Elizabeth Galafa Ylaya sings everything from musical theatre to opera to Motown. That background serves her well in her current position as an instructor in both Edmonds and Lynnwood with Music Together, a licensed, internationally-recognized program supervised by Edmonds-based music educator Sarah Richàrd to teach the language of music to kids from newborn through age 5.
Ylaya also is involved with a different but parallel music for youth program, Camp Sparkle, a day camp for children affected by cancer.
Originally from Orlando, Fla., and a local resident since 2015, Ylaya has been an active performer in multiple musical genres for much of her young life. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance, originally was considering musical theatre as her major passion, and recently sang the role of Anita in Symphony Tacoma’s concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. She also will be making her role debut with Seattle Opera this fall in the 1-act chamber opera The Falling and the Rising. But it took her a while to warm up to opera as an art form.
“People told me I should do opera, but I was like, ‘No, no, no, it’s boring.’ I thought it all sounded the same, I just wasn’t sold,” she says. “I finally realized how much emotion I could use, how amazing the human voice is. To not be amplified and to fill an entire opera house. To be onstage and be able to carry on top of an orchestra and chorus. It’s amazing that the human voice can do that.”
Opera is indeed a passion for thousands, if not millions, of people. But what led Ylaya to Music Together?
“A year ago I went to a Music Together class with my best friend, whose husband was deployed in the army, and her then 1-year-old. I’d never heard about MT. Within 10 minutes I thought, ‘Why am I not doing this?’ I’ve always had a heart for kids, though I don’t have an educational background like my boss, our director here (Sarah Richàrd),” says Ylaya. “I’ve been around babies since I was 13. In summers when my young cousins were out of school, I would help my Grandma taking care of them at home. I feel comfortable with that age group of MT, which mainly focuses on 0 to 5. I contacted Sarah and asked her if she needed teachers and she said yes. I immediately went to do my training in San Diego last October.”
That training was intense: a 10-week apprenticeship, and 25-hour course over two days. Trainees have to have a music degree, though not necessarily in singing.
“MT’s philosophy is that we’re all capable of being musical, especially at an early age. All during the 45-minute classes we sing, mostly acapella. We’re only allowed to use a track three times during the class. We pull out instruments two to three times in a class, but the focus is more on using your whole body and God-given voice to make music.”
As examples of the music used, Ylaya cited a Russian folk song from a training video sent from the MT headquarters in New Jersey that’s popular in Slavic families. She serenaded me with a phrase. I instantly recognized it as a melody Tchaikovsky used in his Symphony No 4. Ylaya revealed that the song was presented in Russian, English and, because of her Spanish background, also in Spanish.
“A trilingual song for a 0 to 5 crowd,” she says. “Honestly unheard of outside this program.”
Ylaya agrees that different languages can be important for very young kids. If exposed to even a few words at an early age, it can stay with them for life.
Ylaya’s experience doing opera with kids includes performing in an abridged version of Hansel and Gretel with the nonprofit Northwest Opera in Schools, Etc. (N.O.I.S.E). The organization converts multiple operas into English and tours with them, much as Seattle Opera does in their Education Outreach programs.
“It was a really positive experience,” says Ylaya.
“Music Together has been a good fit for me,” she adds, “because I’ve always been passionate about everyone having access to the arts, especially our young generation. Everyone deserves good art, no matter where they are or what age. MT’s philosophy is that we can all make music. It has nothing to do with talent but with early exposure,” she emphasizes. “Research shows the same for music as for language.”
Music always resonates with and gets a response from kids.As music keeps getting cut back in the schools, programs like MT become increasingly important.
The newest offering of MT, en Español, was officially launched this past spring. Director Richàrd brought up the possibility soon after Ylaya initially contacted her. Knowing that Ylaya was bilingual, Richàrd asked if she would feel comfortable teaching the Spanish class. Ylaya embraced the idea. Her family are still in Orlando and she rarely gets a chance to practice her Spanish. Practicing the language for herself is important, but she also acknowledges the need to expose kids to another culture or language.
“Here in Edmonds, it’s been such a positive reaction,” she says. “I’ve found that English-speaking families want their kids to know there are different types of people out there.”
The curriculum and songs — which are offered in Music Together location in Edmonds and Lynnwood — are the same as the usual program, except that families first receive a bilingual CD. Ylaya will start a song in English, then sing a verse in Spanish, then go back to English. Translations are provided.
“Depending on who is enrolled, I’ll take it slowly the first few weeks if most of them are only English-speaking families. Last semester I had a Guatemalan family who wanted more Spanish. I can cater to who is in the room.”
Ylaya is very careful which songs she introduces, whether a mixture of English and Spanish or completely in Spanish. For the shorter lullabies, she’ll start out singing all the words herself. As the semester progresses some of the kids will be imitating.
“I’ve seen faster results singing directions in Spanish as we’re switching songs. When we sing bye-bye to the instruments as we put them away, I sing, ‘Adios, adios.’ By week five the kids were mimicking that, and their parents just lit up. ‘They were singing a tune and a word in Spanish? Amazing.’ A full song would probably take some time.”
Camp Sparkle, a completely different entity, is sponsored by Cancer Pathways, an organization that’s been in Seattle for about two decades. Ylaya’s link to the program came through one of the MT teachers, the director of Music Center of the Northwest, who has worked with Camp Sparkle in the past, but is soon expecting a baby. Richàrd recommended Ylaya as a replacement.
Ylaya provides an hour of music at three of the four different Cancer Pathways-sponsored Camp Sparkle locations in the summer. The participants are ages 6 to 12 — a different crowd from Music Together — and have been affected by cancer in some way, either themselves or a loved one. Alley Bell Music is providing the instruments for these camp experiences.
“When I was asked to do this it was a no-brainer,” Ylaya said. “I love kids, it’s for a good cause. This whole camp is about inspiring them and filling their joy buckets.
“I’m using the training and techniques I’ve been taught by MT to facilitate these sessions for an older crowd,” Ylaya adds. “We’ll be singing some of the MT songs. Part of the time we’ll work on rhythm and drumming techniques, rhythmic patterns. I’m only bringing coffee can drums. Similar to the MT philosophy, I want to remind everyone that we don’t need a fancy drum to play a rhythmic pattern.”
That involves drumming on the floor or laps, then transitioning to the coffee can drum. Other props, such as a parachute, serve to enhance, not take away from, the music.
“We’ll flap the parachute to the music, move around in a circle, put something in the middle and bounce around to the rhythm or melody. It all goes back to music.”
What does Ylaya aspire to accomplish with the kids?
“The first one will be, ‘Let’s see how it goes.’ I have a couple of weeks between sessions so I can see what worked and what didn’t. If kids respond to a certain activity, I’ll do that longer. If they’re shy to move, I jump into very simple choreography or clapping. I hope that it will provide encouragement to sing, and especially joy.”
Kids have certain fears and anxieties in relation to a life crisis such as cancer. Music is all about joy. Ylaya hopes especially to challenge this older crowd, to make them feel they’re good at doing something new, to bring joy into their lives and show them how to bring joy into their own being. It all sounds like a wonderful idea.
“I think there’s value in many kinds of music,” Ylaya says finally. “My training helps me understand breath, engagement, all the things we work forever on.”
All of those “forever” things contribute to her passion for sharing music with very young children, on so many levels.
—By Erica Miner