‘An advocate for music education’: Singer-songwriter Tracy Bonham works to teach, save music at Brooklyn preschool

tracy bonham teaching music
90’s alt-rock star Tracy Bonham has traded in grungy music venues for brightly-lit preschool classrooms.
Photo by Megan McGibney

Not many of Brooklyn’s preschools have a familiar name from the 1990s music scene as a teaching artist for its young students.

But the Brooklyn Preschool of Science has just that in Tracy Bonham, a two-time Grammy nominee best known for her angsty single, “Mother, Mother,” off her 1996 debut album, “The Burdens of Being Upright.” Although the schools’ brightly-lit classrooms may be a far cry from the music venues Bonham spent the 90s performing in, these music lessons have given her a new pathway to not only express her love of music, but even save it for future generations.

“I feel like this is my calling,” Bonham said after finishing one of her lessons. “And also, just finding other ways for kids to find it. Because if they can’t find it in the schools, if there’s budget cuts everywhere, if people are overlooking the importance of arts in schools or arts in general, I want them to be able to find something like this that’s not so strict and confining. So I want them to be able to find something fun, and very educational.”

tracy bonham with music education puppet
Bonham uses puppets and characters to explain musical concepts to her students. Photo by Megan McGibney

“Fun and very educational” means lessons that capture the attention of students at the preschool’s three locations in Cobble Hill, Park Slope, and Brooklyn Heights. 

Bonham uses characters, such as Topsy Bonsai, who can hear music everywhere she goes, be it zippers, tying a shoe, wind, walking down the street, and so on. There are also five blackbirds who sit not only on a tree branch but also on piano keys. Finally, there’s the puppet Joe the Crow who is learning how to sing. 

With Bonham’s animated hand-held puppetry, Joe the Crow goes along with learning about the noted music scales, do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti. Numbers are used to count the beats and at times, the children are encouraged to stand up and dance.

As Bonham plays her acoustic guitar, shows the pictures of Topsy Bonsai, the five blackbirds, and uses Joe the Crow, nearly  a dozen kindergarten children sit around her, closely focused with excited smiles and eyes.

Their enthusiasm delights Carmelo Piazza, the founder of Brooklyn Preschool of Science, who hired Bonham in 2015.

“When they know that Tracy is coming,” Piazza said. “[The kids] literally start to shake and get so excited because she has this really beautiful fusion of incorporating movement with her music. She’s also very theatrical and comical, so she has so many wonderful attributes that just creates such a beautiful bond with her. She’s definitely a fan favorite.”

Piazza said when prospective parents tour the schools and find out that Bonham is one of the teaching artists, they get nostalgic from remembering watching her music videos on MTV.

The school’s education director, Miranda Pereyra, echoed his praise.

“The kids love all the songs,” Pereyra said. “She brings in different musical instruments, like a violin to indicate farm animals. It’s connecting music to learning. And she stores all of her music files with us so we can access them if she’s unable to come in to teach.”

Piazza added that since Bonham began teaching at his schools, she has developed and grown as a music teacher who fits well with the preschool’s curriculum, which concentrates on a wide range of sciences, including entomology, botany, and technology. 

“She’s so quick now to adapt to a situation,” he says. “Eight years of techniques, eight years of trial and error. It’s really fun to see. She incorporates school ideology in teaching her music. So the kids are moving because they’re learning music, but they’re connecting the theme to what we’re teaching to her music.”

Bonham first moved to Brooklyn in the late 1990s, only to relocate to Los Angeles shortly after 9/11 to escape the stress of the aftermath of the attacks. She returned to the borough in 2005 and has been raising her family here ever since. She said she enjoys Brooklyn’s energy and its community aspect, and draws inspiration from the artists who live there. 

Bonham began teaching music not long after permanently moving to the city.. She has given private lessons, taught at public schools, and even spent some time at a private Manhattan preschool. Teaching a variety of ages allowed Bonham to see how teaching young children, between the ages of three and five, is the ideal age because they are “so capable” of absorbing music. 

At the same time, she said wants to get those kids started early in music education, which she believes is fading away from many schools across the country. Last year, art programs at New York City’s public schools were shaken up by a $375 million enrollment-based budget cut; the City Council is now calling for a nearly $80 million budget boost to restore those programs. 

Nationwide, art programs are often the first to go in school budget cuts. According to the Save the Music Foundation, the approximately 7,000 schools around the country that do not have music programs are usually in districts that are mainly Black, immigrant, and low-income. However, the study that identified those statistics was done by the U.S. Department of Education back in 2009-2010, more than a decade ago; no other study has been done since. 

“I think that art should be in schools,” Bonham explained. “Sports are cool or whatever, but I feel like that’s the money-making decisions that they, the schools, make. Unfortunately, music gets tossed aside, arts get tossed aside and it’s really sad because I feel like that’s what makes society better. I feel like that’s where people can express themselves.”

tracy bonham playing guitar
Bonham is currently developing a curriculum she hopes will be used far and wide to help revive music education.Photo by Megan McGibney

In 2021, Bonham took another step — releasing an album titled “Young Maestros Vol. 1,” featuring tracks inspired by her music lessons, like “All the Blackbirds,” and “Let’s Take the Subway.” She recorded the songs with Josh Margolis, who owns the Gowanus Music Club and runs a summer rock camp. 

The pandemic also saw the birth of Bonham’s Melodeon Music House, a music curriculum inspired by her music classes and education programs like Sesame Street and Schoolhouse Rock. She and her bassist, Rene Hart, came up with the idea while giving remote music classes to young children via Zoom. 

Melodeon’s curriculum is still being developed, but is now used at Brooklyn Preschool of Science. Bonham has big dreams for the whole project and wants it to be used nationwide.

“When I started the Zoom thing is when I started to realize, ‘Oh, my God, I’m making a variety show,’” she said., “So there’s always that possibility, once we get that content together, it’s like, maybe this is a TV show…or some kind of content-based curriculum. That’s what I’m really hoping for, is a curriculum that can get music education back in school.”

Right now, there are some music videos on Melodeon’s website and on YouTube. Bonham is thinking about holding two concerts at the same venue one day: in the afternoon, families could enjoy the songs from the Young Maestros Vol. 1, and in the evening the parents could return to see a performance from Tracy Bonham herself. But her plans for Melodeon are many, such as a storytelling book with music. She’s even working on a folk opera that includes the characters from her lessons. “Young Maestros Vol. 2” is also in development, and Bonham will return to her singer-songwriter roots this summer with shows in Boston and New York. 

But most of all, Bonham just wants to rescue music these days.

“I am hoping [that] I’m going to be an advocate for music education,” she says. “I feel like this [Melodeon] could be a curriculum that grows and grows and grows. And maybe, if I can help a little bit of humanity, be more human, humane. And that is my goal.”