BARSTOW - Rheba Neal knelt down alongside a group of three- and four-year-olds on Thursday and did her best to imitate a bird.

"Listen to the sound of the woodpecker," she called out to the members of the First Five preschool class at Crestline Elementary School.

Neal pressed her index and ring fingers together, tapping rhythmically on a makeshift drum fashioned out of a coffee can while her students tried to follow along. A few paid rapt attention copying Neal's actions while most just laughed and furiously banged away on their drums.

Still, their music teacher was pleased at the noisemaking.

"The simple act of putting their hands out teaches them to use their imagination," she said. "They're learning how to mimic tone and rhythm."

Neal, a piano teacher, offers private music classes to young children through the Musikgarten company. The program strives to get toddlers and small children singing, dancing and making noise, hoping to instill lifelong interest in music.

Neal said that teaching kids to express themselves allows them to develop their personalities.

"Even in the course of one class, I've seen their confidence grow," she said.

Crestline preschool teacher Mesepa Panama said she agrees that music is an important part of a child's early years helping to develop their coordination, fine motor skills and learn to speak.

Panama said that although Neal's musical exercises with the children seem to be just games, the rhyming they practice is an important skill.

"That tells you that the kids are remembering what they hear," she said. "That's higher level learning. They need to express themselves in music."

In order to give kids more opportunities to make music, Neal is offering a weekly 45-minute Musikgarten class for children ages three to five and their parents at the Barstow Academy of Dance.

She said that while schools offer some musical education, she'd like to see more efforts to inspire students' creativity and awareness of the arts in Barstow.

"There's not enough here, especially for the children," she said.

Neal's musical education started with piano lessons when she was six or seven. She took private classes at Nyborg's music store on Main Street.

"I just remember that it was wonderful that I could go in at there and they had all those instruments," she said. "It was wonderful that I could go in and pick out the sheet music, not that my teacher assigned, but what I wanted."

She said she'd like to open up her own music store someday to sell instruments, books and sheet music to Barstow residents.

At 14, Neal started playing the piano for her church and later learned how to play the clarinet. She said she became a teacher because it allows her to share her passion with children.

"It's a creative outlet for me," she said. "Music, even beyond the human voice, is about sending messages. Its a very comfortable for me to express what I'm feeling and what I believe."

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To sign up for classes What: Musikgarten music lessons for children 3 to 5 and their parents.
When: 10 a.m. on Saturdays from Jan. 25 to June 14.
Cost: $35 per month per child and parent.
Where: Barstow Academy of Dance at 1251 E. Main St. Suite 7
For more Information: call 447-8807