Spotlight on Faculty: Lori Custodero’s Subway Series

Dr. Lori Custodero, Associate Professor of Music and Music Education, has established an Early Childhood Music concentration at Teachers College that integrates pedagogy and research through both theory and practice. She has just returned from Greece, where she presented her research to colleagues in music education and music psychology at three conference venues. It was her 6th trip to the country, where, in 2006-7, she headed a study with Greek music teachers interested in flow experience.  In addition to international projects, Prof. Custodero has developed music programs with many local institutions in New York City, including Jazz at Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic,  and Columbia Head Start.

After over a decade of teaching young children, Custodero began doctoral work at the University of Southern California; within a year of  finishing her degree  she started what she refers to as her “dream job” at Teachers College.  The opportunity to develop a graduate level early childhood music program was novel in the field of early childhood education, and it was, and continues to be a challenging and rewarding endeavor.  During her 14 years at TC, Custodero has been influential in shaping the program into one of the highest caliber and in turn has found a place to advance her scholarship.

Custodero’s scholarly interests focus on the intersection of music and human development. Her current research looks at the role that music plays in the lives of young children. Recently, she embarked on a new and exciting study that examines the use and function of music in the everyday lives of children. “It is based on the idea that children use music for specific functions in their life–to help them feel better as a means of self-comfort, to help organize unstructured time, to express themselves, and, to communicate with other people. Babies use musical sound to communicate with their mothers and fathers, and preschool children use it on the playground,” she says.

In this particular study, she is looking developmentally at young children to see how music functions for them at a certain stage in their life, from infancy through age eight, and she does this by studying children in a confined yet public space, the subway. For Custodero, the subway provides a unique environment from which to observe children’s spontaneous music making: it is bounded, allowing the researches to be systematic in their documentation; dynamic, the train moves, accelerates, slows down and stops providing a rhythmic background for music-making; and it is used by a diverse collection of the city’s population. To conduct their research, Custodero and a team of graduate assistants spent three Sundays riding the 1 and 2 trains back and forth, covering Brooklyn and Manhattan, observing children jn the subway cars who were spontaneously making music. “I never get on a train where, if there’s a child in the train [he or she] doesn’t eventually start singing or tapping or moving, having some kind of musical response,” she says. The researchers encountered 94 separate musical episodes and recorded their observations “in the moment” on written protocol forms and later constructed narrative accounts; both data types are being analyzed.

Already their study has yielded some interesting preliminary results, which Custodero and her students recently presented in Greece. “We’re mostly seeing children use music to comfort themselves, or keep themselves cognitively engaged. They have to have lots of time and they have to be in their own space. And different things set it off: often they start moving or chanting to the sound of the train or they’ll start singing a song about a dog if they see a poster of a dog,” she says.

For Custodero, this study has proved to be exciting thus far but “the good stuff is yet to come,” she says, as they continue to analyze the data and make further discoveries. She enjoys watching the TC graduate students take ownership of the project and get involved in the work of discovery and observation. She is teaching them, students who are passionate about both music and early childhood education, about how musical children are innately and how important music is to children. And she is rewarded, she says, by “seeing how well the students observe, how excited they are and what good minds they have. It’s a great reminder about the quality of students we have [at TC].”