findings
indicate that the presence of adult companionship in kindergarten music
making needs to be addressed. How can the newly graduated kindergarten
teacher create such an adult companionship at his or her new working
place? What skills are needed to be able to invite the other adults onboard
and by this creating a joint positive musical identity that neutralises individual
negative musical identity?
Thank you to the staff members of the research kindergarten.