by Elyse Wild • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Michelle Venegas has what most people desire: an abounding, unabashed, complete and total love of her job.
“I feel like this is what I am supposed to be doing with my life,” smiled Venegas.
Venegas is the owner-operator of Joyful Sounds, a music studio that teaches toddlers and their primary caretakers how to make music. Venegas uses the Music Together curriculum, an internationally practiced Princeton-based program that operates on the philosophy that all children are inherently musical.
“In the same way that you don’t wait until your children understand what language is to start talking to them, you shouldn’t wait to start making music with them,” Venegas explained.
Nestled in the back of the Blackport Building on Lake Drive, Venegas’ studio welcomes families for 45 minutes of music immersion. The sessions begin with the ritual “Hello Song,” followed by a movement activity, instrument play and family dance time. The mixed-ages classes are for children as young as a few weeks to four years old and run consecutively for ten weeks.
Research continues to show that making music has a significant impact on the brain. A 2005 study published in the International Journal of Musical Education showed that children who have basic music competence demonstrate greater gains in areas of cognition, gross motor skills, reading comprehension and socioemotional development than their counterparts.
“Music learning supports all other learning,” Venegas said. “Music is the one activity that you can do where it is not just a part of your brain that is lighting up—it is your entire brain.”
Venegas is on a quest to keep music engagement from fading from our lives. A generation ago, instead of tablets and televisions, most families had musical instruments in their home, and when a person wanted to hear music, they made it.
“We experience music in a more passive way now,” Venegas said.
In her studio, Venegas witnesses the immeasurable impact of family-oriented music education.
“You can do all of the tests in the world, and they are proven to be true,” Venegas declared. “But the one thing that you can’t quantify is the bonding that happens between the grownups and the children. That is what I see.”
Venegas grew up playing violin and guitar. After college, she picked up a job as a violin teacher for the Grand Rapids Community College Arts Outreach Program.
She became familiar with the Music Together program after a fellow teacher asked her if she would be interested in getting trained in the ciriculum and covering for her while she was on maternity leave. Venegas accepted and went to Princeton to receive training.
She described the pivotal moment when she was standing in front of the Music Together building and felt that she had found her place in the world.
“I had never had a moment of clarity like that in my life,” Venegas proclaimed. “I saw the building, and I thought, ‘This is what I am supposed to be doing.’”
Her journey to opening Joyful Sounds was built one leap of faith at a time. After a short stint living out West, Venegas returned to Grand Rapids as a single mom with a 2-month-old baby and few job opportunities.
“I needed to work,” Venegas said. “This was the one thing that I knew how to do.”
She borrowed space from a friend in the Blackport Building and started teaching one Music Together class a week. Her classes steadily grew by word of mouth, and she was offered her own space in the building. Venegas said she felt terrified at the prospect of taking on the monthly overhead and potentially failing.
“It is the biggest leap of faith I have ever taken in my life,” Venegas reflected. “I had faith. I trusted that I knew what I was doing, and that this is what I was supposed to be doing.”
Today, Joyful Sounds boasts 160 families, 16 classes a week and three teachers besides Venegas.
Sarah Kelso has been taking classes at Joyful Sounds with her four-year-old twin boys for a year and a half. Kelso speaks of her experience at the studio with undeniable delight.
“It has been so much fun for the three of us,” Kelso said. “Michelle has such a talent for engaging children. The boys have become so confident.”
Venegas is working on expanding the impact of Joyful Sounds; she recently opened a location in Hudsonville, began holding classes at Renew Mama Studio and piloted a class pairing toddlers with senior citizens on the memory-loss unit at Clark Retirement Home. She also now offers African drum classes for children ages 4-8.
A true ambassador for the power of music, Venegas’ passion permeates every facet of her being. Now married with two kids, music is a part of her daily life outside of work. She plays in an Irish folk band, and true to her mission, her home is full of instruments.
“I find myself playing all the time,” Venegas glowed. “It makes my brain right.”
For more information about Joyful Sounds Studio, please visit www.kidsmusicgrandrapids.com.