Published in the Palisadian Post Lifestyle Section | Thursday, December 13, 2001

On a recent Friday morning, children and parents gather in the converted garage behind Natasha Gevorkyan's house for her 11:15 a.m. "Beethoven, Mommy and Me" class. Gevorkyan greets them at the door of the small but workable 300-square-ft. space that she has turned into a child-approved and childproof music and dance room.

On the walls inside the carpeted room are pictures of musical notes and portraits of classical musicians like Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, along with plastic toys and instruments that hang out of the reach of young children. Giant size wooden piano keys stand upright against one wall next to a Yamaha piano with a stuffed animal lion sitting on top.

"Children react best to animals," says Gevorkyan, wearing a bright grass-green shirt, a colorful flower-patterned skirt (she later calls it her "happy mood skirt"), and red socks (everyone takes off their shoes for class). At 41, Gevorkyan, who is also called "Teacher Tasha," appears to have just as much energy as her young students.
Gevorkyan plays a short melody on the piano which cues the small group of mostly 2 1/2 to 3-year-olds to put away the toys they've been playing with and turn their attention to her. "They do this for Natasha, they don't do this at home," says Megan Sheridan, mother of 3-year-old Kent, who has been coming to Gevorkyan's classes for a year.

Gevorkyan begins her class with Edvard Grieg's "Morning Mood," to which she and the toddlers mime morning activities like stretching and washing their faces. The children watch Gevorkyan with attentive and curious eyes, imitating everything she does, and then they all sing "Just Being Me," which Gevorkyan adapted from a Czechoslovakian folk song and which incorporates all of the children's names.

Later in the class, they rest briefly to the soothing sounds of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata before beating drums and singing a few rounds of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm." "Louder, louder!" Gevorkyan tells them, and the children have no trouble doubling the volume of their music making.

"Beethoven, Mommy and Me," for children 18 months to 3-years-old, is one of the four music and dance classes that Gevorkyan offers. Others include a Music Workshop for 3 1/2 to 5 1/2-year-olds and a Creative Movement and Ballet Class taught by ballerina Natalia Zakhvatkina. For her Music Workshop classes, Gevorkyan teaches slightly more advanced activities involving some music theory such as treble and base clefs and the lines and spaces of a bar of written music.

With three children of her own, ages 8, 10, and 20, Gevorkyan knew that starting children as young as 18 months in music classes was the best way to "plant the seeds and see if they grow." She believes that because most young children have very little, if any, exposure to classical music, it's good to play them some of the more famous pieces to broaden their musical experience and spark their interest.

Gevorkyan also introduces a variety of instruments to all ages: the violin, harp, drums, accordion, piano, organ, triangle, cymbals, and xylophone are some of them. Leslie Castanuela Barnes, mother of 2-year-old Sophia, says, "My daughter can listen to music and say, 'Mommy, that's Mister Mozart.' It's promising. She's interpreting the music and can identify the sound of drums or the piano." Barnes's 4-year-old daughter, Anna, also takes classes.

Russian-born, Gevorkyan began teaching music and dance classes in the Palisades six years ago, after previously working as a piano instructor and a preschool caregiver. She earned her music theory degree in Russia, where she taught piano lessons for nine years before moving to the United States in 1986.

Attuned to children's reactions and sensitivity to classical music, Gevorkyan knows which pieces certain children in her classes respond well to and which ones sound too dark or unsettling. "You have to be very careful," she says, "because classical music is powerful, it's very deep."

When a child gets scared by a certain song and starts to crawl into his mother's arms, Gevorkyan carefully switches on the next piece and changes the activity, creating a lighter and happier mood.

But the warm and comfortable educational environment that Gevorkyan creates goes beyond music and dance. Children learn and practice everything from bows and curtsies to behavioral skills like sharing and raising their hands before speaking.

Classes are offered Tuesday through Friday during the school year.