Alisa Harmon wears many different hats—Director, Montclair Music For Aardvarks and Other Mammals, Certified Teacher at the Developmental Learning Center (DLC) in Montclair, Parents Who Rock performer and band member—and mother to her 3 children, Tanner, Zoe, and Eva.
As the owner of HARMONIZE and Director of Music for Aardvarks and Other Mammals (MFA) in Montclair, Alisa epitomizes a groovy approach to playing and teaching music. MFA is a departure from the “sweet and cuddly” approach to music education for young children. Whether she’s singing about snow or babysitters, city life, or aging grandparents, fire engines or bagels, or even the Guggenheim, Alisa brings a sense of whimsy and joy to her classes. There are also fun instruments, sign language interludes and at least 10 minutes of zany dancing.
Barista Kids appreciates that Alisa took time out to chat with Nicole Gray-Chan about music, multitasking and the lessons she’s learned along the way…
Q: How long have you been singing?
I have always been a musician. I grew up singing in church, doing a lot of solos. I was also in choral groups. During freshman year in high school, I was in a folk music band—The Budds. Then as a senior, I joined a rock and roll band, and I was also in a small madrigal group.
Q: You really are a multitasker.
Multitasking is what I do. I wear a lot of hats, but I’m most me when I’m singing. Singing for me is oxygen.
Q: Which vocalists inspire you most?
I used to fantasize about being Stevie Nicks. Growing up, I listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Heart—especially because I was in the South. I love the Eagles because of all of the harmony. Sometimes I would sing my own harmony lines against their songs. Imagine my surprise when I moved to Montclair and met Mark Walsh (the little brother of Joe Walsh from the Eagles)—and then started performing with him.
Q: You’re from the South?
We moved to Alabama from Oregon when I was 13. It was like a foreign country. I finished college there before heading to California as part of a church mission. That’s where I met my ex-husband.
Q: When did you start teaching music to toddlers and preschoolers?
We moved to New York City in 1992, and I starting teaching Music Together in 1993. I taught Music Together for eight years. While teaching through the Music Together program I met David Weinstone, the founder and national director of MFA. Our family moved to Montclair in 2000, and I started teaching MFA in Montclair in 2001.
Q: What makes Music for Aardvarks and Other Mammals so special?
Music for Aardvarks is not intended to be “perky.” It has a definite beat. It’s fresh and vibrant and goes beyond clichés. MFA has an urbane sensibility. The first song, “Taxi,” which David introduced in the late 1990’s, really captures the attitude of the approach to the music. (Cue melody: Taxi, taxi! Riding in the back seat. Roll the window up. Roll the window down. Put the money through the slot, “See ya later” “Thanks a lot.” Sure beats walking ‘cross town. )
The interesting thing about ‘Aardvark’ songs is the dichotomy. Some of the songs are very simple, “Take me to the park, to the park, to the park, to the park, to the park.”
These songs are based on the best parts of life for children. I remember that during that time, every day, I picked up my kids and took them to the park. Another example is “Brush, brush, brush, brush, brush your teeth.” All of these things are relevant. You can say to your baby, “This is your music.” They can own this music.
But then, in a complete 180, there are the lullabies. The lullabies are full of musical genius. David uses a lot of jazz chords and the songs are so, so poetic. The imagery they evoke is amazing.
Rick Celano, my guitarist and Web master, and I get a tremendous amount of pleasure sharing this music with toddlers and their parents.
I have lots of favorites, but one of my favorite favorites is “Simple Things.” One part that really speaks to me is: “The day will come, When you’ll be off and I’ll be all but done. You’ll leave this place, But, you’ll leave me with a smile on my face. The simple things, is the stuff of dreams. And I watch you sleep, in these precious days.”
Now that I am at the age that my children are almost “off,” and I’m “almost done,” I can recall those years when I sang this lullaby to them and now it has come to fruition in my life. In a sense, I’ve come full circle.
Q: There is a profound quality to this music, a sense of bittersweet joy and quiet longing. Do kids get it?
Remember, parents also listen to the music—and they pay attention to the lyrics. The kids understand the power of the melody and the lullaby calm that it imparts.
Q: Is there a story behind the name “Music for Aardvarks and Other Mammals?”
I don’t think that there is a special reason that David chose “aardvarks,” though I should point out that “other mammals” is also part of the name.
Q: You are also an educator in the public school system.
Yes, I started working at the DLC, a preschool for children with special needs in Montclair, in 2002. As a certified teacher there are many interesting things that I bring to teaching these students, including elements of occupational therapy, music therapy, speech therapy, and fine and gross motor skill development. When teaching, I use world music. Montclair is an incredibly diverse and open community—in a way that is absolutely unique—and I try to capture that in choosing from a selection of multi-ethnic music. Music is not mandated in special education, and I am pleased to be able to integrate this dimension into their early education.
I met Alma Schneider, the Founder of PWR, when she brought her first child to Aardvarks. I was excited about singing with her and the other parents in the bands. I’ve been pleased to be a part of such a great effort.
Q: There have been a lot of really big changes in your life recently, including some significant challenges. Yet, you seem as fresh and vital as ever. What exactly is going on?
I am recently divorced from my ex-husband, the father of my three children. There certainly have been challenges, but I am a very determined and happy person. I had a small stroke in 2005, due to the stresses of my failing marriage. As I lay in my hospital bed, I thought to myself that the only thing I wanted to do was be a mother to my children.
I’ve never missed one of my children’s events, and I am proud of that. I am also growing personally and professionally. Currently, I’m in a Master’s program in Inclusive Early Childhood Education at Montclair State University. One thing that I know with certainty: Nothing ruins your life forever.
Q: Your life is in full bloom—and it comes through in your music. What types of songs are you writing and singing now.
I’m always writing and singing songs. Recently, I wrote a poem/song, “Tapestry.” The point of the song is that I weave the strands of my life into a tapestry. It’s mine to weave…but also mine to take apart….