‘Let’s say we’re DJing at a party and everyone’s getting bored, and you need to pick it back up,” says musician and teacher Natalie Elizabeth Weiss—a recent fellow with the Brooklyn Philharmonic who has shared a stage with LCD Soundsystem and the Dirty Projectors. Crouching next to a SP404 synthesizer hooked up to her laptop on the floor of Crown Heights vintage store Cool Pony, she presses a glowing square and “Yo DJ, pump this party,” a sample from Bizarre Inc.’s 1992 house classic “I’m Gonna Get You Baby,” blurts out of the speakers.
Queueing up the song’s anthemic four-four thump, she looks up at her two students expectantly from beneath her bangs and bowler hat. One of them toddles over and jabs at the machine once, twice, three times with her pudgy little finger, almost hitting the beat. “Liv, you really get it,” Weiss says, clapping. Her voice shoots up in pitch. “Yay! You want to press play on ‘That’s Why Daddy Loves Disco’?”
Liv is 20 months old.
Her classmate, Julian Al-Fayez, is just over a year; he can barely push anything without help from his mother. This is each child’s second time at Baby DJ School, Weiss’s new program for infants and toddlers ages zero to three, to learn DJing essentials—what a MIDI is, how to EQ, and the difference between deck A and B, for example—while parents are taught alternatives to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and that a good disco beat prevents post-nap crankiness.
During class, which lasts 45 minutes every Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. until November 6 and costs $200 for all eight sessions, snack time is encouraged and Winnie-the-Pooh blankets are spread on the floor beneath racks of flannel button-downs and gold necklace displays. It’s an ideal environment for developing “a warm, loving relationship with these pieces of technical equipment.”
Babies and electronic music might not seem as intuitive a combination as more traditional classes offered by Mommy and Me, but Weiss—who also teaches older children at Manhattan’s School of Rock—insists it’s just as important. After seeing a friend’s one-and-a-half-year-old son beat-match and almost correctly pronounce “quarter-inch adapter,” Weiss knew she had tapped into something.
Informed by her experience as a nanny tired of rehashed nursery rhymes and books like Parenting from the Inside Out, Weiss made a lesson plan to engage the parents as much as their kids. Songs like “The SP404 Song” (“Push a button and I can make it rain/ Push another one, you hear a lion roar/Put your favorite sounds here inside of me/SP404”), sung like a lullaby over a soft drum machine pattern, encourages parents to sing along. “If the parents are endeavoring to remember the words and grasp new concepts, their kids are seeing them learning and happy as opposed to waiting it out for the sake of the kids,” Weiss says.
Sharon Trehub, a child development professor at the University of Toronto whose research Weiss studied for her lesson plan, is a little more skeptical. She suspects Baby DJ School isn’t really geared toward children at all, who she says wouldn’t benefit from an avant-garde music program more than they would from a traditional one. “It doesn’t strike me as the most developmentally appropriate, but I wouldn’t say it’s bad,” she says.
Children would get the same out of banging on pots and pans, she adds, as long as it was “bringing them into the culture and sharing the things that we know and like, but doing it in a warm and loving and very personal way.”
Julian’s mom, Samantha, on the other hand, believes Baby DJ School is giving her son something he doesn’t get anywhere else. “There are hundreds of music classes for babies, and they’re all nursery rhymes and the kids sit around and hit a little drum. This one is more interactive,” she says.
Though Julian is so young it’s hard to tell what he’s feeling or thinking, his mother says he seems to enjoy pushing the buttons; otherwise he would get fussy or just crawl away, which he has done in other classes. “It’s just like their toys at home, but they’re doing it in a group setting and hearing music at the same time, which I think is good anyway,” she says. “People think we’re trying to make kids cool by teaching them how to DJ when that’s not the case. It’s an amazing class.”