(The following is an article that appeared in the Huntsville Times on Friday, April 8, 2011.)
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — When Denie Riggs was growing up near Cleveland, Ohio, her parents had one rule that vexed her no end: No singing at the table.
"That's how full of music our lives were," said Riggs recently as she waiting for her classroom at A.B.Stephens to fill up with 10 excited toddlers for music class. "We used to walk around the house, singing all the time. Today, people don't sing."
Surrounded by piped-in recorded sound, real individual and family singing has become a rarity, reserved either for the very talented or the annoying. But, she says, singing is just the simple expression of natural, God-engendered joy.
"Everybody has a God-given song to sing," Denie said.
Denie and her husband, ordained minister Michael Riggs, are working full time to help that natural music be expressed. Their company, Perfect Praise, has developed music classes for children from before birth through age 8. Their business in the United States is making possible their donations to equip and train teachers in developing countries, like Haiti, as well.
Denie has the studies to show parents about why music is a good idea: increased school achievement, better behavior, a brain formatted for learning, boosted attention span and concentration and even healthier immune systems. But the studies just reinforce, for the Riggses, what they already believe as Christians: People are much more fulfilled in every way when they do what God has created them to do.
"When we sing to the Lord, God likes it," Riggs said. "But it also enhances what God designed us to be, body, mind and soul."
Denie and Michael stumbled into their ministry of teaching music slowly. Michael, who was teaching guitar lessons during the 1990s, read how music can help the young child's developing brain produce the healthier connections between the two major lobes, enabling quicker learning in all fields for the rest of the child's life.
The problem? No music curriculum they could find had much more than a few weeks of classes for preschoolers.
"We're missing it," Michael told her. "There has got to be a way to teach the little ones."
Denie set to work, going on her own observations of children and making songs that help children systematize the rhythms and music of their own world.
"God just made me into a music-writing machine," Denie said. "I'd be doing something else and suddenly be listening to a clock tick, and could hear the song, 'Tick Tock goes the clock.'"
She developed a year-long class for 3-year-olds and offered it in their Muscle Shoals studio. It filled to 70 children right away. At the end of the year, the parents wanted to continue.
"I stayed one book ahead of them," Denie said, describing how she added levels to the program. "And God gets all the glory."
All that theory, though, holds no interest for the batch of toddlers who tumble through the door of the classroom. The 16-to-36-month-old children claim a spot on the carpet around a circle and sit, some reclining in the crossed legs of a parent like in an armchair.
Denie hands out little stuffed turtles. They sing high, raising the turtles "to the sky." They sing low, "touching their toes." Denie moves to a welcome song, "The Naming Game."
Parents clap. The children clap, many in perfect rhythm, some watching the others, wide-eyed. But each of them manages to answer their cue in the silent space when everyone looks at them in turn, singing, "What's your name?"
"I'm Sophie!" squeals one little girl like it's the best word in the world.
Music can do that for children, Denie said: Increasing their confidence and sense of themselves in a good way – while it also teaches them to work together in harmony. She has one class for special needs children, and has witnessed the miracle of an autistic child finding his voice.
"When he sang the good-bye song to me in the sweetest little voice, I just went out to my car and cried," Denie said. "And he wasn't speaking before."After shakers, tambourines, dances and more singing games, the children climb into the stools of the keyboards around the walls of the room, ready for piano. The turtles come back out to slide up and down the keys. Then the children, after finding the "Papa Doh" C way down low and the "Baby Doh" C way up high, play "Mama Doh," middle C, in rhythm to a song.
Then it's time for stickers and the good-bye song. The children rush over to hug Miss Denie good-bye as their smiling parents pack up. Over all this discordant globe, this must be the happiest room in the world.
"The Bible says there will be continuous music in heaven," Denie said. "There's music in our DNA. We believe that children raised from early on to be godly musicians can change the nation."